Friday, September 22, 2023

In the hunt for a few more years

by TIM H. HENNEY Contributing Writer
| November 13, 2022 1:00 AM

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Those historic, heroic words were by British prime minister Winston Churchill in August 1940, praising British spitfire and hurricane pilots, average age 20, who defended England against Germany's Luftwaffe bombing of London and ended Hitler's planned invasion. Today they pay tribute to North Idaho caregivers.

Like runaway locomotives hurtling downhill, my 1957 bride and I were blasted a year or so ago by "the perfect storm." Or, the perfect medical typhoon. A phalanx of North Idaho conductors, engineers and associated experts (in this case a cardiologist, a nephrologist, a family doc, nurse practioners, registered nurses and keenly-trained technician helpers based in Sandpoint and Couer d'Alene) are reaching for the brakes: if not to stop us from descending (at ages 87 and 91?) then to at least slow the decline.

At roughly the same time my wife began suffering from memory loss, now severe, my kidneys gave out, constant dizziness made walking difficult, and catching an occasional breath became arduous. Turns out that valves and other pipes carrying blood to and from the heart were clogged. Doctors also discovered I'd had a heart attack. What? You're kidding!

The upshot is that my 1957 bride recalls nothing of our wedding, our friends, her parents, our many travels and homes, even her young brothers, nine and eleven, who with their dad vanished aboard his sailboat in a Bermuda Triangle storm. Not to be eclipsed by a wife's memory deficiency, I spend three afternoons each week as squawking machines tended by talented "technicians" and nurses Ashley, Chris, Alyssa, Glen and partners clean my blood and remove fluids from heart and lungs at Sandpoint's dialysis clinic. Fun!

As a long-ago member of the corporate world I have served in, and indeed managed, some hard-working outfits. Never have I known employees with such dedication and camaraderie as the caregivers at the clinic --and, no less so, their counterparts in the cardiac section of Kootenai Hospital in Coeur d' Alene who burst into my life during the past year of physical collapse. Caregivers gifted with a shared DNA that insists they help people stay alive.

Old popular songs are among my weaknesses and I include here a lyric from a classic which seems to address the issues my 1957 bride and I now struggle with: "Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine. Into each heart some tears must fall (my tears, for my dear soulmate's mental demise) but some day the sun will shine...").

Like so many near the bottom of the U.S. economic pay pole, the life savers cited above are grossly unrewarded for what they do. Alongside professional athletes, national legislators or TV's bellowing "pillow guy" buffoon, for example, our health-giving caregivers are financial peasants. Most have families and work 12-hour days. Sandpoint's dialysis clinic opens at 4:30 a.m. and welcomes the first patients at 5. Then caregivers sprint all day from one chair to the next, ushering up to 24 patients a day in and out as four- hour treatments begin and end -- tweaking computers, monitoring removal of fluid from heart and lungs, checking blood pressure, changing bloody bandages, adjusting under-the-skin catheters and fistulas, fussing with big needles inserted into veins. And I'm lucky to be there.

Why? Well, all but a fistful of guys I went to college with, sailed boats with, sang songs and played tennis with for 45 or more years, and for 30 years labored in the corporate vineyards, checked out years ago. Yet here I am, bantering merrily with dialysis caregivers and paying regular hospital visits to skilled cardiologists for heart issues (and also to Dr. Joel Sears' of Advanced Dermatology in CDA). And to longtime pal and doctor Frazier King and super nurse Amy, who keep all players in the medical loop: nephrologist, cardiologist, nurses, technicians, nurse practioners, pharmacies, medications, appointments, flu shots and boosters -- so many directions one feels like the Jimmy Buffett lyric from Cheeseburger In Paradise -- "Good God almighty, which way do I steer?"

Well, these ebullient caregivers do the steering. And my 1957 bride and I live in North Idaho, not in some less caring, less capable place. A dialysis RN who moved here from Southern California within the last year said to me recently, "Where I lived, if you bought a drive-up coffee, for example, the people who served you didn't smile or talk. They didn't act happy. Here everybody laughs and likes each other. I love it!"

Well, who doesn't? Life in South Sandpoint, where we happily reside in our 14th and final home, reminds us of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. For instance, it's beautiful. Years ago, when we were even younger, we camped often on a wilderness lake lot we owned near Woodstock, Vermont. Believe me, North Idaho trees in the fall are as stunning as Vermont's best and brightest. Plus, in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood we have bikers Mary Toland, Susan (Panida Mom) Bates-Harbuck and local sailor, pilot and KRFY dj "Just Plain Bob" Hawn; dog walkers Bonnie Hagan (with Coco), Pete Larramendy (with wagging Welsh Corgi attack dogs Sally and Betty), Ed Smith (with humongous Jessie) and Frank Faucett (with even heftier Chester).

Mr. Rogers didn't have a world-class mountain lake. Some of us dogsters and dogs like the lake in winter as much as summer. Sandy beaches begin to appear, perfect for chasing water-soaked tennis balls. Soon the water recedes so that an athletic canine can race for miles along the shore without putting paws in icy water. The way Best Friend Tippy and I reach the lake is through gorgeous Lakeview Park, a brief hike from home. The adjoining stadium, with its busy synthetic turf, evokes images of Sandpoint's gifted academic and athletic leadership -- our teachers, counselors and coaches and the spirited students they nurture. Of bleachers packed with proud parents and pals roaring approval as Coach Ryan Knowles' high school football varsity, and boys and girls soccer teams led by Tanner French and Connor Baranski, power through another winning season. As did our cross country runners, led by role model athlete/coaches Angie and Matt Brass. As have Sandpoint's swimmers, led by coach Greg Jackson, and senior academic scholarship recipients honored by Ponderay Rotary and other local organizations.

Should it surprise anyone that pipsqueak Sandpoint High school ranks number 28 academically out of 332 public high schools in Idaho? How many towns in Idaho attract such talent? We have so much going for us here it's tough to remember just how special this place is. And "this place,"as with the dialysis caregivers, includes cardiologist Ronald Jenkins and the upbeat, joyous receptionists, nurses and technicians at Kootenai Health hospital's cardiac center in Coeur d'Alene -- Juanita, Katie, Michelle, Belinda, Keith, Donnie, Adriel and colleagues -- tending to every need during cardiac surgical adventures and overnight visits. (I'm now experienced in those, too).

Growing ancient does have its upside. My bride and I receive from pals like Karen Barkley, Sue and Jay Shelledy and Becky and Jerry Luther breath-taking bouquets from the Luthers' magnificent Garfield Bay gardens. Tango Table breakfast buddy Faye Griffiths decorates our yard with handmade folk art. We dine on scrumptious desserts from Christa Faucett, soup from public school teacher Jen Cornelius, tacos and chili from our caregivers and caretakers next door to whom we happen to be closely related. And we are visited by fellow Tango Tablers Barney Ballard, Bruce Duykers, Dan Murphy and Sally and Dick Sonnichsen -- who, in Dick's case, comes to pilfer my aged scotch more than for brotherhood. Unsympathetic members of the breakfast brigade have suggested my medical setbacks are payback for misdeeds: like telling thousands of people I won the Heisman Trophy for outstanding college football player in America. Truth is, I didn't make the college fraternity's flag flootball team -- even when president of the fraternity!

Turns out the golden years, while not all golden, are golden enough to preserve for awhile. Caregivers can make that happen. The frontline good guys of a civil, responsible America, they are the educated guardian angels of the good life. Which they protect and enhance with humor -- and with competence and zest seldom seen, at least by me. As Thanksgiving nears, loving North Idaho caregivers, know that you are needed and much valued. Many thanks.

A Sandpoint resident, Tim H. Henney writes the occasional column about life and such.

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