Dec 23, 2016
A couple years ago, dad called and said he was battling a really sore throat. I didn’t realize that his call would trigger a dramatic thirteen-day fight for his health.
His sore throat didn’t worry me, really. Besides, aren’t they normal in winter? And I knew I’d be seeing him the following week.
The next day, my younger brother called from the hospital.
“You need to get here quick,” He said in a somber tone. “Dad his really sick.”
He was wide awake when I arrived. A mysterious infection had caused a softball sized bulge to swell on his neck.
When he demanded that I get the mule from under his bed because it was keeping him awake at night, I knew he was delirious and hallucinating and this was serious.
After three days and a battery of tests, he was whisked to Jewish hospital in downtown Louisville, KY south of our home. An ear, nose and throat doctor met us in his room.
“Your dad has a rare infection that started as a sore throat,” the doctor said.
“The bacteria have penetrated other areas of his neck. We’ll try antibiotics and if that doesn’t work, he’ll need surgery or he could lose his voice permanently.”
Two more days passed. His neck continued to swell, and dad cried out in pain, with a raspy voice, much of the time. He went into surgery on day four.
The surgeon, Dr. Kevin Potts, did a wonderful job. An inch-long incision just below dad's Adam’s apple allowed the doctors to drain and clean the infected area, leaving his neck looking almost normal again.
But as a small man, the surgery left him very weak. Everything he ate reappeared within minutes, which exacerbated the problem. By day nine, he was dangerously frail and needed help getting out of bed or going to the bathroom. He was 65 but looked 95.
“He has to eat and keep it down, or he could get too weak to recover fully, if at all.” A nurse told me. I wouldn't entertain the thought of losing him.
That night during our binge watching of National Geographic documentaries, pretending to be entertained but desperate for him to eat and get strong and walk out of the hospital, I decided to make a run to Panera Bread for dinner to go. I was hungry, but dad was literally starving.
When I returned, I woke him and fed him a bowl of broccoli cheddar soup. I prayed during trip back to the hospital that it would give him strength.
I waited after every gulp, trash can nearby. It was staying down. He dozed off to sleep.
Settling into the pull-out recliner bed in his room the ninth night, I prayed once again that he’d keep the soup down and we’d eat breakfast together the next morning.
I awoke early to my dad humming a Johnny Cash song. He was sitting on the bed, lacing up the leather boots he always bought from Sears.
“I’m ready to go home,” he said matter of factly, looking over his shoulder at me. “I’ve got to feed my dogs. Anyone been feeding my dogs?”
Dad was a dedicated hunter. His energy was returning. He loved his dogs. They were part of his family.
We stayed one more day, walking the halls several times. Dad looked funny in his boots and hospital gown. The nurses loved it. They loved him.
I take dad to lunch at least weekly. When I ask him where he wants to go, he smiles and says, “Let’s go get some of that life-saving soup.”
Thank you, Panera Bread, and thank you Dr. Potts.
The experience left a small scar on dad's neck, but unforgettable time being truly present with dad, plus valuable lessons for me:
1. Failing is fine. Quitting is not. Keep trying until you find something that helps you make progress toward your goal. Never, ever give up.
2. Be present. Inspiration or desperation makes it much easier, but in everyday life, we must work to eliminate distractions. Those days in the hospital with the prospect of losing dad kept me focused…on him. Turn off your cell phone and social media and just be present with who you’re with. Even if it’s just your dog.
3. We all need something(s) to live for. For my dad, it was his family, which included his dogs. To him, they're the only family members he got to choose. And a picture of his dogs had a place on his refrigerator, too, right next to our family photo. His family and his dogs gave him the drive he needed to keep trying something new, even when it made him sick.
His family is why he still fights to add years to his life. We, along with his dogs, fight to add life to his years.
May your time with family and friends add life to the new year for you, too, during this holiday season.
Merry Christmas and Happy 2017.