Dad's last days

June 16, 2006

Fathers teach us valuable lessons, right up until the end. In celebration of all fathers, here's one doctor's tribute to his dad.

There was a drenching rain that Saturday evening, and I had just settled down with a book in front of a roaring fire when my stepmother called. I was alarmed to hear her voice, since she and my father had just left that morning for their annual drive to Florida from their Connecticut home.

"What is it, Vera?" I asked, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.

"It's your Dad," she replied, her voice cracking as she tried to talk. "We're in an emergency room in Maryland. I think he's had a heart attack."

I set out, my mind a jumble of thoughts and emotions. Memories of my father flooded my consciousness. Although I had often thought about what life would be without him, I now contemplated that possibility with a surreal sense of disbelief.

My relationship with my father, somewhat formal in my childhood, had grown closer after my mother died in my mid-teens. A man of seemingly impenetrable reserve, he managed to convey love and tenderness through small gestures and a constancy of support. His standards were so high they were almost insufferable. But he mostly held his tongue while I struggled through the temptations of the late '60s and early '70s. Only years later, as I was raising my own kids, did I begin to realize the magnitude of his parental angst during that period.

My thoughts also turned to the great pleasure I got from just sitting and talking with my father. His judgments on politics, literature, and history were thoughtful and discerning. In his retirement, he returned to the prodigious reading habits of his youth, and reread, among other things, the complete works of Conrad and Thackeray. At 85, his mind was still sharp and insightful.

Somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike, my cell phone rang, startling me out of my reverie. It was the doctor from the ED. "Your Dad is a tough one," he said. "He's stable, with a good sinus rhythm. Despite his age, he looks like he's in good shape. I think he's a candidate for angioplasty, so I'm making arrangements to send him to the regional medical center."

"All right, Dad!" I thought. He'd been a life-long believer in regular exercise. In fact, one of the first questions he'd ask of anyone I brought home was, "What do you do for regular exercise?"

As I digested this abrupt change in fortune, I became almost giddy. Even the rain began to let up. It was just after midnight when I finally arrived at the hospital, and found my way to the ICU waiting room where Vera stood with a stunned look on her face. After a hug, I asked, "How is he?"

"I'm still waiting for the doctor," she replied.

We waited together tensely, pacing and making small talk. About half an hour later, a beaming cardiologist burst in holding an angiogram film in his hands. "Your Dad is doing fine," he said. "Take a look."

Even I, a pediatrician, could see it clearly: just one artery had been occluded, and it had been successfully opened with angioplasty. We were allowed in for a quick visit. My father was on a ventilator and sedated, but he looked good. I scanned his monitors and found nothing awry. "Should be able to extubate him in the morning," the cardiologist said as he left.