When I walked into the hospital room at 6:45 the next morning, Dad was sitting up in bed with a breakfast tray in front of him. He didn’t look as good as he had the night before. “How are you?” I asked, immediately concerned.
The nurses had unhooked all the remaining tubes and
equipment the previous night; he was sure they would send him home that day. In
half an hour the doctor and his PA came into the room; the talk I’d heard was
true – the surgeon was very handsome and just as charming. He was building
himself a little empire there – a growing, very successful orthopedic clinic
with several other surgeons now, and a reputation for excellent care and
outcomes – in fact, during the time I was in the area, a report was released
citing this clinic as the fifth best in New York State for knee replacement
surgery. He sat down next to Dad’s bed while I perched on the windowsill, and
unwrapped the dressing over my father’s knee. I winced inwardly when I saw the
incision and the neat row of metal staples holding it together. “32 of them,”
my father had noted, dryly. “A thousand bucks apiece.” The cost of this surgery
– all paid by Medicare, but even so – was $32,000.
“Looks great!” the doctor said, sounding and looking pleased
with himself, and his patient, who I thought was actually looking pretty peaked at the moment, in spite of putting up a good front.
“The worst thing was when you took the drain out yesterday,”
my father said.
“Yeah, I know,” said the surgeon, sympathetically, standing
up. “Everyone says it’s excruciating. I used to not use that kind of drain
because I knew it hurt people so much to take it out – but the recovery is much
better and faster when you do use it; you get a lot less swelling in the knee itself.
“Well, it’s the kind of pain that’s over quickly too,” my
father admitted. “Unlike what I’ve had up until now, and what I’ll have while
this gets better.”
“Right – but if you
do the therapy you’ll make fast progress. So, you all set to go home today?”
My father said he was ready if they said he was, and
explained that I’d be there for at least a week to help him. The PA and surgeon
beamed at him. “I have no doubt but what you’ll do great,” the doctor said, patting my father's good leg. “You’re in
great shape and everything went really well,” He got up and headed for the
door, then looked back over his shoulder and grinned, “and I know you’ll be
excellent advertising for our practice!”
He was right in his assessment that my father knew and talked to a lot of people, but I doubted if the practice needed any more advertising. Glamour
was in short supply in this rural area, and this doctor definitely had it.
Everyone I talked to over the next week told me about the house he had built
for himself outside town – it was apparently huge, and included a full-size
hockey rink for his boys. I was used to local people being pretty bent out of
shape about that kind of wealth, but while these remarks had a tone of amazement,
they didn’t have that familiar, expected edge of resentment – probably because he had
helped people close to them and was clearly a down-to-earth, nice guy. Or maybe
things had changed since I lived there, and people were just more used to the
widening gap between the haves – always a small minority here - and the have-nots
who made up the vast majority of these rural counties. We were never rich, but
my family gradually became better off than most of the families of kids I went
to school with, and I had always been uncomfortably aware of the fact, trying
to understand and compensate for it whenever I could and never flaunt it. Even
so, growing up, I never knew anyone with the kind of money this doctor was
making; it was only when I went off to college that I found out what real
The physical therapy team showed up then and put my father through his first routine of exercise, showing him what he needed to work on the first week at home, and then they had him walk down the hall with a walker and taught him how to go up and down stairs with a cane. The head guy – a kind and friendly fifty-year-old with the open face that’s so typical of local people - turned out to be the younger brother of an old classmate of mine, so we had plenty to talk about; he bantered with me while maintaining his concentration on my father.
When we got back to the room, my father was exhausted and nauseous, and he lay in bed with his eyes shut until the discharge papers were prepared. A nurse brought a wheelchair. I went to get the car, which was covered with lightly falling snow; we helped him in, putting the seat back as far as it would go and swinging his stiff, braced leg into the empty space - and headed home, just about exactly three days after his surgery. I wondered what we were both in for.