Qualified Entry: Non-Ftion Category
By: Nancy Lipari
Just looking at the marshmallow smashed onto the seat of my jeans brings a smile to my
face. Smores. Before last weekend, I hadn’t tasted the sweet warmth of a soft gooey smore since I was a cub scout den mother.
A blur of color, a kaleidoscope of patterns moves across the screen of my mind as I recall
the beautiful fall leaves I saw as I floated down the Black River on a canoe trip. Now I guess I know how Cleopatra felt as she glided down the Nile.
The phone rings. The loud incessant ring clamors for attention amongst my musings. I lay the soiled jeans on the pile of other dirty clothes. I decide to answer the phone. “Hello.” “Mom, it’s your son, Steve.” As if I didn’t know, how many men call me mom? Only one.
“I got up during the night to go to the bathroom,” he continues, “and fell on my face on the floor. My legs won’t move and I hurt like hell. Can you come pick me up and get me to a doctor? I can’t drive.”
Abruptly, my world changes. As I phone my chiropractor to get Steve an emergency
appointment, my mind races, darting back over the past year.
Steve phoned me last fall from the VA hospital. Frightened beyond his tolerance level, he hadn’t waited for me to get there but signed himself out against doctors’ recommendation. I stood in his empty room with chocolate chip cookies in my hand that I had taken as a treat for Steve. A young doctor, a heart specialist, said Steve had a condition called endocarditis. He had only weeks to live if he didn’t get treatment.
I had trouble absorbing the diagnosis that day. What exactly was endocarditis, was this
somehow drug related, and where was my son?
All the while, standing in the hall, with nurses and patients doing whatever nurses and
patients do, my mind noticed that everything moved in slow motion. Especially my own
Steve has a birth defect, the doctor explained. His heart had not developed beyond the stage of an amphibian, a stage all of our hearts go through before we are born with a normal heart. This didn’t impact his childhood or cause any particular concern until adolescence. Then, instead of the muscles being able to grow and expand orderly, side by side, the muscles were constricted which caused thickening of the heart’s walls. As a result of the thick walls, the heart valve couldn’t shut cleanly to control the flow of blood as the heart pumps. Consequently a pool of blood collects by the valve and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. The bacteria tends to cluster, break off and lodge in other parts of the body, often infecting other organs.
All this is compounded by the fact that while in boot camp, he had contracted strep
throat, gone untreated, and developed rheumatic fever and a heart murmur.
His life was at risk and we didn’t know where he was.
The doctor told me Steve had clearly understood he would surely die in weeks without treatment. Steve had made up a story that his father had died in an accident in Alabama and that he needed to go make funeral arrangements.
Frightened. Running. Where was he?
I handed the doctor the chocolate chip cookies and went home to call his two sisters.
We waited to hear from him.
Days went by. No word. I called the VA hospital in Alabama to see if he had checked in
there. I called every day. Nothing.
I sent him thought-messages to call me. I meditated and surrounded the image of him
with love. I agonized for him.
At last he called, a week later.
We sat huddled together in the corner of the auto shop where he worked, Steve, his girlfriend Lisa, his best friend Justin, and me. Long silences punctuated our comments. Faces were pale, eyes wide and solemn, the very air vibrated with the intensity of the words being spoken. We tried to make sense of the situation. He didn’t trust the diagnosis of the VA. The doctors had told him it would take one to three months of continual intravenous antibiotic treatment to stabilize the virile infection.
Richard, the husband of one of my artist friends, is an endocrinologist. I placed a call to him.
He verified the fact that endocarditis was indeed that serious and required those long
months of treatment.
Faced with the brutal choice of death or months in the VA hospital, Steve chose the
treatment. Being a veteran, his hospitalization insurance was only good at the VA hospital.
When we arrived in admissions, Steve underwent a metamorphosis. He became gruff.
Abrupt. Hostile. He folded his arms across his chest and told me that now his job was to
become a “Mean son-of-a-bitch so they know not to fuck with me.”
When he was taken down for surgery, to place a catheter in his heart, the nurse forgot
to medicate him. Although he had to be awake when the surgery was performed, his doctor had ordered valium and a local. The assistants approached him to strap him down to the operating table. He threatened to walk out again. He was belligerent. The doctor
administered the tranquilizers Steve should have had hours ago. Treatment had begun.
He received antibiotics for two months. When his system could tolerate no more medication, he was released for a month. We shared the Christmas holidays. He was sick again, with severe flu like symptoms: high fever, vomiting, aching, no energy. He went in for a blood test and was readmitted for endocarditis.
This time he stayed three months. We all visited him. He learned to change his own IV, to alert the nurses when it was time for his medication, to sit at the nurses’ station when his heart was hurting so they couldn’t help but see him if it actually was a heart attack. He became friendly with other patients. Fed them ice chips, watched them die.
He was released. The virus was contained. He had won the battle.
Other people with endocarditis lead normal lives with just a few precautions against re-infection. Steve returned to work as a mechanic. He had no energy. He was as skinny as a rail. He could not climb a flight of stairs. Those months of lying in bed in the hospital, of poor eating, had taken their toll.
He applied for social security disability and was turned down. He took odd jobs to get by. Quality of life was poor. He needed to find a job that he could physically handle. He needed to stay away from alcohol, pot, drugs of all kinds because of the threat to his heart. He needed to get stronger so his valve could be replaced, a surgery his uncle and a friend had survived and now felt ten years younger again… a miracle of modern medicine.
Now, desperate not to waste a minute, my car races to pick up Steve for the appointment at the chiropractor’s. My mind races with the car. What did this all mean?
A moan escapes his lips with almost every breath. He hurts everywhere. He can only shuffle one foot inches in front of the other. His color is off. Yellow. Could it be hepatitis? The VA doctors told him it was not a re-occurrence of the endocarditis. What could be wrong?
Dr. Gail is substituting for my regular chiropractor. She is patient and kind. She treats Steve gently, as if he is a damaged flower, knowing that he is sensitive to each touch. The lower back is out, the pelvis twisted; the muscles have weakened to the point that they can no longer hold the spine in place. Yet he does get some relief. He can walk better. The acupuncture also helps in ways that seem strange and mysterious because the method is so foreign to our western ideas of medical treatment.
Steve’s father, Stephen, is back in town from a business trip. He is adamant that Steve go to the hospital, get his blood re-tested for endocarditis. Steve assures him that according to the VA doctor, the endocarditis is not active. It was the first thing he had checked. He decides to get another blood test just to be on the safe side. Steve is staying with me and going to the chiropractor each day. We convert the den into a bedroom for him. I just know some TLC will do him good. He eats right, sleeps intermittently. He no longer moans with each breath. He is regaining his sense of humor.
Often his vomiting awakens me in the night. He is putting on some pounds in spite of it.
Does he have a hiatal-hernia?
Our talks concern his future. Job possibilities. Simplifying his life style. What he really wants out of life. How to achieve balance and happiness.
One sunny day we decide to clean out the gutters for winter. Steve first holds the ladder for me, then climbs to the top, sits and has a cigarette. The view is fantastic, with all the leaves gone from the trees we can see for miles. The air is crisp and clean and the sun dances along the roof top, across our backs, and down into the pond to sparkle back up at us. We reminisce about events gone by, of other fall days, and games he played as a youth in the nearby woods.
Later, back inside, we share laughter with our tuna and grilled cheese sandwiches. He promises me he will even drink the Ensure protein drink I purchased for him since he knows he must gain some strength and weight back.
Then, on Monday morning, October 30, Steve’s father arranges with Steve to go to the
VA to get his blood test results since the VA refuses to give the results over the phone.
I am lying in bed savoring the wonderful luxury of being wrapped in warm blankets while the cool, crisp autumn air invites me to enjoy the day.
The phone rings.
Steve’s voice sounds panicky on the line from the hospital, “They want to keep me here. They say there’s internal bleeding. They don’t know why. They want to run all kinds of tests. They can’t make me stay, I’ll leave as soon as they’ve gone. I’ll hitchhike back home.”
The blood is pounding in my ears. I struggle to keep my voice even and calm. “Don’t do
that. Let me talk to your Dad a minute.” His father’s voice is also edged with fear as he verifies what Steve said and asks me to try to convince Steve to check in to the VA. Back on the phone, Steve is frightened, angry, and ready to bolt.
His Dad drives him back to my house. Exhausted, he falls quickly to sleep.
Tuesday, October 31. He won’t talk about it at all. He agrees to go to the chiropractor,
but that’s all.
Wednesday, November 1. At last he’s ready to talk. We discuss his options, read from
the medical journals about the tests they want to run.
I call my doctor friend, Richard, to see what the tests would cost if we had them run at a hospital other than the VA. $1000 minimum we conclude. I offer to Steve to pay for those tests so he doesn’t have to go to the VA until we know more about what is wrong. Steve refuses my offer and reluctantly agrees to check in to the VA on Thursday if I will stay with him to explain the tests to him before he agrees to have them performed.
Relieved, the decision made, we both feel better.
In the evening I am sitting on the edge of my bed putting some lotion on my legs when Steve comes in to tell me he wants to go see his girlfriend, Lisa. She can’t come to visit him. He has been having trouble keeping his truck running but wants to take off in it anyway.
He tells me he feels better today than any day he can remember. He and Lisa have had some words; he wants badly to go see her. He laughs softly, his blue eyes twinkling, and says “If I don’t go see her, she’ll never talk to me again.” I loan him my car.
Thursday, November 2, am. Other than his back being out again, he feels pretty good. He downs a bowl of cereal as I eat my bran toast. He sets up a noon appointment for the chiropractor, the earliest he can get, and we agree to go to the VA right after. He puts on “Good Morning America” and falls asleep.
In the closet, I am picking out a sweater to put on when I hear Steve throwing up in the bathroom. I pull the sweater over my head and start down the hall. He is laying on the floor by the couch, twisting in agony. I get a pillow for his head, a damp cloth to wipe his brow. He brokenly tells me that when he woke up, he stood up and a hot, searing pain exploded in his lower back. His voice is a whisper, each breath a strain.
He sits up in a chair and asks me to bring a trash can, he thinks he is going to throw up again. When he was a boy, I always put a plastic trash basket by his bed if he was sick.
I run for the basket. As I come back down the hall, basket in hand, he sits, arms outstretched, head to one side and cast down. Time stands still. His eyes roll back into his head. Then he looks at me and gasps “Water.” In that split second of time, with Steve’s head down, his brown hair and beard framing his face, pale and drawn with suffering, I see clearly the image of Jesus as He hung on the cross.
I move in a sea of motionless heavy air. The sound of his ragged breathing crashes inside my head. I rub his back and put a damp cloth on his brow. After he vomits again, he whispers, “Mom, I don’t think we’ll get to the hospital by ourselves. Call 911.”
In just a few short minutes, the ambulance arrives. The medics say his veins have collapsed. Steve breathes in the oxygen and remains calm, telling the medics where his back hurts.
I explain that he needs to go to the VA because of his hospitalization coverage. One of the medics looks me right in the eye and says that since it is a life threatening situation, the ambulance needs to go to the nearest hospital.
At St. John’s, the clerk asks background information and asks if there is someone for me to phone. I place a call to cancel his chiropractic appointment. I feel numb.
Corine, the hospital clergywoman, ushers me to an empty room. Everything is still in slow motion. Corine encourages me to call family, friends. I try to concentrate. How can I reach my daughters? Call the college to get Michele out of class? I don’t know where Sabrina is. Taking her CPA exam somewhere. Who else to call? Oh, Ellen, Steve’s father fiancée. She’s a nurse and would know how to reach Stephen. Who else? My friend, Diane. A machine answers. I leave a message, “Please come.” Now what? My minister, Royal. “Pray for us. Know the Truth for us.” Call my friend Ken. Another machine. Try Diane at home. Another machine. Try Ken again. I don’t think I dialed “1” before his number. “Come stand by me today.”
Corine goes to see what’s happening. Time stands still.
The doctor wants to talk to me. Maybe I can see Steve. The doctor questions, “What’s been going on?” I mumble, “Endocarditis, not active. Records at VA. Explosion in lower back this morning. How is he? How is he?” My mind reaches out for him, coursing through the air to find the feel of him.
More words, in a strange kind of short hand. I try to be helpful but only want to get
behind the closed doors to see Steve. Is he Okay?
The doctor relays that Steve has had two heart attacks. And that he very likely will have brain damage if he survives. I have a sensation of being ripped apart. OH NO, OH STEVE, my mind recoils in apprehension. They can’t find a pulse, yet he is still moving. I can see him for a minute.
The door opens. Tubes and machines everywhere. Eyes of the ER staff peer from
behind their masks and penetrate the wall of silence that surrounds me.
I move to the table. His legs jerk. Inwardly I cry out to him, OH STEVE. His heart is being artificially pumped. His face is distorted, his eyes bulge out of their sockets. I reach for his hand and my love surrounds us, holding us in a last embrace. I reassure him, “We all love you. You are not at the VA. These people here, they care.” Words from a song come to mind and I whisper “You are safe, it’s only change.” I feel his spirit floating to the right of us, hovering, looking down on the scene. “We love you, Steve. Whatever you decide to do, come back to live, or go on to the next expression, we support you. We’ll always love you.”
Hours later, after consulting with Steve’s father by phone, the doctors are ready to turn off the machines that are artificially pumping his heart. He has no pulse on his own. They are satisfied that nothing more can be done. Steve’s body lies still.
I stand at the edge of the bed, praying, loving him, seeing him as a young boy of five years old. In my mind’s eye I see him turn his face to me, full of joy as he opens the screen on the back porch to go out to play. He calls out to me, “I’m going to go outside and say hello to God.” The screen door bangs shut. “HELLO, GOD.” Stevie raises his face skyward, “HELLO, GOD.” He yells, “Can He hear me, Mom, can God hear me?” “Yes, Stevie,” I reply, “God always hears us. God is always with us.”
Steve Christopher Campbell died officially at 4:35 pm at St. John’s Hospital, November 2, 1989, one day before his 31st birthday. The autopsy revealed that an active staph infection was present in his system. Endocarditis was listed as the cause of death. The question remains unanswered as to how he could have endocarditis when his case had been reviewed by his VA doctors just a week before his death who stated his endocarditis “was under control.”