Sudden, sad trip

Posted on May 2, 2007

Growing up on weekends with Dad

Early last week I received a call from my younger brother, Mark, that my father had been admitted to the hospital in Oklahoma City. Mark had spoken with the doctors, and told me somberly that the prognosis for our father was bleak. Although he would have been 77 years old on May 18, the news came as a shock because our father had continued to live a very active life after recovering from lung cancer – minus his right lung – several years earlier.

In fact, just days before Mark’s call Dad had been in his element, on the golf course he loved just across from the humble duplex in which he lived. That day, he shot a very respectable 85. As my brother said, “He couldn’t hit the ball very far, but he never, ever went out of bounds, and invariably put the ball pretty much where he wanted it to go.” Our father and his golfing buddies typically played together two to three times a week when the weather permitted.

Just days after that round, he awoke in the morning with blood in his urine. Not overly concerned, he went to a nearby local hospital for treatment. His regular doctors, who knew his medical history intimately, were not consulted. The doctor he did consult ordered a procedure that ultimately would address the urinary tract infection that had caused the bleeding. It would also create a number of other much more serious problems.

Medication Dad was given on that visit worked so effectively against the bacteria that had caused the infection that it also killed the bacteria the human body relies on to keep harmful bacteria in check, and to facilitate digestion. With the good bacteria eliminated, a ferociously harmful strain sprung up and spread rapidly in his digestive tract, causing significant distress. Worse, his blood thinners were discontinued.

That combination put additional pressure on our father’s already damaged heart. His aortic heart valve had lost its round shape over the years, making it impossible to pump a full, regular supply of blood throughout the body, and promoting calcification of the aortic artery. As a result of the increased workload, Dad’s heart began to give out and he suffered a major heart attack as he sat in his living room. Despite his discomfort, he was able to call 911 and alert a neighbor that he needed help.

At the hospital, his regular team of doctors understood immediately that our father had suffered a debilitating heart attack, and quickly ordered tests to confirm their fears. His heart had been so badly damaged that doctors were skeptical that he could remain alive for more than a few days. As they anticipated, his organs began to fail, starting with his blood-starved kidneys. His blood pressure dropped precipitously, and never returned to normal.

As I put down the phone after talking with Mark, I proceeded to Skype the 1-800 number for American Airlines (AA), hoping I could arrange a flight into Dallas-Ft. Worth – the area in which Mark lives – and then drive with him to Oklahoma City for what my brother called, “probably the last time you’ll get to see him.” Although flights were extremely full, the expert AA service representative quickly organized the flight, and I prepared to leave early the next morning.

By late Thursday evening I was in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and soon on the road north to Oklahoma City. The time flew by as Mark and I caught up on 30 years of life lived on opposite sides of the world – in that time I had seen him only twice – the last time almost 20 years ago. Mark, who began his career as a programmer, has achieved an impressive measure of professional success, overseeing the global IT infrastructure of a major retail chain, and then moving on eventually to consulting. It was wonderful listening to him relate how his career and his life had unfolded.

By the time we reached the hospital in Oklahoma City, our father was heavily sedated, and he struggled to make conversation. Despite his incredible pain and discomfort, he somehow managed to smile, flirt with the young nurse who ministered to him, and crack a joke or two. He told us about all the visitors he had had, including the church choir that came by to sing for him.

My father and I had never been truly close – his job as a traveling sales executive for a major oil firm had kept him away from home most weekdays. By the time the weekend rolled around and Dad came home, he was exhausted and only wanted to rest. My two siblings and I found other diversions, although I do recall spending many Sunday afternoons lying on the floor between his recliner and the TV watching professional football.

Within hours of our late evening talk, Dad had passed. His suffering had come to an end, and another chapter of my life had come to a close. While I didn’t know him well by any means, I am aware of the many sacrifices he made to help assure that we grew up healthy and reasonably prepared for the challenges of adult life. And as I watched his friends sadly mourn and bury him, it occurred to me that they knew and loved a man much different from the one I grew up with on weekends.

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