Virtue & Mischief: Of Antiseptic Soap, Oxygen Machines, Part 2


Last week I wrote about my sister Susie’s ongoing cardiac and pulmonary challenges, her emergency admission a couple of weeks ago to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and my arrival there to take my brotherly “ups” (to utilize a little baseball terminology) in providing her some support and advocacy.

My sisters, Lisa and Betsy, had already spent several days apiece with Susie in the hospital, seeing her through her most acute phase of medical distress. By the time my turn arrived, she was quite stable (though the night before she did experience odd heart rhythms and breathing patterns when, in a state of semi-consciousness, she removed the c-pap machine from her face). I slowly ambled in her unit that Thursday morning and absorbed the familiar sights, sounds and smells of a hospital unit charged with keeping very sick people alive: human agents marching purposefully with hand-held devices and medications, speaking in conspiratorial volume and supportive tones; machines, small or large, stationary or on wheels, tall and thin or short and stout, emitting various sounds that clearly registered something meaningful to the scores of trained ears scurrying about me; and that smell…the powerful odor of antiseptic soap that instantaneously carried me 16 years backward in time and 400 miles to the west.

I stopped in my tracks for a full two minutes before proceeding to Susie’s room, #5309. Memory is a fascinating thing. I don’t know why I sometimes remember certain numbers quite clearly—like Susie’s room number—but forget within nanoseconds the reason I entered a certain room or looked in a particular closet. I remember the first phone number I ever had, for example, no doubt memorized when I was a boy in case I needed to call my parents in case of an emergency (such as when I was at a friend’s house and was invited to eat dinner or spend the night!). For the record it was 743-8326. In any event, I stood there in the “Advanced Heart Care Program” unit, perhaps 20 yards away from Susie’s room, and inhaled the hospital smell of soap and alcohol and other cleansing agents. And for 120 seconds I returned to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, in the scalding-hot month of September, 2000.

Our first child, Samuel, was born on Sept. 9 of that year. He wasn’t due until early January, 2001, but arrived four months early for reasons unknowable, really, until it was too late to do anything about them. Miraculously, our scrawny and squirming 20 ounce boy survived his brutal, violent arrival and—thank God—so did Krista. Krista recovered from her physical trauma fairly quickly (the psychic trauma? That’s another tale for another day…and no doubt best left to her to tell, but the old adage “you get better but you never get well” may well apply); Samuel’s next 234 hours (there are those numbers again) on earth, however, were torturous.

I spent approximately half of those hours beside him, powerless and heartbroken. I watched impotently as he was intubated and stabbed and resuscitated. I touched the crown of his head gently with the palm of my left hand and the soles of his feet with my right. It was all I was allowed to do, so fragile was his tiny body and his razor-thin outer skin. I sang softly and read to him. (Krista had an old copy of “Curious George” she had kept from her childhood and I read it to him many times; years later when I watched “Forrest Gump” on TV I found myself weeping during a scene that was, by any objective appraisal, unsentimental. It took me several minutes to realize I was crying due to my association between that children’s book and my experiences with Samuel.) I talked to his nurses and his doctors about prognoses and medications and CAT scans and oxygen saturation levels, brain bleeds and lung damage and staff infection sequelae. I perched next to him and prayed, sometimes wordlessly, sometimes repeating the same words and groans because I simply couldn’t formulate original thoughts any longer. Often I watched his chest move and thought, over and over, “still alive…still alive…still alive…,” and each time I uttered the thought I was uncertain if it was a blessing or a curse.

Throughout it all was that smell, the aroma of hospital soap, the odor of healing and of death. When the call came in the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2000—“We think you should hurry here. Samuel’s condition is worsening,” or something to that effect—we were unsurprised and we knew what awaited our arrival. Bitter farewells. Final breaths. Involuntary sobs. Heartache and unanswered (indeed, unanswerable) questions. Samuel quietly and peacefully departed from this world to the next in Room 2240 (ah, those mystic chords of memory again) of St. Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri.

“Hello, sir,” a nurse chirped to me in the Advanced Heart Care Program on the fifth floor of Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, Indiana. “Are you here to visit someone? Are you lost? Can I help?”

“Yes, I’m visiting. No, I’m not lost, thanks. I’m looking for my sister. Susie Swensen? Room 5309?”

“Oh, wonderful! Susie’s doing great. She’s come such a long way. It’s quite amazing, really. We think she’ll get to go home tomorrow!” she exclaimed. “I know she’s expecting you. Follow me.”

I followed the young lady in crimson scrubs, entered my sister’s room, saw her smiling, beautiful face, hugged her vigorously, and inhaled the tell-tale smell of hospital soap. The smell of healing. The odor of life.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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