Medicine · mourning


Herb was a great painter, poet, and reader. He left us all a remarkable legacy.


To those of you who may not know, Herb passed away on January 13 from Covid. It is a mystery how he contracted it as we were essentially in voluntary quarantine. He never left our apartment door without a mask and only went to the pharmacy, a little market, and the post office, all across from our back door. He was sick on Christmas Day but we were sure it was the flu and so were not alarmed. But on New Years Eve he was so sick we called EMS and he tested positive for Covid at the hospital. They said he was on minimal oxygen and on the right track, but on the 13th, the doctor called and said he might not make it through the night. He died at 6:30 p.m.

What the Nurse Said

Herb was fortunate to be on a Covid floor where the nurses were unbelievably kind. They loved Herb and he loved them. We all were tested and I was the only one of the family who tested positive. I was cared for by second daughter Sarah in spite of risk to herself. Fortunately I had a mild case. Sarah was allowed to visit Herb for two hours every day. He told her every day as he had told me before he went to the hospital that he wanted us all to leave New York and go to Florida where Sarah and Steven had found a business to buy that made use of their talents, the New York theatre being dead at least for a long time. I was allowed to visit Herb the day he died and I want to share with you what his favorite nurse told us. These are her exact words: “The best way to protect yourself from Covid is to never touch your eye with your naked finger. Always use a tissue.” She said it with such force and conviction that I think it is worth passing on.

First daughter Elly flew from Oregon to share the driving and we arrived in Florida on March 9. It has been four months since Herb died and I feel up to resuming the ordinary activities of my life. So tomorrow I’ll be back with a regular blog post.


A Time for Giving—Then and Now

These days almost every mail brings an appeal from a worthy charitable organization, warning us that there are only a few days left in the year to make sure our gift will qualify for a tax deduction on our 2016 return.

The cynic might claim that people need the incentive of a tax deduction to be persuaded to share their wealth with those less fortunate. But the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season has been around long before there was an income tax. As rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein pointed out in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, giving has long been regarded as a “healing counterpoint to the darker sides of human nature.”  In the decade of the 1850s, receipts of the nation’s churches and voluntary Protestant societies were greater than the receipts of the federal government!

In her recent blog post, my friend Annie Haddad discusses one of the organizations supported by the Seabury Tredwells, a wealthy New York merchant family, I confess I was somewhat surprised by the choice of charities and amazed that it was founded very early—1823—by a woman and administered entirely by women. Curious? Read the post here.

Because we can’t possibly give to all who ask for our help. many of us simply choose a favorite charity and concentrate our giving. My charity of choice is Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 pediatric hospitals in North America that provides state-of-the-art treatment for orthopaedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, burns, and cleft lip/palette, regardless of the family’s ability to pay. They are also involved in research and in training physicians and therapists. The scope of their work is really remarkable.

As a child, I was hospitalized for months to correct an orthopedic problem. It was not a Shriners Hospital, but this medical intervention kept me from a lifetime of disability. I have therefore, a deep appreciation of this wonderful organization that transforms children’s lives. You can read more about it here. mlk

Shriners Hospitals for Children
Shriners Hospitals for Children transforms children’s lives






Doctor, Did You Wash Your Hands?

 Anti-bacterial soap in five flavors
Anti-bacterial soap in five flavors

Closing in on the shampoo aisle of my neighborhood drugstore, I spied this display of anti-bacterial soap. Now that flu season approaches, we are constantly reminded to wash our hands often. Hospitals have wall dispensers of hand sanitizers for the use of visitors, and patients are encouraged to remind their doctors and nurses to sanitize their hands before they permit themselves to be touched. Even five-year-olds know about “germs,” which is more than can be said for 19th-century physicians. I couldn’t help but think of the following from my book An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65.

Library of Congress
On October 16, 1846, ether was used for the first time to anesthetize a patient during surgery, but no photograph was taken to commemorate the historic event. Several years later, the original surgeon, Dr. John Warren (facing camera with his hand on patient’s thigh) and some of his colleagues posed for this reenactment of the operation to remove a tumor from the neck of the patient. Doctors in street clothes and the obvious absence of a sterile field are breathtaking evidence of the primitive nature of surgery before the awareness of microorganisms that caused post-operative infection.

With the availability of general anesthesia, surgical procedures that had not been possible earlier began to be performed. But of course doctors, lacking a knowledge of microorganisms, saw no reason to provide a sterile environment, and patients frequently died of postoperative infection as a result. Infection after surgery was simply taken as a matter of course. In 1864 John Ward was invited by his mentor and professor , Dr. Peters, to observe the removal of the breast of a Mrs. Loper. The operation took place in the upstairs bedroom of the patient’s home on Forty-Fourth Street. There were no surgical gowns or masks or gloves then, no imperative to sterilize instruments or to scrub hands and nails. . . .

Chapter 14, “Domestic Dramas,” tells about medical treatment during the 19th century.
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