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- Story Listed as: True Life For Adults
- Theme: Drama Stories / Human Interest Stories
- Subject: Survival Stories
- Published: 10/15/2019
When going Gets Tough, Tough Get GoingBorn 1944, M, from Independence, Oregon, United States
Each winter the cherry trees were pruned, some a little, others a lot. The nipped branches fell to the orchard floor and were gathered into small piles. With over 8,000 trees, there were many piles. The big steel bucket in front of the 8030 Kubota tractor dropped down to ground level, traversed the tree rows and pushed the piles into heaps. It then turned 90 degrees, cross traversed the rows and pushed the heaps into the swale that runs through the orchard.
After a couple of years, the swale was spotted with cherry branch weirs along its edges. Entwined, compacted, dried during summers, the tractor could drive over them to push more further into the swale as they encroached on the thick vegetation in the swale. The swale's floodwater passageway narrowed each year.
In October 2015, it was time to prune again. To avoid winter rain flooding, I decided to burn weirs which choked swale water flow. That year the orchard experienced a dry, long summer. It was necessary to await rain to avoid a weir fire turning into a swale conflagration. It couldn’t be an Oregon, Willamette Valley drizzle. It had to be a soaking rain followed by a dry burn day. On October 24th, 2015, the orchard and swale got its precipitation soaker. The next day dawned as a dry burn day.
I started on the branch weir behind the house with a proven formula, half gallon of diesel fuel poured over the branches, a topping splash of gasoline and a tossed flare igniter. The flare landed, the gasoline flashed, the diesel fuel alighted down into the pruned branches. They crackled, dried out, caught fire and attempted to spread the fire to adjoining wet areas. Initially, it looked like a take. Instead, as I watched, the fire whimpered down to a burnt hole emitting white, damp smoke. The branches were too wet to sustain combustion.
To get combustion, more of that magic fire ingredient, oxygen, was necessary. I loaded my formula ingredients in my truck and drove to the drive that crosses the swale. There, a compacted branch weir also intruded into the swale. The open drive exposed it to a nice breeze. Reapplying the formula, the fire roared, sputtered, but before turning into white soggy smoke, breeze’s oxygen whistled it alert. Soon the temperature attained that needed to combust adjoining wet branches. I had my fire.
I opened a bottle of Jack Daniels, sat in the cab and enjoyed my creation. The breeze picked up. The fire grew into a blaze. It rapidly dried out wet areas and grew bigger. I watched nervously, but reasoned, wetness would keep the fire limited because swale vegetation was too green to burn. Things went as intended as I talked to Jack. The afternoon changed to dusk. The fire burned, but at the edge of safety. As I listened to Jack’s clever analysis of what is and should be, a neighbor’s truck, suddenly pulled up behind mine. He got out agitated.
“Jim. What the hell are you doing!”
“Burning dead prunings.”
”Prunings, It looks like you're setting the swale on fire. The fire’s getting big! It’s getting out of control!”
“No, it’ll just burn itself out once it runs out of fuel. This wooded branch area’s about 15 yards deep and a half-burned. I’ll call it a night once it burns out.”
“What about the fire behind your house?’
I disembarked from the truck’s cab and looked down the swale. My first fire attempt had turned into success. I had 2 blazes going, both at the edge of safety.
My neighbor jumped back in his truck and raced to my house, roused my wife and set her into alarm. He then drove off, back to his house.
With 2 fires ablaze and a hysterical wife, I decided to put the fire behind the house out using the home’s garden hose with a couple of extensions.
It was night by the time I had everything set up to play fireman. Alone, with wife and neighbor retreated to distant safety, I squirted water on my initial creation. The angry white smoke hissed up. The center of the blaze sputtered and then resurrected. The fire’s center had burned well into the swale. With my standing on the swale’s edge, it was at the hose spout’s maximum reach. To get closer, I walked on unburned branches to squirt water directly on the flaming blaze.
About the 4th step out, whoosh, the firm wooden branches fell under me. The fire had eaten from below. With only a T-shirt, Levi’s and rubber sandals, sans socks, I was standing in coals. My right leg was standing deep in coals. The unburned branches I’d fallen into were at shoulder height. My disturbance dropped lose debris to feed the coals below.
I was in trouble but assumed I’d lift myself out with minor burn damage. I grabbed the edges around me but the branches gave way when I put weight on them. Again, and again I fell back into the coals as branches collapsed under my weight to become fuel for the coals below. Only the garden hose pointed down kept the added fuel from roaring alight and a fire engulfing me. The center core of the blaze, the area I intended to extend the hose spry to, however, encouraged by fresh fuel, edged closer.
With nothing to cling on to and lift myself out, no firm ground to stand on except coals, the blaze nearing, I switched to: “I’m going to die. I’m going to be burned alive.”
Perhaps it was Jack Daniels speaking when I thought of Joan of Arc, or my being 71-years old, enough to die anyway, but I was not as distressed as I needed to be. I was in death acceptance mode. It even occurred to me, being burned alive, is not as bad as I thought it would be.
Then my high school football coach spoke to me, Ollett, or Popeye as we nicknamed him behind his back. He looked directly at me and reiterated his mantra from 53 years earlier.
“When going gets tough, tough get going!”
I had to get tough. I had to get going.
I tried to do a superman leap, failed, tried again, failed, but as if elevated by will power alone, without leverage, I gained enough elevation on a 3rd leap to grope additional branches. Flaying arm to arm, pulling branches, twigs, and dirt, I arose from the fire hole I’d fallen into.
In the dark, I raced to the house, Levi’s smoldering, sandals burnt off. I left my right foot heel on a house stair step. Lower right leg skin peeled off as I broke free of charred Levi’s. In the shower, I washed what I could. Drying exposed flesh. I needed a hospital trip.
Up until then, in fire shock, I felt pain but not severe pain. Out of the shower real pain engulfed the burned areas.
The wife, now in hyper hysterical mode, scrambled to drive me to the hospital. I painfully put on pants and scrambled to her running car. She drove fast to the hospital, as fast as she could, but not fast enough. I started screaming,
“Faster, faster, faster!” as the pain intensified.
Salem Hospital is a half-hour plus away, but that night it was 25 minutes or less.
In between screaming faster, my mind raced to health insurance. We had Kaiser Health Care. Salem Hospital was not part of Kaiser Health Care.
“It’s too far to drive to Kaiser Hospital. Am I going to be dunned for Salem Hospital care payments?”
At the hospital emergency entrance, however, right leg pain pushed out thoughts of economics. I’d taken sons to the Salem Hospital emergency room for their football injuries. I knew the routine, sit and wait. I wasn't going to sit and wait. I wanted a morphine injection, not in a half-hour, 15 minutes, 5 minutes, but NOW!
They rushed past me to save my hysterical wife thinking it was her with the emergency. My shouts for attention diverted them back to my predicament. They wheeled me into the emergency room. A crowd of sit and wait patients observed my gestations and screams for morphine.
Ahhhh! Oh God, that shot was wonderful. I went from pain lunatic to calm patient inquiring about whether Kaiser would cover me.
Like usual, for people in control, they didn’t answer. They informed me, I was being transferred to Legacy Hospital’s burn unit in Portland, the only burn unit in the state. I protested I just wanted my charred leg cleaned, bandaged and to be sent home.
Ignoring my suggestion, they wheelchaired me to an ambulance and bedded me down in back.
The ride to Legacy was a letdown. For my first ambulance ride, they didn’t put on lights and sirens. I tried chit chatting on a morphine high but the ambulance personnel were interested in some sports game they were listening to.
The wife followed in her car. Like me, she had no idea where Legacy Hospital was.
At Legacy, the ambulance backed into the emergency loading dock and a little group rushed out and brought me into my new world. They removed the handiwork of Salem Hospital’s staff, studied my burns and whisked me to a patient room. I was pleased it was a private room but worried Kaiser wouldn’t cover private room cost. The vague answer about payment for my care was, as a geezer, Medicare would cover me, not a reassuring answer.
Stripped naked, I was wheelchaired into the shower room, an extension of my patient room. As they hosed me and the burned flesh, I made a decision which served me well. I was not going to look at my burned leg. Why ruin a morphine high?
Soon the wife showed up and they wheeled in a fold away bed for her to sleep on. Bandaged, tucked in bed, they gave me another shot and some happy pills. It had been a long day. I went to sleep. Every 3 hours I was awoken for more happy pills.
I woke at 5 AM and watched the news on the TV hanging from the wall. At 6 AM, nurse wife brought a Danish pastry and coffee. At 8, bacon, eggs over easy, hash browns and sourdough toast were served, the only downer the hash browns came sans onions. Things were looking up, wife nurse, private room with bath, TV, good food and happy pills.
Around 10 AM the doctors showed up, 3 of them. They huddled around my right leg, removed the bandages from the night before, moved it about, made unintelligible comments and got into a little disagreement discussion.
One of the doctors was a petite Asian woman, Doctor Lin. She could be mistaken for a child. The other 2 were middle-aged males, non-committal gruff types. With their examination complete, they informed me, due to my conversation with Jack Daniels the evening before, they couldn’t do anything for a couple of days, an excuse to do nothing on Sunday, their day off, and hold a meeting on Monday.
Nurses came periodically to check my monitor and give happy pills. Two of the pills were Tylenol but the white one, I knew not what it was. I did know, I liked it. Every 3 hours, about the time nerve signals reminded me my right leg was charred, they gave me another. Then, I was willing to discuss philosophy or tell jokes.
Tuesday the doctors revisited me. The question they struggled with Monday was, operate or amputate. Doctor Lin was urging burn surgery while the other 2 were for whack. It was good I’d given Doctor Lin due respect when she first examined me. I assumed she’d been insulted by many patients who dismissed her qualifications for her child-like appearance. I reasoned, she had to be qualified with her smock and stethoscope badges.
She returned in the afternoon and said she loved surgery and she was going to try and save my leg with 2 caveats. The 1st, as an old man, my heart might not withstand the pain of the operations. It was the first time I’d been openly told I was old. I let it pass and replied,
“It’s okay if I don’t make it. Have fun trying to save it.”
The 2nd caveat was skin grafting. The 3rd-degree burns of my right leg needed skin grafts. The problem was my ankle bones were exposed as well as my Achilles tendon and the main tendon to the toes on the top of the foot.
She explained, ”Jim, I can’t graft on bones and tendons, only graft on flesh! After your operations, if your surrounding area skin does not grow to cover these areas, we will need to amputate.”
I told her I had a reptilian ancestor not too far removed.
With my signing papers saying it was okay if Legacy killed me, and their assurance Kaiser would cover me, I was scheduled for my first operation the next day.
Around 10 in the morning, thankfully after breakfast, assistants came to take me to the operating room. They stripped me naked, rolled me out of my comfortable bed and plopped me in a cold stainless-steel gurney with raised edges and a center drain. As shivering meat, ready for the butcher, I was wheeled into a tiled room with lots of dangling things from above. My first thought was the movie “Babe”, where the pigs are fed by dangling tubes. Then I reminded myself, everyone who told me about their operation said, they didn’t remember anything other than going to sleep and waking up. As the anesthesiologist lowered his tube I thought.
Here comes another experience, I'm either waking up to this world, in another, or not at all. Let's get the movie started.
My last conscious thought as the anesthesia was placed on my face was, Babe either gets the shotgun or a feeding tube.
It was neither. My dreams are in CinemaScope. During the operation, it was a horror flick where I was held down by hospital staff who even sat on me while doctors flayed my leg with their scalpels. I felt every cut and scrape but couldn’t move.
When I did awake, it was in my patient room. The nightmare pain was gone. I’d obviously been given another morphine shot. The doctors didn’t stop by, only a nurse practitioner to check if I was alive.
I expressed a mild complaint.
Hospital staff are gods and the doctors are exalted gods. Gods prefer to hear hallelujah and amen and don’t like their benevolence questioned. I explained, my expectation of going to sleep, waking up and remembering nothing, versus the horror film experienced. She summoned the anesthesiologist god. After listening to my nightmare, he explained anesthesia is fraught with danger, he liked to err on the side of safety and most important he'd kick it up a notch next time. For the remaining 3 operations there were no torture dreams.
In addition to not looking at my leg, I asked no questions about what Doctor Lin did or planned to do. A few days of moping around the burn unit on crutches were allotted to let Doctor Lin’s meat carving adjust to muscle re-configuration.
By the second week, I'd adapted to the burn unit world. I had a private room with shower and toilet, good food, a steady stream of happy pills, nurse wife in an adjacent roll away bed, wake up coffee with a Danish and a little library of books. Another pleasure was the TV and bedside remote. It provided 24-hour news and old movies sans commercials. Having been time rushed most of my life I wallowed in books and old movies.
The downers were seeing other burn patients and visitors. Sons, distraught at my condition, came to offer support, the youngest flying up from Texas as if it was last rites time. I admonished them, as an old man, I’d soon be dead and to save their sympathy for their widowed mother at my funeral.
The 2nd operation was an uneventful without a torture dream. Again, I was stripped naked, rolled onto the stainless-steel gurney, waltzed down the corridor, pushed into the operating room, given anesthesia and zipped out of this world. My last recollection was looking at cracks in the room's tile.
Next, I awoke in my patient room bed and returned to happy pills, morning coffee, Danish pastry, 3 square meals, TV and books. Things were good.
Nurse wife finally got an affirmative written response from Kaiser Health Care. I was in the right place and was covered by Kaiser and Medicare. That night, about 3 AM, I awoke happy. My financial liability fears gone. It dawned on me as I laid awake in the wee hours. I'd paid into Social Security 55 years, 40 of them at the maximum. Since qualifying for Medicare, I only saw a doctor for flu shots. At 71, I was still shoveling money into Medicare. Due to income restrictions, I paid the maximum for Medicare premium option coverages.
My Medicare summary thinking was.
I’m getting screwed!
That night it dawned on me.
I'm getting my money back! I'm no longer getting screwed by Medicare!
I laughed aloud, almost a hysterical laugh. Soon a nurse rushed in and inquired about my mirth. I explained I was no longer being screwed by Medicare.
She missed the humor of it and gave me a shot. I didn’t awake until 9 AM, past coffee, Danish and breakfast. The psychiatrist was bedside. She wanted to know what was troubling me in the wee hours. I explained my good fortune, but she too lacked humor’s insight. In addition to working on my leg, they wanted to work on my brain. No matter how simple I tried to explain, I wasn't nuts; she didn’t believe me. Finally, I realized, as a young psychiatrist, fresh out of University, she was nuts. Nurse wife contacted Kaiser and her billing was denied, allowing me to return to my burn unit routine.
I have a relatively high tolerance to pain and once even requested a cavity filling without mouth-numbing Novocain, a procedure I never repeated. In the 3rd operation, Doctor Lin skinned the upper leg to obtain skin graft for the lower leg. She warned it would be "uncomfortable". I didn’t experience an operation sleep nightmare. The nightmare was when I awoke in the recovery room.
The pain was unlike during the rush to the hospital. It was another level of excruciating. I wasn’t laughing about Medicare recapture, I was broken, physically and mentally. I couldn't scream, only whimper. I'd never been to this place, a place where one simply blubbers. If it was an inquisition, I’d confess to anything, if they'd kill me expeditiously. Nurse wife was standing next to me. I whimpered how beautiful she looked on her wedding day.
The nurse with the magic needle was busy with another matter. Nurse wife left to demand the needle. I got my magic. The pain eased, but afterward, I knew there is a dark place, a place where I break. I never want to return there.
On top of grafted skin, they put on a layer of cadaver skin to give your skin cover while it adheres to open flesh. This eventually crusts up, turns horrid black, stinks and peels off. I thanked the corpse it came from and signed my body over for spare parts on death which will probably be rejected because of long use and abuse.
Once the cadaver skin peeled off the good Doctor Lin did a final uneventful clean-up operation and it then sits and waits for yea or nay recovery. Daily they checked her handiwork, observed how much my foot could move and reminded me, Doctor Lin couldn’t graft on exposed ankle bones or exposed tendons and there was the danger of infection, reminders there was still plan B. My recovery was up to me and my reptilian abilities to grow skin over exposed areas.
The days flipped by. A month passed with Thanksgiving turkey in Legacy Hospital’s burn unit. Each day I observed the tree outside my window shed its autumn leaves. I learned who were dedicated staff, who were paycheck staff, and a little about their lives outside the hospital. I provided advice to a newlywed nurse on her kitchen remodel. Nurse wife and I gave them all nicknames.
Dragon Lady was a middle-aged female nurse who had new tattoos of dragons on her arms. I asked if it was okay to ask a personal question.
“It depends on your question.”
“It’s about your dragons.”
“Okay, what do you want to know.”
“They’re new. Most get tattoos when young, not that you’re old, but you’re not just out of nursing school.”
“And, what is the question?”
“Why did you get them now?”
"When I decided to transfer to the burn unit. In the burn unit, I knew I had to be strong. Dragons are strong. When I quaver in the burn unit, I look at my dragons to remind myself to be strong."
“Thank you, that’s a beautiful explanation.”
With time, the size of my happy pills shrunk. I still got one plus 2 Tylenol every 3 hours. They were always signed out for by the nurse providing them and carefully accounted for. Once, a nurse dropped it before handing it to me and tore apart the patient room looking for it until found in the wastebasket, an incredible Olympic pill leap from the portable bed tray.
I finally asked what the happy pill was. They blurted out a name but I needed it written down to know what it was. They wrote OxyContin which is Oxycodone. I had no idea what that was.
As I waited for my reptilian abilities to kick in, the hospital environment eventually bored. The simple pleasures no longer were sufficient to compensate for confinement. I wanted out but they wouldn’t let me out. The PT, or physical therapists, captured me. Instead of my crutch strolling, their daily exercise was walker use. I stood on the left leg, hopped the walker forward, then hopped left leg to match and ambled down the corridor. It’s more difficult than expected. I concluded it was to justify their lack of doctor status billing. I humored them and even sat in their enclosed outdoor patio they’d designed and were proud of.
The devil still in me, I teased them and asked if it was okay to smoke there even though I no longer smoked. I knew it wasn’t permitted. A patient smoker, whose hands were caught in a press making plywood, was in an adjacent patient room. With bandaged mittens, after each happy pill time, he walked a block to leave the hospital grounds and smoke. I switched from falling leaf observation to watching his attempts to get a cigarette out of the pack, flick his lighter, lite the cigarette, and smoke with the cigarette in his bandaged mittens.
After 5 weeks of pampering my doctor came to inform me she was leaving Legacy hospital to work at Salem Hospital and it was her last day of work. She then tossed professional protocol aside and shocked me. She didn’t shake my hand or pat me on the shoulder but hugged me and nurse wife, hard hugs with a quiver to her voice and moist eyes. I was flabbergasted, hugged by a doctor! A meat carving surgeon! I confess I liked it. Every year since, on July 3rd, I go to Salem Hospital and drop off a special collection of premium cherries for her.
After her departure, the hospital wouldn’t release me despite my 35 days of occupation. I was desperate. The replacement doctor, one who wanted initially to amputate, shrugged and said my ankle bones and tendons were still open. I pestered the nurses; even told the psychiatrist I was going nuts stuck in the patient room, but to no avail. Why couldn’t I recuperate at home while lizard skin grew?
The plywood mill worker had just been released with boxing glove bandaged paws, proof there was a way out before full recovery. A few nurses had become confidents. One took sympathy and clued me in.
“Jim, nurses have no power on who gets released and the doctors are always super safety conscious.”
“Yeah, well with open wounds, a hospital is an infection playground. How do I get out?”
“Jim, it’s PT you got to impress.”
“Physical therapists? Aren’t they way down the pecking order?”
"Not on release. If they're convinced you can take care of yourself outside the hospital, they can put in the freedom card at a staff-patient review conference."
I had to impress the PT police.
I don’t know if any walker speed or distance records are kept at Legacy’s burn unit but I know, while it may be unofficial, I hold those 2 records.
With my walker runs, promises I’d wash and bathe open areas daily, with nurse wife my tutor, I was given a release from my burn unit confinement.
I don’t know if it was the PT staff that gave the final okay. I do know, Medicare has a thing called, “DRG”, (Diagnostic Related Care). It’s a formula where the hospital is paid a flat fee for a defined level of care. If they perform the care at less cost, they pocket the difference, if they over-run, they're out of the extra cost.
Perhaps it was the fixed DRG payment, Legacy’s cost to date, and an accountant who set me free, not PT.
Suddenly my open wounds could heal at home with Kaiser Hospital plan oversight. After 38 days, I was wheeled out in a rented wheelchair by nurse wife, free, with a big bottle of OxyContin pills. Kaiser sent a physical therapist to check out the home environment, signed off on it and they scheduled weekly look and see visits.
Four years later the OxyContin still sat in the cabinet. Leg pain was not sufficient enough to take them. When taken, not just pain went away. The world also was okay. It’s not okay, it’s screwed up. I talked to Jack instead, a friend I know well who understands the world is not okay.
During those 38 days and nights at Legacy's burn unit, I met interesting people and learned a lot, a lot I wished I didn’t learn. The worst was the burned children, stunned at their sudden burn predicament, the questioning look of their faces. Never leave a handle of a pot containing hot things hanging over the stove’s edge. The result can be one of those children, the remorseful parents after the handle is pulled down by a child trying to help mom.
At the farm, I was pleased to note, the weir fires had burned the branches then sputtered out as intended. The neighbor warning me of setting a conflagration stopped by with his wife to give me a get-well card but offered no apology. Another came with a cheap bottle of wine sniffing out if the farm was up for sale. It wasn’t.
I got a cripple parking pass good until 2022. Over 2 years, I transposed from wheelchair to crutches, to cane, to slight limp which I exaggerate if I use a handicap parking space at Costco or the airport.
By summer harvest season I was running the forklift to load cherries on 18-wheeler truck trailers and scooting about the farm in a mule. Doctor Lin warned me not to drive until I could do so with my right foot because the brain has difficulty switching feet on the gas and brake pedals. I disobeyed, of course, and drove slow and careful on the road but zipped about driving the mule on the farm. To prove her correct, I slammed on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal driving up to an 18-wheeler trailer. The mule drove under up to its windshield and had to be extracted by the tractor and a lot of fiberglass to get the mule back together.
By the burn’s first anniversary, skin had crept over exposed ankle bones and the tendon on the top of the foot, but the Achilles Tendon continued to fester. Kaiser tried a vacuum graft technique with another patch of my hide. It took.
The doctors predicted the need for special shoes with my foot unable to make the full pedal movement for walking, but it was never needed. Four years later, I can wear shorts and sandals, grossing others, and walk miles. Every morning, while putting on socks and shoes, I thank Doctor Lin.
Freed from burn wounds and cripple support paraphernalia, I prune trees, and drive the tractor to push the branches into the swale to burn.
At the hospital, during convalescing and subsequently, I write. It’s a saga named, “It’s Better To Be Lucky Than Smart.”