ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  







By Leo Vanderpot




“No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”  
--John Updike, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

I sometimes struggled, but for the most part I made a lot of money and enjoyed writing ads for prescription drugs, a career that lasted just short of thirty years. On the other hand, teaching, when I was just out of college, was a mistake that was quickly corrected. And along the long road to my retirement in 2002, there were also some almost fun temporary money-makers — proofreader, waiter, usher in a movie theater, Christmas season as a mailman, payroll clerk on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge  in New York, and -- most enjoyable of all -- parking cars at night in front of the Somerset Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

But in the mid 1950s when I was a college student at Boston University, I became, by a wonderful stroke of luck, an oxygen therapist at the New England Deaconess Hospital. It was the best job I've ever had. I worked closely with nurses, doctors and surgeons who treated patients from the Overholt thoracic division, and the Joslin Clinic, where for the first time in the U.S. insulin was administered to patients with diabetes.

 Overholt gave us the most patients and they came from all over the world, lots of tracheotomies, pneumonia, asthma and emphysema.  Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was yet to be so designated. Enter irony: COPD was to be my first serious diagnosis, some ten or more years ago -- and now that my diagnosis for diabetes is close at hand (more testing in the works,  but the numbers so far are clearly indicative), I am struck by the fact that I could go back and be a patient at both Joslin and at what is, since 1996, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMS). (That’s quite a mouthful.  In this era of mergers, medical staffs may find it impossible to give today’s institutions quick names -- back then, we were always simply “Deaconess,” and everyone knew who you meant when you spoke of “Children’s,”  “Brigham,”  “Baptist,”  “City,” and of course the jewel in the crown — “Mass General,” or simply “MGH.” )

BIDMS, these days, is said to be the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.  Fitting, since one of the most pleasant memories of my time at Deaconess was the day a man from the maintenance crew gave me two tickets to the last home game of the Red Sox season at Fenway Park, which that year, 1960, was also the last game played by Ted Williams.  He hit a home run at his last turn at bat, which I remember, but not as clearly as his running out to left field at the start of the next inning, and then ... as his replacement, Carroll Hardy, approached ...Ted trotting back to the dugout to a standing ovation.

More intense and sorrowful memories remain from those days.  One night at Deaconess as I entered the Special Care Unit on my rounds, I saw a group of  doctors surrounding a patient's bed.  The man had gone into cardiac arrest.  I had no function there during that kind of crisis, but I  remember not being able to leave after one doctor said, "We'll have to go in."  Was there a saw to cut the ribs?  Could be.  The only thing I recall is how quickly the procedure was performed and the air of hope and fear in the room as one of the doctors began massaging the patient's heart.   Some kind of wishful thinking allows me to remember a positive outcome for this patient.

Surgeons would speak to me only on rare occasions, one of which I remember vividly.  A group of doctors and nurses were clustered around a bed in the Recovery Room, adjacent to the OR.  All but one of them moved away just as I approached to check the wall oxygen.  The one remaining doctor spoke to me, because I was the only other person present, but in retrospect since he was a surgeon I hear him now speaking mostly to himself.  He said, not at all softly, "When we screw up it's always a big-time screw up."  

My medication for COPD these days is delivered by a red-plastic aerosol device, about three inches long.  By contrast,  as a respiratory therapist, I routinely administered medication to patients by using one of two respirators, which we for some reason called machines.  They were pole-mounted structures with a triangle of casters for easy transport. The medication was held in a glass nebulizer and was mixed with either air or oxygen from wall-outlets to form a mist. The patient inhaled deeply on a plastic mouthpiece attached to a long tube that stretched out to a bed or chair.  We used an Emerson machine for day-to-day treatments, traveling from room to room in each of Deaconess’ three buildings. The Bennett machine was reserved for resuscitation.

I got a call on the oxygen-room phone one  afternoon and told there was a need for a Bennett on one of the rooms on an upper floor.  I moved quickly and when I arrived at the room I saw that a Bennett was already in use by the attending doctor, the nurses had belatedly realized that an emergency Bennett was kept in an alcove on their floor, and in my haste I had failed to remind them of this.

I remember holding the mask on the man's face, since the doctor didn't seem to realize that the straps themselves seldom presented a full seal, and oxygen forced into the lungs under pressure by the machine could leak out if the mask was not pressed by hand.  "We lost him," were the words the doctor said, and I hear a clear echo of him saying it to this day.  

I worked a lot of 3 to 11 shifts on weekends, and I have a sense that this was a Sunday and the doctor had very little experience, lower on the seniority list than some others, for why else would he, like me, be working on a Sunday afternoon….a doctor on call with only a couple of nurses and an oxygen tech in his white uniform, competent but lacking experience in the most serious dimensions of the job.

I was not, therefore, to join our chief oxygen therapist, Bud Murphy, in that small circle (of one) who had been present and assisted in the god-like resuscitation of a patient using a Bennett.  As Bud told the story,  the patient came out of it with a rush of super-oxygenation --rising up in the bed -- exploding with life.  Upon discharge, the man gave Mr. Murphy, as Bud was always called, a bottle of wine and told him that he would never forget the moment when he re-emerged into life and saw Murphy's face.

Harold Kemp, a retired lecturer in geography at Harvard, had more than one trip in for bronchitis during my years at Deaconess.  He told me that he liked my spirit, something you don’t forget.  He always wanted to chat and as a BU student I was more than a little eager to be in conversation with someone of his stature from the other side of the river, as the expression was at Boston University.  Our conversations were facilitated by the fact that he was one of the few patients who did not use a plastic oxygen mask or a nasal catheter, either of which de-socialized even the most willing talkers: for him, the doctors always insisted on an oxygen tent, for whatever reason, since this was an outmoded technology back then, used mostly for small children, or those who could not tolerate the newer systems.  

The other person I must mention by name is Betty Bowker.  She worked in the coffee shop, but as those who sat at her counter learned, she was much more than a server of coffee.  Her sardonic wit was like a sharp-breaking curve ball -- you could maybe see it coming but there was no way of dealing with it beyond laughter.  Betty graduated from the school at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  She rode a Vespa motor scooter, sometimes with me on the back.  She was a very talented painter, whose large portrait on canvas of Picasso (in a swimming pool) will always be an anchor-memory of that time, diminished but never in danger of disappearing.

The 1950s among many, many, other things were often an innocent and sometimes an ignorant time, not the least evidence for this being the fact that everyone in the oxygen therapy department smoked cigarettes.  And while the surgeons worked to remove cancerous lungs caused by smoking, some of them may have been smokers themselves.  In 1990, Doctor Richard Overholt's obituary in the New York Times tells of how, in 1934:

"...addressing 300 doctors, he urged them to support measures to curb smoking.  'They actually laughed him off the floor,' recalled a colleague at Overholt Cardio-Thoracic Associates, a clinic in Boston that Dr. Overholt  founded in 1940. 'The air was blue with smoke.'

" 'No one would listen.  They thought I was crazy,' Dr. Overholt once said. 'I could see so much evidence, and no one would listen to me. ' ''  He would remember his skills as a surgeon with fondness, but he insisted over and over again that he saved more lives with his anti-smoking efforts than he ever did with his scalpel.”  

When you are doing it, you don't think about how impossibly fortunate you are to have a job in a world-class institution, or at least I didn't.  But I can now claim with pride that I was at the very least a sub on the first team at Deaconess, and I am now more than ever keenly aware of the skills the men and women I worked with possessed.  It's because of them that I told my daughters I do not want any lawsuits brought against medical personnel, if it was thought that they had made an error in their treatment prior to my death; if they had made a mistake, I wanted the mistake forgiven, not punished.  Incompetency or neglect, I told them, was a different matter, and actionable.  Perhaps to fully understand, you had to be there, and I am grateful to the end that I was. 



About the Author:

Leo Vanderpot: Of my published work, I'm most pleased to list a memory piece in Edition 1 of Hinterland, Spring 2019, a new journal associated with the University of East Anglia. A few years ago, a poem of mine was published in the now gone dark Scottish journal, Anon, and last year Northwest Words, published in Ireland, took one of my more ­politically-toned poems. In the US, there have been acceptances by, among others: Heartland Review, Mid American Review, Third Wednesday and Seattle Review.











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