Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

Wars, Worries, Take Back Seat in Hospitals 
December 4, 1990

Nothing diverts the mind from wars and national alarums like the blinking lights of heart monitors, seen through the jungle of IV tubes, from a beloved's bedside in ICU.

My wife Peggy is recovering at home now from her November 17 heart attack, restricted only by the weather from the daily walks prescribed by the doctor. But those last two weeks of November were a sleepless, scary, nerve-wracking, prayerful time. On Thanksgiving Day, she reminded me with a grin that she was only getting even with me: Three years ago she'd spent the holiday at my bedside after my by-pass surgery. All of which only re-emphasizes that old age ain't for sissies.

I'd read of a study finding that, since women historically had fewer heart attacks than men, doctors were often slow to make the correct diagnosis in women. Not from our experience. We were at the hospital only minutes when the emergency room doctor was saying, "We need a cardiologist here," confirming our reluctant suspicions.

From then on, it was a kind of blur of tender skills, cool competence, amazing technology, dangerous but daring medicines. And, for the spouse at bedside, a numbing fear that it all may not be enough. There is a dreadful, fleeting glimpse of the void the awful loss that theoretically you plan for, with wills and insurance policies and such, but which you never actually anticipate. (I found it much more frightening to be the one beside the bed than in it.)

The actual rustle of the angel's wings sparks a variety of emotions. A couple of bedside thoughts remain vivid. I recalled the argument of former Colorado Governor Lamb and would-be Massachusetts Governor Silber that old folks ought to die and get out of the way and not be using up so much expensive medical care. I looked at the woman in the bed, with all her pain and needle bruises, and vehemently told Lamb and Silber to go straight to Hell.

Of course, the cost is outrageous. A nurse showed me the new, hand-held gadget with which they take instant temperature from the ear. It costs $5,000. But so does a pair of those night goggles with which the troops fly helicopters into the sand in Saudi Arabia.

I don't feel guilty that we didn't have to hesitate a moment before coming to the hospital. We both worked 50 years for that insurance. I'm sorry everyone doesn't have it. But don't blame me. I was being called a Communist 40 years ago in Kansas for arguing that everyone should. And don't say we can't afford it; not as long as we have air-conditioned tents in the desert.

Assurance is severely tested at bedside. At one especially painful moment, she looked up and asked, "Have you told them 'no resuscitation'?" All I could sputter was something about, "That's a little premature," or some such manly, self-assured reply. Thankfully, it remained premature. I was far less sure what I would do than I'd been last year when we made all these practical decisions.

Something else I learned in these two strained but happily ending weeks. You think you know someone after 50 years, which, give or take a few months, is how long we've been acquainted. But I'd been unprepared for the game, good humor with which she took all the pain and indignity and fright.

Children came from far and wide to decorate her room with Christmas trappings and family photos and boost her morale. But in the end, it was she who was keeping up our spirits.

A woman with lifelong priority for prayer, she was all the time fearlessly facing the worst with calm assurance that it was not the worst.

And now she is fussing at me to let her start making Christmas cookies - which she will not be allowed to eat.

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