Bringing Louise home

As a Pentagon burn victim lies in a hospital, her husband is at her side, doing all that he can to hasten her recovery.

November 05, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Every morning Mike Kurtz pulls out of his driveway by 5:30 a.m. for the hour-and-a-half trip to Washington Hospital Center to see his wife, one of the last remaining burn victims from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

When he arrives, it's still dark. In the cafeteria, he sips coffee and imagines what Louise is going through upstairs in the burn unit as the people he calls "angels" change her body wrap. In an hour, when they're done, he'll go to the fourth-floor ICU and stay as late as he can, until 3 p.m., before the HOV lane home to Stafford, Va., shuts down.

He's spent six weeks here since Sept. 11. He's tired. Sometimes he sleeps only five hours a night. But he figures he can get all the rest he needs after Louise comes home, which he hopes will be soon.

Mike is 50. Louise is 49. They will be married 31 years in January. "She is my soul mate," he says. "I know damn well that if the situation were reversed she would be here."

His days at her bedside begin with the same questions: Are you breathing OK? Do you have any pain? Are you hot? Cold? He tries to make them easy for her to answer, since a tracheostomy has left her unable to speak.

He's become good at reading her lips. At first, he had to lift the bandages from her face to understand her. At first, seeing his wife with burns over 70 percent of her body left him speechless. He didn't know what to say until he put himself in her place.

He imagined what she thought when she awoke from a deep slumber "unable to move, unable to speak, and seeing everybody who has ever been important in your life pass in front of your eyes: Relatives from New York, relatives from Virginia, all saying, `You look good.' " He wondered if she felt like she was dying. So he tried to assure her she wasn't.

After the third day, the doctor said he could ask her about what happened. Do you remember the explosion? Mike asked. The fire? Did you crawl out of the building? Are you aware of what's going on now? And an odd one: Where did you put your purse?

The next day he asked the questions again and she answered the same, which reassured him. "We'll talk later," she mouthed to him. He could see the questions were difficult for her. He didn't ask anything more for two weeks.

He's learned her voice should be fine when they finish the surgeries and take out the breathing tube. She's had 18 surgeries, one nearly every other day since the day a hijacked airliner slammed into her side of the Pentagon building. Within hours, her doctor, Marion Harvey Jordan, cut away as much dead skin as he could see from her third-degree burns, temporarily covering the wounds with synthetic or donated human skin to prevent infection.

Daybreak at the hospital finds Mike upbeat and friendly, a burly retired military cop in jeans and cowboy boots, calling out to people who pass him in hospital hallways. A janitor shakes his hand. Nurses coming off the night shift ask to share his cafeteria table for breakfast. At 7:45 a.m., while the angels are still wrapping Louise, his cell phone rings. It's Brittany, his 13-year-old granddaughter, who's lived with him for the past few months. She needs to confirm her ride home from a school football game and the Mexican dinner he has promised tonight.

At first, he spent 12 hours a day at his wife's bedside.

But Louise's progress and his granddaughter's needs convinced Mike to check out of the hotel where the Red Cross housed him for three weeks after the attack.

The first few nights at home Mike did laundry and paid bills. Maggie and Jake, his dogs, offered a welcome respite. He ate lasagna delivered by neighbors who still regularly feed him, his granddaughter and his mother-in-law. One night he watched a movie. Another night, he helped Brittany shop for a new blouse and lay out her clothes for the next day's school pictures.

No matter how many people tell him to get some rest, he hasn't slowed down. Not with the space next to him in bed empty.

He met Louise in basic training for the Air Force. The first 22 years of their life together, she followed his career, half of it overseas, but since his retirement a few years ago, he has followed hers. Finally she landed the military accounting job in the Army she wanted. The attack came on her second day on the job.

Before then, they walked 2 1/2 miles every morning with their dogs on rural Virginia roads. They listened to country music. In the spring, they took their first real vacation, a cruise to Alaska, and it marked a turn in their relationship.

With their child-rearing days behind them, they renewed their love. They talked about where they wanted their relationship to go in the future. Best friends, they lunched together every Friday, near his federal law enforcement office. He bought her the diamond he thought she deserved 30 years ago.

The ring was beautiful, and she cared about how it looked on her hand. Every two weeks Louise got a French manicure.

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