I surmise that anybody who’s been following this revival of my father’s writing has learned by now that Harvey died of cancer in 1958 at the ripe young age of 37. Therein lies the tragedy and the origins of the personal trauma that I’m exploring now (while undergoing a fresh round of new personal trauma right here in 2018. But we’ll get to that later…).
We don’t really know a whole lot about his illness nor his death. It came, frankly, as a complete surprise to my siblings and me, although I was only 7 years old at the time and my sister only 4. My brother (also currently deceased) might have had more of a grasp of it, but even he was only 10 years old at the time.
Almost everything I ever knew about his illness (which is to say, nothing), was expressed in a poem I wrote a long time ago about the Little Green Boat our family owned while we still lived near the Shrewsbury River in Rumson, New Jersey.
What I do have in the archives that I’m rummaging through now are three short essays that Harvey wrote about his experiences in the world of mid-1950s medical care. Herewith, then, are those three essays, starting with:
A Visit To The Mayo Clinic – December, 1956
It’s peculiar that when reading the travel and resort section of the Sunday papers that I have never noticed any ads for Rochester, Minnesota as the ideal winter vacation spot. Much is written about Miami, Palm Beach, Bermuda, and the West Indies. But who is singing the praises of this happy little village nestled peacefully in the Zumbro Valley? (named for its discoverer Sam Zumbro, who mistakenly thought he had found the Khyber Pass.)
Why the columnists and press agents have overlooked Rochester’s possibilities is hard to understand. Think of its advantages. No golf with tired feet, blistered hands, and sly foot motions to get the ball out of the nasty holes in the ground. No fishing with sunburned backs, tired arms and cans of unhappy worms. No tiring tennis; no wet, sloppy sailing; no canoeing, no archery, and no mumbly-peg. And think of the nights! Those glorious, heavenly cha-cha-less, mambo-less nights. None of the usual callow vacation fair; instead we have the shining magnificence of the Mayo Clinic.
Here among the terrazzo floors, the marble columns, and the softly-glowing luminescent ceilings is all you can ask for. Here is the medical profession operating at the peak of its stainless-steel efficiency.
I approached the registration desk somewhat timidly – after all I was only a patient. A Univac machine dressed up like a girl asked me what I wanted. I explained it to her. “Yes,” she answered, her lights flashing and buzzers humming, “Take this card. Fill it out. Wait over there. You are number 338.” I was delighted. The same technique the butcher shop used.
I filled out my card and sat waiting – feeling somewhat like a dozen loin lamb chops. I was called. I was sent to another waiting room. I waited. I read the Reader’s Digest – all of it. I was called. I went into an examination room. I waited. Then a doctor appeared. Somehow it made me feel better about the whole business. There really were doctors here.
The doctor read my reports and looked at my x-rays. (Some of those shots are really great – they do terrific things for my acne.). I stripped and got the usual medical going-over: the thumping, bumping, lights-in-the-face, the ahh-ing and the rest of it. There was also a hal-fhearted (you put your hyphens where you want to; I’ll put mine where I want to) rectal exam. The doctor made a preliminary diagnosis – I was alive. Then he left. Later in the afternoon Dr. Heck, chief of hematology came in and re—ran the same examination on me. He concluded that some tests ought to be run.
So tomorrow I go back for the testing. I am not sure exactly what is going to be run, but I believe there will be a sedimentation rate, a hemoglobin count, a Wasserman, a percolation test, and deep-pocket-book analysis. That’s all for now. Will report more tomorrow.
Mayo Clinic Second Day
Well, it dawned cold and snowing today at dear old Camp Band-Aid. I upped at about six in order to have breakfast and keep my morning appointments which started at 7:30. This was “Be Kind to Vampires Day”. I went to the assembly hall, got my usual number and waited to be called.
I was called and filed into a neat little room – along with 10 other people. Behind a spotless white desk sat two spotless technicians. It was all very efficient. One was a swabber and the other a pricker. The pricker also did the business with the pipettes, glass slides and the like. The swabber did swabbing and filing. Most of the people had a pipette and a slide or two. But there must have been something particularly fascinating about my blood. I had about three pipettes and maybe a dozen slides. Along about the 10th slide I began wondering if her teeth didn’t look maybe just a little bit pointed.
At 10 o’clock came the marrow test. This is a cheerful bit of business involving chest shaving, Novocain, and a large needle. Officiating at this were an attractive technician, a young doctor named Stanley, and in Supreme Command a lady doctor named Pease. The shaving and anesthetic bit went along brilliantly, but there was some slight difficulty when it came to getting the sampling needle in. The doctor (male) pushed and shoved but the needle kept bobbing up out of place (Old rubber bones we used to call him in those days.). I suggested an air-hammer, but they didn’t seem to have one available. Finally CICHIB (Commander In Chief Holes In Bones) Pease came to the rescue. She caddied while Stanley drove. A beautiful maneuver, and I trust, successful. I just hope that their marrow sample is in no way contaminated by the inclusion of kapok from the mattress on which I was lying.
That was that. They offered me a drink of water which I rejected. I somehow thought a Bloody Mary – a real one – would be more appropriate, but didn’t say anything. I was instructed to come back at three and see Dr. Heck.
Armed with “Pageant” magazine I appeared at the proper waiting room at the prescribed hour. I finished Pageant (it’s got quite a few pictures) and was told that Dr. Heck was ready to see me. It was mutual. He asked me how I felt, and I told him that my chest was sore. He agreed that this was proper and advised me that he had nothing else to report at that time. He told me to report back to him at 11 the next morning. I saluted and left.
Tonight I will go see two Gary Cooper movies, which will about exhaust Rochester’s supply. However maybe tomorrow will be a big day. After all it’s Friday.
That’s all he wrote. If there was more, it’s lost to posterity.
The “bone marrow test” is the only clue we have re: the affliction that ultimately cost this vibrant young man his life: multiple myeloma (how interesting that the Google search went straight to a page from the Mayo Clinic!?) – a cancer that effects white blood cells and bone marrow.
Is interesting to read now – from the Mayo Clinic’s website:
Treatment for multiple myeloma isn’t always necessary for people who aren’t experiencing any signs or symptoms. For people with multiple myeloma who require treatment, a number of treatments are available to help control the disease.
I don’t think there was any prospect of “controlling” the disease in the 1950s.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 (“Hospitality”) and 3 (“Dear Renee and Jules”)