Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Personal Aside: What I Did on My Summer Vacation in the Hospital with Pneumonia.

What I Did Last Weekend.

On a Saturday afternoon, a quiet one in a superbly staffed suburban hospital, an elderly cardiac patient with chronic asthma can always get attention when he stumbles into the Emergency Room complaining that he is two weeks away from being 80 and feels like he has an elephant sitting on his chest.

This is what I said while my wife stood by, tsk-tsking (she has been through this a dozen times with me) that I turned the key to electrify the check-in. Triage snapped into action and in no time I was planted in a wheel chair, swept into an examining room and had two small plastic nozzles affixed to my nostrils that filtered in pure oxygen… an automatic machine pumped up a wrap round my arm for blood pressure…while at the same time a device like a Buck Rogers ray gun was placed in my ear to take my temperature instantly (a procedure interrupted because he did not realize a hearing aid was implanted in its recesses)…a mask belching Albuterol spray to break up breathing congestion supplied on-and-off with the oxygen…and six different diagnoses were supplied at once: obviously it is a (1) cardio insufficiency because there is a great deal of fluid being retained; no, more like a (2) heart attack because you are sweaty and clammy; still, (3) “your heart is racing so hard now, if you got up now and walked across the floor it might not stand it”); (4) “looks to me like it’s pneumonia, pure and simple, nothing to do with the heart; (5) “and I say strangely enough the blood pressure is not astronomically high. Look here!”; (6) “no, I say it’s a long neglected bronchial condition because the sputum is crawling with infection.”

Then the interrogation. Do you smoke? No. Do you drink? Yes. How much? One shot of scotch mixed with soda a day. Now on the smoking, did you EVER? Yes. When did you quit? In 1966. How old were you then? Thirty-six. How much did you smoke when you smoked? Two cigarettes a day. REALLY? Yes, two cigarettes a day. You were not strongly addicted then? No, I did it for a lark, to look sophisticated…like Humphrey Bogart. The young professionals looked confused. Humphrey WHO?

If this sounds critical and trying to make light of them, it most decidedly is NOT. It is exactly how an ER should run—and believe me I’ve been in dozens of them as a chronic asthmatic and one who has fallen and broken a good number of bones.

Mildly interested as they raced through their lists, I asked my top ER nurse—gorgeous, about 30, in Army Reserve with much time in Iraq—what she thought I had. She didn’t know but said, “Frankly, your Humphrey Bogart reference doesn’t come off. He died of lung cancer because he smoked all the time.” Yes, I said but I could not stand the cigarette dangling from my lips after 15 seconds since the smoke would get in my eyes.

Finally after an hour, an earnest young physician said he had contacted my internist and cardiologist. “You are definitely staying here the night,” he said. “The cardiologist is making the call on you.” Which meant miles away and on the phone he would make a determination that would end the incessant investigation.

Trundled upstairs lying flat on a wheeled cart , seeing the fluorescent lights of the ceiling roll by me as I stared upward, I did a perfunctory Act of Contrition and pondered, “could this indeed be the end of Tommy R?” Well, strange to say, I didn’t much give a damn but I have been enjoying my life hugely. As they took me up the elevator I remembered that in the view of Saint John of the Cross…a Jew who converted and became a great mystic and doctor of the Church, reforming with Teresa of Avila, the Carmelites, too much love of this world is ungodly: one must be prepared to surrender to death because that is what we are here for to die in Him. But of course I had not been told that I would die, so my thinking these things was all speculative. Yet I prayed silently because I love life too much to leave it: a kind of lessened virtue if you will. But as with other crises of health in my life…a brain operation in the middle of the night…a triple bypass…I was almost frighteningly calm.

Required to step on a scale located just outside my room, I heard the technician say, “107.6.” Great God something must be wrong; I had been trying to diet but--. “Kilograms,” he said. “You multiply it 2 x 2.5 and you get pounds—237.”

Later in my room I sweat through my sheets. “That tells me your cold is breaking up,” the residential nurse said as she prepared to puncture my wrist for the IV. Grit your teeth, here goes!” What ward is this? “Cardiac ward. She stepped aside for a very young doctor who looked not much older than my grandson Joseph who is 10.

“Your cardiologist has determined it’s not the heart. But you have a lot of things wrong. Can’t breathe, terrible cough that isn’t very productive (meaning emitting sputum). We’re going to do all kinds of tests. You appear to have a urinary infection as well but that isn’t the main cause, of course.” Of course. “Lookit here!” said a second young physician, lifting my right elbow, “this elbow is spongy and swollen, different from other elbows. What happened?” I took a tumble down my basement stairs a few days ago. “Well it’s bursitis and we’ll add that to the list of x-rays. You have fluid in it and we may have to puncture it to get the fluid out. We have you scheduled throughout the night for x-rays of chest, an ultra-sound of the chest, a special picture of the heart (I forget what it’s called).” Let me make it clear that this is how an excellent hospital works—it was Northwest Community in Arlington Heights.

The experience showed me yet again that the American medical system is supersonically efficient, compassionate and caring. I dozed off confidently that if any gang could solve it, this one could. AND IT DID. The next morning—Sunday—I airily told my residential nurse that I had a radio show that evening so it would be necessary that I leave in the afternoon to prepare. She smiled knowingly but noncommittally. Then my internist’s partner came in, a no-nonsense guy with a gruff but decisive manner. “I understand you have a radio commitment. I will tell you to call your boss because you’re not going. You’re pretty sick, do you understand THAT?” Yes sir.

What to do with two guests scheduled to appear—Dr. Steve Sauerberg, the Republican nominee for the senate and Alderman Joe Moore (49th). My book of phone numbers was at home. I know! I’ll call my colleague Deborah Rowe and have her either sub for me or tell them I can’t be there—but I hope she can sub for me. She was home, moved swiftly to master the occasion, piled into her car and drove to the station and completed a dual interview with far more aplomb than I could have mustered on such short notice.

By the dawn’s early light of Monday, my cardiologist appeared and reiterated it was neither a heart attack nor insufficiency—in fact nothing whatever to do with the heart but pneumonia. Followed in the door by my internist who said I was to stay there until they knocked out the infection. So for the next few days until Tuesday afternoon, I was pumped full of chemicals and the elephant on my chest slowly ambled down. The staff and nurses were WONDERFUL.

Waiting for tests, getting shots, waking up at night in sweat while the staff ran the machinery, until my discharge yesterday afternoon, I thought of some of the things that have happened in public policy of which I have not commented as of yet…including—

Barack Obama’s Speech to the NAACP.

For the first time since I met him…when he guested on my radio show…I was decidedly proud as he spoke to the NAACP about the need to restore black families…and in particular reincardinate the role of black fathers who perform the act and disappear (although he might have also criticized single black females who believe they are not worthy of their sex unless they get pregnant and then tote their swollen carriages, their eyes glistening with pride of accomplishment). Angelina Jolie rates with them but Angelina Jolie can take care of herself with her $200 million.

What makes Jackson and the rest of black preacherhood so repugnant…including the demagogic Fr. Michael Pfleger, incidentally…is that they are moral cowards—refusing to condemn the one cause that spurs black poverty and crime because they wish to stand good with the emotional children of their congregations. I really mean this about viewing Obama in a new light. He could have shrunk away after the thug-like Jesse Jackson, who sired an illegitimate daughter whom he does not stir himself greatly to support, had been planning to cut him down…more to spare Jackson the ignominy he richly deserves for his brazen act. Here is a crude thug…no other word for it…who takes his mistress in to see Bill Clinton to “console” him. Is there any act more contemptible than that?

Daley at Least Belts People Around…

…who aren’t doing their jobs. He is a tough boss. Say about him what you will…and I have done much criticism…the Fran Spielman story of the ruckus that went on behind closed doors with the mayor shouting “like hell!” speaks well for him. As one who haw traveled to a good number of cities in the last year, I hear one recurring phrase: “He has run a great city.” You hear that around here, too. It means simply this: WHEN YOU PURIFY THE POND, THE LILIES DIE. Meaning that a certain level of corruption…even a great level…is required to get the job done. I don’t agree with that. The government of Minnesota where I worked is corruption free with a merit system not patronage…but the phrase WHEN YOU PURIFY THE POND THE LILIES DIE is accepted here and in admiration in other cities of the country. At any rate, while he shrewdly understands he has to be separated one level from the corruption to benefit from it, Daley demands accountability.

I personally believe the appointment of Jody Weis was a great mistake. And I think Daley is far too quick to remove people when the heat gets on. Phil Kline was a cop’s cop. There was corruption there but it was shown he was not part of it. Why couldn’t Daley keep a cop’s cop on the job instead of impulsively going to the FBI where Weis is a p.r. savant but not a beat officer and has little understanding of what it takes to be a beat officer?

Tony Snow.

I met Tony Snow only once but of course have followed his career with great admiration. I met him when the staff of WLS was on stage at the Chicago Theatre for a promotion. And our conversation was not sufficiently long to form an opinion…but his work is truly outstanding. The thing that my fellow admirers of Tony should do is to get the White House video tapes of his briefing session. There is where my greatest admiration for Tony Snow comes. His legendary sessions where he corrected initial suppositions that go into the phraseology of the questions the media asked are classics. And he did the jousting with superb good taste, no bitterness, kindness, deftness.

There is no comparison whatever between the evaluation of Tony Snow and Tim Russert. Russert was an old-line Democratic pol who learned early how to rise above principle. He was one of the prime architects of the Mario Cuomo speech to Notre Dame that extolled the relativity of conscience on abortion: a malpractice and disservice to Church and humanity in which along with Cuomo Russert shares heavily. Russert also was the evil genius behind Pat Moynihan’s embracing abortion rights when Moynihan could well have lost some votes but gained others, Moynihan telling me himself that Russert was his political guru and acknowledged pro-choice was Russert’s doing. Russert was never a writer, never a philosopher. This Buffalo blue-collar image was authentic but self-inflated and I am unimpressed. Who extolled him in death? Why Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, of course, the man who withheld the details of the letter from Joseph Ratzinger to the bishops because liberal-pol McCarrick wanted to protect the fellow jingos of the Democratic party so they could receive communion despite being pro-abort.

In contrast, Snow was a Renaissance man beginning first of all with his conscience. He had been a Bush critic but Bush hired him because he had matchless integrity. He was a great athlete, great musician, great wordsmith, a former print journalist, a tremendous speech writer (which evokes my admiration because I was never good at writing for someone else). He walked calmly with his God to the end. The finest thing I heard about him was from Brit Hume who said that the White House press corps as well as the staff saw in Snow goodness…that’s how Hume phrased it…goodness: virtue.

Rename Balbo Drive?

Eric Zorn has suggested this and has come up with a number of suggestions but only one that has merit—still it’s very good. Enrico Fermi. Florence Scala isn’t worthy; she was basically a Luddite. Zorn’s idea that maybe it could be named for Joseph Cardinal Bernardin has no value because Bernardin doesn’t deserve it. You get a street named after you because you die of cancer?

The disqualification of Bernardin for that honor is unwritten and unknown to the media and general public but exists. Believe me the stone didn’t roll away from the tomb three days after he was interred. A consummate man of the left, he had an Italianate sense that propelled him to a high role in the hierarchy but grievous personal failings and goings-on cannot stand scrutiny. He performed a matchless service for liberaldom by linking nuclear freeze and anti-death penalty to anti-abortion which enabled Fritz Mondale to boast to me that he was more pro-life than Reagan…two out of three. Bernardin plotted it to go that way. He always reminded me of Shakespeare’s words given to Hamlet about Claudius—“oh to smile and smile and be a villain.”

He was the Great Enabler of the rise of the Lavender Priesthood in this archdiocese. The man who accused him withdrew his charge because he could not validate it…as it is said…but transfer of largesse was involved. With his funeral Mass, the city’s Gay Men’s chorus conducted the prelate with its voices upraised to his end


  1. Tom, I worry about you. Missed your blog talk and was concerned. Now I know why! Enjoyed your humor today, especially about the part of the young doctor, not much older looking than your 10 year old grandson. About fell off my chair! God bless you and make you well.

  2. Tom,

    Are you really saying that the guy who accused Bernardin was bought off with a bribe?

  3. I'm glad you're back with us.