Hard-Won Wisdom

It’s been almost six years now, since Petey came home from the hospital the last time.

For months, his back and legs had been in terrible pain that every day, got worse.  He was regularly seeing an orthopedic doctor and had had a medical text’s worth of treatments.

Nothing helped, and the pain grew worse.

The pain eventually got so bad it was becoming almost impossible to work.  Finally one day, he left the unit he’d worked in for more than twenty-five years in a wheelchair.  That shift was the last time he ever worked as a nurse.

Two months later we noticed his feet were the color of a new bruise.  He had an appointment to see our family doctor for another matter and I asked him about Petey’s feet.  He took one look and ordered us to the emergency room—he’d call and let them know we were on our way.

It turned out, the artery that supplied the blood below his waist was so blocked, it was practically non-functional. 

He needed a synthetic replacement artery.  But he might still lose his feet which had an unknowable amount of damage because for months had gone without anything close to an adequate blood supply.  The surgery, which was supposed to take three hours, took seven.  Afterward, he spent days in intensive care, on a respirator. 

The good news—his feet were okay.

The bad news—his kidneys had shut down.

This began a nightmare of dialysis, further complications and more surgeries.  He’d get stable enough to come home, only to be rushed to the E.R. in a few days for more surgery and another extended hospitalization. 

Dialysis took a heavy toll on him.  He had it twice a week, usually as an inpatient but occasionally he was at home and would visit a dialysis center.  Each session lasted four or five hours, and battered him physically and mentally.  By the time he regained a portion of strength, it was time for more dialysis.

The treatments kept him alive, but as each week passed he grew weaker and less able to bounce back.  The doctors frequently reminded us that kidney disease went in only one direction—downhill.  It was entirely likely he’d eventually need a transplant.

Petey’s world shrank to the few feet around his hospital bed.  His days spent in anxiety, pain, and uncertainty.  Our lives lurched between worry and the boredom of the sick-room, with brief flashes of abject terror. 

In less than a year Petey had gone from cheerful, active nurse, husband and father to a patient.  To many of his doctors and a few of his nurses, he became a “case”; his humanity replaced by symptoms, treatments and prognoses.

My days were spent at his bedside, acting as companion and advocate.  Petey was too sick and demoralized to take a stand, so I was the one whose foot was regularly put down with doctors and hospital staff on matters ranging from timely test results and procedures to diet and discharge.

At night I returned home to walk the dog, eat, shower, do some laundry, and go to bed.   Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Finally, in March, he was well enough to come home for good and defying kidney soothsayers, went off dialysis.  But in 160 days, he’d spent almost 120 confined to the hospital.

It’s been just about six years since the illness, and I have thoughts.  Next week I’ll share them with you, Gentle Reader, and also tell you what a good friend looks like to the person going through a catastrophic illness and the person who’s taking care of them.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Watch Your Language

When I was sixteen, I got my first job.  After school and weekends, I was a secretary at the lab in the hospital in Elizabeth City.I answered the phone, dealt with out-patients coming in for testing, alerted staff to emergency orders, and carried in-patients’ results to the appropriate floor.

As first jobs went, it wasn’t terrible.  I made $2.75 an hour, which was pretty decent in 1980.  I didn’t go home smelling like French fries like a lot of my friends.  And I had a lot of friends who worked at the hospital (including Petey; we began dating about a year after I started at the lab). My biggest stumbling block when I started was the lexicon.  When I was a newbie and answered the phone, what I heard on the other side honestly sounded like a foreign language.  I recognized the articles, and a few verbs, but everything else was totally incomprehensible.  When I had to place a call, the message had to be written down, word for word, phonetically.

That’s because it literally was a foreign language to me.

The specialized language of an occupation or social group is called jargon, and defined as, “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”.  And, the reasons for the unique vernacular are two-fold.One is to define the terms that are particular to the group.  If you’re a baker, you don’t need a vocabulary for types of blood cells.  And if you’re a lawyer, you don’t have a lot of call for the names of different parts of a shoe.  That’s the main reason.The other reason is a snapshot of human nature.  It’s done to create an exclusivity.  So that outsiders are immediately pegged as outsiders.  It’s a verbal secret handshake.

Slowly I learned the parlance of the lab.  One day, after I’d been at the lab for a few months, I realized that I understood.  I could take a phone call, and know what to do about it.  And when I needed to make a call, I could do it all by myself.

i can do it

As a Coastie kid (Dad was in the Coast Guard), I’d lived in NC, Alabama, Michigan, San Diego, and Puerto Rico.  Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by human speech.  By the accents and colloquialisms, by the very words spoken in different languages.

From every place I lived, I learned the language of the sea and sand.  Tides and undertows and breakers and dunes.

From Alabama in the late sixties, I learned words like conflict and struggle and equality.  I also learned words like azalea and Mardi Gras and y’all.From Michigan, I learned the language of stillness.  As a toddler I would sit quietly every afternoon and a fawn which had become a friend would approach me, every day venturing a little closer for a silent chat.

Our moves and the change of environment changed my vocabulary.  That is also how it works in the wider world. When the Normans conquered the Anglo Saxons, they brought martial words of conquest like jail (spelled gaol in England), armor, and battle.  Once the occupation began in earnest new words like tax, rent, and state.When the new nation of America expanded, they discovered the patois of life in the west, mainly from the Spanish who had already been there for couple hundred years.  Words such as lariat, vista (not the Bill gates kind), pinto, and buckaroo.

Next time you sing that bossa nova tune, The Girl From Ipanema at karaoke (the translation is “empty orchestra”), and eat tapas, thank the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Spanish.Thanks for your time.