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The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

September 2009 Archives

Nice 67 Y.O. Male Has Brush With Mortality

The doctor who saw me in the ER wrote in her report: "nice 67 y.o. male, flat affect, awake, alert and appropriate." I had appeared with slurred speech and a balloon in my head, had driven myself to United Hospital in St. Paul, parked in No Parking, walked in and was triaged right in to a neurologist who trundled me into the MRI Space-Time Cyclotron for 50 minutes of banging and whanging which produced a picture of the stroke in the front of my brain, so off to the Mayo Clinic I went and the St. Mary's Hospital Neurology ICU and was wired up to monitors. A large day in a nice 67 y.o. man's life.

I stayed at St. Mary's for four days of tests and when I left, a neurologist shook my hand and said: "I hope you know how lucky you are." That was pretty clear as I walked down the hall, towing my IV tower, and saw the casualties of serious strokes. Here I was sashaying along, like a survivor of Pickett's Last Charge who had suffered a sprained wrist. My mouth felt fuzzy but I was essentially unscathed, though touched by mortality. Which I have been on the run from for a long time. I never wanted to be a nice 67 y.o. man. I still have some edgy 27 y.o. man inside me.

But when the doctor talks about how you must go on a powerful blood thinner lest a stray clot turn your fine intellect into a cheese omelet, you must now accept being 67 y.o. and do as he says. You had intended to be a natural wonder, an old guy who still runs the high hurdles, but mortality has bitten you in the butt.

I like this hospital. St. Mary's is a research and teaching hospital so you get to observe troops of young residents go by, trailing close behind Doctor Numero P. Uno, and watch them try to assume the air of authority so useful in the medical trade. The nurses, of course, are fabulous. Like many nice 67 y.o. men, I am even more awake and alert around attractive young women (though I try to be appropriate). A tall dark-haired beauty named Sarah brings me a hypodermic to coach me on self-administered shots of heparin, and without hesitation I plunge it into my belly fat. No man is a coward in the presence of women.

Nurses are smart and brisk and utterly capable. They bring some humor to the situation. ("Care for some jewelry?" she says as she puts the wristband on me.) And women have the caring gene that most men don't. Men push you down the hall in a gurney as if you're a cadaver, but whenever I was in contact with a woman, I felt that she knew me as a brother. The women who draw blood samples at Mayo do it gently with a whole litany of small talk to ease the little blip of puncture, and "here it comes" and the needle goes in, and "Sorry about that," and I feel some human tenderness there, as if she thought, "I could be the last woman to hold that dude's hand." A brief sweet moment of common humanity.

And that is a gift to the man who has been struck by a stroke: our common humanity. It's powerful in a hospital. Instead of a nice linen jacket and cool jeans and black T, you are shuffling around in a shabby cotton gown like Granma in "Grapes of Wrath," and you pee into a plastic container under the supervision of a young woman who makes sure you don't get dizzy and bang your noggin.

Two weeks ago, you were waltzing around feeling young and attractive, and now you are the object of Get Well cards and recipient of bouquets of carnations. Rich or poor, young or old, we all face the injustice of life — it ends too soon, and statistical probability is no comfort. We are all in the same boat, you and me and ex-Governor Palin and Congressman Joe Wilson, and wealth and social status do not prevail against disease and injury. And now we must reform our health insurance system so that it reflects our common humanity. It is not decent that people avoid seeking help for want of insurance. It is not decent that people go broke trying to get well. You know it and I know it. Time to fix it.

Vetting the Health Care Issue

I caught part of a radio call-in show the other day on which a vet was fielding questions about Addison's disease among basset hounds and a cocker spaniel's hypothyroid problem and what can be done about a bulldog who snores (he needs to lose weight), and it was interesting to discover the excellent medical care that dogs have come to expect these days. The vet was herself a dog parent, as she put it, and there was genuine feeling in her voice when she discussed the bassets' hormonal problems, something I haven't heard in the debate over health care for humans this summer.

I have not been a pet parent for 20 years so perhaps I'm not up to speed here, but back in the day, dogs slept in the garage or on the porch so they could defend the home against socialism, and if they snored, it definitely was their problem and not ours. Ditto hypothyroidism. And there was a death panel around whose name was Dad.

Dad grew up on a farm and was not overly sentimental about animals. He did not purchase jewelry for them or talk to them in a high-pitched voice. He would have blanched at the thought that the average cost of a visit to the vet with your cat is now $172. The chance of Dad paying that much to care for Snowball was about the same as Snowball's chances in hell. But that has all changed, and now the American people shell out upwards of $10 billion a year for health care for pets.

Fine. Not an issue. Nobody called in to the show to suggest that the knee operation on the 14-year-old golden retriever (a recent cancer survivor) shows a level of caring far beyond what we extend to three-fourths of the world's human population. I could have, but I don't care to upset the golden retriever community. Live and let live is my motto, dear reader. If your gerbil Mitzi needs a new heart valve and you've got the fifteen grand to spend on it, I am not here to stand in your way. Period.

And so the summer fades into September. Here on the upper Mississippi we've already felt an autumnal chill. I have gone to the State Fair and fed my child her allotment of corn dogs and deep-fried cheese curds and led her through the poultry barn so she knows where the omelet comes from and now it's time for her to resume science and mathematics and learn the subjunctive mood.

Here is an example of the subjunctive: Had we known that Republicans were so paranoid about public health, we would have packaged health care reform differently and come up with better slogans.

Perhaps there should be a public pet option.

There was real sympathy for the parent of the bassets with the adrenal deficiency, whereas the 48 million uninsured Americans (of whom two-thirds come from a family with at least one full-time worker) are merely a big fat statistic and so far Democrats have failed to produce a poster child. We can sort of imagine the misery of walking into an emergency room with no money, no plastic, no Blue Cross card, and trying to obtain treatment for some ailment that doesn't involve bone fragments protruding from the skin, but it doesn't speak to the heart the way an injured dog does.

Animals love us unconditionally and we love them back, maybe more than we love our neighbors, and that's just the truth, Ruth. People can be irksome, petty, especially raggedy ones — poverty does not always bring out the best in folks — and that's why it's difficult to get people to care about the uninsured.

If you put a pet option in the health care reform scheme, Republicans would be in a bind. It's one thing to oppose big government taking over from those little mom-and-pop insurance companies, but do you favor throwing Mr. Mittens out the car window when he gets old and feeble and needs an IV because he can't chew his kibble? You'd have weepy pet parents at town hall meetings waving photographs of kittycats in need of new kidneys, and finally you'd start to see some empathy. People love their animals, and if we could just agree that everybody in America should receive the same level of care enjoyed by an elderly golden retriever, we could be done with this and get ready for the World Series.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.





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