Smelling of Pickles

I don’t know if you have noticed it or not, but there is one product that has invaded and taken over the entire spectrum of health, homemaking, and cleaning do-it-yourself tips and therapies on the web. If you google almost any problem you are having this product will very likely be found among the possible solutions.

What is it? Why, Apple Cider Vinegar, that’s what. Has your pet peed on the sofa – use warm water, ACV, and maybe a drop or two of dishwashing liquid. Fungus on your feet – the same solution. Digestive system giving you fits – drinking two tablespoonfuls of ACV every morning may very well put you right. Dry skin or eczema – a little dab will do ya. The list goes on.

We’ve tried a couple of applications where it seemed to work, and several others where the jury is still out. Just to see, you know? So far there have been no reports of genetic breakage in people who use the stuff, no errant strands of DNA out there to cause mischief or cancers. I actually like the repurposing of a homely substance like this, and can easily imagine how all these recommendations came to be.

Good Lord, look at that mess on the stovetop, hand me something to clean it off with, would you?

All we’ve got is this jug of vinegar.

Well, bring it here, it’s probably better than nothing.

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We all know about ear-worms, those times when a pesky tune keeps repeating in your head all day in spite of your attempts to cancel it. While I dislike the term itself, I don’t contest its reality. Most of the time this is benign, except for the times when the tune is one that soundly deserves to be forgotten, like anything recorded by the Starland Vocal Band.

What I’m having trouble with this week is not a song but an equivalent, a memory of an event from a long time ago. A memory that will not be civilized and allow itself to be tucked away. It started as a dream fragment, and now has moved into my waking day. Ordinarily I wouldn’t care much, except that this one is from a horror documentary in which I was a player.

Station 55 at the old University of Minnesota Hospital was where the children were cared for whose ages were between one and five years. This meant that it was where the majority of children hospitalized with acute lymphatic leukemia could be found. This incident took place in 1966, when I was a first-year house officer, and involved a four year-old girl named Emily who had ALL. In 1966 the 5 year life expectancy for ALL was zero percent. Therapies might achieve a brief remission, or even two brief remissions in rare instances, but that was it.

Oh, there was a report from Philadelphia of a single child who had made it to five years, but our hematologists believed him to have been misdiagnosed. All of the rest had perished in the unquiet ways that childhood cancer afforded them.

Emily had achieved her first remission, but was right then at a very vulnerable stage, with not enough platelets in her bloodstream to stop a bleed if one began, and not enough white blood cells to fight off an infection should one develop. Allow enough time to pass and these necessaries would come back, but right now she was walking a precarious line indeed.

One afternoon, not long after the noon meal, Emily got a nosebleed. First it was a slight trickle that we tried to stop with topical anticoagulation. Then it became a gusher where we packed her nose with cotton, which she absolutely hated and where she fought our efforts. Any four year-old would do the same, as it was a hateful and uncomfortable process. But it seemed to do the trick. We stood back from her bed, and she was able to settle down, while looking awfully pathetic with those cotton plugs in her nostrils.

And then Emily threw up a truly massive amount of blood that she had swallowed. The bleeding that had been prevented from escaping through her nose had not stopped but had been swallowed instead. At that moment everything went into high gear, at a speed fueled by growing desperation. We began repeated transfusions of whole blood to try to keep up with losses. We gave packs of platelets to try to plug the leaks that we could not see. We called in the ENT surgeons to see if packing from behind would be feasible.

But the bleeding would not slow down. The child’s gown would be changed and soon the new one would be completely soaked. The bed was a jumble of bloody sheets littered with empty gauze packages and tape spools from attempts at inserting larger intravenous cannulas to give more fluids more rapidly. A clear memory is the look of terror in Emily’s eyes, staring at us out of her blood-covered face. There was terror on the faces of the staff as well because we knew too much to believe that we could save her life but were too filled with fear to accept any other outcome.

The staff kept working for more than two hours, well beyond the point where there was a child left to save. Emily had long before this lost consciousness and had needed to be resuscitated several times. Finally, when yet another arrest occurred, one of us had the strength to call it quits. I no longer remember which of us it was that had that much presence of mind.

That evening I was at home, sitting at the supper table with my oldest kids, who were ages two and three. They were being their normal messy selves at table, squabbling with each other, playing with their food … the moment was filled with opportunities for me to reprimand them. But I didn’t. At one point I realized that I had completely tuned out everything else and had been staring fixedly at them for several minutes. Just watching two small children being very slightly naughty. But oh my, they were healthy.

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In med school, as I rotated through he various clerkships, I went from wanting to become a general practitioner to thinking that OB-GYN was the place for me, to pediatrics. After the pediatric clerkship experience I no longer wavered and realized that this was what I wanted to do.

Some of my medical school classmates would ask why – why choose this specialty? The kids that we dealt with were so ill and their clinical courses often heartbreaking to watch. My answer was always this question. If we all stopped going into pediatrics, would the children stop needing help?

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Apropos of nothing, this is a favorite photograph of my parents Joseph and Eleanor, taken at a popular Minneapolis dance hall, the Prom Ballroom. This would have been in the early 1940s.

My existence is entirely their fault.

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One of my favorite scenarios in a play or movie is where several strangers are stranded in an isolated location, usually a hotel or a diner. Most often they are sitting out the weather, and in the course of several hours we learn who those people are and how they came to be in this place.

A perfect example is the film Key Largo, where a group of criminals are trapped with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. A tropical storm brings them all together at a small tourist hotel and the drama flows from there.

We watched a variation on that theme this week in a Netflix movie entitled No Exit. A snowstorm gathers several people at a rest stop, where we find that everybody has a backstory, unbelievable coincidences come at you every ten minutes or so, and the off-label uses of a nail gun becomes the story line toward the end.

Key Largo is a great movie, a classic. No Exit comes no closer to greatness than the text on a cereal box rivals War and Peace, but it does achieve serious grisly.

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Along the pathway of your life, I’m certain you have run across the interesting process of imprinting in various species. For instance if when a greylag goose hatches you take care of it and keep it with you in its first days out of the egg, it thinks you are its mother and will follow you about the barnyard from then on.

Well, looking back on my own days here on planet earth, it’s pretty obvious that part of my having a crush on a girl was that I imprinted, just like one of those goslings. All things that person liked became my own favorites, at least for a long while. Sometimes that “long while” outlasted the relationship itself. Music fell into this category of things.

So when I read the obituary of Giovanna Carmella Babbo this morning, there was a twinge. And I turned to my music collection to find that there were quite a few of her songs in there left over from 1956, when I “went steady” for a year with a girl who eventually (figuratively) stopped the car, told me to get out, tossed my class ring out the window and went on to meet another guy while I trudged the weary and desolate miles to home.

Now if you are Giovanna Carmella Babbo, and you want a recording career, someone is bound to tell you that a name change might be a good thing. At least that was true in the fifties. So this singer became known as Joni James, and she was very large through that decade and a few years into the sixties. In my listening this morning I recalled the powerful angstiness of teen-age romance, and the talent of the singer whose work was the soundtrack to my year of going steady.

Have You Heard, by Joni James

The recording is dated, with the lush string arrangements that were so common in that decade. And the lyrics are often a bit over the top. But you know, I still like her voice, and those of you who have ever fallen hard for somebody along your way know that there is no such thing as “over the top” during such times.

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