A place for the weary

Ben Herman

May 08, 1992|By Ben Herman

The great engine of this hospital, with all its secret, sinister and inhuman perfections, together with its clean and sterile smells which seemed to blot out the smell of rotting death around one, became a hateful presage of man's destined end.

-- Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River" I WAS BACK at Johns Hopkins Hospital with my 91-year-old mother. I'd rushed her here in the middle of the night through red lights in a record-breaking 11 minutes from Dundalk.

She had awakened me about midnight complaining of feeling "terrible," and when I checked her pulse I found it fluttering so wildly I couldn't get an accurate count.

I can see her now -- this tiny gray-haired woman lying in a bed in this great hospital with tubes stuck in her and an oxygen mask over her face, this little woman who had survived the Depression and, although a widow, somehow had managed to raise a daughter and twin sons, sending both through Johns Hopkins University.

As I sat there by her bedside with my brother, all these images from long ago kept racing through my brain. This was the very same hospital where they had rushed my father that Sunday afternoon in March of 1942, when he was stricken in the East Baltimore synagogue while attending his brother's wedding.

This was the very same hospital where my mother, standing at my father's side as he lay in a coma, asked the doctors whether she could go home for the night to be with her children.

"No, you'd better stay," one of them said, knowing that my father would not last the night. He had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

When I awoke in the gray light of dawn the next day, I heard the sound of sobbing, and there was my mother sitting by the bed. "You don't have a father anymore," was all she said.

And now here I was a half a century later at Hopkins, looking down at this tiny figure of my mother with tubes stuck in her.

Over the next four days a team of doctors worked over her, monitoring her heart, giving me time to get to know this great engine of a hospital.

And as I wandered the halls of clinics devoted to almost every disease known to humankind, I remembered my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Claiborne, telling us about this hospital and the Big Four who helped give it international reputation: Osler, Welch, Kelly and Halstead. She went on to impress upon us the fact that dukes and duchesses, prime ministers and princes and presidents and movie stars came to Johns Hopkins.

In fact, the nurse who lived next door boasted that she had actually taken care of Clark Gable. But her hero worship quickly faded that first night, when she saw the great Gable take out all his teeth and put them in a glass of water.

I turned a corner of one of the busy halls, and there under the hospital's great dome stood a giant marble statue of Jesus staring down at me, offering these words engraved on the marble pedestal: COME UNTO ME ALL YE THAT ARE WEARY AND HEAVY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.

With a quick glance over my shoulder to see that no one was looking, I reached out and touched Jesus' big toe, which was thick as a baby's arm. I was surprised to find it warm to the touch.

Then I stepped into a courtyard ringed in by the high brick walls of the hospital. My ears were suddenly filled with this great roaring from some unseen source, and I thought of Thomas Wolfe's description of this hospital.

The year was 1921. Wolfe was on his way north to Harvard when he stopped off at Hopkins to visit his father, who was dying of prostate cancer.

"Suddenly one got an image of his own death in such a place as this," Wolfe wrote, "of all that death had come to be -- and the image of death was somehow shameful."

I finally returned to my mother's beside. I looked down at her, and more of Wolfe's words rushed back:

"It was . . . an image of death stupefied out of its ancient terrors and stern dignities -- of a shameful death that went out softly, dully in anesthetized oblivion, with the fading smells of chemicals on man's final breath. And the image of that death was hateful."

And I remembered that the famous brain surgeon, Dr. Walter Dandy, operated on the dying Wolfe in this same hospital years later.

One of the attending nurses reported that Wolfe's last words were: "Mama, I have been a bad boy. All my life I have been a bad boy."

My mother's fate was different. Somehow these Hopkins doctors pulled her through. "She's a survivor," I heard one doctor tell another. "She's a survivor."

Ben Herman is a Baltimore writer.

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