As I made rounds, glowing laughter radiated from the oncology ward lounge warmly inseminating the sterile hallway; but not my heart. It was the twentieth St. Patrick's Day since small cell lung cancer riddled and devoured my tough Irish dad, son of Hell's Kitchen. Although he died during the dreary wet frozen rains of a New England fall, he was etched into my heart's memory on another day, one very magical St. Patrick's Day.
I was a newly minted, wet behind everything medical student, and a 2nd Lt in the USAF in the Health Professions Scholarship program. My dad was the oldest of an Irish Catholic dozen. Like so many, he was seared by a depression era childhood and seasoned by WW II. Native intellect, bravado and blarney about post baccalaureate education more dubious than his unlikely high school diploma, earned him the position of senior management labor relations negotiator for General Electric Corporation.
On that one St Patrick's day long ago, he uncharacteristically reached across the emotional divide known to many baby boomer sons of depression era fathers, and issued a once in a lifetime invitation to me. "Heh, Golden Balls, if you can spare the beauty sleep and get off your academic arse, how about catching the train up to Manhattan this Friday. I'm meeting with that mick George Meany (infamous head of the AFL CIO) to tidy up our little parlay. Maybe you'll learn something seeing your old man do his voodoo, if you can shut up long enough. And oh yeah, see if you can wear your blues"
"Golden Balls" was an embarrassing turned endearing moniker he bestowed on me owing to the doting affections of my mother Gina, dubbed rightly as the Sicilian Tsunami mommy.
Filled with awe and that very rare special sense of paternal connection every son needs, I donned my spanking new uniform, butter bars against blue, and silently watched my dad at work in rapt attention and awe. Then came play.
Once we were sufficiently lubricated at an Irish pub in Manhattan, he somehow coerced the clientèle and management to let me play "Danny Boy" on the saloon's beer soaked upright. You could feel the century old pub wood weep as a sonorous tenor voice I never knew he had lifted hearts, minds and glasses. Neither before nor since did I feel what all sons should. Finally, in song, mutually uninhibited but not inebriated, we were in tune.
So there I was decades later on another St Patrick's Day, rounding on the Oncology ward, tired, tied to a bittersweet memory, and feeling so very alone. Regaining focus for the duties of the day, I began to thumb through the chart rack when suddenly, intruding through the funk, was the unmistakable sound of a Buck Rogers's ray gun. It was right behind my left ear, magically mixing with leprechaun like chortling and giggles.
I spun on my heels and was bowled over by the impish grin and theatrical posturing of my toy-toting assailant. Hopping and toe dancing as light as a shamrock blown by faerie breath, and half-naked in hospital regalia with cosmic carbine in hand, retired Sergeant "Paddy" squealed, "Ah-eee, Gotcha Doc"!
My patient, a knobby kneed, goateed leprechaun of a man, had amazingly recovered from massive chemotherapy for a previously dormant Non Hodgkin's follicular lymphoma that had gone super-nova, transforming to a profoundly widely disseminated aggressive malignancy just a few weeks prior.
That was his family in the lounge warming the ward with lilts of laughter. Spying my doleful drudge as I began ward rounds, he left the warmth of family and friends to fire a laser beam of life my way. Clearly unfazed by his cancer, he grandly showcased his plastic phaser and quipped, "Ya ought to zap me cancer with this thing; it's better than those piss-ant poisons, eh Doc?"
Paddy had whistled and skipped to an easy truce with a sleepy follicular Non Hodgkin's lymphoma for the prior sixteen years. His blarney charmed the beast and his acceptance of the capriciousness of life was a therapeutic balm. I loved this man and we both knew it.
His checkups were a happy routine: fabulous tale spinning, unabashed limerick singing, and other sound medical practices. Clinic visits from the sage retired chief leprechaun always ended with a pat on my head, a wink at the nurses, and his trademark squeezing off of a couple laser beams of magic at whomever he thought needed it most. An emeritus professor of mirth and mentorship, Paddy was one of the wisest men I knew.
Shortly before this admission, the limber leprechaun interrupted plans to visit family in Ireland because, as he said, "My shillelagh was itching, something is just not right". A thorough history and physical revealed nothing. The complete blood count showed a slight drop in his usually robust hemoglobin, and his platelet count had fallen considerably. So did my heart when my review of the peripheral blood smear suggested what an immediate bone marrow examination confirmed. His lymphoma had transformed aggressively and was exploding into banshee like furor. It was replacing his marrow.
Further staging showed broad dissemination including his cerebrospinal fluid. An incredibly bright man, he fully understood the limits of therapy and the grave prognosis. Typically, he was more concerned for his family and seemed genuinely unafraid while annoyed at the change in travel plans. He sprightly assured me, "I'll kick its ass".
As certain as his smile, he responded to intensive therapy with a clinical remission in a matter of weeks. So now, here he was on St. Patrick's Day, bald and beaming, zapping my dour spirits and working his magic. He was one of those wonderful "doctor-patients" put in our path to minister magical wisdoms just when we physicians need those most. Many were touched by his special zest and selflessness. Every chance he got Paddy used his hiatus in hell to weave wonders with the staff. He had particularly focused his astute affections on one young and overly intense nurse devoted to his care, and destined to crash long and hard when Paddy's probable demise arrived.
When it was clear to him that "soon I'll be with sod and saints", he had a few simple requests: some intimate uninterrupted time with the Mrs., and a steady supply of Guinness Stout. Both were obliged. Curiously, the night before he died he ordained that he would see only the struggling young nurse and no one else.
Shaken by his passing the next morning, I was more concerned for his special nurse. I was wrong. She ran up to me glowing, seemingly transformed and weightless, her eyes brimming with tears of joy. Reaching into her pocket she produced our leprechauns' little laser gun. Smiling, she told how in his final night he called her to his room and fired his last salvo at her. Then, giving his therapeutic toy to her, he assured she would know when to use it, and when it was time to pass it on.
Death is not always so kind, so graceful in its gifts. When helpers and we healers are absorbed in our sorrows, lost in the fetid fog of sadness over the limits of our skills, we are also most vulnerable to the laser beams of life from those who by all rights should be sorrowful, yet are not.
Follow that light.
Kevin Ryan a retired colonel, physician, musician and author who lives in Fairfield.
Copyright (C) Kevin Ryan All rights reserved