Tom sat at Link’s bedside, looking about the room. The walls had been transformed from hospital sick-green to a pale blue. The deep windowsill was crowded with columns of toy soldiers, boxes of baseball cards, a prized baseball signed by the entire Mariner team, and a brand new Louisville Slugger bat.
“I’m glad your grandmother thought to bring in some of your own stuff.”
“Yeah, Dad, and turn off the lights. Look at that ceiling.”
A star-filled night sky glowed above them.
“What a great idea! I hope they don’t make us paint it over when you leave,” Tom said.
“That would be dumb,” Link said. “Maybe Uncle Ken can fix it so they wouldn’t. Grandma told me he’s sort of a big-shot around here.”
On the fifth hospital day Link was scheduled for cardiac catheterization. Tom had insisted he stay with Link during the procedure. They took Link on a stretcher to a small room, just outside of the cath lab. A cheerful nurse greeted them. An orderly handed her Link’s hospital chart.
“Top of the mornin’ to you, Master Bradshaw.”
Link gave her a heavy-lidded weak smile. Tom could see that Link’s pre-op medications had begun to kick in.
Tom reached for the nurse’s hand. “I’m his dad.”
“Name’s Maggie O’Brien. I’ll be needin’ to start an intravenous. The doctor should be here soon.”
Tom liked the gentle way she spoke with Link and how she explained everything she did ahead of time.
“It’s kind of cold in here.” Link drew his arms around his chest.
Maggie walked to a cabinet and returned with a flannel blanket. She tucked it around him. “There now, lad, is that better?”
“Yeah. It feels good.”
A young man in a blue scrub suit came into the room, a stethoscope draped around his neck.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Fletcher.” He turned toward a counter where the nurse had placed Link’s chart. He stood with his back to Tom and Link. The room was quiet except for the sound of the pages of Link’s chart being turned. Tom cleared his throat to remind the doctor they were there. After several minutes, the doctor turned to face Link.
“Well now, Tommy…”
“Everybody calls me Link, even though it’s my middle name.”
The doctor asked Link to sit up with his legs hanging over the side of the stretcher. He proceeded to do a physical examination. Tom noticed that Link’s lips were blue. The doctor seemed oblivious of the shivering, frightened boy before him. Tom got another blanket and wrapped it around Link’s shoulders.
“What exactly is your position here, doctor?” Tom asked.
“I’m a cardiology resident.”
“Do you report to Dr. Cronce?”
By this time the doctor was entering the results of the examination on the chart. He looked up at Tom.
“He’s chief of the cardiology service,” the resident said.
Tom would like to have told him exactly what he thought of his bedside manner, but didn’t want to unsettle Link.
“Will Dr. Cronce be doing the catheterization?” Tom asked.
“He’ll be here, but the senior fellow will do the procedure.”
Tom gave Link a quick smile. “How’re you holding up, champ?”
“That extra blanket helps.”
The resident pulled a patient consent form from a wall rack. He started to read aloud from it, verbatim. Tom interrupted. “Dr. Cronce went through that with us yesterday. There should be a signed form on the chart.”
Tom didn’t want the resident to get to the part about complications. Dr. Cronce had said it was extremely unlikely, but in rare instances a blood clot could form in the femoral artery. And even less commonly the leg could be damaged beyond repair.
Link began to cry. “It sounds really scary, Dad.”
Tom squeezed Link’s hand. “Dr. Cronce said complications are extremely remote. He said you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than have a serious complication.”
“Okay. There is a signed consent form here,” the resident said. He looked up. “Dr. Cronce is with another patient, but he should be ready to see Tommy soon.”
Tom sat at the head of the table. Link grimaced as they injected numbing medicine in his upper right thigh. On the television monitor Tom watched the catheter rapidly make its way to Link’s heart. When they injected the dye, it showed on the screen as dense white streaks that spread rapidly across Link’s pulsating heart. The image came and went so fast, Tom couldn’t understand how the doctors could tell anything from it.
“How do you feel, Link?” Dr. Cronce asked.
“Hot all over.”
“That’s a normal reaction to the dye we just injected.”
Tom’s insides churned as he looked at his son’s heart on the monitor. He felt lightheaded. He grasped the sides of the table to steady himself. He could hear the doctors talking, but he couldn’t process all that was happening. The room began to spin. He closed his eyes.
“Mr. Bradshaw, are you okay?” the nurse asked.
When he didn’t answer she went to him; he fell into her arms. She eased him off the stool onto the floor. He had no strength in his arms or legs. He was unable to speak.
“His pulse is slow but strong. His blood pressure’s fine.”
“That’s why having a parent in the cath lab is not a good idea,” Dr. Cronce said. “When he comes to, take him to the waiting area. I’ll be there shortly to discuss the test results.”
After the procedure, Dr. Cronce met with Tom. “As we suspected, Mr. Bradshaw, Link has a congenital abnormality resulting in insufficient circulation to parts of his heart muscle. That’s what caused him to have what appears to have been a rather mild heart attack.” He went on to explain that other tests were pending, and they would like Link to remain in the hospital a few days to make sure no further heart damage occurs.
Early the following morning, Lydia entered Link’s room. He was holding an ice-bag over his right upper leg. His thigh below the bag was purple and swollen.
“My goodness. What happened to your leg?”
“It was swollen when I woke up this morning. The doctors saw it on rounds and ordered the ice-bag.”
She lifted the bag. A bluish bulge extended half-way down his thigh. The overlaying skin was tense and shiny.
“It looks disgusting but it doesn’t hurt,” Link said. “The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious. They said blood leaked out of the artery.”
Her first impulse was to call Dr. Kenneth Bernholtz, chief pathologist at the hospital and long-time family friend. But she decided instead to call the hospital Medical Director. He agreed to see her immediately.
Dr. Krandell came from around his desk and shook Lydia’s hand. He appeared to be her age, handsome, pushing very hard against sixty. His hair was jet black. She wondered if he colored it.
“Please have a seat, Mrs. Bradshaw. What can I do for you?”
“As you probably know, my grandson, Link Bradshaw, has had a heart attack.”
“I have lunch frequently with Dr. Bernholtz. He told me about Link.”
“Dr. Krandell, you’re a busy man so I’ll get directly to the point. Since Link’s been admitted to the hospital not a day goes by that there isn’t some kind of disaster. Half the time his meal tray is left by the door to his room. It’s only after they’re sure it’s stone cold, that someone eventually brings it to him.”
Dr. Krandell listened attentively, nodding as she spoke.
Lydia leaned forward. “The medical students who draw blood don’t seem to have any idea where the veins are located. And yesterday an intravenous leaked, and Link’s hand blew up like a balloon. And now this awful swelling in his thigh from the catheter they inserted. Link looks like he’s been in combat.”
Dr. Krandell stood, sat on the corner of his desk, close to Lydia. “Mrs. Bradshaw, I’m sorry you and Link have had a bad experience here. You have every right to be upset. The quality of care you described is not up to our standards and is certainly not acceptable. I’ll speak with the nursing supervisor and Dr. Cronce immediately. Is there anything else that concerns you?”
“Upset is not close to what I feel. I’m disappointed and angry and will not tolerate any more screw-ups. If we ran our company like this hospital, we would soon be out of business.”
“Mrs. Bradshaw, we have a well-trained committed staff. I assure we can do better…”
“You will do better. Can isn’t good enough!” She stood and turned toward the door. “My grandson, and every child in this hospital, deserves the best care possible. If you don’t provide it, I’ll find a hospital that will.”
When Lydia got back to Link’s room, a young doctor was standing next to his bed.
“Hi, Grandma. This is my new doctor.”
He was a nice-looking man with thick wavy dark hair and a friendly smile. He wore white pants, a white coat, and his shoes were polished, not stained with blood. Thank God, she thought, not the crumpled scrub suit and scruffy stained shoes that seemed to be part of the hospital’s dress code.
He extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Dr. Frank Tupelo. I’m Link’s new intern. I started on the cardiology service today.”
“I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Lydia Bradshaw.”
“I know. The intern I replaced told me you spend a lot of time here.”
She walked to a chair across the room. “You two can just ignore me.” She picked up a book and began to read.
“Link, my routine is to make rounds in the morning with the team of doctors. I’ll check in on you around lunch-time. Then, if I have time in the late afternoon, I’ll stop by, and we can talk about the test results and plans for the next day.”
“What about the operation they did yesterday? I heard the doctors talking during the operation, but I was real sleepy and don’t remember what they were saying.”
“I can understand that. They use so many technical terms.”
Dr. Tupelo opened Link’s chart and showed him a drawing of the vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle.
“This is what your coronary arteries look like.”
“I remember seeing something like that on the screen when they shot dye in my leg.”
“The test showed what Dr. Cronce suspected. You were born with one less artery in your heart than a person usually has.”
“So why did I wait so long to have a heart attack?”
“When you were little you did okay with only one artery. But as you continued to grow, one artery couldn’t deliver enough blood to your heart muscle.”
Lydia liked the direct way he spoke to Link. Dr. Tupelo, she must remember his name. Dr. Krandell should also hear about the good ones.
After the first week, Lydia no longer stayed overnight and spent less time at the hospital during the day. She did try to be there late in the afternoon when Dr. Tupelo stopped by. One day while she was there, he brought a copy of an ultrasound picture of Link’s heart. She sat in a chair by the window reading. She smiled at Dr. Tupelo; then continued to read.
“Link, this is called an echo-cardiogram. That’s because the image is made by sound waves that bounce off the heart. Sort of like what your voice does when you hear an echo.”
Link, who had been sitting in a chair beside his bed, stood next to Dr. Tupelo, leaning over the bed to examine the ultrasound image.
“I saw something like this that they did of my mother. It showed she was gonna have twins.”
Lydia closed her book and looked at Dr. Tupelo.
The doctor frowned. He ran his fingers through his hair.
“I read on your chart your mother died about a year ago in a car accident. I didn’t realize you had any brothers or sisters.”
Lydia was about to say something, but decided not to.
“My mom found out she was pregnant the same day she had the accident. Her and my father went to a party to celebrate. The accident happened on the way home. My dad almost died. He was in the hospital a long time.”
Dr. Tupelo flushed. He placed an arm around Link’s shoulder.
“I’m real sorry what happened to your parents. I had no idea your mother was pregnant at the time.”
Neither of them spoke for awhile. Link had tears in his eyes.
“If you would like, Link, sometime you could tell me more about your mom.”
Toward the end of the second week, Dr. Tupelo told Lydia that Link would be ready for discharge in a couple of days. He said Dr. Cronce asked him to set up a family conference. They planned the meeting for the following day.
Lydia was first to arrive at the conference room, which was located down the hall from Link’s room. As she waited, she thought of her first encounter with Dr. Cronce. If she were casting a play, she would never have chosen him for the part of a medical sub-specialist. He had a cherubic face and blond hair that hung well below his ears. He seemed distracted and disorganized most of the time.
Ken had told her that Dr. Cronce was the best cardiologist on the hospital staff. Despite her initial negative impression, she was pleased about his availability and responsiveness. On the other hand, she had to restrain herself from telling him to stop fidgeting so damn much.
Link and Tom arrived next, followed moments later by Dr. Cronce. He sat at the conference table, a coffee mug in his right hand. Link tilted his head to read what was printed on the oversized cup. Lydia smiled. The inscription read: Metamucil…it’s the way to go.
“Good morning, folks. Would anyone care for some coffee?”
No one answered. “I’d love a cup,” Link said.
Dr. Tupelo shook his head and winked at Link.
“He wasn’t talking to you, champ,” Tom said.
“I called this meeting,” Dr. Cronce said, “to talk about what happens now that Link is ready to go home.”
He took his stethoscope from his neck and laid it on the table. He absently tapped the end-piece on the tabletop. It was the only sound in the room except for a soft gurgle coming from the coffee maker.
“Within twelve weeks Link should be fully recovered from the heart attack. The heart muscle will have healed, and he’ll be able to do most everything he did before. I’d advise, however, against engaging in strenuous physical activity. I believe Dr. Tupelo’s already outlined a special exercise program for him.”
“Yes, I went over that with them earlier this morning,” Frank said.
Dr. Cronce continued. “Of course the basic heart problem we’ve talked about hasn’t been resolved. Within a year or two Link’s likely to require heart surgery to correct the defect.”
“Why would you want to take that long?” Tom asked. “I understand there may be some risk in waiting.”
Dr. Cronce continued to click the chest piece of his stethoscope. “Any correction we make at this time may not be adequate once Link is fully grown. By waiting as long as we can, we may avoid having to operate a second time.”
When no one spoke, Dr. Cronce continued, “Link will go home with a medicine that’ll dilate his coronary arteries and allow more blood to flow to the heart muscle. He will also have a prescription for Nitroglycerine…”
“We’re familiar with that,” Tom said. “My father had to use Nitroglycerine after his heart attack.”
Link looked at Dr. Tupelo and smiled. Lydia recalled Link joking about putting an explosive under his tongue. He had asked Frank Tupelo what if he put two tablets under his tongue at the same time. Would it blow off his ears?
Dr. Cronce explained, “He may never need to use it, but he does need to carry it with him at all times. The clinical pharmacologist will discuss both medicines with you before Link is discharged.”
“How often will you have to see him?” Tom asked.
“Once a month initially; then every two months. Dr. Boat will of course continue to see Link for his routine medical care.”
Lydia set her jaw. Not if it were up to me, she thought. She looked at Link, who was silently mouthing the words, “Big Bird.”
As they left the conference room, three nurses who had been sitting at the nurses’ station rushed over to say goodbye. They hugged and kissed Link, and thanked Tom for the flowers and candy he had delivered that morning. They gave Link a card they had all signed. One of the candy stripers had written her telephone number under her name.
As Lydia, Tom and Link walked through the hospital lobby Tom said, “You know, when I left the hospital the nurses’ didn’t make such a big fuss over me.”
“It’s called ‘sex appeal,’ Dad. Some guys got it; some guys don’t.”