By Edward Hogan
Edward Hogan is a retired mathematics professor. He now spends his time making furniture, gardening, and attempting to write a novel.
I am sitting in the family room watching television when my wife, Connie, comes in and shows me her thumb. It hurts, she says, and feels infected. “Should I soak it in Epsom salts?” (She is keen on soaking things in Epsom salts.) “Yeah,” I reply, unworried. She disappears and I go back to watching television.
The next morning, her thumb looks worse—and it hurts a lot. She suggests going to the urgent care by the hospital, but I suggest that she just call Spence, our family doctor. “No, I need to go someplace now,” she says.
When Connie walks up to the receptionist’s window at the urgent care, the receptionist calls over a physician’s assistant who takes one look at her thumb and says, “Go to the emergency room.”
We walk into the emergency room and up to the front desk. I leave Connie talking with the receptionist and go outside to move the car. When I return, I expect to find her waiting in a chair, but she is nowhere to be seen. The woman at the desk catches my eye. “You can go in with your wife,” she says.
She leads me back to an exam room where I see Connie surrounded by three or four doctors. One of them, an infectious disease specialist, draws lines all the way up Connie’s arm. He says that this is how far the infection has spread. Another doctor, a vascular surgeon, says the root of the problem is probably a small blood clot in Connie’s thumb. This man becomes Connie’s primary doctor for the simple reason, we learn later, that all the other doctors were reluctant to touch her case.
Connie is put in a hospital room. Dr. Spence stops in, but it is only a social call. When he hears the diagnosis, he shakes his head—this isn’t a blood clot. In his long practice, the number of infections he’s seen that are this bad could be numbered on the fingers of one hand.
Apparently, I should have been worried.
An hour after dinner they take Connie into surgery. The nurse tells me where I can wait, where the doctor will meet with me after the operation. After navigating the labyrinthine hallways, I recognize it as the waiting area for the hospital’s old emergency room. It is huge, and no one else is here. I wait for a long time, continually wondering if I am in the right place.
A group of hospital personnel walk through the room and head toward the old outside entrance to the ER. As I learn later, they have just finished working a 12-hour shift. They look exhausted. I think I recognize one of them from church, but I am not sure. As she heads toward the door, she looks up at me, stops, leaves her colleagues, and walks over. She asks if I am Connie’s husband. I ask her if I am in the right place. I am relieved when she says yes.
She insists, through my protests, that she will check on my wife. Fifteen minutes later, she comes back saying that Connie is out of surgery and has done well. This woman who barely knows me has extended her long day to bring me news of my wife.
After talking with the surgeon, I call my home teacher, hoping he’ll come to help me give Connie a blessing. He and his wife are at church teaching a class, but he says they will be right over as soon as they’re done.
I go back to Connie’s room and wait for her and our home teacher. Brother and Sister Marks arrive a few minutes before Connie does. I’m embarrassed to see Sister Marks. A few months ago I discovered that her great grandfather murdered my great grandfather’s nephew. My connection to this branch of my family is tenuous at best (I had never actually met either my great grandfather or my grandfather), but, for some reason, I am still outraged by the fact that Sister Marks’ grandfather went free after the killing. I had insisted on telling her the story as I knew it, but felt badly as soon as the words were out of my mouth. I had foolishly and needlessly attacked this woman. When she sees me in the hospital she extends her arms and embraces me.
The surgeon had made cuts in Connie’s hand, so that the infection would drain from it, along with the blood. When I see her the next morning, her hand is on an absorbent mat that is soaked with her blood. I am struck by the fact that she is being bled just as though it were the seventeenth century. It turns out that she’ll need another operation before she’ll start improving and, a few weeks later, a skin graft. The mortality rate for this disease is forty percent. She is fortunate to be alive.
When I come home from the hospital that day, I find a plastic container filled with soup on our porch. The soup looks good, but I am reluctant to eat something that mysteriously appears on my doorstep. I put it in the refrigerator. The next day I learn that one of the women from church dropped it off. Other members of our ward start dropping off food as well.
It is Friday afternoon, nine days after we first walked in the emergency room door, and we can finally go home. As we pack, I look up to see my daughter, Sarah, standing in the room, holding a bouquet of daffodils. She has driven five hours from Boston to be here. I did not know she was coming. A good Mormon, she takes her mother home while I buy medicine and bandages at the drug store. Then, on Saturday, she makes an incredible amount of food: soup, calzones, Stromboli, lasagna. We pack it into the freezer. Weeks will pass before Connie and I manage to eat it all.
As I get older, doctrine means less and less. For example, the atonement never made sense to me. It seems to say that God knocked man down so that he could lift him up again. Christ’s death seems hardly unique, much less the pinnacle of suffering. The Iroquois would torture their victims for days. My European ancestors could do a passable job of it, too. And then there is so much about the Church that shouts its lack of divinity: polygamy, sexism, racism. God may not even exist—certainly not the loving, anthropomorphic god I believe in.
But Christ’s message that we should love one another stands before me like a mountain. The humanity of the Saints sustains me like a balm. Though my faith wavers, I cannot dismiss the aid my brothers and sisters in the gospel extend. It is real, and it is wonderful.