Archive for June, 2019|Monthly archive page

Dad’s heart

Dad BHIA girl can get greedy, and become disillusioned, when her dad has a heart transplant in 1994 and is still around to celebrate his heart day every Feb. 24 for 25 years. And then celebrates his 80th birthday. I considered 2019 a good year for my dad, James H. Caldwell, MD. His birthday was on a Wednesday in March, so we planned to whoop it up in his honor in July at Bald Head Island, our beloved Caldwell family vacation spot. We will still observe that birthday and celebrate his remarkable life in late July. His seat will be empty, but he will be with us.

Dad died at around 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, at Ohio State’s Ross Heart Hospital. He had been hospitalized for 10 days for what began as a GI bleed. Multiple tests failed to identify the source of the bleed, and it eventually stopped after he was taken off his blood thinner. He experienced a slowed heart rate during one test, leading to some electrophysiology testing and procedures. His last procedure, to check for clots in his atrium (no clots found), was successfully completed Wednesday afternoon. He’d be in for observation for two days and home by the weekend. And then, disaster struck, in what we assume was a pulmonary embolism, or perhaps a massive heart attack.

Being in the hospital meant Dad was missing valuable late spring outdoor time. A lover of gardening for as long as I’ve been alive, he became a Master Gardener through OSU Extension over the many months of his recovery after his heart transplant. The house he and his wife Pat have lived in since 1991 has an enormous yard with room for vast perennial beds and a sizable vegetable garden — one of its major selling points. Poor Dad could never convince me to love gardening. I like the cosmetic and culinary results but I hate the work. But he had tomatoes and peppers that were ready for planting, pronto, and I was tasked with getting that done. I took it seriously, following his instructions and the layout he had drawn on a scrap piece of paper. “Lord help me if they don’t thrive,” I joked in a text to my siblings.

I enjoyed sending text updates over the past week to my brothers and sisters, who live in Seattle, Iowa, Grand Rapids, Cleveland and Brooklyn. The news about his health was always pretty good. Dad lost his temper one day with the medical staff because he was frustrated with the poor communication among the various teams working on his care – two different heart services and the GI service. His spirited response conveyed he had energy, an improvement over his weakness from anemia when he entered the hospital. And yet, for a long time he was what I describe as fragile, physically. Immunosuppression drugs take a toll on the human body, and he had osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, stress fractures, muscle detachments, renal failure and I don’t even know what else. He had a bad infection last summer that set him back further, but, as a very compliant physical therapy patient, he rebounded nicely.

With Mom, whose death I anticipated for 10 years, I found myself surprised about how devastatingly sad I was when she died, considering I wanted her suffering to end. Dad has been fragile for many years, but was always fine with minimizing acknowledgment of his physical limits. So all of our conversations at the hospital over the past 10 days were characterized by an expectation that he would go home, take some time to regain strength, get back to the garden and ride in the car with me and Patrick for the trip to Bald Head Island. And so, his death was unexpected. And of course, I am devastatingly sad, while I am also so grateful that he lived as long as he did.

Dad was a master diagnostician, an educator, an intellectual, a conversationalist and storyteller, a lover of classical music, a foodie, an avid consumer of news and information, and, since the early 2000s, a progressive political activist. He and Pat were devoted to each other, and spent very little time apart over the course of their long marriage. And he leaves a legacy in his kids who, along with our families, are smart, talented — musicians, writers, poets, scholars (we all have postsecondary educations) — thoughtful, temperamental, driven by conviction, funny and a little bit (or a lot) cynical, and, like Dad, have a healthy appetite for delicious food and all of the joys, big and small, that life has to offer.

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