My Ride in a Hearse

1967 hearseCathy and I were married shortly after I began my surgical residency at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1965. In addition to the stress of the many hours of training required to become a surgeon of excellence, Cathy and I were trying to adjust to the usual changes which occur in the lives of newly-weds. Our premarital training with a mature married couple never happened, and there was very little resource material available then to assist young couples in dealing with common marital issues. There was certainly no training which could have prepared us for dealing with a major medical illness.

As an important part of my surgical training the doctors in the LSU surgical program were “farmed out” from the main Charity Hospital in New Orleans to the smaller Charity Hospitals in Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana. I selected the hospital in Lake Charles because the residents that preceded me had said I would do more surgical cases there. That was all of the encouragement I needed.

Following one year of experience at the main hospital Cathy and I moved to Lake Charles for a three month stint beginning in June 1966. There were small apartments available on the hospital grounds which made it very nice and convenient for me to get back and forth to work and to take the required emergency room call. Although our apartment had very few amenities Cathy and I had not developed expensive tastes and were more than happy with it. The fact it was provided at no cost made it all the more attractive to us. We still had to pay for our New Orleans apartment to which we would return when our term in Lake Charles was completed.

After I had been working about three weeks in this new location I began experiencing flu-like symptoms. I had a low-grade temperature and generalized aches in my muscles particularly in the upper body. I took a day off from work, but because our operative schedule was full of procedures which needed to be done I returned to work still feeling poorly. For the next week I had increasing symptom of extreme tiredness. At the end of each day I would be exhausted and would go to the apartment in the early evening and go to bed. After sleeping for eight to ten hours, which was very unusual for me I would awaken rested. Within ten to fifteen minutes in the OR I would feel so tired I had to call for a chair to sit down. Within another day or so I knew I needed to be seen by a physician. Cathy and I went to a local internist in Lake Charles and he immediately asked me, ” How long have you been jaundiced?” When I looked into the mirror at his office at my eyes I was deeply jaundiced. As a physician trained to look for such things I had not even noticed the color change in myself.

He told me I had to be hospitalized, and because we only had hospital insurance with the Charity Hospital system I had to be admitted there instead of a local private hospital. The internist at Charity Hospital was not a favorite of mine, because he had issues with alcohol abuse several years earlier while in a private practice setting. He had a rather eccentric personality, but I had no other choice but him.

As a surgeon in training I was particularly susceptible to needle sticks from other personnel in the OR who were also in training. Procedures done deep within body cavities with multiple hands in narrow spaces can be hazardous to the operating surgeon as well as the other personnel.

I was diagnosed with serum hepatitis probably from a needle stick, and my laboratory tests related to liver function were getting worse each day. I became so sick and nauseated that even the smell of food was repulsive. As a physician I knew if my condition continued deteriorating complete liver failure was a certainty and would result in my death. Cathy was very frightened, and I suppose I was too sick to be scared. Cathy called my Mom in El Dorado to come to Lake Charles to help her make some important decisions. My Dad (Pop) had died earlier the same year from heart failure, so Mom was dealing with her own issues of life adjustment.

On the evening Mom arrived at the hospital I distinctly remember the dietary department had just sent me a huge plate of red beans and rice to encourage me to eat more nutritious food. Cajuns believe a meal like this will cure anyone of any illness. Normally I like this dish, but this time I gagged at the sight of it. Mom said, “That’s it, Cathy. We’re taking him to El Dorado.” The doctor happened to come into the room at the time and told her, “You can’t move him from this hospital,” to which she responded, “You just watch me!” If I hadn’t been so ill I would have laughed out loud.

When Mom called the ambulance company in El Dorado that night she was told they would send their best and most comfortable vehicle the next morning. When the driver arrived he was not in an ambulance but in a brand new Cadillac hearse! It didn’t matter to me, because I was headed home and if I didn’t make it at least Cathy and I would be with family and friends in familiar surroundings. The only vehicle we had driven to Lake Charles was my 1964 red Corvair Monza convertible with a stick shift, and Cathy didn’t know how to drive a car with standard transmission. She had gotten a crash course in driving it from one of the doctors the previous night in the hospital parking lot.

Cathy’s trip by herself in our convertible was not only frightening for her but also frustrating. It seems the windshield wipers quit working for some unknown reason, and she had to drive through a rain storm. Praise God He protected her, and she made the five hour drive with no accident. My driver was polite and gracious but inexperienced as a limo driver. Within minutes of beginning the trip the air conditioner failed and this was late July in South Louisiana. In addition after two hours of enduring the sweltering heat in the rear of the hearse the driver allowed the vehicle to run out of gas. This sounds like a horror movie in the making. We had to wait for about forty-five minutes before help arrived with gasoline for us to continue. Thankfully the remainder of the journey was trouble-free, and I arrived at Union Medical Center hot and exhausted but alive. There is a lot more to the story, but I did begin improving in the El Dorado hospital. I remained hospitalized for four days and worried more about my hospital bill than I did about my health and recovery.

Cathy and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary the day after I was discharged. I forgot to get her flowers or even a card and blamed it on my weakened condition, which was a  weak and pitiful excuse. She loved me in spite of my forgetfulness and provided things I was not even aware during such a scary time. For certain we grew more mature while learning to handle adversity, and I haven’t forgotten any more anniversaries. We were not believers at the time, and I don’t recall one prayer I offered for Cathy or for myself. But God was faithful and merciful, knowing in a few years we would both turn our lives over to Him in repentance. As a result my next and final ride in a hearse will be a victorious one!

Dr. John

5 thoughts on “My Ride in a Hearse

    • Mom had driven her car to Lake Charles and she left before Cathy and I did. Cathy could have ridden back with Mom but we didn’t want to leave our little convertible in Lake Charles. We thought we might be going to El Dorado for my funeral and would never return to Lake Charles. We are very glad that He has given us a few more years, so we could experience Branson! 🙂

  1. And I must ask… how did you make the trip. Laying down in the back or riding in the front seat? I trust they didn’t have a loaner casket for you.

    • Todd:
      I was so sick I was unable to sit up, so I was on a gurney in the back of that new and extremely warm hearse. When we ran out of gas, I was wishing that they had also provided a loaner casket and just bury me somewhere in central Louisiana! 🙂

  2. Thank you for reminding me, as you and I both know, that God deals not only with the present but eternity all at the same time. To God be the glory!! Love ya’ brother

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