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Heaven and Help

by bdietrich on November 9, 2013

In the last two weeks I’ve had the whiplash experience of visiting the happiest and unhappiest places on earth, and come away grateful for life all over again.

The happiest, of course, is Disneyland. I know so because the amusement park makes exactly that claim, and my grandchildren back it up. The youngest was goggle-eyed at her first glimpse of a greeting Goofy, and things just got better from there.

The unhappiest was the emergency room at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where my mother was helicoptered after problems following a fall. Her experience was excellent – heck, she was floating on morphine in the trauma center – but around us were the broken, the wounded, and the drug over-dosed. Harborview collects some of the worst cases of the Pacific Northwest.

I’d never visited, even as a newspaper reporter, so was intrigued by the vast warren of rooms and  urgent, professional calm. No shouting like in the movies. Just swift, deliberate intervention to save life after life.

My mother was in a room with six beds, partitioned by curtains. Tile, brittle lighting, medicinal smells, stainless steel cabinets, tubes dangling like worms, and real triage. As long as the monitors beeped reassuringly, Mom could wait: she was only there for stabilization and to wait for space in intensive care.

Her nearest neighbor was a motorcycle accident victim with flailing feet as they worked to keep him going. When he struggled against a throat tube, he was told firmly it was that or surgical incision to get air to his lungs. He took the tube.

A recently released homeless man, mentally unstable, was ignored by busy surgeons as he wandered the corridor to shout incomprehensibly before finding his way out. New cases were announced by loudspeaker, rocketed inside on gurneys from the ambulance ramp, placed, tubed, and cared for.

Harborview wasn’t really the unhappiest place, because people were being repaired. But it was intense. While America’s medical system provokes fierce debate, viewing it on the crisis edge was quite impressive.

Many of the staff seemed like heroic angels. The nurse who took over my mother’s recovery in intensive care normally works the children’s burn wing. A difficult job, she acknowledged. Rewarding. Wrenching. Inspiring.

I followed Mom from doctor’s office to emergency room to helicopter (no, I didn’t ride, but followed in a car with my wife) to Harborview’s trauma center to the ICU to hospital bed to nursing home, watching her slowly recover from internal bleeding. An impressive stream of professionals helped, gratefully covered by Medicare and insurance. By day four she was already getting physical therapy to get her started back out of bed.

Still, hospital land is not where you want to be. Once Mom was stable and settled we tentatively but gratefully joined a long-planned trip with daughter, husband and grandchildren to Disneyland. The transition was like the Wizard of Oz where you snap from black and white to color, or in our case flew from Seattle gloom to California sunshine.

In the two decades since I’d visited, the complex has doubled in size (or tripled if you count the adjoining Downtown Disney mall) and become much more sophisticated, from the impressive stage shows to the animated robots, 3D rides, and healthier menus. Kid meals automatically came with apples and carrot sticks.

It’s easy to poke fun at Disneyland. It’s a self-reinforcing capitalist commercial dream, looping from latest hit movie to Disney origins, film inspiring ride prompting store promoting product. The music is relentless, the color dazzling, and not an inch is wasted.

Disneyland is also brilliant fun, with so much clever detail that you’d have to return a hundred times to catch it all. Everyone had a blast. We saw plenty of family weariness after a long day, and occasional child meltdowns, but the place is truly magical in how it seems to bring out the best in big groups of people. It brainwashes the senses in a wonderful way, reminding us of childhood joy.

Must be fun to be an ‘imagineer’ designing all that.

So I saw life’s poles. Four generations of family, ranging from two and a half to 84. From emergency to amusement. From sickness to recovery to youthful discovery. From worry to warmth. Wouldn’t trade it.

But with mother mending and grandkids back to normalcy, I’ll also appreciate coming days that are a little less extreme. I’m lucky to have us all back and in one piece.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Linder November 9, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Hi, Bill.

So glad that your mom is doing ok and that you had a lovely time with your family in Disneyland. Loved this piece! Todd and I had a four month hospital stay with our little man last summer as he was born 14 weeks early. Talk about seeing a side of life that you never want to see. Like you, however, we were so blessed by the incredible staff who cared for us and our boy. Makes you so glad that there are so many kinds in this world. ICU docs and nurses are an amazing group.

Here’s hoping for some quiet time for your family!


Claude Beccai November 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Just discovered your books. I had no idea you even existed but I am impressed by your knowledge and your sense of humor. Most enjoyable as well as edifying. Thank you, thank you…


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