Sunday, September 09, 2018

Turning Points In My Life - Near Death at Seventeen

Elvis got to keep his underwear on, I didn't

Yes, you read that title right, I almost died at 17 years old due to medical malpractice.

After I signed up to join the Army, I had to report to 401 North Broad Street in Philadelphia for my physical. What a humiliating experience that was, one that I will never forget as long as I live.

There we were, about a dozen of us young men toeing the yellow line on the umpteenth floor of the old warehouse building that was the Army induction physical inspection center in Philadelphia.

We all obediently stood there in a straight line, naked head to toe. Totally exposed. Full frontal. Humiliated.

Much like my Army physical, although we had to stand full frontal toes touching a broad yellow line, I was pulled aside and told to lay on a gurney like the one man in this picture.  The other difference in this picture and mine was that there were a lot of civilians, both male and female, milling about. We had ZERO privacy. I guess this was the Army's way of dehumanizing you so you would obey any orders. 

 While all manner of people walked around, behind and in front of us, a group of white jacketed "inspectors" with clip boards eyed our bodies. One of the white jacketed men walked down the line, and one by one cupped our testicles and asked us to cough. The "cough test" to see if our balls dropped. Previously we had already did the "duck walk."  That's the "test" where we have to turn around, bend over and grab out ankles whilst the gentlemen in the white doctor jackets and clipboard have a look-see of our anuses. God know what they were looking for. The cough test was the last step of our humiliation. 

The officious looking white jacketed man with glasses and a clipboard went down our line of full frontal men. I forget where I was in line, maybe seventh. He cupped by testicles and asked me to cough. I did. He paused and asked me to cough again. I did. He wrote something down on his clipboard, looked up and asked me to cough one more time.  Iim thinking, "what's going on?". He looked concerned and asked me to step out of line. He instructed me to lie down on a paper covered gurney nearby. 

I climbed up on the gurney and lay there, on my back, waiting for what I didn't know. As I lay there, totally exposed, people continued to walk about including many young women, secretarial types. I was totally confused. Why was I pulled out of line and lying on the gurney, off to the side of all the activity?

Finally, after about a long twenty minutes one of the "doctors" came over and handed me a paper.  He didn't tell me why I was pulled out of line.  He just told me to take the paper he handed me to my recruiter.

To this day I remember how scared I was going back home on the train to Downingtown, thirty-seven miles west of Philadelphia. I thought for sure I was going to die. I had some kind of fatal illness. One thing I knew, I didn't pass the physical.  To some not passing an Army induction physical would be a cause for celebration. To me, my whole world was falling apart. I wanted to join the Army. Not only to fulfill an obligation I felt as a citizen of this great country of the United States but the Army was going to be my path into supporting myself after I left home. I was finally going to be free. I would learn a skill in the Army and after I got out I would be set. Now all those plans were thrown out the window. I had reached another major turning point in my life.

After I got home and my Mother and my recruiter read the papers I has given, I found out I had failed my physical because they discovered I had a hernia. Apparently I was born with a hernia. It was an inactive hernia but they failed me on the physical because they were afraid the strain of Army calisthenics would activate my hernia and they didn't want to deal with that expense. I was damaged goods and the Army didn't want me.

What to do now? I still couldn't get a job because my name was mud in Downingtown because I quite bookkeeping high school.  Mr. King, my bookkeeping teacher and Mr. Kline, my high school guidance counselor, had effectively blacklisted me from ever getting a clerical job in Downingtown. My Army recruiter told me I could join the Army if I got an operation to repair my hernia. Thus, that what my Mother and I decided to do.

Our family doctor, Dr. Samuel Spector of Coatesville (I will forever remember his name and face) scheduled me for surgery sometime in early July. I forget the exact date but I do remember it was right in the middle of summer. 

The anesthetic I was put under by was ether. I remember the mask being put on my face and the swirling spiral taking me out. When I awoke some hours later, my Mother at my bedside, I had this tremendous pain in my left side. I felt like I had been cut open with a sword. Actually, I was cut open, with a staple, right through the abdomen muscles. God it hurt. My Mother held my hand to comfort me. She told me that the doctor told her the pain would eventually go away in a few days. Actually, it was more like a few weeks. I don't remember how long I was in the hospital, maybe a week, until I was sent home, sore as hell.

I was given instructions not to step up or excessive walking. Basically, I was to take it easy to let my body heal from the trauma it just went through by having my left abdomen cut open to repair the hernia that was strangling my small intestines. 

During this period of inactivity, I start to put on weight. I had always weighed about 160 pounds, my fighting weight. I weigh 162 now, differently distributed of course.  I quickly put on twenty pounds just laying around eating big bags of potato chips and Whitman chocolates.  I could polish off a box of Whitman chocolates in three days.

As I continued to lay about and recover from my major surgery, I started to have excruciating headaches. I’m not the type to have headaches.  I thought my headaches were the result of my inactivity and stress. But then when my headaches became so severe, sometimes I couldn’t even stand up.  My head felt like an anvil was swinging back and forth in my skull.  

I complained to my Mother about my headaches, She thought I should see my doctor, Dr. Samuel Spector of Coatesville, Pennsylvania (whose name I will never forget, he should have been sued for malpractice). 

My Mother drove me to Dr. Spector’s office in Coatesville. He wasn’t happy to see me.  He looked at me with disgust and said “He’s just imagining things! There’s nothing the matter with him!”  Being the na├»ve seventeen-year old I was at that time, always submitting to authority believing they knew and I didn’t, I thought I WAS imagining things.

My Mother and I returned to our home.  I continued to suffer through those anvil head banging headaches. Then one night I awoke to and found I was lying in a sticky, sweet-smelling odor. I turned on my bed-light. I looked to my left side and found I was lying in a bed of red and white pus.  My incision was open!  I was terrified!  I thought my guts were going to spill out. 

I called to my Mother whose bedroom was next to mine in our small ranch house. She came in the bedroom and quickly assessed the situation.  She immediately called the police for an ambulance. While she was waiting for the ambulance, she tried to clean up the mess that I was lying in.  The sticky, smelly mess. I’ll never forgot that smell. 

1950's style ambulance - not like the Brink's truck type ambulance today

The ambulance arrived with the EMT people. They maneuvered the gurney between the narrow hallway of our small house to my bedroom. They carefully lifted me from my bed to the gurney. I only had my t-shirt on.  They covered me with a thing white sheet and wheeled me out of our house to the waiting ambulance.  I’ll always remember that ride in the ambulance. Ambulances back then (1959) were long sedan type cars with a lot of glass. During the early morning hours, just as dawn was breaking, the ambulance I was in, only wearing my t-shirt and my lower, naked body covered in a sheet, I was driving through downtown Downingtown for all to see. I was embarrassed.  

Chester County Hospital West Chester PA (my ambulance entered from the back and in the basement)

The ride to the Chester Country Hospital in West Chester took about fifteen minutes. Upon arriving at the hospital, the ambulance went around the rear of the hospital and entered a garage beneath the hospital. The sign above the entrance read in bold letters “CONTAGION UNIT!”  Beneath that alarming warning was listed the diseases “BUBONIC PLAGUE, CHOLERA”and other diseases, listed alphabetically. I thought “If I don’t die of whatever I had I’ll catch one of these diseases and die of that.” 

The EMT people wheeled me out of the back of the ambulance and into the ward. The beds in the ward were separated by partitions. They had one waiting for me. I was placed on my waiting bed. A nurse came and cleaned out my wound and placed dressing on my now open incision. 

Later on in the day doctors came by and examined my open wound. They didn’t tell me anything, which didn’t surprise me. I was just a dumb seventeen-year old. This was back in the Fifties and that was the usual protocol, don’t tell the patient anything, especially a teenager.

I didn’t get much sleep my first night in the contagion ward. The thirteen-year old boy on the other side of the partition moaned all night.  The next morning, when the nurse came by to change my dressing, I complained to her about not getting sleep because of the young boy moaning the whole night.  She said “That won’t happen again, he died early this morning.”  Wow, did I ever feel guilty.  I never complained anymore, especially with the man on the other side of me moaned about his gangrene infection. He was in so much pain he tore off his toenail and threw it away.  It landed on the windowsill behind me.  This is the environment I spent the next several weeks. Patients on the other side of the partitions came and went but I stayed there. 

My Mother used to visit me but she couldn’t into the building.  She had to kneel outside on the roadway that adjoined the window above where I lay in my bed. She talked to me through the chicken wired window. I think my friend Larry also visited me but no one else visited me. 

The doctors discovered that I had a “staph” infection. Staphylococcus Aureus.  Symptoms and signs of a localized staph infection include a collect of pus, such as an abscess the area is typically tender or painful and may be reddened and swollen.  That’s what I had, I contacted this super bug infection from my hernia operation. A hernia operation that I probably should never have had. Then once I contacted an infection, our family doctor, Dr. Samuel Spector, misdiagnosed it.  Medical malpractice all the way around. Probably should have sued the hospital and doctor all the way around but this was back in the Fifties when we trusted doctors and hospitals, that they knew what was best. 

Several years later, Dr. Spector apologized to my Mother for misdiagnosing my condition.  Note that he didn’t apologize to me.  My Mother told me that he said I probably would have died from septic poisoning if my incision hadn’t busted open that night. The doctors thought my incision burst open because of all the aspirin I took to help alleviate my head busting headaches. I take aspirin to this day, a baby aspirin because I am convinced aspirin saved my life on that humid July summer night back in 1959.

That summer in 1959, I was in and out of the hospital for the next four months trying to get rid of the super bug staph infection.  I had three operations to clean out my incision. The first operation they scrapped out my staph infection and sewed me back up.  My infection came back.  I had another operation and it came back again. I had a third operation to clean out the staph infection.  That one finally took.

At one point I tried to escape from the hospital. I had been in the hospital so long, I thought I would never get out. I eventually was moved to a private room on the main floors.  I was finally out of the contagion unit. Still, I was a prisoner in the hospital. Thank goodness we had insurance because my private room was costing twenty dollars a day!  Yes, I thought twenty dollars was outrageously expensive.  But this was in the Fifties when nurses wore white uniforms and hospitals discovered the massive money-making benefits of unbundling bills, twenty dollars was a lot of money to pay for a room. 

Remember candy stripers?

Candy Stripers

Two candy stripers who I had befriended offered to help me. They were going to smuggle in some clothes (from one of their brothers) for me to wear out of the hospital. All I had was a bathrobe (which I still have!) and pajamas. I was going to change clothes and slip out of the hospital and catch a Short Line bus back to Downingtown. When the day came to escape, I couldn’t because I didn’t have any shoes! The weather outside was cold (late October) and I figured the bus driver wouldn’t let me on the bus in my hospital slippers.  Can you believe this?  Looking back on my “plan” now I see how ridiculous it was. My escape plan was thwarted. 

I eventually got out of the hospital normally. My  staph infection cleared up.

I recuperated a few more months at home then I took my Army physical again.  This time I passed my physical and I joined that Army on January 27th, 1960. I survived a botched hospital surgery and a being misdiagnosed by my family doctor. 

I was now encountered my new journey to turning points in my life. I was (and am) a survivor. 


nitewrit said...

Yes, I did visit you several times during your isolation. I remember well kneeling outside and talking through the wire-covered window. Your mother probably called either the police, fire department or a telephone operator. 911 did not exist then. It did not become the designated emergency number until 1967.

When I took my physical at 401 North Broad it was a bit different. We were told to strip to our underpants. We went through a course in this large room, stopping at various stations, such as eyesight and hearing. In this large room there were many people, male and female, milling about. Finally, we were broken into small groups and herded into a separate room. There was a yellow line on the floor we toed up to. There were about half-dozen white coated mens there looking at us. We were ordered to remove our underpants, so now we were naked. Then me had to bend over and grab our ankles, do the duck walk and some other things. After these we were told to toe the line again and this main guy, with his clip board, walked down the line behind us. He suddenly stopped and asked me "What is that on your shoulder?" I had no idea what he was talking about. We were then allowed to go get dressed and leave. Later everyone was in a giant room, like you are in when called for jury duty. A uniformed serviceman sat facing us. Everyone once in a while he would call a name and the person would go to him. My name was called and he sent me out of the room and down a corridor. Halfway down was an opening in the wall where another uniformed service man sat at a desk. He told me I was being classified as 1Y. This meant I was physically fit to serve, but I had psoriasis and they wouldn't take me. 1Y meant if they got down to the bottom of the barrel in men, then they might draft me. That never happened. Thus I escaped Vietnam because of a splotch on my shoulder.

Doctors saying something was imagination is what Dr. Lewis told my wife when she called him and said she was going into labor. That was the first child me lost because he refused to come see her.

I got C-Diff from what my doctor prescribed for my running nose. It was horrible. I began to fear I wouldn't get out of the hospital ever again, too. If I so much as stuck a toe off the edge of the bed these alarms sounded and people came running to restrain me. I was afraid they would ship me off to some horrid rehab warehouse, like they did my mother. When I did finally get well enough to be released, they told me I had gotten septic and almost died.



Ron said...

You are absolutely right Lar We did start out with only our underwear on. It was later that we were lined up and told to "toe the yellow line" and remove our underwear so that half dozen white jacketed "doctors" could check our more private parts. I remember turning around and grabbing our ankles too. What I also remember was the easy flow of all kinds of people around us, especially when I was lying on the gurney waiting for someone to more deeply examine my private parts (testicles). You are also right about the 911. I knew she called somebody, probably the police but an ambulance did come and I was removed to an ambulance and driven through downtown Downingtown in the early morning hours.

Joel Reisteter said...

Your Army induction physical story reminds me of stories I heard from my dad and other men over the years had during the World War era. It sorta sounds like the Department of War / Department of Defense is slow to change, but the difference in those stories and your story is a mere 15-18 years.
However in 1980, when my brother took his USAF induction physical, they kept their underwear on almost all the time, for the exception of anus, testicles & penis inspections.

Joel Reisteter said...

As for 9-1-1, read the Wikipedia article on the history of 9-1-1.

Joel Reisteter said...

I believe the photograph of the 1950's ambulance you posted here is a Cadillac or a Buick.

Ron said...

Responding to your other comments. You being classified 1-Y probably saved your life. If not for that spot on your shoulder, you probably would have been more fodder for that unnecessary war in Viet Nam. I'm glad you're still around.
What a shame that you and Lois had to lose your first child because of indifferent medical attention. That's what almost killed me. And as for the C-diff you contracted because of a prescription by a doctor, twice now I've had to turn down an invasive procedure to check my bladder for cancer. There was absolutely no reason for sticking a pen like instrument with a camera on the end up my penis to check for cancer. The first time I turned down that procedure was at the VA over eight years ago. Then two years ago my urologist scheduled me for the same procedure without even asking me. I got a new urologist. We have to be constantly on guard for unnecessary procedures and misdiagnosis by doctors. They're not perfect, far from it.

Travel said...

Be ever mindful of the doctors, remember you are in charge.

Anonymous said...

Wow, now that's the time, when the only thing to heal the pain, is the sight of Adonis,the nurse, wearing scrubs over his

Linda said...

I had a doctor tell me there was nothing wrong with me, that I just had a mental problem, and he was referring me to the local mental health center. I could not afford anything but this free clinic at the time. So, I suffered for months. It turned out I had Hepatitis C. A recent doctor was amazed that I even survived. And, I have other survival-despite-doctors stories.

nitewrit said...


We do have to be diligent. Last night I suffered a collapse after the Bible Study. I could barely stand up. Two men got me and my car home. They wanted to call 911, but I stopped them. I had no desire to end up in the hospital again. I did fear it might be C-Diff again, especially when I had diarrhea when I got home. I am week and woozy this morning, but better and can get around okay.


Ron said...

I was thinking of calling you today. I felt something had happened. I'll call you tomorrow.

Ron said...

I don't want to give the wrong impression about doctors. They have helped me, when I've broken, torn or dislocated something. And they did take care of my prostate cancer. But I am very careful around doctors. Weigh the information and what makes sense, do it and what doesn't make sense, don't do it.

Ron said...


Ron said...

I think it was a Cadillac ambulance that took me to the hospital.

Ron said...

I might have kept my underwear on most of the time. But I clearly remember being totally naked, toeing that yellow line while the white jacket doctors with their clip boards examined us.

Ron said...

My friend Larry corrected me on 911. I corrected my posting to my Mother called the police.