February 21, 2017: My Baptism Under Fire

Believe it or not, after Sweet Tater read my Valentine’s Day story she actually suggested the topic for today’s column. This, even though my recounting of it and similar tales have made so many of her family get up and leave the dinner table only moments after they’d asked me what I’d done the past week. But I suppose it’s an occasion every healthcare worker remembers: my personal baptism under fire, that is to say, the very first time I was ever… well, regurgitated upon. So today I’ll defer to Sweet Tater’s judgment, and bring the story back from recollection’s vaults.

It happened in the early eighties, after the May primaries one year because the county in which I was working had not long before “gone wet.” A small honky-tonk had gone into business a couple of miles down the road, allowing people who lived in the community—and several from many miles outside it—to indulge publicly in all the excesses they had enjoyed in private during the county’s “dry” days. I won’t recount the place’s name, but it sounded something suspiciously close to the title of a bordello. But at any rate, a bunch of young nurses enjoying a weekend off decided to go a-honky-tonkin’ at the dive, and on that circumstance hung the entire chain of events that ultimately led to me. Apparently they found a drunk in the place’s parking lot that had fallen face-down in the gravel and possibly aspirated her gastric contents, and they themselves were buzzed enough to think it’d be just a wonderful frolic to load her up in their car and transport her to the hospital as a “Code Blue.”

I first heard about the incoming Code by a phone call from the ER, and initially I thought everything was deadly serious. But at that time, the hospital I worked in was being remodeled, so all ER traffic had to come directly by my workplace and I actually became aware of the patient’s arrival before most of the ER staff did. The drunken nurses’ attempts to unload the patient and put her on a gurney sounded, literally, like a bunch of giggling teenagers trying to “trim” a shoat (let them that readeth understand that’n), and the pig was justifiably complaining about the entire deal. I shook my head, grabbed my tray, and followed the parade down the hall. One could almost get a secondary high on the alcohol fumes, but that’s eastern Kentucky for you. Too many people drink, not to enjoy the taste of a beverage, but to get as drunk as they can as fast as they can.

The sober, on-duty ER caregivers took over as the happy young lovelies tittered and traipsed back out to their car to find more fun somewhere else, and since there weren’t enough nurses on duty to immobilize the patient and administer suction at the same time, guess who, with a strong back and a weak mind, got stuck with holding her down. The patient, whose eyes rolled wildly and whose arms were covered from shoulders to wrists with those old homemade do-it-yourself stickpin-and-shoe-polish tattoos so many people used to sport, was simultaneously fighting everyone close enough to slap, and trying to bat the suction apparatus away from her mouth so she could achieve the same result by running her own fingers down her throat.

“Here, John,” the senior nurse on duty, who was probably just as irked at her younger colleagues as I was, commanded. “Hold this bedpan close to her face while I turn up the vacuum on the suction.” I complied, stepping closer and grabbing the pan as she attended to the valve. All it took was that split second.

The patient never even hit the bedpan. The substance in question flew right across it in a deadly arc. At that moment I was baptized and confirmed as a True Veteran Healthcare Worker.

And so our dramatic liquor-inspired Code Blue was successful. By the time I’d run to the lab, wadded up my stinking, soiled white coat, hurled it into a corner and stalked back to the ER, the patient had evidently gotten rid of everything that was bothering her and was signing herself out against medical advice. I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that, so maybe that crazy, haywire excuse for an emergency put her on the strait and narrow. The honky-tonk finally closed down, and we’ve all grown up a little since then, even those hard-partying young nurses. But there are certain events you just don’t forget and, unfortunately, for me this is one of them.

February 14, 2017: When Love Conquered All… or at Least Something

Anybody that reads my column knows that I enjoy telling tales from work, though confidentiality issues make me be cautious what I relate. But I have another reason for caution, because to be honest, my job is distasteful. I deal regularly—no pun intended—with several messy, malodorous substances that, though we all share them biologically, nobody really cares to talk about except those of us who have had to work with them so much that we’ve lost our squeamishness. Only the strong of stomach would be brave enough to sit down to a meal with a bunch of Med Techs talking about their professional experiences, and before I learned better I could make everybody around a Sunday dinner table put down their flatware and either leave the table or glare at me,simply because I’d answered the question: “So, John, what did you do this week?”

Anyway, Valentine’s Day always makes me recall an incident on the job that could have been tragic but instead kept itself pretty much within the parameters of comedy. There’s often a fine line between the two extremes, and I just hope the aftermath went as well. Early in a year more than three decades ago I was called to the Emergency Room to draw a blood alcohol level on one combatant in a fight, a female who had tussled with her boyfriend or spouse and was sporting a sizable pump knot on her head. I’m not sure how badly the male had fared, or in fact if he was even conscious, but when I entered the Emergency Room the woman was in the process of giving the doctor on duty some of the most evocative and sincere blue-hot profanity I have ever heard. I was young and intimidated—this was even before I first met Chuck Q. Farley—but I had a job to do and so when the physician emerged from behind the curtain with a disgusted look and a head shake I rode into the breach, ready to be cussed altogether as viciously as the doctor had been.

Long story short, for some reason, perhaps because she was so inebriated, the woman thought I was handsome. She never said one ill word to me when I introduced myself, and seemed perfectly willing to cooperate when I asked to draw a sample of her blood. So far, so good, but as I bent down and began to search for a vein in the bend of her right arm something began to crawl upward through my hair, too big for cooties. It was her free hand. She was running the fingers of her left hand through my hair, and evidently enjoying it greatly. I was disquieted, to say the least, but I kept trying to remind myself: female nurses have to put up with this kind of crap not only from male drunks, but some sober guys as well. If they have to deal with it, I guess I can too since it’s likely this is the only time it’ll ever happen to me. But my patient was by no means done yet. With both of us hidden behind a bed curtain and half a dozen nurses plus the ER doctor outside listening in, she began to moan.

“Oh, baby, baby, baby, PLEASE don’t hurt me, babyyyy,” she cooed over and over again, interspersing the plea with additional little incoherent squeals as I kept trying to find that durned vein under possibly the most difficult circumstances I have ever attempted a venipuncture. The scalp treatment and the moaning were bad enough on their own, and things only got worse as the ER staff began to listen in as well, and laugh in response to the sounds. Finally my nervous hands managed to draw just enough blood for the test. I withdrew the needle, applied a gauze prep, and raised my head—just as she lifted hers off the gurney, aiming for a kiss. I turned my head and she caught me on the left jaw, right in the beard. My eyes must have bucked like a deer in the headlights. “Stop!” I begged. “You tryin’ to lose me my job, or what?” I scooped up my supplies and fled the place like a scalded cat, to the catcalls and applause of my ER coworkers.

Since that freaky little incident I’ve learned that the bizarre and crazy are simply parts of life, especially hospital life. Every February 14, though, I think about it—and wonder what further craziness might occur before the year ends. All things considered, just stay tuned.

February 7, 2017: That Old-Time Religion

Not long ago I told you about “A Forgotten Anniversary,” the most infamous journalistic hoax of its day. This week I’d like to feature a genuine forgotten anniversary, with no hoax: the month, 137 years ago, that what’s now commonly called “Old-Time Religion” came to our section of Appalachia and has remained ever since. This isn’t to say that our ancestors didn’t worship prior to that time. They certainly did, intently. But before 1880 there was an entire vocabulary of religious terms, now so common across the Bible Belt that many people think of them as having been established by the very Apostles, but which then hadn’t even been heard in Kentucky, much less quoted. George Owen Barnes, the so-called Mountain Evangelist, changed all that, and we’ve not been the same since.

Barnes was a Kentuckian himself, from Stanford in Lincoln County south of Lexington and until 1872, a Presbyterian minister. But during his travels after leaving his denomination he spent time in Chicago and fell in with Dwight Lyman Moody, founder of the Moody Bible Institute. Moody himself had made a prior evangelistic trip to Great Britain and been heavily influenced by an obscure British sect called the Plymouth Brethren, which used a unique form of Bible interpretation and religious terminology and which Moody brought back to America with him. He adopted and used the terms “Great Tribulation” (in capitals), “Rapture” (likewise capitalized, along with its three variants, “Pre-Tribulation,” “Mid-Tribulation,” and “Post-Tribulation,” the latter word often shortened to “Trib”), “Great White Throne Judgment” (as opposed to “the Judgment Seat of Christ,” whatever either may mean), and “the plan of salvation” and “personal Savior” in addition to commandeering the sect’s “Seven Dispensation” view of humanity. Thus armed, Moody attempted to evangelize the entire country anew. The dogma pretty much requires shaking out the Bible’s text as if the individual verses were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then trying to wedge them back together to accommodate the doctrines, but it remains integral to modern evangelicalism though it often requires the interpretations of D. L. Moody himself and the Bible commentators and publishers Cyrus Scofield and Charles Ryrie to make any sense. Anyway: after Barnes embraced Moody’s positions he secured financial backing from John G. Owsley, a fellow Lincoln Countian who’d struck it rich in Chicago, and back to Kentucky he went to preach Moody’s gospel.

Barnes and his evangelistic crew began exhorting in Lexington in late 1879, slowly traveled eastward, and finally reached the Big Sandy Valley in early February 1880. A hurricane could hardly have caused more tumult. Up and down Levisa Fork the Barnes troupe went that month, staging faith-healing as well as soul-saving, making converts by the hundreds, and even winning support from local ministers. Barnes even managed to found the Pike County community of Elkhorn City, which he originally called “Camp Praise-the-Lord” but which was shortened to “Praise” before the coal companies co-opted the land. He thus introduced Pentecostalism and so-called Holiness to eastern Kentucky even before those movements had adopted formal names, making the area ripe for the proselytizing of the Anderson, Indiana and Cleveland, Tennessee variants of the Church of God, both of which were organized only a few years after Barnes left Kentucky, as well as later and smaller denominations and independent Pentecostal and Holiness churches.

Sadly, Barnes didn’t keep a good reputation within the evangelical community. At least his errors were of poor judgment rather than malicious intent. Soon after the big Kentucky revival Barnes and his family joined up with John Alexander Dowie, the self-proclaimed “Prophet Elijah” and founder of the so-called Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Besides opposing all forms of medical treatment in favor of faith healing, Dowie preached that the earth was both flat and at the center of the universe, and he dressed himself in a bizarre getup based on the biblical description of Aaron’s priestly garments in Exodus. About three years before Barnes’ death in 1908, Dowie was deposed from leadership in his church for financial impropriety and another charismatic preacher replaced him. Barnes outlived Dowie, but it’s likely that the Mountain Evangelist died still believing in “the Prophet’s” flat, universe-centered earth and that all medical treatments besides faith healing were sinful.

George Owen Barnes’ eastern Kentucky crusade was probably the high point of his ministry. The belief system of our area certainly changed dramatically because of it. But Barnes’ story likewise makes it obvious that it’s still better to read Scripture through our own eyes rather than his and the sources that he depended on—and come to our own conclusions, wherever reason may lead us.

January 31, 2017: Groundhogs, Germans, & Grandfathers

We’ve practically made it through January now, and have only a short time of winter to look forward to—that is, if the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow on February 2. Here’s another holiday that had its origins in pagan times, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the beginning of spring and known originally known among the Celts as Imbolc. The Church renamed the day Candlemas as the occasion for the clergy to bless and distribute candles to their parishioners to help them through the remaining dark of winter, just as it made Christmas out of Saturnalia and Yule. (Christmas is, after all an abbreviation for “Christ Mass” just like Candlemas is for “Candle Mass.” Thus, if you want to keep Christ in Christmas you should be equally enthusiastic about keeping the Mass in it, too. Just sayin’.) But at any rate, the first version of the Candlemas/Groundhog Day myth held that, if the weather was fair and sunny on Candlemas Day, six more weeks of harsh weather could be expected. If it was cloudy and cold, the winter weather would break sooner. As our ancestors once could say by rote: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”

And again just like Christmas and Halloween, after the Reformation the celebration became secularized. The Germans first introduced an animal to the proceedings. Longstanding German tradition held that the perfect gauge for the weather on Candlemas Day was the badger. If it cast a shadow on February 2, a six-week cold, wet spell was assured afterward. German immigrants, not being able to find as many badgers in America as they had in the old country, simply appropriated the groundhog (“grundsow” in their language, though I prefer the old Appalachian term I heard growing up, “whistle pig”), which was about that season waking up from hibernation, as the best replacement available. Thus if the groundhog saw its shadow and ducked back into its hole… well, you know the rest. And so we have our contemporary holiday, still celebrated with more enthusiasm among the children of “Dutch” immigrants, especially around eastern Pennsylvania, than anywhere else.

How much, and how many, of our holidays do we acknowledge, knowing down deep that we can’t, and shouldn’t, take seriously most of what is claimed about them? Maybe the weight of our genes and genetics, along with longstanding custom, is enough to keep holidays alive, though renamed and reworked for meaning, all the way from the days of our ancient nature-worshiping pagan ancestors to modern times. Though I have a mild interest in the prediction of the country’s most famous groundhog, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, from year to year, I can pretty much take the day or leave it. That said, though, I celebrate my own private holiday in February, one I wish I were able to share fully with my friends and neighbors. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that, however.

I’ve mentioned that my mother’s father lived in our house when I was growing up. His eyesight was terribly poor even at the time I was born, and though he gave me me a great deal of good advice both about school work and chicken raising,probably by the time I was eight years old he was completely blind. But I will never forget what he always found occasion to say in the month of February, even after his eyesight was gone: from the time of his earliest memories until the last, eighty-eighth, year of his life, he’d never seen a February pass without at least one evening of hearing the tree frogs, or spring peepers, sing. And so on that one first, in some years only, warm February day—no matter how cold a winter had been, he’d say, February always managed to borrow a bit from March—he’d sit on our front porch with me, enjoying the peep and chatter of the little tree frogs down along the creek bank and all through the trees around us. Let March 20 or 21 be the first day of spring, let the groundhog be right or wrong: for me, the tree-frog music of that February dusk, sitting in the porch swing with an old man I loved deeply, for me was the true marker of a new spring.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. A day never goes by without me thinking of something you taught me. The music of the tree frogs that I first shared alongside you lives on for another year, and one more renewal of life.