Archive for the ‘medicine’ Category

My great-grandmother Grossee lived most of the way to 108 years. And up until the final few of them, her health seemed just about as solid as mine did.

Sure, she couldn’t walk or hear as well as she used to. But she knew where she was, and where she’d been, and who you were. And she still could do things like peel fruit and cut it up for a salad.

I don’t remember her getting that many colds or significant illnesses, either. (This may have been because she didn’t leave the house much as she grew older, and was less exposed to the public bustle of germs. Her retirement as a piano teacher in the early 1970s may have been a wise decision in that regard.)

My great-grandmother, spring or summer 1971.

My great-grandmother, spring or summer 1971.

In short, her core functions seemed remarkably strong for a person her age, up until maybe the last two or three years of her life.

But my grandfather’s calendar, and my relatives’ memories, teach me this week that it wasn’t always so.

September 8 and 9, 1970.

September 8 and 9, 1970. My great-grandma is a month shy of 84 years old.

On the day my Aunt Elaine heads back to college at Boston University, we have a call to the family doctor, Dr. Edward Malloy — and not a scheduled one, judging from the way it is written.

And on the next day, my great-grandma (she is the mother of the keeper of the calendar, hence “Ma”) goes to the hospital. Apparently her problem is not serious, as she is back at 1107 Hope Street by day’s end.

But that doesn’t seem to be the end of the story. In subsequent days, Dr. Malloy comes by for a house call, and my Aunt Elaine returns from Boston — not the sort of thing a college student usually does four days after leaving.

September 11 and 12, 1970.

September 11 and 12, 1970.

My aunt and my dad, looking back, don’t remember exactly what happened that week.

But they told me something I didn’t know: For a time, my great-grandma was troubled by short periods when she would lose touch with reality.

In my aunt’s words, they were “spells in which she would be unable to focus and would simply shrug her shoulders in confusion. … Their origin was unknown to the family for some time.”

Or, as my dad puts it: “I believe Grossee had a couple of “spells” in which she either passed out or went into la-la land briefly.  Today I believe these are called TIAs.  The first such episode might have scared your grandparents enough to call an ambulance.”

As my dad suggests, Grossee’s symptoms are consistent with what are now called transient ischemic attacks — in layman’s language, mini-strokes.

Like strokes, TIAs are caused by a disruption of blood flow to the brain. Unlike strokes, their effects can clear up within minutes or hours — though they are also capable of causing lasting damage. They also indicate an increased risk of real stroke.

My aunt and father indicate Grossee had several of these types of spells, and that the events described in September 1970 may have been the first.

By my aunt’s recollection, Doc Malloy didn’t find anything concrete to diagnose. When he retired in 1971, the family switched to a new doctor, who prescribed my great-grandma treatment for what he thought were seizures. (My aunt says my grandma described the medication as “something like a vitamin.”)

From today’s viewpoint, I’m not sure what that treatment would have been. Wikipedia (which, granted, must always be taken with a grain of salt) says lifestyle changes are the most commonly trusted prevention against TIAs, not vitamins or other medicine.

But, something worked — whether it was medication, or just the unknowable internal indomitability that kept my great-grandma getting up in the morning for so many years.

Grossee’s condition improved. She sidestepped serious, lasting damage. And, for most of the rest of her life, confusion and disorientation were not concerns. Certainly, they did not prevent her great-grandchildren from knowing her and interacting with her.

Grossee and darling great-grandson, summer 1977.

Grossee and puddin’-headed great-grandson, summer 1977.

This seems like a good place to wish my readers a happy Thanksgiving. So I will. Let us all savor our plenty.


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The post I had planned to put up today kinda fell through.

So instead I’ll depart from the calendar entries for a week, and put up a particularly nice photo of my grandpa and I.

I haven’t written much about my direct interactions with my grandfather. That’s because the calendar entries on which this blog is based end in December 1975, when I was two-and-a-half years old. There are no items on his calendars that I remember firsthand.

I also don’t specifically remember the circumstances of this picture, which was taken by my father sometime around 1981 in the dining room at Hope Street.

But it’s a nice example of intergenerational connection, anyway.

I don’t know why my grandpa would have gotten splinter duty, as opposed to my mom or grandma. Perhaps because he was a cool-headed and methodical sort, with a businesslike bedside manner.

You can see he’s put on a pair of glasses over his pair of glasses, so as to get the best possible view of the delicate surgery involving his grandson.

And certainly, the expressions of all involved reflect the weight of the situation.

The little kid with the puddin’-bowl haircut seems to be asking, “Will I ever play the violin again, Doctor?” And the older man with the thinning hair is responding, “Tough case. But signs point to yes.”

Clearly the healing mojo in those bony hands worked, as I am alive, well, and blogging today. (I no longer play the violin. But that is no great loss to humanity.)

I can imagine the gentle firmness of his hands and the quiet of his concentration, even if I don’t specifically remember the moment.

It is a wonderfully comforting thing to a child to know that multiple generations of his family are there to help him.

It sorta makes him feel like, no matter what he runs into, there is someone there who can guide him through it — maybe Mom one day, maybe Grandpa the next. They can’t (and won’t) get him off the hook, necessarily, but they will at least help him understand what’s going on.

I am still decades away from being able to offer that kind of support to grandchildren, if I have any.

I kinda hope I do.

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Outside the hospital room the nurses come and go, tending to bells and baths and paperwork.

The rain drums insistently on the window: A tropical storm is bringing up to a foot of rain to parts of the East Coast. The worst of it is falling farther south, in the mid-Atlantic, where cars will be swept from roads and coffins torn from graveyards.

Here in coastal Connecticut, the rain is at worst a mild annoyance to the man lying in the hospital room.

He is almost 62, wiry in build, with a hawklike nose and the mien of one who is forcing himself to be patient. He is waiting to find out exactly what his doctors saw the day before, when they ran a catheter through his body and into his damaged heart.

As a lover of technology and creativity, he is quietly fascinated by the idea that a beating heart can be analyzed, diagnosed and treated in a way that allows the patient to sit up the following morning and eat scrambled eggs and toast.

But his enthusiasm is tempered by proximity. He would rather appreciate this sort of medical derring-do through a four-page spread of color photos in Life magazine. But this is his heart, his arteries, his body in the hospital johnny. This is entirely too close to home.

He is roughly 13 months removed from the heart attack that left him fighting for breath, unable to rise from his bed.

If there is anything keeping him calm on this rainy impatient morning, it is the desire to avoid that helpless feeling, ever again. This procedure, he tells himself, will help the doctors give him the best possible diagnosis — one that allows him to wring every last day from a life that seems more precious and tenuous than it once did.

It will give him more time with the daughter he hopes to walk down the aisle; with his first grandchild, who was just down to see him two months earlier; with his wife and elderly mother, who wait at home.


On this second morning of summer, it feels like the doctors are trying to extend his lifetime by making every minute pass as slowly as possible.

He fidgets, shifting his weight. The rain peppers the window. The nurses bustle from room to room, talking of dosage charts.

He lets his mind stray to the tropical storm and feels sheltered, protected. No rain will drench him; no flood currents will draw him away. There are walls and a roof between him and the storm, and people to take care of him.

That reminds him where he is, and the comfort evaporates. He is in a hospital, surrounded by sick people. Other sick people. His heart isn’t working right, and there is no shelter or escape from that.

He will get out of the hospital later that day, as it happens. But the unpredictable condition of his heart will be a fact of life for as long as he lives. It is a storm that will not pass, a flood that will never completely subside.

He closes his eyes but sleep evades him.

June 21-22, 1972.

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I retain pretty detailed memories of my grandparents’ home in Stamford. Even the bathrooms.

There was a half-bath off the first-floor kitchen, with scarcely room enough for a head and a tiny sink, and a window that would have looked out over the driveway if anyone had wanted to part the curtain. A rubber mat on the linoleum floor provided traction. And there was a big plastic bottle of orange-flavored Metamucil powder from which I would occasionally sneak a pinch; I must have liked how it tasted.

Upstairs, wedged between my grandparents’ and great-grandmother’s rooms, was a full bath. I remember my grandpa often had Barbasol Irish Spring shaving cream, and sometimes they stocked the shower with Irish Spring soap.

I also associate the bathrooms of 1107 Hope Street with Ivory soap, a product whose simplicity and plainness is still kind of emblematic to me of that house and those days.

There were other things in those bathrooms too, things I wouldn’t have noticed in my youth — or wouldn’t have been able to reach on the high shelves.

Instead, I’m learning about them years later, thanks to my grandfather’s calendars:

April 10, 1972. He wasn’t too sick to return his library book. An upright citizen, my grandpa.

Googling “Novahistine” brings up all manner of conflicting information. But — as the “hist” would suggest — it appears to be an antihistamine and treatment for the common cold. The interwebs also indicate that the drug went from over-the-counter to prescription status in the ’60s or early ’70s, which might explain why it had to be ordered rather than simply bought.

(What “No. 15 green DOW J.” means is completely beyond me. Those wild drug users and their crazy lingo.)

Moving forward three-and-a-half years, we dig around a little on the bathroom shelf and discover a bottle of …

Nov. 4, 1975. Yes, 80 degrees in the first week of November.

Atromid-S is another prescription drug, used to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

Or at least it was. Again, I can’t get a clear read from the documents I find; but a federal government website indicates that use of Atromid-S (known formally as clofibrate) was restricted in 1979 by the Food and Drug Administration to high-risk patients who had failed to control cholesterol through dietary means.

The site also says: “The clinical evidence for the efficacy of clofibrate in preventing deaths from coronary artery disease is not encouraging. A number of clinical trials have been completed, and none has shown a clear-cut beneficial effect.

Wonder whether my grandpa had any doubts about Atromid-S on Nov. 4, 1975, or whether he added it to his medical regimen without a second thought.

I think we tend to put our faith in medicine, since it’s been exhaustively researched and tested before it reaches us. Still, there’s always a chance that the full effects of what we’re taking have yet to be found out.

On the day my grandpa started using the drug, he had a quarter-century to live, plus a couple of months. So whatever issues Atromid-S might have had in other settings, it most likely didn’t hurt him.

The Hope Street Medical Mystery Tour ends with a stop in February 1970:

February 25 and 26, 1970.

Whatever the “stomach pills” mentioned here were, they didn’t seem to be working — because a full series of gastrointestinal X-rays were on the menu for Feb. 26. And that meant no food, no breakfast, nothing to eat or drink. Nil by mouth, as our friends across the pond say.

(The calendar also makes reference to a “blood pressure pill.” I add another bottle to the shelf of meds in my mind.)

Not sure which resident in the house was having all this trouble. Thankfully, it couldn’t have been more than a bump in the road for any of the three of them, given how long they lived.

I wonder whether I will last as long as my grandparents and great-grandmother did. (I do have the genes. But I’m also convinced there’s one person in every long-living family who keels over at 41, just to keep everyone else from getting too cocky.)

And I wonder if I’ll end up on the same regimen of meds, or something similar. This is one of the few times I’ve looked at these calendar entries and really thought I might be seeing a preview of my later life.

I have told myself in the past that I’d hate to be locked into a regular schedule of medication, a day-by-day box of pills to take. But when the time comes I’ll probably go along like everyone else does.

Maybe I can look forward to washing down my bevy of pills with a nice cold glass of fresh-stirred orange Metamucil.

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