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About the cover


D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Angels and IV Lines

The fictional hospital heroes in "E.R." have real-life equivalents right here in Southwest New Mexico.

By now, the saga of my wife's cat-bite ordeal has no doubt flown around the Internet, and Web-savvy housewives in Lichtenstein are probably blogging about it. Word spread through town like a grass fire, at any rate, and soon people we don't even know were expressing their wishes for a speedy recovery. Thanks to email and our far-flung network of friends, the story sparked prayers for a healthy outcome from Boston to Cincinnati, South Dakota to (literally) Fiji.

If you've been vacationing in Antarctica (no, wait, they have email there, too!) and are among the handful of global citizens not yet alerted to this sad and bizarre story, here's the Reader's Digest condensed version. My intent here is not primarily to recount the nightmare that sucked us into its maw this spring, but rather to talk about the people who helped us through it.

Briefly, then, we got home from a trip to find one of our cats, Peaches, obviously not herself. After numerous trips to the vet — while both my wife, Lisa, and I were also coping with a nasty bout of post-travel "stomach flu" — Peaches, our beloved cat of 14 years, died. Sometime, perhaps, I'll write more about her and give her the reminiscence she deserves, but I'm not that strong, not yet.

While trying to give Peaches an antibiotic pill, Lisa got bitten in her right thumb — right through the nail, a pinprick really. We weren't even sure the bite had penetrated the skin under the thumbnail, and in any case that little nick seemed the least of our worries at the time. After more than a week, however, the thumb began to look infected. Lisa developed swelling in her right armpit, reddish lines running up her forearm, and an occasional fever. Several visits to urgicare and her doctor and a drive to Deming to see a specialist followed. Then came two stays in the hospital totaling 10 days out of 14, three surgeries on her thumb and ultimately surgery to install a "port-a-cath" by which we'll be giving her high-powered antibiotics for the next nine weeks. Much of that time she'll also have a sort of cast to hold her thumb motionless while it heals to a rough approximation of a human thumb again.

Did I mention that pretty much the whole time Lisa was in and out of the hospital, we were supposed to be taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to, yes, Fiji?

So what happened with that innocuous-looking cat bite? No, this had nothing to do with the recent rabies outbreak, and Peaches was strictly an indoor cat. Evidently, cats' mouths are a cesspool that would make even a convention of Washington, DC, lobbyists blush. Who knew? If you get bitten by a cat, even your own sweet pussycat, do not take it lightly.

The particular bug that traveled from the cat's teeth into Lisa's thumb, we learned after more than a week of culturing, is the same one that gives humans (and felines) periodontal disease. You may have read about a few rare cases in which somebody had dental work shortly before heart surgery, and the germs liberated from their gums infected their heart. Translate that to the thumb and interpolate a cat and you pretty much have the diagnosis, I guess.

The point is, you hear a lot of negative things these days about the US health-care system. But what stands out about our recent ordeal — aside from the scary bizarreness of tumbling from pinprick bite to surgery — is the grace, competence and kindness of the people we dealt with on the front lines of that system. Day after day, these health-care professionals and support staff cope with medical problems the rest of us (ordinarily) can only imagine. No one could blame them if they simply became numb after awhile, doing their job and nothing more. Clocking out at shift's end and trying to put the hospital behind them until tomorrow.

But again and again we encountered nurses, physicians and hospital staff who did more than merely their job and who flabbergasted us not only with their quality care but with their caring.

Our particular experience was at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City. I suspect, though, that you'd find the same sort of extraordinary people at hospitals anywhere in this area.

For example: When at one point it looked as though the best strategy would be to send Lisa home with just an IV line for a few days, until her stressed and much-poked veins could recover and enable a longer-term solution, one of her nurses said we should call him if any problems developed. He had those next few days off work, but insisted that didn't matter. He gave us his home and cell phone numbers and said we could call him any time and he'd come to our house.

I did call him once, later, for reassurance about the "port-a-cath" procedure and how the antibiotics would subsequently be delivered. He said again to call any time.

Even as we were finally about to drive home from the hospital, he tapped on the car window. Keep his number, he reminded us, and call if we needed anything.

Lisa was only able to go home at that point because of the persistence of the discharge manager. She'd arranged everything and "bird-dogged" every loose end that might have kept Lisa in the hospital yet another night.

After we got home, the anesthesiologist who'd worked on Lisa's various surgeries called to make sure she was recovering OK from the general anesthesia used with the last procedure. We know he's a busy guy — we saw him literally running from one surgery to the next. And yet he took time to call. Everyone at the hospital, he said, was worried about how Lisa was doing.

The home-health nurse who came to set us up with the antibiotics was similarly exceptional. She'd already had what to most of us would feel like a helluva day, dealing with the aftermath of a gunshot wound and a wood-chopping accident, with patients who had to be set up for indigent care and who truthfully answered "yes" to the standard question about illegal drug use. But when she went by the hospital to get our materials and found there had been a mixup, she pounced on the problem and untangled the paperwork. Then, when she got to our house and the "port-a-cath" didn't initially work as advertised, she didn't just shrug and send us to the emergency room — yet another hospital visit! — to deal with it. Instead, she made a flurry of persistent phone calls in search of a solution and applied her instincts and years of experience to get things working.

Before she left, the home-health nurse also gave us her home phone number and told us to call if we had any questions or problems.

These are just the examples that most stand out in my mind. I could go on to mention the massage therapist, the parade of other nurses, the surgery-center staff, the doctors of course, and even the woman who was so thoughtful when cleaning the hospital room. And I shouldn't forget the volunteer who led me to Lisa's hospital room that first time, when I was in a daze.

We encountered the same generosity of spirit apart from the medical world, too. When my daughter and I got home, exhausted, from waiting through Lisa's last surgery, we found a cheery green fabric grocery bag on the front porch. Friends had dropped off supper, which we greedily gobbled before going back to liberate Lisa at last. When Lisa sent a note to advertisers about what she'd suffered — partly a heads-up that she might not be 100 percent right away — she was overwhelmed with sympathy, offers of help and even Reiki treatment to speed her healing.

When your world abruptly goes to hell in a handbasket, it's easy to think everything is rotten. When a vacation in Fiji gets replaced by 10 scary days in the hospital, one tends to think that, well, life pretty much sucks. And when the medical bills start arriving, I'm sure we'll go through a whole 'nother nightmare.

But there are angels out there who go to extraordinary lengths to bring light into that sort of darkness. People who make you feel proud to be part of the human race (a species whose actions otherwise all too often call to mind the immortal words of Peanuts' Linus, "I love humanity. It's people I can't stand."). Kind strangers whose actions large and small make you think things might just be OK again someday.

That's a message I hope those bloggers in Lichtenstein can also help spread.




David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure. He and his wife still

have two cats and, yes, they're keeping them.

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