As you may know, my grandmother passed away in early September. The shock has worn off and now we are knee deep in the difficult task of cleaning out her home.
Grandma kept everything. We really need to hire a Forensic Document team, because our most difficult task has been sorting through all of her Medicare/Medicaid paperwork, old claim forms and payment notices and trying to figure out what is important and what is not. We’re finding those government “THIS IS NOT A BILL” notices from the 1980’s – like I said, she kept everything.
Hiding in a drawer we found a yellowed envelope with my father’s handwriting. The return address was… Baltimore?
February 25, 1967
We have just returned from the hospital. We talked with one of our doctors and he seemed pleased with Steven’s progress…I am beginning to feel a little better about him now.
Written eight days after my first surgery, I’m not sure I can describe the wave of emotions I felt reading this letter. A Heart Dad for five months, my father had already done what was needed: driven me from South Carolina to Johns Hopkins, the best hospital in world, in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Driving half way and stopping for the night, my parents got about an hour’s rest before momma woke up, looked out the window and saw that it was snowing. She woke daddy up and we were in the car in fifteen minutes. Cars were stuck in the snow all the way to Baltimore; and what could a lifelong Southerner know about driving in the snow? But they made it – three families were expected by the Cardiac Clinic that day, and we were the only ones who arrived.
The top doctor is Dr. Richard Rowe. He is a very small man about 50 years old, and Dr. Smith (my Pediatrician back in SC) says he is the best in the world. It is not hard to tell that he knows what he is talking about when he speaks… He sits down and talks with us in terms I can understand.
The Hopkins team examined me shortly after we arrived (at 10:30 PM on a Friday night; good hospitals have staff available around the clock) and Dr. Rowe came out to talk to my parents. “He is down to hours, we need to go to surgery right now.” What a decision to have to make after such a trip.
My parents spent the night in the hospital; later, a local boarding house was recommended to them. That house no longer exists. Hopkins has grown, the location of the house is now part of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. (look directly South of the Institute to see the world famous Hopkins Dome)
He will have to be operated on again… but it should be several years. That operation should cure him completely.
Rowe actually said that if there were problems, they would probably occur between my 10th and 12th year. He got it right; in February 1977 – ten years later – I started coughing up blood. That led to my second heart operation in March of 1977.
But he also got it wrong – the second operation did not cure me completely. In 1967, that was the thinking: if a child with a heart defect could make it through a corrective surgery they should do OK. Congenital Heart Surgery was only twenty years old and the oldest survivors were in their teens. No one as yet realized that a heart defect is a lifelong condition. Though I am doing great, I am not “cured.”
The letter is now in a keepsake box, along with my Rolling Stones ticket stubs, my grandfather’s 50 year employee ring, a drink coaster from London, and photographs of my nieces on the day they were born.