Mary, Paul, Jim, Hubert after Paul’s Surgery
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
The grant that paid for Sis’s open-heart surgery required periodic follow-up visits in Richmond. At first it was every six months, then every year over a multi-year period. She did well with her recovery, enjoyed high school, and became an avid reader. She became increasingly interested in nursing as well, and after high school attended the Northampton-Accomack Hospital’s LP Nursing course on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
This was before construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, so trips back and forth were made on a large ferry boat. Usually the trip took about an hour-and-a-half, but one time they were caught in a heavy storm. Sheets of wind-driven rain along with high waves rocked the boat and slowed the trip to four hours. They had taken Paul and Jimmy along that time, and both boys saw it as more or an adventure than did their parents.
After Hugh T went into the army, Mary kept in touch with him through a regular exchange of letters. When he was transferred to a Virginia post following schooling in New York, she rejoiced. As expected, he was able to come home many weekends, but she soon found it was not just to be with the family. He spent most of his time at home with a girl named Beverly. They had dated in high school, even though she was two years behind his class, and Mary had thought the interest would die out when he went into the service.
Instead of that, the relationship deepened. After six months in Virginia, Hugh T’s duty station was changed…he was reassigned to the 319th Station Hospital in Bussac, France. He would be there for two years. Mary’s real surprise came when he announced that he and Beverly had become engaged. She talked to him about the age difference between them and thought they should wait until he returned. She had only to remember her own teenage engagement to Artie, however, to understand what was going on.
After about a year she received a letter from Hugh T. “I guess I should tell you, I got my ‘Dear John’ letter from Bev a few weeks ago. We’ve got a ‘Dear John Bulletin Board’ here in the barracks, and I put mine up there with the rest She said her daddy told her how it was when he was in the service, and he was sure I was unfaithful to her. I wrote back that it’s not true, but she hasn’t responded.”
Mary felt both relief and concern. It seemed this might be the hand of God at work. Hugh T had written her the previous fall that he’d accepted a call to the ministry and would be going to college to prepare when he came home. It dawned on her that in recent weeks her efforts to stay in touch with Beverly had not worked out. When she talked with Hugh about it she said, “God knows best!” That settled it for her.
While her daughter and oldest son were breaking out of the nest, Jimmy was very much still in it. He attended Keezletown School and came home one day with an announcement. “You don’t need to go to that meeting tonight, Mom. Most of the parents don’t go, so you’d just be wasting your time.”
Since he was referring to a PTA meeting, that comment aroused her curiosity. “Oh, really?” she said. “You just thought I should know that, huh?”
He did a little shuffle. “Yeah. You’ve got enough other stuff to do.”
“Well, thanks for telling me. I hate to disappoint you, though, because I’ve already made plans to be there. Even if it’s boring, I’ll be okay.”
“No, Mom, really, you don’t need to go.”
She stooped down and looked him in the eye. “Have you done something you don’t want me to know about?”
“Well, I’m going, and I’ll find out if you have.”
She found the meeting to be uneventful where Jimmy was concerned. His teacher told her he did his work, although he talked a lot, but he wasn’t a problem. Mary couldn’t figure out what was going on…until she walked into the house later.
Jimmy looked a little sheepish when she spoke to him. “It looks like you’re doing well in school…but your teacher did say you talk too much. What do you think we should do about that?”
He sidestepped the question. “Now they’ll all know,” he pouted. “They’ll know you look old enough to be my grandmother.”
Mary pulled him to her. “Do you mean you think I look old because I have gray hair?”
He finally admitted it, and they talked that over. Jimmy was a sensitive boy, and he felt he had hurt his mom’s feelings. To make up for it, he made her a card that was decorated with flowers. He wrote on it, “Though your hair is gray, you are as gay as May.” It was something she would cherish for years to come.
Hugh had built a grate into the downstairs ceiling so heat from a gas stove in the living room could circulate up to the bedrooms. It also allowed sound to travel through the house. Mary had a small piano in the living room and every night she would read Paul and Jimmy a story, then go downstairs and play lullabies to help them go to sleep. She made those things into times of special bonding with them.
As usual, things didn’t stay settled too long in the Harris household. Mary was surprised when an orthopedic doctor at the clinic in Harrisonburg asked to talk with her after one of Paul’s visits.
“I just want to share something with you that might be good for Paul. You remember we did some tests that indicated he would be left-handed if he could use his hands.”
“Yes,” she replied, curiosity rising.
“There are a group of doctors doing some very impressive things with neurosurgery at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. I’ve been talking with them about Paul, and we feel there’s a chance they can help him become able to use that hand.”
Mary leaned forward. One effect of severe CP was a condition called dystonia–an involuntary contraction of his muscles that caused uncontrollable repetitive motions. In Paul’s case, his hands and arms would move exactly opposite of the way he intended. His dad had devised padded hand restraints to keep him from scratching his face or experiencing other difficulties. If just one hand could be free, what a difference it would make for him.
“As I said, this procedure is being used successfully with Parkinson’s patients,” the doctor explained further. “It involves inserting electrodes into a part of the brain that is malfunctioning, then creating lesions to correct that condition. It’s called a pallidotomy.”
Mary considered his words and asked questions. “Won’t this be hard on him? How long will the operation take…and his recovery? How many other CP patients have had this and has it been successful for them?”
“Those are good questions. I don’t know how many CP patients have received this surgery since this is a new application of it. Paul will be sedated. The procedure will take some time, mostly for mapping his brain to determine the right place to implant the electrodes.”
Mary and Hugh talked about it with Paul at home. He had no reservations. “I want to do it,” he said.
She had seen him accept his physical limitations with a patience she knew could only come from God. She couldn’t pass up even an outside chance that he could be helped, but she wanted to feel God’s blessing in it. She prayed, Lord, if this is your will, then we’ll do it. She felt reassured in her spirit and the surgery was arranged.
When Paul was admitted to UVA Hospital, Mary arranged to stay in the room with him. She slept in a chair to be available when nurses came in. On the day of surgery she and Hugh waited through the long hours. Finally the doctor came into the room and she knew by his expression that something was wrong.
“I’m sorry, but I have bad news for you. Paul’s okay–he did fine and is in recovery…but we weren’t able to get the results we had hoped for.”
“So”–Mary hesitated–“nothing will change with his hands and muscle spasms?”
“I’m afraid not.”
It was a huge let-down. Hugh went back out to work and Mary stayed on. Paul would be in the hospital for a few days. On his second day, however, his condition set off alarms that brought doctors and nurses rushing to him. He had developed pneumonia. More than ever, Mary felt she needed to be with him, but now she wasn’t permitted to stay overnight.
She rented a room in a hotel across the street from the hospita, which enabled her to get some sleep at night. Each morning she went to his room at seven o’clock, and stayed until eleven each night. Paul was comatose. They did a tracheotomy to help him breathe. Watching him go through all of that was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
As she arrived at the hospital one morning a nurse who had been with Paul on the night shift recognized her. She told her something that reassured Mary of God’s care.
“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but while I was sitting at the desk writing charts, something kept telling me to go see Paul. I tried to ignore the thought, but it persisted. So i went to his room and he was turning blue. I ran down the hall to call for oxygen and just as I got to the elevator, the door opened. An orderly came out with a tank of oxygen. I told him I needed it for Paul, right away! He said, ‘That’s where I’m taking it–I was putting it away and something told me Paul needed it badly.'”
Mary heaved a deep sigh of thanks and praise to God. I asked you to take care of him, Lord, and I don’t know why this surgery didn’t work, or why he has pneumonia…but I know you are here with him, and with his nurses. Thank you!
Within weeks Paul recovered enough to return home, but he was very weak and needed a lengthy recuperation. One evening she put him at the window to watch a brilliant sunset while she was busy in the next room. He called to her…”That’s what it looks like!”
She went to him. “What is?”
“When I was so sick…I died and went to heaven. It was so beautiful, all bright, shining gold and pink. Jesus met me and held me in his arms. He told me he wasn’t going to let me stay because my parents still needed me.”
An incredible sense of peace came over Mary. She felt goose bumps on her body, and beneath them was that same sense of positive energy she remembered the night when Paul was very small and she committed her total trust to God. She held onto him, closed her eyes and felt God’s grace at work.
“I wanted to tell you in the hospital,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”
Of course! The tracheotomy had prevented speech. She watched him as the sun continued to set. This was so vivid for him. She gave thanks for Paul’s unwavering faith and courage. Words from John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace, came into her mind. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Yes! she whispered in her spirit…all things are possible by God’s grace!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)