She said that my mother had been delayed but would pick me up an hour late. My father had been hurt at work, she was getting more information, and we would go to see him together. At work? My father was a mechanical engineer. Did he have a third degree paper cut or a pencil flesh wound? As it turned out he was inspecting an air handling unit in the cavernous building in which he worked. It required a ladder ascent and he lost his grip, falling twenty feet to a concrete apron. Love Letter – – part 10 from the beginning
That’s what Mom knew when she picked me up. To her credit, Mom was good in an emergency then – – an interesting mix of appropriate concern and protective detachment. Kelly Air Force Base was contiguous with Lackland AFB, the home of Wilford Hall Hospital. Dad had been transported by ambulance across a runway gate opened for the purpose of his transit. Was he alive, paralyzed, worse? For several hours we did not know.
He was in surgery early the next day – – a 12 hour spine marathon to rebuild a shattered L2. He had a myelogram – – pre-MRI in 1987 which seemed to clear the spinal cord, but we wouldn’t know for sure until the operative findings. The orthopedist, kind, cleancut and confident, said the dura was studded with bone splinters like so much shrapnel, but the cord appeared unmolested. Bruised and battered, but not transected. My first reunion with Dad was masked by morphine – – a drug I would learn to use cautiously and gratefully for the benefit of my patients. Unlike spine surgery, morphine has changed very little since the Opium Wars. It and aspirin are numbers 1 and 2 on my list of the ten most important drugs.
Those summer days heralded significant changes. Some good, some bad, none escapable. As Dad mended in stages we reclaimed time and healed like his spine. I became a nurse, helping to bathe him and apply the awkward clamshell brace. Six months later he returned to work. Eighteen months after that the fusion failed and the stainless steel rods bent. He went for a revision to place titanium plates – – a technique so new that the Air Force had sent its chief spine surgeon to Germany to apprentice with the surgeon who devised the procedure. Patient positioning and exposure (you’ll be learning this very soon) was unique for this operation. The surgeon and his first assist actually built an appendage for the operating table in a woodshop. The operation was even longer, the recovery harder. But, my Dad walked. He couldn’t return to work even in a cognitive vocation. As he was a federal employee injured on federal property on a ladder which did not have an OSHA specified safety cage he was granted an OMB medical retirement. My parents had saved little for retirement. They put two kids through college and encouraged me to work hard and earn scholarships on academic merit. That must have been one reason they wouldn’t walk away from the house in Houston that would not sell. They declined offers that they referred to as fire sale prices. I understand it better now although I disagree with the benefit of retrospect. We had a family fire of prolonged separation in my formative years. A sale would have made sense. With medical retirement then Dad attained a type of pension which essentially replaced his income for the next twenty years.
For a confluence of reasons I admired the U.S. Air Force. Dad had been in the Air National Guard. If I could not be an Eagle Scout I could be an Air Force physician. The daily flag ceremonies at Wilford Hall Medical Center moved me and Dad’s surgeons seemed superhuman. How could I pursue this and not contribute to family debt for the long road ahead? As I returned to school to begin the sophomore year after Dad’s first surgery I sought out the counselor – – I would like to apply for the Air Force Academy. She was a kind African American woman, heavyset with an easy smile. I heard her say, “it is very competitive, but I think you can do it.” When a man falls it is so hard to say when. Is it iced coffee? No. That’s just when people knew. I fell here – – setting my gaze so intently that I mortgaged the present to attain the future. I’ve told Mrs. Pascal many times – – “I’m so glad that you didn’t know me in high school – – I was unworthy of you.” The problem is, no one knew it. Not even, especially not even, me.
-to be continued-
Photo credit: Handwritten letter by Descarte: by PHGCOM [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons