A week ago Sunday, I received a call notifying me that mother's oldest and only surviving sister, Julia Mae Cousin, had been hospitalized in Johnson City, Tenn. to have a leg amputated. The operation was scheduled for Monday. So, I headed for Tennessee by automobile Monday morning.
I received a call en route from a cousin telling me that the surgery had been postponed until Wednesday. I contemplated turning around, but decided to continue on the 400-mile drive to be with my 89-year-old aunt. Over the Labor Day weekend, Aunt Julia Mae, a diabetic, had a toe removed. We knew the leg might be next, but we didn't expect it to be this soon.
On Tuesday, a medical official informed us that my aunt's heart was weak and that if she underwent surgery, she would have almost no chance of survival. "It doesn't look good," one nurse counseled the family. She said she would check with local hospices for an available bed. Her physician repeated the dire warning: my aunt was unlikely to survive surgery and we'd be better off moving her to a hospice and prepare for her certain death.
Based on that limited information, the family was torn: Do we risk her imminent death by going forward with the operation? Should we find a hospice and accept the inevitability of Aunt Julia Mae's demise? There were arguments to be made for each scenario. After we all weighed in, the ultimate decision would have to be made by Hattie Stuart Barkley, one of Aunt Julia Mae's daughters.
I am a descendant of fighters, both on my father's side in Reform, Ala. and my mother's side, most of whom moved from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Johnson City. In Tennessee, they voted one-by-one to buck the odds. My cousin Robbie Stuart said it to me first, "Cuz, I think we should go with the operation." Then his brother, Walter Lynn Stuart of Nashville, expressed a similar view. More than expressing an opinion, my cousins swung into action.
Robbie contacted a former schoolmate, now a surgeon, for a second opinion. Lynn and "Little Buddy" Stuart used their experiences in health care to pose certain questions. And Linda, one of Aunt Julia Mae's friends, who happens to be a nurse, looked at my aunt's chart in the hospital.
Nowhere in the records was any indication that my aunt's heart was not strong enough to withstand surgery. In fact, she had not been administered an EKG. Robbie's surgeon friend reached a different conclusion from what we had been told earlier – my aunt had a 50-50 chance of surviving surgery.
Aunt Julia Mae is as feisty and as mentally tough as they come. If anyone her age could survive the surgery, it would be her. If they had given my aunt only a 1 percent chance of survival, I would have taken those odds and so would most of my cousins. But with a 50-50 chance of survival, the decision was easy for most of us. A couple of cousins disagreed, but it was not their call.
Hattie gave the word and surgery was re-scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Evidently, the hospital surgeons fell behind schedule and Aunt Julia Mae's operation was postponed until Friday afternoon. My cousin Mary Gaiter had traveled from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to spend most nights at the hospital. I volunteered to relieve her Thursday night. I tried to stay up all night, but finally surrendered to sleep around 3 a.m. After three hours, I was awake again, staring at my aunt and recalling all the summers I had spent at her house during my youth.
Around 8 a.m., the phone rang in my aunt's room. It was her doctor saying the surgery had been moved up to 9 or 10 a.m. I made a flurry of telephone calls and relatives began pouring into the hospital. Non-relatives, including Jamie and staunch supporters came, too. Before my aunt was wheeled into the operating room, she faded in and out of consciousness. But it was clear that she recognized everyone lining up to plant a kiss on her cheeks or forehead.
After about an hour of surgery and another hour of recovery, she was less dazed as they wheeled her into a room on a floor where they could keep close tabs on her. "Aunt Julia Mae, I spent all night with you," I said, thinking I was telling her something she didn't know. She replied, "I know – I saw you." I knew she was on her way back. She began rehab this week and is recovering well. If the family had not insisted on a second opinion, she would be rotting away in a hospice.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.