Thursday, June 4, 2009

Memories of my Hospital Stay

Quote of the day: “She pinned Miss Eliskas’ hand to your ass.”
“That’s…Not…Correct,” the instructor said in a professional voice while gritting her teeth.
“Now then, let’s try that again.”
I will use this space to share some of the memories from my hospital stay that lasted from December 22, 1967 to January 20, 1970.

Beep. Beep. Beep. That’s what I heard as I awoke in my new surroundings. It wasn’t the beep of an alarm clock. There seemed to be shopping carts going by, followed by other kinds of beeps. And people moaning. The room was dimly lit, like the after hour corridors of elementary school. I couldn’t change positions and every move caused a sharp pain below my waist. The odor was unlike anything I experienced before. It smelled as if someone poured rubbing alcohol into the kitty’s litter box.

A female voice startled me. “Welcome back to the world, young man. Happy New Year.” I could see the name Hannah on the plastic tag pinned to her white uniform. “I’m your nurse. They call me the rear admiral,” she said. “If you don’t know why, you’ll soon find out.”
“Where am I?”
“In Hartford Hospital. You were brought here ten days ago, just before Christmas. This is the Intensive Care Unit,” she said.
There were strings hanging from a bar – a Zimmer frame she called it – attached to my legs. My rear end was literally in a sling.
“You have three fractures of your pelvis,” Hannah said. “We’re going to have fun putting you on a bed pan.”
“Are my legs OK?”
“I better let your doctor discuss that with you. I’ll call him now. Dr. Raycroft asked us to let him know as soon as you woke up.”

A few hours later a kind-looking man in his late thirties walked into my room. Actually it was more like a cubicle. Three of the walls were made of glass that started a few feet above the floor and went to the ceiling. The man wore black thick-rimmed glasses and a white coat with his name embroidered on the pocket. Hannah stood behind holding a clipboard.

“I’m the person who put you back together after they scraped you out of the ditch. You’re a very lucky boy,” he said.
“Lucky?” I said. “I’m in a hospital, tied to this bed. How is that lucky?”
“If Dr. Rooney hadn’t been pulling into his driveway a moment after you were struck by that car, you would have bled to death on the side of the road. He took his shirt off and tore it into strips for tourniquets before he reached you”
“The last thing I saw was my legs curled under me like pretzels,” I said. “I don’t recall any doctor or tourniquets.”
“We gave you four pints of blood and, after nine hours of surgery, we’re not nearly done yet. At least you don’t have any injuries above you waist that we need to worry about.”

He put me back together, Dr. John Raycroft

“Will I be able to run again?” I asked.
“It’s hard to tell. First we have to see if we can get rid of the infection and save your legs. I wouldn’t count on breaking any world records. Maybe you will discover some new dreams,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow to see how you’re doing.”
“Go ahead and transfer him to the orthopedic unit,” he told Hannah.
“Say thank you to Dr. Rooney for me, will you?” I said.
“I already have,” he replied.
“Your friend Rick Bayko will be happy to hear that you are being transferred,” Hannah said. “He has been calling every day. We told him that only family could visit you.”
“Was my family here?”
“Your Uncle Johnny came the first night. Nobody else.”

My first visitors were three Connecticut runners. Charlie Dyson was the president of the Hartford Track Club. Amby Burfoot, who lived 15 miles down the road on the campus of Wesleyan University, won the Philadelphia Marathon where I finished 12th. Amby considered me a maniac because I ran three 26-mile marathons in one week, but he appreciated my dedication to running. In that sense, we were kindred spirits. Jim Coucill, who I hadn’t met previously, walked with a cane. He was struck by a car while running in 1965. Charlie and Amby felt that Jim could give me some encouragement.
“We brought you some back issues of Track & Field News,” Charlie said. “A little light reading to keep your mind occupied.”

Rick Bayko made the three hour trip from Newburyport and stopped in Milford to pick up my mother. Rick was clearly anxious when he entered the room. “Les Balcom and Fred Brown have decided to reserve number #1 from each of the weekly club races for you,” he said as he gave me a handful of numbers with my name written on them.
“Where are the pins?” I asked.
“What, are you gonna pin them to the hair on your chest?” he answered.
It was the first time I laughed out loud in the hospital. For a few seconds, it made everything hurt more. But I was glad to see Rick.

“I’ve got bad news,” he said. “I’ve been drafted.”
“What do you mean, drafted?”
“I’m going into the army. I got my draft notice. I’ll be going to Viet Nam for sure and probably come home in a box.”
“No, you can’t,” I said. “You have to run for both of us.” I gave him the blood stained sweatshirt I was wearing the day of my accident.

All the while my mom sat in a chair next to my bed somberly peering out the window. Obviously having difficulty dealing with the situation, she spoke only a few words. I didn’t know what to say either, except, “Mom, it hurts a lot.” She kissed my forehead on the way out and said, “I love you. Come home soon.”

The 8th floor orthopedics unit was well lit with a lot more activity than the intensive care area. Most of the rooms had four beds with windows overlooking the city. My roommates, like me, were all in traction. Robbie Glass was in the bed between me and the window. A car forced him and his motorcycle off Interstate 91 and took off. Fortunately a state trooper was a quarter mile behind and witnessed the incident. He was able to call for help and apprehend the jerks that caused Robbie to break both legs. The 17-year-old son of an architect, Robbie was from a well-to-do family. It was easy tell by the way he spoke and the way his parents dressed.

Across from Robbie was Ron, who got a flat tire on New Year’s eve. When he opened his trunk to remove the spare tire, another car rear-ended him, trapping his legs between the two cars. Ron was 25 and married to the world’s best baker of toll house cookies.

Next to Ron and across from me was Jeff. He was admitted from the emergency room the same day I transferred from ICU. Jeff was a couple years older than the rest of us and, initially, was heavily medicated and not very alert. His Harley Davidson hit a patch of black ice and spun out, giving him an unexpected vacation at Hartford Hospital.

The traction apparatus consisted of long bars about six feet above the floor that extended from the backboard to the foot of the bed. Attached was a trapeze so that I could pull myself up while the nurses made the bed. In addition, there were a variety of poles, side bars, pulleys and strings. Robbie discovered that the diameter of the bars was the correct size for a roll of toilet paper, so he hung a roll above his head. That made it easier to maneuver on the bedpan. Eventually we all followed his example.

It didn’t take long for us to figure out that if we arranged it so we were all due our pain medications around the same time we would get better service. Once in awhile we yelled loudly for the nurses simultaneously but, usually, that wasn’t necessary. Most often it was sufficient for all four of us to press our call buttons. It was a good system for us and efficient for the staff. But it also meant we were all high on narcotics at the same time.

The housekeeper assigned to our ward was an elderly Italian lady named Philomena. She was particularly fond of me because I was an Italian boy. She tried to talk to me in Italian. But I was honest and told her that I was only familiar with the swear words and, for some strange reason, the word for cucumber.

My special friend in the hospital, Philomena, the housekeeper

Philomena mopped the floors, dusted, emptied our trash buckets and took great pride in her work. She asked if there was anything special she could do for me. I requested a couple of extra rolls of toilet paper for each of us. That way, I argued, we wouldn’t have to bother the nurses for replacements.

The next dose of demerol came on schedule. Robbie, Ron, Jeff and I mounted a fresh roll of toilet paper on our traction bars. Robbie yelled “GO” and the race was on to see who could unravel the entire roll fastest. It was a tie between me and Ron, so we reloaded and decided to do it again as a team race: Ron and Jeff versus Robbie and me. Our team won and I retired undefeated in toilet paper races.

Philomena walked into the room and went hysterical. “Mamma Mia Madonna. What you boys do!” she cried. She ran down the hall to the nurses station mumbling to herself in Italian. She came back a few minutes later with Mrs. Hanson, the head nurse, at her side. Mrs. Hanson had the reputation befitting a drill sergeant. Usually we only saw her on the daily rounds with the interns and residents. We figured we were about to get a major scolding and, worse, maybe separated as roommates.

Mrs. Hanson sternly surveyed the piles of unrolled toilet paper on each of our beds. She wanted to be supportive of Philomena, but she couldn’t hold back the laughter. “I guess you boys are feeling better,” she said. She turned around and walked out, still laughing as she headed toward her desk.

After a half dozen more operations for skin grafting, to lengthen tendons and re-set bones, Dr. Raycroft brought up the inevitable. “We need your consent to amputate your left leg,” he said. “It’s been ten weeks and the x-rays don’t show any healing. I’m afraid that the infection may spread. We have to remove necrotic tissue and some pieces of bone, so it may be best to take the whole thing.”
“Go ahead and hack the damn thing off if it’ll get rid of this pain,” I said. “It’s not doing me any good the way it is now. Do whatever you think is best.”

On March 4th they wheeled me to the operating room for my amputation. When I woke up in the recovery room I was startled. Not only did my left leg hurt more than ever, I had a new pain in my right hip.

“A miracle happened,” Dr. Raycroft said. “When we took your leg out of the cast, we tried to manipulate the bones and found there was healing. I couldn’t make it budge. A few days ago there was no healing at all showing on the x-ray.

I took a piece of bone from your iliac crest and put it in your leg at the site of the wound. Then Dr. Babcock, the plastic surgeon, elevated a six by four inch flap from behind your right calf, still attached like the cover of a book, and connected it to your left shin to improve the flow of blood to the area. We’ll leave it that way for six to eight weeks. In the meantime you will have to get used to that full body cast you’ve got on. It’s a 1968 model, designed just for you.”
“Wow,” I said. “But it still hurts like crazy. Can you increase my demerol from 100 to 150 milligrams?”
“Sure,” he said. “Whatever you need.”

A week later, my dad showed up unannounced. He was accompanied by Dan Ruggerio, the owner of an ambulance company in my home town. He was carrying a suitcase.
“I hope that’s not more of your bogus hundred dollar bills,” I told him.
“No, it’s to pack your things. You are moving to Milford Hospital.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Nobody here mentioned anything about moving. This is my home now. These people are my family. You can’t make me leave.”
“It’s all set up. The doctors have signed you out. And I already paid Mr. Ruggerio the $300. You are coming with us, like it or not.”

The ambulance was not set up for a body cast and the 90-mile trip was bumpy. A crack developed around my left ankle and, when we arrived, the plaster under my heel was blood red.

The nursing staff at Milford Hospital was cheerful and they kept me on my megadose of demerol. My brother and sisters were able to visit. So did my school friends, including my best friend since second grade, Richard Ramaskwich. He came every day after work and we played “Racinie League Baseball”, a form of fantasy league using a standard deck of cards. My mother also visited daily and my Italian aunts brought lots of food. From that perspective, at least, the move was positive.

On the other hand, Milford Hospital did not have an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. BonTempo was a general practitioner and had been our family physician since I was an infant. He worked with my father on an unwritten bartering arrangement. As far as I know, Dr. BonTempo never charged my father for treating our family and my dad never charged him for plumbing services. They both made house calls, so it worked out fine. Until now.

The red stain around my left ankle got bigger and bigger. My doctor removed the cast around my ankle and put it in a metal brace. It was excruciatingly painful. I made so much commotion that they moved me to a private room and shut the door. My father came in a found me screaming and in tears.

“Isn’t there something you can do to put him out of his misery,” he asked Dr. BonTempo. “If you don’t, I’ll get a gun and take care of it myself. I brought him into this world and I can take him out.”

The staff at the hospital took my father seriously and got a restraining order to keep him a way. As a result, my mom and dad had an argument which led to their separation. Mom didn’t drive and had hardly worked a day in her adult life, only recently beginning to commute to work with friends at Telechron in Ashland.. I was entering my fifth month in the hospital with no end in sight. At the same time, my grandmother Flaherty entered a nursing home with Parkinson’s disease. So my mother and my brother and sisters moved into my grandmother’s house.

“We can’t do anything more for you,” the doctor said. “We are sending you back to Hartford Hospital.”

The third Monday of each April is a holiday in Massachusetts. Called Patriot’s Day to commemorate the midnight ride of Paul Revere (“On the 18th of April in ’75, nary a man is still alive…”), it is the day of the annual Boston Marathon. Six months earlier, Tom Derderian, Rick Bayko and I were comparing notes on our training regimen for the 1968 race. Now Tom was in his dormitory in Amherst studying for final exams, I was about to embark from Milford to Connecticut in a body cast, and Rick was at basic training jogging while wearing combat boots in Fort Dix NJ.

Dan Ruggerio arrived with a stretcher on Patriot’s Day morning. This time the ambulance was set up better for my body cast. He was alone. There was no sign of my father. The forecast was for bright sunshine and temperatures in the high eighties. It was already blistering hot when the hospital staff slid me into the back of my transport. My first thought was about how hot it must be for the runners.

“Does this thing have a radio?” I asked.
“It’s either that or air conditioning,” Dan replied. “I can’t run both at the same time.”
“I’ll take the radio. Turn on the live coverage of the marathon please. You can put the air on during commercials if you want. But don’t open the windows; I want to be able to hear.”

Despite my partially dismantled cast and six week ordeal in Milford Hospital, the ride back didn’t feel as bumpy. Excited to be returning to my friends in Hartford, I wanted to see Dr. Raycroft. The marathon coverage blaring in the background brought me back to a place I loved.

The lead group through the halfway mark in Wellesley included Johnny Kelley the younger, marine Bill Clark, Bob Deines from Occidental College and a half dozen others. Among them was Ambrose J. Burfoot. Three Mexicans, the pre-race favorites, raced a short distance behind the pack in order to conserve energy in the heat.

Burfoot liked running in the warm weather and perceived the conditions as being to his benefit. The pace was too slow, he thought, so he threw in a surge intended to drop a few runners. To his surprise, he dropped everyone except Clark, who ran in Amby’s shadow to shield himself from the sun. On paper, Clark had the fastest leg speed, and was a clear favorite in a close finish.

Amby pushed as hard as he could up the Newton hills but his shadow remained. Once past Boston College, there were five miles to go and no more hills. Clark figured he would coast down the hills and out-sprint Amby to the line. The race was his for the taking.

Jock Semple came by on the press bus and shouted, “Give it hell on the downhill, Amby!” Suddenly, Clark’s thighs cramped up as Amby picked up the pace. “The shadow is starting to fade,” the radio reported.

The ambulance took the ramp into downtown Hartford. “Can you stop at Dunkin’ Donuts?” I asked. “I need a coffee fix. Then maybe you can drive around the block a few times so I can hear the end of the race.”

Dan honored my request and pulled the ambulance through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru. “How do you take it?” he asked looking back. “Actually, I’d prefer ice coffee with two creams and two sugars.” I could see the look on the clerk’s face out of the corner of my eye. It was as if she had seen a flying saucer.

The dense crowd of spectators made it impossible for the reporters or Amby to tell if anyone was gaining on him. His mouth was parched as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. A side stitch caused him to slow down and bend over. He wilted in the heat of the final few miles. But so did everyone else.

As the ambulance approached the portal at Hartford Hospital, with its sirens blaring and back-up beeps signaling our arrival, I could hear the announcer, Gary Lapierre, shouting: “Amby wins. Amby wins. Amby Burfoot is the first American winner of the Boston Marathon in 11 years.”

* * *
{some scenes – too emotional to deal with yet – intentionally skipped here…advance ahead many months}
* * *

The Hartford Hospital School of Nursing, Class of ’69, dedicated their yearbook to me. All 136 members of the class took care of me at some point during their training. For several months I was the guinea pig for teaching the students how to administer medications. At least half the class gave their first shot in my buttocks.

A "shot in the arm" from one of the Hartford Hospital student nurses

One day Miss Eliskas, the nursing instructor, was demonstrating the appropriate method on my backside. “You find the upper left hand quadrant and insert the needle like this. It’s just like poking an orange,” she told her attentive audience. “Ok, Diana, now you try. Frank is the our most patient patient and won’t mind it a bit. In fact, he seems to like the attention.”

“Come on, Diana, we don’t have all day,” she said. “Look. Just stick it right here.” I could feel her spread the palm of her hand across my behind.

There was a collective gasp, followed by complete silence. I looked around the room to make eye contact with whoever would look back. Linda Bair, one of the student nurses that visited me regularly, pointed to the webbing between her thumb and forefinger and mouthed the words, “she pinned Miss Eliskas’ hand to your ass.”
“That’s…Not…Correct,” the instructor said in a professional voice while gritting her teeth. “Now then, let’s try that again.”

Later, when I was deemed sociable again, I welcomed a new roommate whose name name was Sam. He fell off a ladder and broke his back. The doctors placed him in a Stryker frame with metal tongs inserted into his skull. The tongs were connected to a bag of weights. Due to the instability of bones around his spine, he had to lay flat or risk permanent paralysis.

The woman he lived with, Priscilla, was at his side six hours a day. She would have stayed longer but hospital rules prevented “non-relatives” from staying after visiting hours. Priscilla was a pleasant lady of retirement age. One evening, after she left, Sam pressed his nurse call button. A long time went by with no response, so I slid into my wheelchair and held the bent straw to his lips while he took a sip of water.

“Priscilla and I have been together 47 years,” he said. “I was 20 when we met and she was 19. We became engaged after I left the service 38 years ago. But it was during the depression, so we decided to wait until I could land a decent job. Then my mom became ill. We decided to wait a while longer.”
“When did you finally marry?” I asked.

“We never did,” he answered. “At least not yet. My mother outsmarted us; she hung on until she was 95. By then it was too late to have children. And there seemed to be no reason to get married. We always got along quite well, so why change things?”

Now in late 1969, with his injury, things had indeed changed. A ceremony in the doctor’s conference room down the hall was hastily planned. The bride wore a beige dress and the groom was in his hospital johnny, flat on a gurney, covered from the waist down by a festive green and white blanket. It was the first time I was asked to be someone’s best man.

I proudly sat straight up in my wheelchair, to Sam’s immediate left, the rings resting on a small pillow on my lap. One of the nurses played the guitar and sang “The Wedding Song,” by Paul Stookey. Father J. performed the ceremony and, as he pronounced them man and wife, a joyful sadness hung in the air.

Father J. came back to visit a few days later. Sam was moved to a private room where they added a roll-away bed so that Priscilla could visit 24 hours. I had other company, so Father J. lingered for an uncomfortably long time, then prayed with me and left. Later I couldn’t find my glasses and thought the food service people had removed them with my lunch tray. I caused quite a fuss, but the hospital staff couldn’t find them. One of the administrators apologized and offered to buy me a new pair.

After visiting hours ended, Father J. returned and had my glasses in his hand.
“I think these are yours,” he said. “They look like mine and I picked them up by accident.”
“I’m just relieved that you found them,” I said. As he handed me the glasses, he leaned over and I gave him a hug.
“Do you know what it’s like to be gay?” he asked.
“No, and I don’t expect that I will ever find out..."

After that, Father J. never came back.
More to come...this is a chapter in my book that I have had great difficulty completing...