Dodging Dr. Death

I BELONG TO A REALLY exclusive club—but not by choice. Eleven years ago I “escaped” from a hospice program and became one of the few lucky survivors who still walk this good earth.

Before I expound on that, here’s some background on what helped mold me into the person I am.

As a cocky kid of nineteen, I eagerly joined the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a “date that shall live in infamy.”

Before long I had participated in vicious campaigns in the Pacific on Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Then came the Battle of Tarawa, which was the worst. We took the island but at an extremely high cost. In three days of stunning savagery, almost a thousand Marines were killed while another 2,233 were wounded.

I was among the wounded, having landed in the first wave and suffering serious wounds in both legs from a Japanese hand grenade launched at nightfall.

During the brutal fighting in those three campaigns, I felt fear almost constantly. Fear seemed buried into my very bones and deep into my psyche. It was almost searing fear that left a strange metallic taste in my mouth.

I saw death in many forms. Too many. I heard death and, worst of all, I smelled death in all its dense, penetrating, acrid odor. Unforgettable.

Now, fast-forward sixty-two years to my hospice crisis.

It all began when I was eighty-two and enjoying a relaxed retirement in Tucson, Arizona, with my wife Loraine after spending thirty years in the newspaper field. We spent our time hiking the five gorgeous mountain ranges that surround the city and traveling extensively in the colorful West.

Though I’d once had heart trouble that left me with a pacemaker, I’d been feeling fine.  Suddenly one morning, alternating chills and fever racked my body. The ordeal left me exhausted—and left my doctors mystified. After several more attacks and three hospital stays they determined the problem: the leads from my pacemaker into my heart had become infected with bacteria along with two heart valves. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. If they tried to operate I would most likely die on the table. Without surgery, the infection would spread and soon kill me.

Our family doctor suggested I enter a hospice program in my home. I reluctantly agreed. I immediately felt fear similar to what I’d experienced in combat. And I felt as isolated as I had when, at the age of five, I awoke all alone in an empty house. I recalled wandering through the house calling plaintively for my mother. No response. I pushed a chair to the wall so I could reach the telephone. I pleadingly asked the operator, “Is my mama there?” The operator said kindly, “I’m sorry, sweetie. She’s not here.” Just then my mother came in the back door. She’d been out tending her garden. I ran crying to her—she smelled like dirt and tomatoes and she whispered to me, “Shhh, my baby, Mama’s here. Mama would never leave you.” Now, I felt just as forlorn, just as alone, and without such sweet words of comfort.

Our son Neal, who was in the pharmaceutical industry in Durham, North Carolina, flew out to comfort me and Loraine, who was distraught. For their sakes, I tried to remain outwardly calm. Inwardly, I felt disoriented, telling myself that life is simply the short distance between birth and death. The situation seemed surreal.

The hospice personnel were most kind, joking with me and providing pain medication, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers. I felt better, just knowing the staff was there.

The house was usually calm except for the visits by the hospice personnel. Occasionally there were visits by friends and neighbors who dropped by to say hello and talk awkwardly, mostly about the weather.

Loraine was simply marvelous during my ordeal. She made me appetizing soups and other delicious food even though I was never really hungry. She was kind and understanding, trying hard to be cheerful under really difficult circumstances. We knew the end was close and we both were aware that we had accepted what was coming. We often told each other of our solid love and that we were proud of our long marriage with its rare rough spots.

Time passed ever so s-l-o-w-l-y as I grew weaker. One morning I was feeling utterly wretched. I asked the attending young nurse, “What are my options when my body begins to shut down?”

She hesitated, then said softly, “Well, sir, we can keep you sedated indefinitely, as long as you agree not to eat or drink anything.” (I found out later that this is common practice in hospices to hasten death by choice of the patient.)

I felt as if a heavy weight had struck me, realizing that my date with death was near. I nodded to the nurse to indicate that I understood and detected tears in her eyes. She patted my arm and left.

Old newsreel images of the emaciated faces of prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp in World War II drifted across my mind. I wondered: Would I look like them at the end?

Sometimes there would be uncontrollable thoughts, acute dread, and rapid heartbeats. I would calm myself with gallows humor, asking how, since I’d never died before, I should approach this momentous and rather unpleasant event. After all, you only get one shot at it. No mulligans allowed.

I found that I didn’t care to think much about the past and had no enthusiasm about the present—certainly not about the future.

I consider myself a born-again skeptic. I don’t believe in gods or goddesses, angels or archangels, demons or devils, heaven or hells, ghosts or goblins, etc. I especially disdain astrologists with their silly predictions based on the alignment of planets, as if this occurrence can affect human destiny.

Our peculiar universe is indifferent to our fate. It just chugs along. And we’re all born with a common destiny, which is to die. The only variables are when, where, and how. But on what I thought was my deathbed, it occurred to me that I could be wrong about a creator. So now I decided that if I did meet God, I would approach him humbly and say, “Sir, my puny intellect just wasn’t capable of conceiving of you.” With luck, God would send me on my way to heaven after a severe scolding or perhaps fining me $500.

In my reverie, I mulled over Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain’s words: “My one and only life has slipped away and I hardly even noticed.” Right on, Nuala, I thought. I bet most everybody feels the same way at the end.

For some strange reason, I recalled an incident on Guadalcanal. Often we had nothing to eat but C-rations out of a can. One time we were on patrol during hellish heat and batting away mosquitoes that seemed as big as humming birds. There was a guy named Joey (a chronic complainer) who was wailing about eating the “same damn stuff.” I kinda lost it and said, “Jeeze, man, will you please stop your damn incessant complaining? There are Japanese out there a few hundred yards away. They probably have just a few handfuls of rice to chew on. So be thankful, eat your rations, and shut the hell up!” He shut up.

Back in Tucson I thought, “Hey Nick, you were a U.S. Marine! So stop complaining. Suck it up and get on with it.” I then decided to accept whatever came with dignity and poise. The decision had a quick and calming effect. For the first time in weeks I slept like a hibernating bear.

Luckily for me, our determined son was not resigned to my fate. (Neal is our only child and I jokingly refer to him as “my one good sperm.”) He collected my medical records and returned to Durham, North Carolina, where famed Duke Medical Center is located, and he convinced the doctors there to take my case. The proposed surgery was perilous but I figured, what the hell—I was dying anyway.

One month after entering hospice I flew to Durham where surgeons meticulously removed the infected pacemaker leads and cleaned the heart valves using a newly developed laser technique. Six weeks later Loraine and I flew triumphantly back to Tucson, resuming my routine of long walks, casino poker-playing and freethinking ways.

One brilliant morning I was enjoying a coffee alone on our patio. A two-foot long spiral blue spinner dangled from the roof and rotated in the lightest breeze. As I watched it spin, I felt overwhelmed with wonder at this marvelous world—how it captivates and puzzles and dazzles us in both simple and surprising ways.

Life seems confusing and complicated, I thought, but it really isn’t. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Period.

Incidentally, I’ve always loved music in its many fascinating forms—jazz, opera, pop, classical, and some country western. So, if I’m still somewhat conscious when stealthy Mr. Death creeps closer, I’d like to hear the sorrowful opening refrains of Mahler’s Fifth. Or maybe those special lyrics from “The Rose”—“It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance… And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live.”

Perhaps I’ll have time to call upon whatever shreds of memory still linger to recall those musical favorites in my fading mind. Now that would be so nice.