“Notes from a Healer” — Up to her neck

I recall seeing this mother with her older son two months ago. Unlike this robust younger brother, her first son was born 12 weeks premature and subsequently faced myriad medical problems. He grew poorly and manifested developmental delays over the first two years of life. She certainly had her hands full caring for him. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerUp to her neck — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

Spring pig

“A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another.” E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

E. B. White opens his children’s classic with the birth of a litter of spring pigs. One of them, the runt of the litter, will just make for trouble; and so Mr. Arable is poised to do away with it.

“This is the most terrible case of injustice I have ever heard of,” announces Fern, his daughter, the young girl who will save the pig on her own terms.

Thoughts of Fern ran through my head when my younger daughter pulled into the driveway with a large yellow bin sitting on the seat beside her.

“What you got there?” I asked.

Proudly, she pulled the bin from the car and held it down so we could see inside. There, nestled in with old newspapers and several towels, lay a pink spring piglet.

“The sow at the farm had a litter, but she killed all of them except for this little guy. We rescued him from certain death. His name is Lucky, because he’s lucky to be alive.”

She carried the yellow bin into the kitchen and sat it on the floor. From her pocket she pulled a plastic baby bottle, filled with formula. “Wanna feed him?” she asked, handing me the bottle.

I pushed the rubber nipple gently against the piglet’s pink snout. He soon latched on and began to suck and swallow like a hungry newborn.

“How does he get along without his mother?” I asked.

“He’s got his own bed under a heat lamp at the farm. He’s gotta be fed nearly every hour round the clock. I’m usually up with Mr. Christensen anyway, so I offered to take a couple of feeding shifts over the weekend.”

Mr. Christensen is the octogenarian that my daughter takes care of during the week. He’s got Alzheimer’s dementia. My daughter makes his meals, bathes him, helps him get dressed, drives him to the adult daycare program at the assisted living home, and makes sure he gets to his doctors’ appointments on time. She did the same thing for his wife up until she passed away this past February.

Lucky dropped the nipple from his mouth and lay down in the bin. He pushed against the towels with his snout and closed his eyes. For all appearances he looked to be one contented piglet.

“Are you going to keep him here overnight?” I asked my daughter.

“No, he might get cold. He’ll probably do best in his own bed under the heat lamp. I just wanted to stop by and show him to you.”

She picked up the bin with the sleeping piglet inside and carried it back outside to the car. The engine roared to life.

“I’ll drop by sometime next week for dinner,” my daughter said. “I’ve gotta get back to the farm to look in on Mr. Christensen.”

I watched her back down the driveway, negotiating the tight turn into the street. She waved from the open window. In that moment, she seemed supremely happy.

I reckon spring piglets will do that to you. Taking care of older folks who can’t fend for themselves does that as well.

"Lucky" 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

“Lucky” 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

Brace and bit

Last Friday evening after dinner my wife asked me to walk down to the Pinney house with her. Barely five feet tall, a petite Mrs. Pinney, along with her daughter and son-in-law, was busy sorting through household items to be put up for sale Saturday morning. Mr. Pinney, who had been a big man, passed away late last fall; he was 80-some years old. He left behind a shed of tools and paraphernalia—many items that Mrs. Pinney wouldn’t be able to take with her when she vacates the property later this spring.

The son-in-law was in the back yard, seeing if he could get the small cement mixer to run. The belt on the pulleys hummed along happily, turning the old spattered orange drum. In the garage there rested a walnut a gun cabinet, several old wooden surf-casting rods, and various yard implements such as rakes, hoes and spades.

The shed adjacent—the former site of the Pinney cigar factory—housed a workbench laden with all sorts of tools: a drill press with scores of different sized bits, hammers, jack planes, socket wrenches, screw drivers. A table saw stood in the middle of the floor next to a small jig saw with the original manuals describing their operation and upkeep. A chest of drawers opposite the workbench held old coffee cans full of various types and sizes of nails and screws. Next to this, on a shelf along the side wall, rested an old Coleman stove and lantern with sentinel cylinders of white gas. Centered before the rear wall stood an antique cast-iron stove, complete with removable top to access hotplates for cooking. Immediately behind the stove a short supply of split firewood lay stacked against the rear wall.

Mrs. Pinney told me how Mr. Pinney had got his hand caught in the table saw several years back. The blade mangled three fingers on his left hand. A Hartford hand surgeon put the fingers back together in two separate operations: the first lasted five hours, the second three. With the exception of some residual stiffness of the index finger, Mr. Pinney had nearly full use of the hand up until his death.

“Here is the grips he used to strengthen his hand after the accident,” Mrs. Pinney said, lifting the implement from a nail on the shelf.

“What’s this?” my wife said, picking up a bent metal bar from a bin near the table saw. “Some sort of crank?”

“No, it’s part of a tool,” Mrs. Pinney said.

“It’s called a brace and bit,” I explained. “It’s an old-fashioned hand drill. You insert the drill—they called it a bit—here, and then lean on the wooden knob as you turn the crank. It was part of any carpenter’s tool box.”

My wife bought a number of pieces of porch furniture: a small table with two wrought iron chairs and the wicker rocking chair that Mr. Pinney used to sit in with his ever-present cigar most summer evenings.

“How long were you married?” I asked Mrs. Pinney.

“Fifty-five years,” she said. “I was 17 on my wedding day. By the time I was 21, I had 3 babies. Now I’ve got 4 great-grandchildren, with another one on the way.”

Afterwards, on our way home, we stopped off at the cemetery. It took a while, but we located the Pinney family plot beneath the ancient maple near the arborvitae hedge. A granite stone bore the dates of Mr. Pinney’s father and mother. His mother was a Fahey, an Irish schoolmarm. We couldn’t find Mr. Pinney’s marker; sometimes it takes a while before it’s set in place.

Humane Medicine — Vestigial reflexes, gut reactions

Several years ago, when I was laid up for 6 weeks with a fractured ankle and hand after a hiking accident, my wife decided to get a dog. She and my daughter drove to the pound to scout out prospective candidates. They came home with a scraggly terrier, rescued from certain annihilation.
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Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine columnVestigial reflexes, gut reactions: When time is not enough to heal — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Humane Medicine April 2013

A runner’s legs

My wife had the TV on when I got home from work. News of the Boston Marathon bombing was breaking. I popped my tie, unbuttoned my shirt at the throat and slumped onto the couch.

I had been a runner in my youth. Forty years ago running was just beginning to come into its own as an accepted sport. Many times we runners were mocked by the locals as we tooled down the streets and roads of the sleepy little town where I attended undergraduate school.

Back then, runners stood a world apart from most athletes. Running was a lonely sport. The only glory one could hope for was the moment of hitting the tape at the finish. Many who ran seldom felt that exuberance, but they were runners just the same.

A runner’s strength lies in his lungs and legs — the lungs oxygenate the blood, the legs carry him along. If a runner has been true to himself, he finds himself spent at the finish. If he’s in good shape, he recovers quickly. He wipes the sweat from his brow and takes his victory lap. All is well — until the next race.

Imagine pushing the pace for 26 miles, lungs and legs burning. You round the final turn into the home stretch. Up ahead the finish line awaits. It won’t be long now. Just keep the pace, swing the arms, drive the legs, keep the rhythm — and soon you will be there.

The roar of the crowd surges in your ears, easing the pain in your body. A few more steps, then — an unearthly blast deafens your ears, a ball of orange flame blinds your eyes, smoke chokes your throat. Your legs give out as you collapse to the ground. It takes several eternal seconds before you realize that those legs that have carried you 26 miles are now pummeled with nails, ball bearings and shards of metal.

National tragedies affect all of us. As a people we grieve, as a people we stare in disbelief, as a people our anger rises collectively. Once again we question another senseless act of violence, devised and delivered by deranged malevolent minds.

Only this time round I am touched at a deeper level, for I too have been a runner. In a special way these wounded are my comrades, once fleet of foot, suddenly cut down moments before their final finish, lives shattered forever.

Breaking camp

"Lake Jean" copyright 2013 by Thomas A. Doty

“Lake Jean” 2013 © Thomas A. Doty

On the morning of the third day, when we broke camp, my companion remarked that the ice in the cooler remained unmelted. “In all of my years of camping, that never happened before,” he said. “This is a record.”

Indeed, it was a record of sorts. Over the course of our first night in the woods, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Although cloud cover helped to insulate us a bit on the second night, it was not much better at 22 degrees.

The first night had been crystal clear; constellations burned in the sky: Orion, Leo, Taurus, the Seven Sisters. An unknown planet shone brightly overhead, later identified as Jupiter.

Snow lay at the periphery of the campsite and in patches on the forest floor. Lake Jean was still frozen, blue and clear. We stood at the edge and listened to the ice groaning in the morning sun.

This year the Falls Trail was closed, socked in ice. Only those with crampons and lines were permitted to descend the glens. We had neither and so had to content ourselves with a leisurely stroll along the Beach and Bear Walk trails. A woodcock suddenly rose at our feet, wings drumming as it shot into the forest. Woodpeckers knocked on hollow bellies of far off trees.

When the camp stove malfunctioned, we cooked over a hickory fire: bacon and eggs, spaghetti, scalloped potatoes and ham. We boiled water for tea and scrubbed the dishes in the sink at the latrine.

When the zipper on my parka got stuck, a pair of pliers carefully applied popped the snag out.

As we sat by the fire the last evening, a red Yukon towing an antique Airstream trailer appeared. Six children, scantily clad, hopped out and marveled at the snow. One toddler stood mesmerized at the edge of the frozen white bank. “We’re from Alabama,” her mother hollered over. “She ain’t never seen snow before.”

One of the girls danced off among the trees and shortly returned. “Mama, mama,” she cried, “I got snow in my shoe, and it’s cold!

So many unanticipated turns of events in such a short period of time.

It was only later after returning home that we learned that on the morning of that third day when we broke camp, an old high school classmate had succumbed to cancer.