The thump-thump of the hurting and the dying

This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.
This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.

The tenth-floor hospital room rumbled and shook… thump-thump-thump.

Earlier, I asked, “Is that the bed in the next room?”

“No, I think it’s a medical transport helicopter,” replied my dad’s niece, Belinda Barfield.

Several days before dad rested in a coronary care step-down bed that could be vibrated for massage and bedsore-prevention purposes. A few hours earlier I’d heard and felt the room vibrate just as it had when a nurse activated the vibration option on dad’s bed. It turned out to be the bed of the next-door heart patient. The landing helicopter felt the same way. Well, actually the room’s “helicopter” rumbling was far more powerful. I felt it deep inside my bones.

The tenth is Ruby Memorial’s top floor and on the Morgantown hospital’s roof are two helicopter landing pads. Dad didn’t come to West Virginia University’s teaching hospital by helicopter after his heart attack. Instead, he came by emergency squad from Minnie Hamilton Hospital in Grantsville, a 2.5-hour drive. His life hung in the balance; he’d not just suffered a heart attack, he battled a severe case of the flu and pneumonia. “He may not survive this time,” his wife Linda told me when I called her from my home in Las Vegas.

A medical transport helicopter brings a patient to a hospital in Iowa. Similar helicopters brought patients to the Morgantown hospital where dad was a patient.
A medical transport helicopter brings a patient to a hospital in Iowa. Similar helicopters brought patients to the Morgantown hospital where dad was a patient.

My mind wandered as I listened to the spinning, vibrating blades of the helicopter. I turned philosophical. These helicopters are bringing folks in dire straits to Ruby Memorial from other hospitals all over West Virginia. Auto accident victims, shootings, heart attacks, plane crashes, construction accidents… every reason imaginable, time of the essence, life leaking away unless skilled doctors can keep the hearts beating.

Just like me, family members and friends are sitting in waiting/hospitality rooms or inside hospital rooms, hoping and praying that their loved ones will recover, that their visits are pilgrimages of hope and encouragement, not death watches. It can be a roller-coaster ride. The ups and downs are frustrating, galling. One moment, your loved one is smiling, full of tales of past fun times; the next, he’s in the bed moaning of severe chest pain. That gurgling in his throat that you think is a symptom of pneumonia… you learn it’s actually a throat problem and his food and meds are not reaching his stomach but going down his windpipe into his lungs. Yes, hope one moment; despair the next.

A helicopter can be the difference between living and dying for folks injured in an auto accident.
A helicopter can be the difference between living and dying for folks injured in an auto accident.

Sometimes it’s a precarious balance between hope and despair. We wonder: How will the balance ultimately tip? For dad it’s tipping toward “hope.” Belinda writes today (which is actually January 22): “Uncle Lou slept well last night and got up in the chair this morning to eat. Hopefully, if things keep stable, he will be leaving soon.”

That’s the ultimate hope we all keep close to our hearts. That our loved ones will prevail over the odds against them and return home to hugs and kisses or to a rehab facility for physical therapy to regain strength and stamina. We all want them to walk through the front door if possible, not seated in a wheelchair.

The sounds of the helicopters landing and taking off also tell me that someday I could very well be a patient on a whirlybird. A friend of mine likes to say to me, “Be careful. You break easily.” There’s no “if about it” when it comes to illness, disease and accidents. Something’s going to happen to me and to you in the future – maybe tomorrow or maybe years or decades from now. Chances are great that we are going to end up in a hospital bed hooked up to all kinds of monitoring equipment and IVs, with tubes down our noses and mouths, perhaps even our stomachs. People will be gathered in the hospital room, praying for us, offering encouragement, chastising us when we turn gloomy. Bulwarked by prayers, kisses and doctors’ skills, perhaps we’ll return home to resume our lives. Or maybe not.

When I visited dad at his Grantsville, West Virginia, home, we always walked one block to the restaurants on Main Street for lunch. Here (left to right) are dad's buddy Robert, dad's wife Linda, me, and dad.
When I visited dad at his Grantsville, West Virginia, home, we always walked one block to the restaurants on Main Street for lunch. Here (left to right) are dad’s buddy Robert, dad’s wife Linda, me, and dad.

I’ve heard stories of “visits” to the dying. An uncle heard the fluttering of angels when his cancer-wracked brother died back in the early ‘50s when I was a toddler. When my mom lay dying from ALS in 2003, she claimed that same cancer-wracked brother – Kenny Kurtz – was in the room with us. So I’m ready for the fluttering of angel wings and the reassuring voices of departed loved ones when the time comes to shed my frail earthly body. As the hymn “Amazing Grace” reads, “’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.”

Postscript: Grace led dad home. He passed away at 12:15 a.m., Sunday, January 25.