THE ANGEL'S STORY Chapter 2
The year was 1966. We were living just outside of Springfield, in the sleepy little hamlet of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where my husband Bowie Duncan, held his first teaching position. He taught English at the Wilbraham Academy, an excellent, private preparatory school for boys. On November 2,1966, James McKay Duncan arrived on the scene: 7lbs.8oz., strong and healthy! On March 19,1968 and well into our second year on campus, our second child arrived safely at a healthy 7lbs. 2oz. Her brother McKay was delighted with the arrival of his little sister and promptly christened her "Gitty," a name with which she would be permanently tagged. Gitty's birthday was happy and thankfully uneventful. In those days, young mothers spent at least five days in the hospital after each birth, with plenty of time for the mothers to recuperate and.... plenty of time to pick up an infection from the hospital environment as well!
It was during those postpartum days in the Springfield Hospital that our tiny treasure picked up a little sniffle. This little sniffle however turned out to be a very stubborn head cold, which would follow her home to Wilbraham. These sniffles did not go away however. Instead this nasty head cold would cling to her, day after day, week after week. This severity of her cold caused the hospital’s pediatrician to hold off on her early childhood vaccinations. "As soon as this cold clears up,” her doctor assured us, "we will catch her up on her regimen of vaccinations." Excepting for the sniffles, Gitty seemed to be very healthy and her doctor did not think a short delay in the administration of these vaccines would be something for us to worry about. Gitty was a happy, healthy, rosy-cheeked child and... excepting for this persistent sniffle, her appetite and weight gain were good. Her checkups were fine too, and our little angel thrived despite this head cold, which continued to linger ..... I mean it just hung in there!
After six weeks, of being told that there was nothing to worry about, I switched doctors. Dr. H.H. Schumann of Springfield, Massachusetts was now on the case. He too preferred to hold off on her vaccinations until the last traces of the cold had left her body. The cold, although not an apparent problem to Gitty, in and of itself, worried me … not because Gitty seemed to be sick, to the contrary, she was thriving. It was just that the cold hung in there and wouldn't let go, week after week, two weeks, three weeks, six weeks and eight weeks with no let up. Because of this head cold, we could not administer her vaccinations.
In May of 1968, my husband's parents, VIVI and Cameron Duncan, invited us to visit them in San Antonio, Texas. I asked Dr. Schumann for his opinion and he assured us that such a trip would be fine for Gitty. He felt that the Texas sunshine would most likely kill off the cold virus and that we could catch up on her vaccination program when she returned. Traveling by car was recommended as the congestion from the head cold could conceivably cause a severe and painful ear condition while in flight. And so, the trip to Texas was planned and we were off... without a care in the world … touring southward... purring over the asphalt ribbons of Route 66. This was our first major outing since Gitty's birthday.
Dr. Schumann was right of course, and as soon as we hit the Texas sunshine, Gitty's cold vanished altogether. The weather was perfect. It was a joyous occasion and many of the Texas relatives stopped by to welcome "Pretty-Gitty" into the world. All of San Antonio seemed to welcome us. It was a lovely holiday together. We spent most of our time in Port Aransas, in the Duncan's summer home, close to the seaside on the Gulf of Mexico. McKay caught his first fish with his grandfather "Big Cam," a three inch special, all caught on camera of course! We met many family friends at the luncheons and Bar-B-Qs. The swimming, fishing and walks on the beach all made for a beautiful and very welcome vacation.
ViVi and Cameron were both from old Texas families. They lived in a world of ranchers, cowboys, cattle and cotton, oil and gas. The land portrayed in the movie, "Giant” with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor came to life right before my eyes. Yes it was real. They were true Texans, in every sense of the word, because they had lived through the tough times of building and developing ranch lands in the "early" days of Texas. Ranch properties are large in Texas and spread out across the state. Because it takes so many acres to support one cow, ranches are by necessity very large. Everything in Texas is big, big and open with tremendous skies, sweeping the heavens in a glory of ever changing colors.
The days passed quickly. The holiday over, it was time to head home. After many good byes, hugs and kisses, we were off once again. We would take a new route home for the sake of adventure. This time we headed north, winding our way toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and toward the tiny town of Edmonston, Maryland. We would not be returning to Springfield or the happy days at the Wilbraham Academy. My husband would now be studying for a Masters Degree in American Studies, which he felt he would need, if he were to continue his career in education. While at the Academy for the past two years, Bowie discovered that he loved teaching and that the young men he taught, loved him. Teaching for my husband was becoming a career choice. Career choices however, have many requirements and one them is to keep up with the demands of the profession....in other words: more schooling! A four-year, Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College was no longer enough these days. Consequently, Bowie decided to go for a Masters Degree and a PhD Degree in the American Studies Division at the University of Maryland.
On the third day of our return trip, the Blue Ridge Mountains appeared in the distance. Rising upwards, all around us, and longing for a poet's voice to do them justice, the landscapes were magnificent, all hand painted by Mother Nature herself. Across the horizon, broad rivers sparkled, splitting the valley's floors. This was the very same view that had given rise to the beloved folk tune "Oh Shenandoah." It was easy for us to imagine perhaps a ten-year stop-over and never ever again moving on. The Shenandoah Valley is like no other. It looks like, smells like, sounds like and emotionally in every way, and modifies the word "Home." If it were not for the fact that Bowie was beginning to work on his degree at the University in the Fall...well...I suppose that both of us would have been quite happy to set up shop, somewhere, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gazing over the summer meadows and lush forests, we were surely close to heaven...close enough to speak with God in person.
We stopped along the way at a charming country inn and had a fine breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and hot coffee. Off once again, the children settled down for a nap. Time slipped by and soon we were high up in the hills ... about a day's drive from our new home in Edmonston, Maryland. It was shortly after breakfast that I first noticed that our baby girl was unusually quiet. She had been sleeping deeply for some time. Rosy-cheeked and very lovely, I leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. A mother's kiss is ever so sensitive to temperature changes and this gentle kiss had told me that all was not as it should be. I awakened Gitty to breast feed her and checked her temperature, and sure enough, she had spiked a low-grade fever of ninety-nine degrees. A certain uneasiness began to creep over me. I gave her a time-honored Saint Joseph’s, orange Baby Aspirin and although I did not know it at the time, we were beginning a dreadful journey, which was to last for more than a year.
Two hours later, a fever check revealed that Gitty's fever had not responded to the baby aspirin. "Something in the way of a response should have happened by now," I thought. "Hmmm..... Why? Why had she not responded to the aspirin? Maybe I should give her another one." An uneasiness which all mothers know at some time or other when they are raising a child … began metastasizing deep within me. "Something is up. I'm not sure what it is," I said to Bowie, "but something is definitely up. Let's not spend the night in the mountains. I think we should drive straight through to Maryland tonight, even if we have to drive all night. Something is just not quite right with this aspirin business...not right at all....I can just feel it...I know it." I gave her another baby aspirin and we drove on. Another hour passed. Still there was no response. Her temperature was holding steady at ninety-nine degrees. The up and down roads which entertained the Valley's guests and were so celebrated by them, now challenged us in a very different way. The silent and unfamiliar roads were twisting and turning into the darkness of the West Virginia night.
We drove through that night, pulling into little Edmonston, at about eight o’clock in the morning and had breakfast at the local I-HOP, (International House of Pancakes) which was within walking distance of our new home. While Bowie cared for McKay and Gitty, I cornered a waitress and asked her, if she had the name of a pediatrician. I explained that we were new in town and did not yet have a family doctor to go to. “Here-ya-go-honey” she said, as she wrote down the name of Dr. Aaron-Smith. "You’re gonna-love him. Give him a hug for me and tell him Arabella sent you.”
After digging around for a dime in my purse, I was able to reach Dr. Aaron-Smith’s office and to make an appointment for Gitty in the early afternoon. We finished breakfast at the I-Hop and headed for home. The movers had already shipped our belongings to Edmonston, a low rent district close by the University of Maryland. Our pots, pans and beds and dishes anxiously awaited our arrival. Vacation was over and now we were looking forward to settling into our new home, setting up shop and preparing for the Fall Semester. Although the neighborhood was pretty run down, our little three-room house had been freshly painted, and was clean and tidy. Setting up the crib was the first priority and then it was off with Gitty to the doctor’s office in nearby Bladensburg.
Quietly and gently, Dr. Aaron-Smith, carefully examined Gitty from head to toe. “Ah, this little one is a cutie,” Dr. Aaron-Smith declared. “You can get her dressed now Mrs. Duncan. I think your daughter has a mild respiratory infection and because I have not seen your little one before and do not know her history, I am going to give her an injection of a non-allergic, antibiotic called Lincomycin, and we will just watch her closely and see how she does. Come see me tomorrow, at four in the afternoon, here in my office, and we will keep a close eye on her. She will be just fine. And by the way Mrs. Duncan, welcome to our neighborhood. The people here are very friendly. I do hope you will be as happy as are my wife and family. Call me if I can be of further help to you or if you have any further concerns about your daughter. I will be here if you need me Dear, but I am sure she will be just fine. See you tomorrow.” Feeling ever so much better with the diagnosis, I bundled Gitty up and trundled her off to our new home.
The day was spent unpacking moving cartons…setting up beds and finding the needed pots and pans, lamps and dishes. McKay was diving in and out of the packing bubbles and Gitty was quiet and sleeping comfortably. However … Temperature checks, throughout the afternoon, showed me that her temperature was not responding to this new medication either. By ten o’clock in the evening that nasty fear feeling returned. Gitty’s temperature zeroed in at a steady ninety- nine degrees. Not high, but worrisome. I knew that it was not high, but I could not understand why her temperature would not respond to either aspirin or to the Lincomycin. I checked up on her throughout the night. She slept soundly. By six AM, when I kissed her good morning, her temperature was holding steady. At this time, I noticed that her pupils were dilated. Gitty was very quiet, and lay very, very still in her crib. Instinct told me that I had to get her into a Hospital and to do it now. The little voice in my head insisted: “Sterett, do it now… and don’t wait” We had been in Edmonston less than twenty-four hours and we knew no one! With no telephone or telephone books …. Where in the hell was the hospital?
It was back to the I-HOP with Gitty in tow. I-HOP was my only contact with civilization. Pushing through the entrance door and in a steady and determined voice, loud enough for all to hear, I said: “Someone? Anyone? ....Hello! ..... Hello …Please help me. My baby is very sick. Where is the nearest hospital? Please someone.... Anyone? ... Please help us.” The I-HOP chef stepped forward and pointed in a South Easterly direction. “Take her to Saint Georges... It’s only a few miles away. Turn right out of the parking lot and follow the signs. You will see it on the right hand side of the road. You can’t miss it. It’s a big red brick complex. Good Luck Mam.” I thanked him and headed for the emergency room in Prince George’s County Hospital. When I arrived, it was 7:45 AM. Looking up from her desk work, I was greeted by the attending nurse on duty. “Good Morning Mam. May I have your name please?” I gave her my name. “Has a doctor seen your child before?” Fumbling through my pocketbook, I found Dr. Aaron-Smith's card... “Yes Mam,” I replied. “Yesterday morning, in his office in Bladensburg. His name is Dr. Aaron-Smith.” Here…here is his card with his name and number.” I handed the card to the nurse. “ Will you please call him for me,” I asked. “My baby needs to see him right away.” “Now Mrs. Duncan, if your baby has already been seen by Dr. Aaron-Smith, then you will have to wait until his office opens at nine o’clock. It is still rather early you know... We will be glad to call him for you then. Her eyes dropped downward as she returned to her tasks at hand. The warning signs, which only mothers seem to know, would not let me accept her words. And yes, I was rude to the nurse and yes … I insisted that the doctor be called. “Please call him on an emergency basis. You can call him on an emergency basis can’t you?” “ I am sorry. You will just have to wait Mrs. Duncan. I am sorry... So if you will please take a seat in the waiting room, I am sure Dr. Smith will be in his office shortly. It is almost eight o’clock now and Doctor is usually in his office by nine.
Peering up at me from behind her steel rimmed glasses, the nurse said, “Your baby is already on Lincomycin you said? ...Yes? She will be all right. So just calm yourself down Mrs. Duncan. Doctor will be in soon.” “Excuse me please,” I said…At this point I thought I was speaking directly to nurse Ratchet. “Nurse… please…you will call Dr. Aaron-Smith now or I will get another doctor. At this point the nurse gave in and in a rather nasty tone, called the doctor at his home. “Good Morning Doctor, I am so sorry to call you so early this morning, but there is an overly anxious mother here who insisted that I call you. I told her that you would be in your office by nine but…yes…Yes.” There was a long pause… and then “Yes…Yes Doctor….Yes, I understand. Mrs. Duncan? Dr. Aaron-Smith will speak with you now.” The attending nurse extended the receiver to me. Holding Gitty closely, I took hold of the phone. “Good Morning Dr. Aaron-Smith. I am here in the Emergency Room. I do not like what I am seeing in my child. Please, I want you to come in and see her now. I know something is wrong. Something is wrong. I am sure of it. Please, Please come see her.” “I will see her as soon as I can Dear. She is already on Lincomycin and she will be just fine. Now don’t worry Mrs. Duncan. I suggest,” Dr. Aaron-Smith spoke firmly and with great deliberation, “that we have her admitted into the hospital this morning, and I promise you, I will put her at the top of my list. She will be my very first patient at four o’clock this afternoon.” I thanked Dr. Aaron-Smith and returned the receiver to the nurse. Then I heard her laugh and say, “Yes…I understand….Don’t worry Doctor. We will take care of it. Mrs. Duncan, will you please come over here with your child to the admitting desk. Doctor wants you child admitted now, and he will see her at four o’clock this afternoon. I went through the process of admitting and shortly thereafter, Gitty was tucked away into an immaculate, sun-yellow nursery, still sleeping soundly. The Admitting process and the hospital noises had not disturbed her sleep in anyway.
I thanked the nurses and while Gitty lay sleeping, I slipped out of her room, into the hallway, and down the stairs. I decided to scoot home to pick up some personal things and to give my husband an update…but by the time I had reached the parking lot, the once quiet questions in my head, were now loud and noisy. “Why? Why? Why the stubborn fever? Why the stiffness in her body. Why did she not cry? Why did she sleep so much? Why were the pupils dilated?” These questions flashed about my brain like a pinball and were now yelling back at me; demanding to be heard and demanding answers.
Sitting in my truck, I found myself recounting a vivid conversation in the summer of 1954 with a dear family friend: Dr. Robert Riggins, who was at that time, attending medical school at the Columbia School of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. When I was thirteen, medical school was my goal in life. I wanted to become a doctor! All conversations regarding doctors, hospitals, operations, blood, guts and television programs, which were medically related, were absolutely fascinating to me. That wonderful summer, I spent many hours with Bobby Riggins. We listened to the classical music station, WQXR, sang Yale’s Whiffenpoof songs and went to the movies to see The Bridges of Tokerie with William Holden. In general, we solved all the problems of the world. I loved the company of grown-ups because they were interested in the same things I was, unlike most kids my own age. I remembered, one of our conversations was about hospital care. Bobby’s words of warning that summer, now replayed loud and clear.
“If ever you get into real trouble Sweetheart, get yourself to a teaching hospital. It will most likely save your life. In a private hospital, they will make you wait for your doctor or you might have to wait for them to locate a doctor and call him in. In a teaching hospital, it may not seem as clean and fancy as a private hospital, but you will be swarmed over by a whole slew of doctors and one of them is bound to come up with the correct diagnosis and solution. You will have a far better chance for survival in a public situation than in a private one.”
Now, while standing on the hot black tars of the parking lot, this summer time chat, which happened so long ago, would be the key to saving our daughter’s life. On the spot, I decided that this was just such a time to put his words into action. “I just can’t wait until four o’clock for Dr. Aaron-Smith to show up,” I told myself. The next thing I remember, I was standing on Kenilworth Avenue, flagging down a yellow cab and asking the driver if he had ever heard of a teaching hospital for children. “Yezum der-es da Chilluns Hospital way down in DC. I kin gits you there eff’n you like. Its a goodly hike Mam, but its di-bess-en-Amurica.” “Yes Sir,” I replied. “I need to get there as soon as possible. Please stay right here. I have to go and get my baby. She is over there in the county hospital. Please stay here. Please don’t leave me.” Clutching my pocketbook and one spare diaper I ran back to the hospital and up the stairs. Walking slowly past the nurse’s station; nodding and smiling. “Hello” to those on the floor. Quietly and unobserved, I slipped into the nursery where Gitty lay sleeping. I lifted her gently from her bed and pressed her up against my shoulder and walked down the long semi lighted hospital hall. With Gitty still sleeping, we walked slowly, very slowly, to the end of the hall and then…quickly down the stair well, marked Fire Exit and outside to the fresh air, the parking lot and the waiting yellow cab.
That beautiful yellow cab was waiting there for us. God Bless him. The driver was an older colored man with a soft, southern drawl who helped the baby and me into his cab. Dizis-gonna-be a rough trip Mam. Alls-of-Washintons-on-fire-don’t-cha-no. Da-Coloreds is rioting down yonder now, don’t-cha-no, but Chillun’s Hospital is d’bes in the worl. En –effen- you-wans-ta-git there, I-be take’n-ya sho-nuff.!” “Yes, Please. God bless you mister! It will save her life.”
The race riots that started in Watts, California had spread across the nation and now Washington was ablaze. We drove right through the riots…Fire engines were everywhere. Fires were everywhere. Police were everywhere. Sirens screamed and sounds of pop-pop- pop seemed to be everywhere too. God bless this gentle soul. He helped to save Gitty’s life. We pulled into the ER entrance and within minutes, just as Bobby Riggins had predicted, a whole slew of doctors were working on her. At one point, I counted 17 white coats in the room. There were so many questions, from so many sources and all of them being asked of me all at once. “Please give us her history Mrs. Duncan.” Questions were shot at me from all sides. Then I heard among the many voices in the room, the words, “We need to do a lumbar puncture.”
At this time, I knew for sure, without question, that we were in deep, deep, trouble! Permission to do a Lumbar Puncture…. on a four month old infant... Good Grief! I knew enough to know that this was a dicey procedure on such a tiny patient. “What should I do?” “Call Dr. Schumann, Sterett. Do it now.” demanded the voice in my head. Fortunately, I was able to reach Dr. Schumann, that morning. “Yes,” he said, “Sign the release forms Sterett. You are in exactly the right place for this and yes, you are in trouble, but the Children’s Hospital is the very best place for trouble. Stay close and call me Sterett, any time. I am here for you. Mrs. Schumann and I send our love. I am so sorry that I can’t be with you now, but I can tell you this… You are in the very best place for little Gitty right now. Stay close.” And so began what was to be an unending medical nightmare.