Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Personal Aside: Memento Mori—Rather, Morry.


Not long ago I bumped into a old classmate from Saint Juliana on the northwest side. She always kept up correspondence with the graduates.

She pulled me aside and said: “It’s just you and me, babe.”


“All the others in our class are dead.”

That sort of thrilled me, perversely. The class bully, the Mr. Smarty-Pants who knew all the answers. But sadly—my first girl friend. That kind of gets you down to the phrase Memento Mori—scriptural shorthand for…don’t get too cocky, pal—because the man in the black nightgown will come looking for you soon. Indeed he has.

Episodes like that are why life as an octogenarian has been far more exciting than I was led to believe. With me it’s been one intriguing thing after another. On the cusp of the magic age, you may recall, I came down with an asthma attack which I neglected, piled on top of this a cold and while having luncheon with a friend, pretended to be listening to him but wondering all the while: “Now do I interrupt him or shall I stick it out?” I stuck it out. My doctor…always a decisive man…ordered me to the ER at Northwest Community, a really fine hospital (where he practices). The ER patient waiting room was filled to overflowing. Time to an asthmatic is always of immediacy. People have fallen over even when medical help is within range. So I tromped up to the registration desk and announced brightly, “I am eighty years old and feel like there’s an elephant standing on my chest.”

Well…that was the case (no exaggeration)…but having said it I was whisked in a wheel chair to an attending room while someone else (guess who? An un-canonized saint) took on the dull, perfunctory task of attesting to my Medicare and health card B. All the while my temp was gauged at 103 and infusions of very kind were injected. In short time I was wheeled to a room where I spent about three days. The physicians, attendants, nurses, PCTs (Patient Care Technicians) were invariably superb, well informed. I cannot praise them enough—and I have had recourse to return to the same hospital three times more to see if I was right the first time. I was.

However it occurred, after the first stay I picked up a bug and a few months later repeated the process—only driven there by paramedics in their bumpy truck, deposited in a room. I have written about this before. What worried my superb general internist was two things: (1) on arriving at his office for a checkup, I very nearly fainted and would have fallen to the ground at the entrance of his office but for the kind indulgence of another patient coming for a checkup. (2) My temp was 102.4 but my blood pressure was down in the basement, running something like 76 as the top number when the average is…what?...130? My internist looked at me, dialed the paramedics and in short order I was being rolled through the waiting room of senior citizens, doubtless some of whom were thinking, “My God is this in store for me?” Well, of course it is, as we are not immortal but seeing a galoot wheeled out is enough to cause one to reconsider the fullest meaning of “Memento Mori.”

As for me, I have another take on the phrase since my doctor’s first name is Morry. And he has been at my bedside through all of this. I am pleased to report that hours at my bedside we are a perfect fit on all political issues. I could not bear to die in the company of a liberal.

Well without drawing this all out, on visit number two they discovered…as I wrote in this place at the time…that I had picked up an aggressive bacteria in my blood. Blood should have many things but not bacteria. It had to be eradicated because the bacteria race unerringly to attack anything in the body that is foreign to it—and four years ago I had a heart bypass where the surgeon also inserted a new valve, made of sturdy pig gut. The bacteria sail to that point to make war on the intruder. The job was to ward off the attack. Fighting the advancing hordes of bacteria could best be done by weeks of infusions of antibiotics. If the infusions fail, there would have to be a hasty replacement of the value. Surgery is risky for a senior gent like me. I was in geezer territory—76-- when they put the valve in, in 2004. The infusions—applied at home by my selfless, gallant wife whose sainthood is even now has reserved claim on unheralded but nonetheless self-same canonization as the great figures of the Church…the Little Flower--who learned on the spot how to hook me up to the IV—worked.

But since I’ve been bothered. There has been some unaccountable fatigue, and on occasion I get a mystery fever…say at 3 in the afternoon when I would have to sit at this console with two heavy sweaters on…then say at 7 there would be a breakage of the fever as with some great dam and I would be wringing wet with perspiration. One episode sent to the ER. They took a blood culture and found it was negative. Then what caused the fever? We dismissed it as a bug.

Now I doubt it is a bug. On Tuesday I came down with the chills, hit 102.7, took to my bed and quite rapidly was consumed with sweat. Wednesday, the same procedure. I didn’t want to call Morry because I would be directed to the hospital and I had work to do. But I did. Thereupon we had a tug of war on the phone. He said go right in there—it could be a regeneration of the fearsome hordes besieging the heart value. I said there was one thing I sorely wanted to do. Last Thursday night I was to introduce Ramesh Ponnuru the brilliant young number two in the Washington office of “National Review.” He had written the best-seller “The Party of Death” and I had arranged to have him be with us on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the infamous “Roe v. Wade” decision.

I had not met Ponnuru before; but as program chair, I was responsible for his coming here; he would be looking for me; I was to introduce him—and by God no heathen hordes of bacteria storming the battlements of my pig gut artificial heart valve would get in the way. Morry said: “I tell you, you are taking a great danger and I cannot support your decision. But do this emcee job and get over to the hospital right after the dinner.”

I won one from him, finally. Before we left for the dinner, I sank heavily in my chair and my wife said: “Are you sure you can do this?”

To which I said: “No but let’s not think of that right now.”

I did carry it off and was very happy I was there. Ponnuru was brilliant; I think I may have appeared a little thoughtful and withdrawn during the banquet…I know I stunned some by turning down my obligatory scotch and soda… but we got out of there Thursday night at 9. We headed for Northwest Central in Arlington Heights, checking in at 10 p.m., just in time for a reprise of the chills and sweats.

All day Friday, all day Saturday the tests went on. The blood cultures showed no…none whatever…assault on my artificial heart valve by bacteria. But the chills and sweats continued. What was it? By Saturday, an x-ray of my lungs were free, an ultra-sound of my stomach’s vitals showed nary a problem. But there were more tests to go. Whereupon I took matters in my own hands and said I can jolly well endure the chills and sweats at home: I don’t have to be in the hospital and endure their cardboard food (sanitized of any taste required for heart patients). I can shiver in my chair and wipe perspiration from my brow at home…and frankly you’re not finding the case. Besides I have a WLS radio show.

I said: tell you what? Suppose I take a pass, go to the station and do the radio show and come back? Whereupon Morry said: “What is the matter with you? You’re going to miss the radio show.

I looked to my wife. She moved her lips soundlessly: You’re-not-going-to-do-the-radio-show.

Morry won that one. So I got a friend Deborah Rowe to do it for me. Monday morning another test--a C-scan of my chest came back blemish free. Now everybody agreed. There are literally hundreds of tests to do but there is no good purpose to our keeping this guy here…but we can work with him as an outpatient.

Morry put on a half-hearted campaign for me to stay on for other tests. But I would not have it. For one thing, it’s the food. When they put you on a salt, sugar-free diet of skim this and that everything you order…everything they list on the menu as Scalloped French duck a-la Possom tastes like cardboard. But that’s where I won.

And that’s the way it is. I returned home yesterday following a night which began with 102.9 then broke with the sweats. —Monday—edified by freedom from institutional care (even as good as Northwest Community’s is). And as I was wheeled down to the front door said a Pater and Ave after seeing so many of my age struggling with serious maladies.

The reason I am back today is Morry…so I gratefully Memento Morry! May he pull me through more minor catastrophes that are to come in the 80s.

But I will also Memento Mori. As I write this Monday night, I’m in my shirtsleeves whereas last night in institutional care I was calling for more blankets, more blankets. There could not be too many to pile on me and still I shivered.

Will keep you informed. But in the meantime, it’s a good axiom for all ages: Memento Mori.


  1. Tom, I wish You many more years of good health and good blogging. You're in my prayers. Please remember my dad, Joe, in Your prayers. He's 90, so You're just a youngster by comparison.
    John Robin.

  2. Very good advice, Tom... helps us put a lot of the, ahem, events of the last few days in perspective. Take care!

  3. Hope you can win the battle. Enjoy ypur Benedictine stories! On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas you are in my prayers.

  4. Fatique. Fever. Chills. Sounds like some sort of deprivation. Scotch perhaps? Worth a try-

    Get well soon!