Suzanne Ohlmann | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,121 words)
I once cared for a patient who looked like Jesus and, after 40 days in a coma, rose from the dead on my shift. I worked nights as an intensive care nurse on an abdominal transplant unit, and Leonard was the spitting image of the white sacred heart Son of God.
It was the week of Christmas when he became my patient, though Leonard had been hospitalized since before Thanksgiving. He was 50 years old and smelled of dried sweat, sour breath, and incontinent bowels. Before I’d been assigned to Leonard’s care, every major organ system had failed, down to his skin, his entire body covered in large, fluid-filled welts called bullae. He was dependent on the mechanical ventilator due to respiratory failure, and connected to the machine by a tracheostomy tube surgically inserted into his throat. His blood pressure and heart were sustained by three different intravenous medications, and his failed kidneys replaced with hemodialysis, the blood from his body washed by an intricate filtering mechanism the size of a Pepsi machine. He had tubes in every orifice, nostrils to anus. Alone, his family three states away, Leonard’s comatose state left him completely vulnerable to the whims of his medical team. He was incapable of closing his eyes, his stare casting an eerie spell over the room until we decided to start taping his eyelids shut for two-hour intervals. Nurses clucked their tongues upon hearing his story, shaking their heads at his plight with a combination of disbelief and indignation, whispering reactions like, “He should have known better,” or, my favorite, “People like that are the reason I’m not an organ donor.”
Leonard was an alcoholic and had Hepatitis C, most likely from IV drug use, though it’s possible he wasn’t aware of his diagnosis. When he went out with his fellow migrant construction workers to a seafood joint north of San Antonio, he should have ordered the fish and chips. But Leonard ordered a plate of raw oysters, fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe one of Leonard’s physicians had warned him about raw oysters and Hepatitis C. Maybe Leonard knew that because he had Hep C, he shouldn’t drink alcohol; that his immune system was weakened by his ailing liver; that raw or undercooked seafood from the warm waters of the Gulf can carry a monster bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus; that a person with Hep C who contracts Vibrio vulnificus faces a 50 – 85% mortality rate from infection and septic shock. Maybe Leonard knew, but I doubt it. I can’t say that he should have known better.
My biological father died of liver failure at age 50 from alcohol and Hepatitis C. His name was Mike, and I had just discovered him in the year leading up to my care of Leonard. My first full year as an intensive care nurse coincided with my first year of contact with Mike’s family. If Mike had known better and skipped the needles and beer, he might have lived long enough to meet me, but he didn’t, and died not knowing of my existence. A year before I met Leonard, I sent identical letters and a photograph to my father’s two siblings, Aunt Christine and Uncle Greg. I’d found their names in his obituary, and located their address on the Internet. They shocked me with emails of sudden welcome just days after I’d sent the letter. I had to lie down when I read phrases like, “You’re part of our family,” and, “Your dad would have been so proud.”
Before I’d been assigned to Leonard’s care, every major organ system had failed, down to his skin, his entire body covered in large, fluid-filled welts called bullae.
After the initial exchange of letters, Uncle Greg asked to talk on the phone. When I called, he skipped the chitchat and dove into Mike stories: that he was his big brother and best friend; that he never missed a birthday; that he loved to work with his hands and had a bit of a mail-order problem.
“He sure did love his knick-knacks from the Franklin Mint,” he said.
“How did Mike die?” I asked.
“Well, Mike liked to drink Old Milwaukee,” he said.
“Old Mill? Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I never liked that stuff — got a real twang to the taste — but Mike drank it for breakfast.”
I laughed. “Breakfast?” I asked.
“Yeah, let’s see: there was the beer, and Mike partied pretty hard in the 70’s. You know how it was: live hard, die young,” he said.
“Yeah,” I lied, thinking of my parents, who spent their 70’s (and 80’s, and 90’s, amen) singing in Lutheran church choir, eating at potlucks in the church basement, or practicing recorder for their failed recorder group. We have photos documenting Dad playing a polished, wooden, tenor recorder, a bowl of black hair on his head, with my mom laughing in a hand-sewn denim suit, blonde highlights in her hair, cocktail glasses of soda within reach of each of them.
“We’re pretty sure Mike had hepatitis from all that partying, so that didn’t help with the beer,” he said.
“Hepatitis? Which hepatitis?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “we’re thinking it was probably Hep C that got Mike in the end. Hep C and beer.”