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 that occur in the lives of newly weds. Our premarital training with a mature married couple was non-existent, and there was very little resource material available then to assist young couples in dealing with common marital issues. There was certainly no training that 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 that I would do more surgical cases there. That was all the advice that I needed!

Following a year of experience at the main hospital, Cathy and I moved to Lake Charles for a 3 month stint beginning in June 1966. There were small apartments available on the hospital grounds, and that made it very nice and convenient for me to get back and forth to work and to take the usual emergency room call. Although our apartment had very few amenities; at that stage Cathy and I had not developed expensive tastes and were more than happy, and especially the fact that it was provided at no cost to us. We still had to pay for our New Orleans apartment to which we would return when our term in Lake Charles was over.

After I had been working about 3 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 that needed to be done, I returned to work still feeling poorly. For the next week I noted the 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 8-10 hours, which was very unusual for me, I would awaken rested; but after 10 to 15 minutes in the OR, I would be so tired I had to call for a chair to sit down! In a day or so I knew I needed to be seen by a physician, and Cathy and I went to a local internist in Lake Charles. He immediately asked me, ” How long have you been jaundiced?” When I carefully looked in the mirror at my eyes, I was deeply jaundiced! As a physician trained to look for such things, I didn’t even notice 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 that hospital was not a favorite of mine since he had some issues with alcohol abuse several years earlier while in a private practice setting, and he had a rather eccentric personality. I had no choice; he was my only option.

As a surgeon in training, I was particularly susceptible to needle sticks from other personnel in the OR who were also in training, and not as careful with instrument exchange as more experienced professionals. Procedures done deep in body cavities with multiple hands in narrow spaces can be hazardous to the operating surgeon. 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 that if my condition continued deteriorating complete liver failure was a certainty, and that would result in 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 that year from heart failure so Mom was dealing with her own issues of adjustment.

On the evening that Mom arrived at the hospital, I distinctly remember the dietary department of the hospital in an effort to encourage me to eat, had just sent me a huge plate of red beans and rice. Cajuns believe that a meal like this will cure anyone of any illness! Normally I like that 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 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 taken 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 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 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 that He protected her and she made the 5 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 2 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 45 minutes before help arrived with gasoline for us to continue, and thankfully the remainder of the journey was trouble-free!

There is a lot more to the story, but I did begin improving in the El Dorado hospital, and 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 very weak and pitiful excuse. She loved me in spite of my forgetfulness and provided things I was not even aware during that scary time. For certain we grew a little 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 that 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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