I am slowly recovering from an almost two month bout with shingles. Ironically, the person who helped me cope with the misery was the first man I treated with this affliction. I was a 17 year old medic at the Lackland Air Force Base Hospital. He taught me some lessons that have served me to this day. The one for this pain and discomfort: sometimes you just have to suck it up and don’t complain
An Elder Among Us
This was a military hospital, so everyone understood that there would be military rules. The first directive of the day for ambulatory patients was to rise at 0630. Within the next 45 minutes they were expected to make their beds (with hospital corners, of course) tidy their bedside area, do personal hygiene, and walk to the mess hall for breakfast. Those patients whose conditions prevented that routine, or who needed more attention or were confined to bed, deserved and received special treatment from the medical staff and other patients.
Most of the patients on this adult male ward were either recuperating from recent surgery or they were awaiting their turn to remove or repair hernias, varicose veins or pilonidal cysts. A few had just returned from Korea and had undergone plastic surgery to remake portions of their body that had been damaged in combat. Some were older retirees recovering from surgeries related to military service, or just repairing parts of bodies that still had some use but needed mending. One day we welcomed an elderly adult dependent. His patient number was the serial number of his active duty sponsor. Here, you will know him as Mr. Snow.
He arrived in a civilian ambulance and entered through the rear door. Mister Snow looked older than his 85 years, and he was afflicted with a plethora of ailments. None of us was surprised when he announced that he had come to the hospital to die. We reassigned patients to beds to make room for him near the nurse’s office. Within a couple of hours something unusual was happening that attracted everybody’s attention. Three young GIs had taken seats at Mr. Snow’s bedside, and each took turns wiping the newcomer’s brow with a cool moist cloth. Throughout the day other privates, corporals and sergeants volunteered as mother hens for a stranger whose age and dignified presence encouraged their compassion.
After a few weeks of this attention and medications Mr. Snow’s strength and vigor were noticeably improved. The real test of his recovery was not some medical examination. A more precise gauge of his improvement was his understanding and appreciation of the almost endless jokes shared among the patients. One doctor observed, “If my patients are laughing and joking, they’re not crying.” At first Mr. Snow only listened, but GIs tell jokes unlike any other group, so proximity simply drew Mr. Snow into the amusement circle. There is an unspoken rule that if you enjoy hearing a joke, you’re invited to tell one. Some jokes, like fine wines, actually improve with age, especially when some facts are slightly altered for contemporary understanding. One day Mr. Snow joined the narrators with a tale about a cowboy and a sharecropper. Naturally, it also involved a woman, a horse and bad weather. The woman and horse were the only two characters whose honor escaped perdition and damnation. When the roar of laughter subsided, one nurse urged an encore as she recorded his tale on her note pad. She then gave him a hug and called him a very charming, very old, dirty old man. He was now a member of the club.
One day Mr. Snow wanted to teach younger men a lesson. Age and illness had not extinguished his sense of timing and drama. At an appropriate time he raised his voice and summoned me. “Private Alexander, can I have a word with you.” All eyes followed me to his bedside. He sat up and asked a question. “Young fellow, when is the last time you got laid?” There was a strange silence as all eyes and ears awaited my response. I hesitated, unsure how to respond to this public inquiry. Finally, I told him the question was too personal. He quickly responded, “Ah, ha, that’s the point.” This was his forum so he continued. “Even if you won’t tell me the last time you had a woman, do you remember her name?” Then, to avoid another long silence, he continued. “Alexander, you ought to remember the name and face of every woman who shares your bed.” He then readjusted his pillow and resumed his nap. The eldest patient had just written a prescription for male maturity.
A month later the doctor told Mr. Snow that St. Peter had gone AWOL from his post at the Pearly Gates, and since God didn’t allow trespassers in Heaven, he would just have to go home and live longer.
Mister Snow insisted on three conditions of departure: 1. Rather than pajamas and robe, he would wear his best suit. 2. He would not return home in an ambulance. 3. He would walk, unassisted, out the back door where he expected his son to be waiting with the car door open.
On the eve of his discharge his son brought his clothes and shoes. We fashioned a special overnight rack in the linen closet for his wardrobe. Although every other patient denied it, someone had taken Mr. Snow’s shoes and placed them under the old man’s bed – after giving them a perfect spit shine. He was scheduled to leave between 1130 and 1300 hours – chow time. Almost every other patient and staff missed lunch that day. We all applauded Mr. Snow’s recovery, but we also knew his departure would leave a void that we would prefer to defer. Two sergeants helped the frail gentleman tie his shoes and tie and sat with him in a scene that resembled three travelers waiting at a bus stop.
Shortly before noon we heard, “Sir, your ride is here.” It came from a sentry whose voice resonated disappointment. The elderly man rose and made a brief panoramic final inspection of the ward and the assembly, then braced his back and began his slow walk to the door. There was no prearranged understanding among the other patients, so the spontaneous ceremony that followed was even more touching. Each patient stood at parade rest in front of his own bed, and as Mr. Snow passed, each man snapped to attention and gave the old man a sharp salute. When he reached the rear entrance, he turned, mustered his remaining strength, stood at attention and returned the salutes.
That afternoon there seemed little interest in playing cribbage or pinochle, but we used a lot of Kleenex that day.