The patient patient


Do you wonder why we use that word to identify people who seek and receive medical care? Patients and their loved ones need patience. Last week my dear bride needed a lot of it. So did I. She’s 84, living and receiving care in an assisted living home. A lifetime of polio has taken away her ability to walk or even stand independently. Dementia drains her memory and sometimes takes her on journeys to other realities.

Too often, she falls, mostly when trying to transfer from her bed to her wheelchair.

Two weeks ago, when she complained of chest pains, she was hurried to an emergency room. Tests showed that she didn’t have a heart attack, and her blood work looked normal. Two days later, more chest pains, same results. This time, her ER doctor ordered further tests, an echocardiogram and stress tests. With her mobility limitation, the stress tests would involve injections of radioactive material and observe its journey through the patient’s veins.

Early last week, she tumbled forward out of her wheelchair as she reached for something on the floor. Bracing herself as she fell, she injured her left hand, fracturing a tiny bone in her pinky.

Next day — Tuesday — she had the hand X-rayed at a clinic near our home. This appointment involved several hours of waiting. Most medical appointments do.

On Wednesday, Our daughter and I met her at the large teaching hospital, where she spent several hours receiving an echocardiogram followed by four sessions of stress tests separated by hour-long rest periods. We arrived at the hospital before 8 am and left after 3.

Hard-working staff members at her assisted-living home drive her to and from these medical appointments in specially equipped vans, but such transportation was unavailable on Thursday, so we waited until Friday, when she reported to a different clinic, a walk in-and-wait-your turn facility, where, after a couple of hours’ wait, she was fitted with a large bandage and splint.

This coming Monday, she’s scheduled to report to yet another care center to have the splint replaced with a cast.

If you want to hear God laugh, the saying goes, tell her your plans.

As we and our loved ones grow older, providing compassionate care for them and ourselves dominates our daily lives. It can be stressful, and it requires patience. Lots of it.

But let me be clear: This experience has become a joyful journey for me, reminding me that when we love someone deeply, we find our greatest joy in helping them. It’s a way to express our love. Patiently.

When demand overwhelms supply

Where I live, two world class medical centers sit 12 miles apart. At either, one can receive medical care of high quality for any disease or sickness one can think of. The convenience of such high quality care is the main reason many choose to live here. It’s not the only reason for Betsy and me, but it certainly ranks high on our list of benefits. We have availed ourselves of this excellent medical care for a wide variety of healthcare needs in our 44 years of life in this community.

So have thousands of others. Not all of us are elderly, but many are.

Nowhere is patient demand more obvious than in the Emergency Departments at these neighboring large and versatile teaching hospitals. Show up at the one nearest our home with a nosebleed or heart attack, and you are in for a visit of several hours. Eight to 12 of them are common, and a visit lasting overnight is not unusual.

Hard-working teams of physicians and their associated medical professionals are running tests, awaiting results, making decisions, all in order to diagnose and prescribe care for you, the patient. They are overworked, shifts change, and patients’ care is handed from one team to another.

The patient is alone during all this activity and waiting, often for hours, until the next test. Loved ones cannot visit. If a patient is admitted and placed in a room, and this is not always assured, only then can a family member come to the patient’s bedside.

What can possibly go wrong? Plenty, according to reliable studies. There is an abundance of research that illustrates the negative consequences of emergency department crowding for patients, staff and the healthcare system. A significant finding of one study is that elderly patients with complex, life-threatening conditions are an increasingly important driver of emergency department crowding.

Demand has become too great for available supply. When this happens, everyone loses, both providers and patients.

Early this afternoon Betsy, my dear bride, reported chest pains and nausea and was rushed to the emergency department. Two nights ago, she complained of chest pains, was rushed there, was thoroughly tested, cared for, and eventually discharged more than 12 hours later. She did not have a heart attack, doctors concluded.

This time, her primary physician suggested adding a stress test to her emergency department care. Betsy can’t stand alone or walk.Can’t take a single step. It’s hard to imagine how a stress test will work for her with these physical limitations, but I trust that doctors will think of something.

Between caring for all of those other patients.

And I wait for a phone call.

Heading for dictatorship?

Ask anyone if they’d prefer living under the rule of a dictator, and you’d get an emphatic “No! Yet, large numbers of our fellow Americans are moving us in that direction. The real question is, can we stop them?

Growing up during World War II provided me a front row seat in the theater of political history. My family and an overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans placed our faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and others like them who fought to preserve a way of life and a political system we used to call democracy.

It’s a good system. The governed — that ‘s us — elect their leaders in periodic elections. The ones receiving the most votes become our leaders, governing the rest of us, making laws and providing for the common good.

Elsewhere in my youth, dictators with names like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and others held sway over the minds and lives of millions. There, power and control rested in the hands of individuals. This system is contrary to a democracy and its fundamental concept of freedom, in which power and control is in the hands of the governed people. Americans of my generation clearly understood the difference between democracy and dictatorships, between elected leaders and dictators.

Those World War II-era tyrants aren’t around anymore to trouble us, but these days Kim Jung-un and Vladimir Putin are working hard at undermining the democratic way of life that we Americans cherish. This is particularly true of Putin, whose dangerous power and control over one of our former presidents is both obvious and puzzling.

Even more puzzling is the adoration that large numbers of Americans bestow on their most recent former president, an amoral, dangerous man who clings to power despite having lost an election in which he sought to be re-elected.

He continues to preside over this loyal subjects from his luxurious home in Florida, but he believes, as do his loyal followers, that he really belongs in the White House, where once again, he can rule.  Like a dictator.

Is this hyperbole? Alarmist? Mounting evidence argues otherwise, from state legislatures to Congress, people who should know better are working daily to enable this amoral and dangerous man in his quest.

I don’t want him in charge of anything affecting my life. I prefer democracy to dictatorship, but that’s where we appear to be headed.

What are we going to do about it?

Who is our ‘Other’?

In Arthur Miller’s play “Incident at Vichy,” six men and a teenage boy are being held captive in an empty warehouse, having been rounded up by Gestapo troops. They are to be examined to determine whether they are Jews.

They are a diverse group — a painter, a physician, an electrician, an actor, an old man, even an Austrian prince. Together they ruminate on why they are here, what fate awaits them. One by one, they are summoned by guards to a small office to be interrogated and physically examined.

At one point, the physician LeDuc accuses the prince of hating Jews, a charge the prince vehemently denies, and LeDuc replies:

“Until you know it is true of you, you will destroy whatever truth can come of this atrocity. Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at as a cold abstraction.

“Each man has his Jew,” LeDuc continues. “It is the other. And the Jews have their Jews. And now above all you see that you have yours — the man whose death leaves you relieved that you are not him, despite your decency. And that is why there is nothing and will be nothing — until you face your own complicity with this . . . your own humanity.”

It is the other. It is the one whose death leaves us relieved that it is not our own, despite our decency.

Such dialogue illustrates Miller’s considerable gifts as a playwright. Ponder what the character LeDuc as just said.

Two days ago, a 29 year old man, tall, athletic build, wearing a yarmulke, was attacked in New York City by a group who knocked him down, punched and kicked him, pepper sprayed him, hit him with crutches, shouting anti-Semitic statements. Why? He is not like them. He is the other.

Across the nation, violence against Asian Americans increases daily. But 63 Republicans voted against legislation aimed at curbing anti-Asian hate crimes.

In my World War II childhood, I watched as some of our neighbors stopped patronizing a local laundry operated by a gentle Chinese American couple and a small grocery run by an aging German gentleman. These local business people were seen as different, not like us. The other.

Through the voice of the character LeDuc, does Arthur Miller argue that by virtue of our own humanity, we are complicit in such acts?

Are we?

Thanking Kissy Corbett

Who claims Dr. Kissmekia Corbett as their own? Which town, which school, which university? Which nation?

These days, about 3,800 people claim Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, as their home. It’s a tiny unincorporated community on the northern edge of Orange County, a bit southwest of Roxboro, about 16 miles north of Hillsborough, the Orange County seat.

Hurdle Mills serves as home to the Triangle Polo Club. It’s also where Kissmekia “Kissy” Corbett drew her first breath. She spent her childhood in Hillsborough, embraced by a large family of brothers and sisters, step-siblings and foster kids, and attending the local public schools.

Myrtis Bradsher, her fourth-grade teacher At Oak Lane Elementary School, saw Kissy’s potential and suggested advanced classes. Kissy graduated from Orange High School in 2004. Four years later, she had earned her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Then it was on to Chapel Hill, just down the road from Hillsborough, where at the University of North Carolina she earned her PhD in microbiology and immunology. For her doctoral project she worked in Sri Lanka, studying the role of human antibodies in the dengue virus.

Myrtis Bradsher, that fourth-grade teacher, clearly was onto something. Kissy realized that a life in science was for her when she was in high school, and she found ways to chase that dream, working in research labs at UNC, as a summer intern at Stony Brook University, and as a lab tech at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

Armed with her bachelor’s degree, Kissy Corbett went to work at the National Institutes of Health, where she trained others while working on the pathogenesis of a respiratory virus as well as an innovative vaccine platform.

By now you can see where this is heading. When the Covid-190 pandemic hit, Kissy Corbett and her team began working on a vaccine. For brevity, I will skip the hard work and lots of details, to deliver the punch line: Corbett’s team partnered with Moderna to produce the highly effective vaccine with which we all are familiar.

Today, Dr. Corbett serves as the scientific lead of the coronavirus team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The Institute’s director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, credits Dr. Corbett’s work in development of the Moderna vaccine, and said, “(it) will have a substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than 100 years.”

Born in Hurdle Mills, educated in the public schools of Hillsborough and Orange County and in universities in Baltimore and Chapel Hill. Who claims Kissy, Dr. Kissmekia Corbett, as their own?

This grateful nation and much of the world, that’s who.

Thank you, Dr. Corbett.

Promising new life

My mind drifted back to Germany’s graveyards as I potted some new geraniums last week on my deck. In Rhineland’s cemeteries, one’s visit is rewarded by the sight of rows of six-foot individual gardens, neat rectangles of beauty, ablaze with color, lovingly planted and tended by grieving loved ones. They kneel, the dark soil caking their fingernails, praying as they toil in the sun, expressing their love and their faith in new life.

In these days of April, flowers announce to our winter-weary eyes the arrival of spring, a promise of better days ahead. New life.

Some Christian churches drape the crosses in their front yards in black during Lent, the 40-day period of reflection and self-denial that precedes Christ’s crucifixion. Other do this only during Holy Week, in the final week leading to Christ’s crucifixion. On Easter morning, these same mournful crosses are transformed, bedecked with beautiful flowers, signaling resurrection. New life.

We celebrate when we behold tiny green shoots pushing through the soil, promising beautiful flowers that will follow.

We marvel at this annual miracle, and we vow renewal in our own lives.

New life.

Political courage needed

Western movies featured a lot of shooting when I was a kid. Every cowboy hero packed a six shooter on his hip. Some had two, one on each hip, and used them to kill other people. These were evil people, and we cheered when they fell.

We kids played with toy guns, imitating the good guys, of course. Water pistols were popular. So were “cap” guns. At a neighborhood five and ten store, one could buy a paper roll of “caps,” each one less than a half inch square, with a tiny dot of explosive powder in its center. These fit into the toy revolver. When one squeezed the trigger, a tiny hammer smacked that dot of gunpowder and rewarded the shooter with a loud pop.

As teenagers, we loved to show off our marksmanship by flattening the ducks in carnival shooting galleries. Squeezing that trigger and watching the victims fall felt good. Masculine.

My older brother was discharged from the Army following World War II with medals for his sharpshooting skill. As a civilian police officer, he was in demand as a shooting instructor. He kept his police 38-caliber revolver on the top of a tall china cabinet in his dining room. None of his children dared to play with it.

I have lived in Baltimore, Miami, Tampa, various South Florida towns, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Since I outgrew those childhood toys, I have never owned a gun in any of these places. Violent crime is common in some of these cities, but I haven’t ever felt the need to arm myself with a gun.

Today, 64 Americans who celebrated the holidays in December now lie dead because someone shot them with a gun.

A girl of 15, a boy of 9, another child of 7, 5 other children, a pregnant woman, a couple and their two grandchildren, a family of 4. Are you keeping count?

All dead.

These join other Americans whose lives have ended in mass shootings since this year began. On Jan. 9, five died in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois. Five more perished on Jan. 24 in Indianapolis, where 12 others were to die soon thereafter, four in March, eight in April. Six were shot dead in Muscogee, Oklahoma, on Feb. 2. In March, we witnessed multiple mass shooting deaths in Atlanta, Boulder, Colorado, Essex, Maryland, and Orange, California. This month of April saw four die in Allen, Texas, and six in Rock Hill, South Carolina. This month is not yet over. Do more mass shootings await? It’s likely.

The lives of these people are over because someone shot them. To state the obvious, one needs a gun to shoot someone. Someone with a grievance and a gun can kill others. End their lives.

Will we have the courage to end this madness? In my lifetime?

The cross at sunrise

Looking down, I could feel my stomach do a little flip. It’s a loooong drop to the parking lot from the top row of the end zone seats in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium. On Easter Sunday morning in 1958, I was performing there in Miami’s sunrise pageant.

A piece in The Miami Herald had caught my eye. It said that The Rev. V. Neil Wyrick, pastor of Miami’s Palmetto Presbyterian church, was recruiting actors to perform in Miami’s Easter sunrise pageant in the Orange Bowl. As a part-time actor, I loved the idea and eagerly showed up at the scheduled audition, where I was cast in the role of Dysmas, the repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus.

My costume was a skimpy loin cloth that I jokingly called my diaper. That was all, and, yes, dressed that way, I was cold in those pre-dawn hours, even in Miami.

For the crucifixion scene, actors portraying Roman soldiers roughly threw me to the ground and laid me on a T-shaped cross made of 4×4 boards. My feet rested on a tiny platform, and I could grip screen door handles attached to the ends of the arms of the crude cross. The soldiers than carried me, prone on this cross, all the way to the top row of the end zone seats, swung me and the cross wide out over the parking lot below and dropped the cross into a wooden socket that provided a base for the cross. The same scene was taking place at the same time for the other criminal, then finally, the central cross on which the actor portraying Christ hung.

There the three of us writhed in agony for several minutes until the pageant ended, and we were able to return to field level, get into warm clothes, and swig some hot coffee.

It’s common for friends to ask one another about our favorite Christmas memories , less so for Easter, I suspect, but I always will recall in vivid detail my Easters in Miami in the late 1950s. I continued to play the repentant thief on a cross for a few more years, then one year the pageant was moved to Miami’s baseball stadium, and I was offered the role of Judas. I was delighted, of course. It was a major role, and of course, the costume was a lot warmer.

My love for Easter sunrise pageants originated when I was a child. My parents took my brother, sister and me to Easter sunrise pageants in Baltimore’s stadium. We all rose in the dark of the wee hours, dressed, ate breakfast, and walked about a mile to the stadium, an old wooden oval, predecessor to the larger, grander Memorial Stadium that rose on the site later to become home to the Colts and Orioles.

These Easter morning re-enactments were solemn and beautiful to see, with authentic-looking tomb and garden and colorful costumes. I still can see the tomb guards in their flowing red capes and shiny helmets.. But something is missing from the scenes in my memory. I don’t recall a crucifixion scene in those Baltimore pageants. Surely there must have been one. I wonder if they placed the crosses high, at the top of the grandstand.

We definitely did at the Orange Bowl.

The lesson

On the night of May 6, 1937, a huge airship called the Hindenburg burst into flames as it attempted to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Base in New Jersey, killing 36 of the 97 people on board. They had traveled across the Atlantic from Frankfurt, Germany.

We who have watched newsreel footage of this tragic event won’t ever forget the anguished voice of broadcaster Herbert Morrison, who sobbed as he watched burning people fall to the ground from the flaming blimp and could do nothing to help them.

The memory of this moment came back to me as I watched television coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin, former Minneapolis police officer who is charged in the death of George Floyd.

Witnesses for the prosecution have testified to their feelings of guilt, frustration, and sense of helplessness as they have stood and watched the life of Floyd leaving him, before their eyes, and they couldn’t prevent it.

The lives of these witnesses are changed forever. Of this we can be certain. Thanks to television coverage, we all are affected.

From the depth of my frustrated rage at the way this man died rises the comforting recognition of the good that I see in all of us. Hurrying to the aid of someone in distress is as natural to us as breathing. Irony intended. If we are unable to help, we suffer.

Love does that. Love of others, all people.

Now we are in the midst of Holy Week, a solemn period for Christians, who mourn the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. He taught us how to love. So have others of multiple faith traditions. Love one another.

If we learn anything from this trial, let it be this.

Attacked from within

Citizens in a republic choose their leaders in elections. We define democracy as a system in which we are governed by representatives that a majority of us choose by voting in elections. The system works and is how the United States has functioned since its beginning. We choose our leaders by voting in elections. When more than one candidate runs for public office, the one who wins the most votes wins.

We define politics in various ways, but stated simply, it is the pursuit of power and the debate or conflict among those hoping to achieve it. In America, such battles tend to occur between two groups we call parties.

In a recent election, one candidate for president, representing the Democratic party, was elected by a significant majority of votes, many millions of votes greater than those earned by the candidate representing the Republican party, who lost. This same election delivered majority victories to candidates in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This has resulted in a shift of power in the U.S. executive and legislative branches of government.

Since this election, members and supporters of the losing party have refused to accept the reality that its candidate lost. He in fact continues to insist that he won. His party, preferring a king to an elected president, has resorted to a variety of strategies to reverse the outcome of this election and to control future elections, in a variety of ways, legal, illegal and violent.

Reliable news sources now report that legislation that would make voting more difficult, particularly for citizens of color, is being made law in 43 of America’s 50 states. If certain citizens are unable to vote, candidates from a certain party stand a better chance of winning.

Creating obstacles to voting is not how we give voice to the individual citizen; it is the opposite. Democracy is under attack by one of our own political parties.

What are we going to do about it?