Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Life's like that
Each mortal life is an enterprise which ends, as they say, gravely.
Many years ago a pair of strapping young lads -- brothers aged 18 and 16 -- went out on a bright summer morning to play tennis. The date was July 1. That simple bit of exercise changed their lives forever.
John, the elder, lived to be 93 years old, and his long, full life included marriage, two daughters, and great success as an executive, businessman, and entrepreneur.
Junior, the younger, died on July 7. That was it for Junior, finis, the end, period, dot. He left behind no children to listen to the Galaxy Song and marvel at the amazing unlikeliness of their birth.
Life's like that.
The year was 1924, the lawn where the brothers played tennis was at the White House in Washington, D.C., and their parents were, of course, President Calvin and First Lady Grace Coolidge.
The culprit in young Calvin's death was bacterial septicemia which developed from an infected blister on the top of the third toe of the lad's right foot -- a blister he got from the tennis match.
Life as we know it is very tenacious. We humans have an amazing immune system, and for as long as men have lived, every single one of them has shrugged off scores of potentially deadly infections. This was true long before the advent of antibiotics.
So long as the immune system is working in an otherwise healthy human, it will almost always triumph over the bacteria. Sometimes it doesn't.
Today we're fortunate to have antibiotics which give the immune system a critical assist in the battle.
Antibiotics don't do the whole job. They kill a lot of bacteria, but they don't kill all of the bacteria. The body itself still has to do the heavy lifting of killing bacteria, cleaning up and excreting the toxins and debris left on the battlefield, and repairing damaged tissues. This is why the very young, the very old, and those whose immune systems are otherwise not up to snuff suffer increased mortality and morbidity from bacterial infection, even with the assist of powerful antibiotics.
In 1989 a young E-3 Yeoman (YNSN) named James Mayhall joined my squadron in the middle of deployment, meeting the boat during one of our Mediterranean port visits. He had a cold and cough when he arrived and I saw him at sick call. His symptoms were typical of a viral upper respiratory infection (URI), what you would commonly call a bad cold or a touch of the flu. He had a fever of about 101, muscle and joint aches and pains, a headache, and a significant but dry cough. His lungs sounded fine and his heart was ticking along normally. He was a young, healthy sailor who'd managed to catch a dose of the "travel crud."
Travel crud is a pretty common malady. When a sailor meets his ship overseas, the travel part can be pretty exhausting. Long plane rides, bus and taxi rides, overnight stays in transient barracks or foreign hotels, and the stress of joining a new command. Lots of time spent in crowded conditions with dozens or even hundreds of people doing the same thing. Hurry up and wait, long hours of confinement in the closed atmosphere of airplanes and transient quarters. Miserable food, usually some level of dehydration, little if any real rest or sleep, and little if any exercise other than lugging that dammed heavy seabag across half the globe. Your travel companions come from all over the country, and you meet other travelers from all over the planet. Everyone breathes the same air, and everyone shares bugs. Many of those bugs your immune system hasn't seen before, and you return the favor, sharing bugs that are strange to your companions. At the end of the journey you're exhausted, malnourished, dehydrated, dirty, smelly, and in a very different time zone. Each of those stressors chip away a bit at the efficiency and efficacy of your immune system.
If you think about it, it's pretty amazing that we can survive the experience at all. Almost all of us do, though, almost all the time, and usually with nothing worse than a stomach ache or a case of the sniffles.
But sometimes the outcome is much worse.
We'll never know exactly why, but but some combination of travel stressors put Jim Mayhall's immune system enough out of whack that what began as a mild case of travel crud turned into a raging bacterial septicemia. Only a few hours after I'd sent him to his rack with a routine URI he was in the ship's ICU with bilateral fulminant pneumonia, fighting for his life.
Despite our best medical efforts Jim died the next morning, about 22 hours after he came to sick call.
It's always seemed such a sad ending; a young sailor, joining his first operational command and embarking on a real-life true naval adventure, only to be cut down far from home and among strangers.
Life can be like that.
In my September 7 post I shared the tale of my infected Achilles tendon. Well, a week has gone by, and a miserable week it was. I had a lot of pain and I was pretty sick. I took massive doses of antibiotics, steroids and anti-inflammatories, and even some opiate pain medicine.
In my misery I spent no little time thinking about Calvin Junior, Jim Mayhall, and even Gus McCrae. What would be my fate? I wasn't really worried, but I knew that things could go bad pretty quickly.
On Monday I turned the corner and started to quickly get better. I'm still a bit sore and still healing, but I anticipate a return to full duty in a very short while.
As usual though, the "why" question keeps bouncing around inside my head. Why did I get better instead of the alternative? Why do some people not get better? When you get right down to it, there's just no way to know.
Life's like that