July 29, 2019
At least I got a break from the intensely efficient technical (but always caring) professionalism of the ICU team at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Penn., when I left for the day. Sandy was stuck in the ICU for six of her eight days at BMH. She landed there a week ago Saturday after experiencing a small stroke, possibly more than one, which the docs thought initially was a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke.”
From the ER she underwent a CT scan, followed on her birthday morning, the 21st, by an MRI. The MRI led to a heart ultrasound, then an angiogram—a catheter into the brain. The neurologists and cardiologists determined that her stroke was more serious than a TIA. They debated the right range for her blood pressure. On Wednesday she went through another CT scan, insertion of an arterial line in her arm to monitor blood pressure, a kidney ultrasound, and by week’s end at least 100 reflex and vision checks. We wanted desperately to be someplace else, doing something else.
Sandy was discharged yesterday, with prescriptions but no blood pressure meds. The BMH staff will talk to our family doc about treating her BP. The first important thing: we go home.
My 50-mile round-trip drive each day between the hospital and our son’s and daughter-in-law’s home took me from the chic village of Bryn Mawr along the Main Line to I-476 for a few miles, then south on U.S. 1 through retail dregs to U.S. 202 to Glen Mills. It had me recalling my commuting days, which ended five years ago. Sometimes I drove, usually I slugged a ride from Woodbridge to Arlington. Sometimes I’d try to read, but those rides also included a lot of staring out the window wondering what’s next in our lives. In the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I lived that over again.
What do you think about when you’re stranded by an emergency far from home? Does it matter? You may as well notice what’s interesting or unique about it. The Philly area, from downtown to Valley Forge to the west, is rich in sites that teach reverently the story of the birth of the United States. We’ve seen most of them. As I worried about Sandy, I looked for oddball distractions. One curiosity around here is the abundance of Wawas, all displaying the chain’s trademark flying goose. They’re big dust-colored block-shaped places with up to a dozen fuel pumps combined with grocery stores and to-go sandwich counters and coffee stations. This is Wawaland. On Route 1 you find Wawa University and its annex, as well as Wawa Dairy Farms.
As I slogged up these roads, I was irritable with myself for thinking that the Wawas are a stereotype of generic American retail business, the descendants of the stagecoach horse-changing stations across the Great Plains 150 or so years ago. It’s true that the stores are meticulously all the same, offering the same merchandise and food items along with the gas. You imagine the same fast-food and beef-jerky shoppers and restroom users in every one. For me, maybe only for me, the Wawas represent busy-road business all over the country. Wawa is a unique name, but they sell the same stuff as a thousand other places.
Maybe that’s not fair, maybe there’s another way of looking at this. If you stop at a Wawa for a snack or a road meal, you’re likely to find what you want. All those pumps make it easier to fuel up and go. The same is pretty much true for other similar places. If you’re used to Whole Foods, you may cringe at the idea of Wawa. But you won’t have to spend a lot or stay very long.
If you embark on a road trip anywhere in America, you may be hoping to escape something by discovering something else that helps with that escape: a forest, a waterfall, a mountain range, a seashore. Something beautiful, inspiring, serene. The ironic truth is that to see those things, you inevitably battle your way along roads populated with gas stations, auto dealerships, pawnshops, cheap motels, and fast-food joints. We know, without thinking about it much, that every intercity road of four lanes or more is lined with all that. The highway that links I-40 in East Tennessee with Sevierville, on the way to the Great Smoky Mountains, may be the ugliest road in America.
Anyway, we hardly ever notice the places and the people who help us do little things and thereby free us to pay attention to important things. Our plan was to be up here for Sandy’s birthday, then scoot home Monday and get back to our routines and allow Michael and Caroline to get back to theirs. It didn’t work out that way.
Instead, a dozen smart and compassionate doctors and nurses cared for her and taught us about blood pressure and the risks of losing control of it. We learned how quickly a stroke will change your life. The way it happened will change our lives. We’re trying now to discover our path ahead.
In getting to that point I drove about 350 miles through the week up and down Pennsylvania highways, looking at what I drove past, my mind on the challenges now confronting us. I needed coffee, gas, food. I stopped at a few businesses, Wawas and others, both shiny and rundown, in the vast, near-invisible network of places across the landscape that has always existed to provide those things. They helped me in those small ways. Then I picked up Sandy and we moved on.