My sister, Susie, was born in 1954 with a heart defect. I’m certain there is a medical term for it, and that the term is splashed across her rather impressive medical files, but when asked I always revert to what my parents told me when I was a young boy: “She has a hole in her heart.”
Well, not exactly, but suffice to say that (1) her condition, given the state of medicine 62 years ago, was quite serious and the interventions a bit crude by today’s standards, and (2) as a consequence of this particular cruel twist of fate, her life has been more physically taxing than mine or our siblings’ lives. Even when we were young, I noticed some obvious differences. She never had the stamina to keep up with us in games of tag or hide-n-seek and wasn’t able to participate in outings that involved significant physical exertion of other sorts. And what was the story with her perpetually purple lips? I wondered.
As we all grew older, I learned a few more sobering realities. For example, Susie would never be able to bear children, at least not “safely,” she would certainly have to endure additional surgeries to correct and/or update the procedures she’d endured as a child, and her life expectancy? Well, I don’t know the finer details—if there ARE finer details—but let’s just say she’s probably exceeded that “expectancy” already.
A month ago, during our week-long family vacation in Brown County, Indiana, Susie struggled. She coughed constantly and strained to supply oxygen to her lungs. She couldn’t sleep, her feet and ankles ballooned with accumulating fluid, and she hurt in more places than I can name. On our final morning, as most of us packed our cars and prepared to head in our respective directions (to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina), Susie’s physical distress was so significant that she wondered if she could even drive her car the two hours it would take to reach her home. My sister, Lisa, who is closest in age and has served as the yin to Susie’s yang our entire lives, took charge.
“I’m taking you to the ER,” she announced, then made a flurry of phone calls to primary care physicians and other relevant healthcare personnel across the Hoosier state to ensure Susie’s admission would be as seamless as humanly possible. (It is for this “take charge” attitude generally, and for her authoritarian solicitude for Susie’s well-being specifically, that we have dubbed Lisa—behind her back, of course—“the enforcer”). A few hours later I was unpacking bags and answering neglected emails from my home in Greenville. Susie and Lisa were doing time in the Intensive Care Unit at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
Over the next couple of weeks, the medical folks addressed the thorny task of finding the right combination and dosages of medications that would improve Susie’s heart-lung functioning without simultaneously creating other problems or noxious side-effects. Lisa spent the first several days Susie’s hospitalization with her, then my oldest sister, Betsy, flew in from North Carolina to keep her company and serve as an advocate, then our nephew, Matthew. From each I learned that Susie was steadily improving as the doctors felt they were finding her drug therapy “sweet spot” — the sought after effective amalgamation and dose levels—and that they saw signs her old personality was returning as well.
“Yeah, Uncle Tim,” my nephew reported one evening, “the sarcastic remarks and ‘eye rolls of disgust’ were flying in all directions. She’s back.”
After Matthew departed it was my turn to lend a hand. By all accounts, my tour of duty would coincide with her transition from the hospital to her home in West Lafayette—good news, indeed. I drove over to Indianapolis last Thursday morning, parked the trusty Ford in “Garage # 6” (when a hospital has six designated parking garages dotted around its campus, you know it’s pretty darned large), entered one of the older wings of the complex, and asked an employee how I could find Room 5309. He courteously handed me a map and showed me where the “palm tree” elevators were.
“Just take these up to the fifth floor where the AHCP is located. You’ll find room 5309 there.”
“AHCP?” I asked.
“Yeah. Advanced Heart Care Program. Good luck!”
“Oh. Right. Thanks.”
I entered the elevator, punched 5, and felt my ascent. The door opened, I turned right, and walked through two doors that opened automatically as I approached. As I entered the unit I perceived immediately the constant and purposeful scurrying of people in crimson scrubs (it is, after all, part of the Indiana University Health System, and cream and crimson are the school colors), as well as the metronomic beeps of equipment designed to deliver medicine and signal warnings.
And the unique odor of hospital antiseptic soap, a smell I associate with both healing and death. It is a scent that became familiar to me almost exactly 16 years ago and one I will never forget.
Next week: Of Antiseptic Soap and Oxygen Machines, Part 2
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.