Shands Hospital at the University of Florida is a lot larger than it was when I studied on this campus. Founded in 1958, the sprawling medical complex covers several blocks on the south side of the UF campus. It boasts of being the largest single building complex south of the Pentagon.
It’s an odd place for a family homecoming. My Dad was admitted to the Shands Cancer Hospital for diagnosis and treatment of a newly discovered intestinal cancer last week. Each of his children has taken turns staying with him here.
The brand new facility is across Archer Road from the main teaching hospital complex that includes medical, dental and veterinary schools all in one complex. Both the cancer center and a Veterans Administration hospital to its west connect to the main complex by pedestrian tunnel under the busy highway.
It is easy to get lost here, a possibility I realized several times in my two days there this week. But it was always my experience that people just appear who see your confused look and ask if they can help you find where you need to go.
It’s nice to be in a place where people feel free to demonstrate common courtesy and compassion for others so readily.
A Campus Full of Memories
From the fifth floor of the cancer center, the leafy UF campus fills the horizon. This family has a lot of memories attached to this place.
There is the Century Tower with its carillon which plays school songs on its bells and rings out the quarter hours. The tower was dedicated in 1956 to commemorate the university’s first century and to memorialize the UF veterans of WWI and WWII. It is a beautiful structure poised on the edge of the shady Plaza of the Americas in front of the university’s main library buildings.
Though I do not remember it, I was there with my parents at its dedication. My Dad came to UF after the second world war on the GI Bill getting first a Bachelor of Science and then a Masters of Science in agriculture.
My Mother, a member of the first class to admit women at the formerly male-only institution, secured an Associate of Arts degree before getting married to my Dad and then becoming the mother to the first of three children. It was her class that had to endure the disrespect of the frat boys losing their privilege: “The maids are gettin’ whiter every day.”
We lived in barracks that had been moved from Camp Blanding near Jacksonville after the war. These served as married housing in a residential area quaintly called FlaVet Village. I was a Baby Gator then and sometimes accompanied my Dad to classes. Guess I’ve been the perpetual student from the very beginning.
Next to the tower is the gothic University Auditorium. It would be the site for many guest speakers to come to campus under the aegis of the campus Speaker’s Bureau. I heard Lester Maddox, the racist governor of Georgia, speak there one week only to see 60s radicals Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden across campus at Graham Pond the next week. The auditorium would be the site for my Dad’s graduation from his graduate program and my own graduation from law school there 30 years later.
The horizon is also broken by the 12 story twin dormitories called Beatty Towers where I spent most of my first semester as a transfer junior in 1973. Designed to hold two students in a suite with its own bathroom and kitchenette, four of us were jammed into that space including one young man who did his drug dealing from our dorm room. I came to the room one day after class to find a man with an ice cold expression holding a gun in my roommate’s face and threatening “If you ever hold out on me again, I will blow your fucking head off.”
At that point I went downstairs to the housing office, recounted my story and by the end of the day had been transferred across campus to the Murphree dormitory, the oldest dorms on campus where two uncles had lived while attending UF decades previously.
My grandparents lived in the northeast quadrant of Gainesville and my family was in and out of this town for most of my younger life. When my Dad came back to become certified to teach drivers education in the summer of 1964, I came with him to attend a summer program at P.K. Yonge Laboratory School near the campus. We lived with my grandparents that summer.
I returned to UF as an undergraduate in 1973, taking a double major in History and Secondary Education certification with minors in Political Science and Journalism. It would take me three years to complete all of that in 1976 only to return to UF for law school three years later emerging with a J.D. in 1981.
My brother would get his masters in journalism at UF where he would meet his wife, a graduate of the education college. My sister would get her bachelors in journalism there. Her older son, a sixth generation Floridian, now hopes to transfer to UF this fall to become the third generation of family at this university.
Gainesville is not the same sleepy college town that I knew and loved. Major growth has occurred on the western edge of town by I-75 where enormous shopping centers, fast food restaurants and apartment complexes now fill what were once cow pastures and wooded rolling hills.
But it has developed a lovely city center with its downtown Hippodrome Theater and a public square with a clock tower and amphitheater lined with bars and eateries. The university has emerged from its roots as just another southern football factory to become a world renowned public university.
Nowhere is that more evident than at Shands with its underground maze of tunnels and store rooms, its food courts and valet parking. The attention my Father is getting is excellent. His doctors are exploring every avenue of possible treatment and more than willing to allow us to pepper them with questions. The facility in which he has been hospitalized is amazing.
More than once I found myself remembering the cheer from my days as a student: " It's great…to be…a Florida Gator!”
My Dad is aware of his privilege in being able to be treated there. Very few people in the world, indeed, even in our own country, have access to this level of medical treatment. He readily expresses his gratitude. None of us take this for granted.
He Just Wants to Go Home
But this homecoming is not a sentimental remembrance of good times shared at our alma mater. My Father’s condition is serious. He has a tumor at the top of his small intestines. It is blocking the bile ducts and his counts had become problematic.
Treatment of the tumor itself is difficult given its location and his age. My Dad will be 90 in March.
The immediate concern is the bile duct and he undergoes the placement of a stint procedure while I am there. My sister has been carrying the lion’s share of being present with Daddy and advocating for him with the hospital staff these past two weeks. My brother and I have worked out a plan to stay with Daddy to relieve her so she can go home, get some rest and spend time with her family.
Sleep in a hospital room is a relative term. There are multiple visits during the night by personnel taking vitals, changing IV drip bags, helping my Dad get to the bathroom since he has been declared a fall risk. A cacophony of beeps and buzzes from a host of monitors punctuate the night.
The helipad for the hospital is directly across from our room where I am sleeping on the couch. Three loads of critically injured patients arrive by helicopter during the night.
Each time I pray: Holy Mary, Mother of G-d, be with your people now and at the hour of our death. AMEN.
In the morning the doctors come by the room with their teams of medical personnel. They talk about the procedure they are planning for the bile duct. The results of the biopsies are not back so any focus on the tumor causing all these problems is currently on hold. His surgeon talks about comfort, quality of life and getting him home.
My Dad is nodding his head in agreement. That’s what he wants, to go home.
My siblings and my nephew and I all accompany Daddy over to his procedure. He has never shown any sign of fear. But as he is being taken into the operating room, his voice quivers as he says he loves us and if he doesn’t see us again, keep doing what we’re doing, we’re all doing so well.
I will need to walk away quickly so he does not see my tears.
Within 45 minutes the surgeon comes to the waiting room, as promised. “It went awesome!” she said, explaining that it proved easier than they had originally thought. The stint which currently empties to an exterior bag somewhat like a colostomy will probably be redirected to the bowels in a second procedure next week.
Then everything depends on what we hear from the cancer surgeon about the tumor.
He is freezing cold after the procedure. They have him wrapped from head to toe with only his face exposed. “I’m so glad to see you, son. I was afraid I might not ever see you again,” he said between chattering teeth. “Oh, Daddy, we knew you’d be just fine,” I say.
But I am biting my lip to maintain my composure.
Driving Home on Memory Lane
With the surgery complete, it’s my brother’s shift and I have a long ride ahead of me. Like most of my visits with my aging Dad, I need some time to process what I’ve just experienced.
I opt to drive part of the way home down an unlit US 441 rather than the busy nearby interstate. This, too, is a visit to memory lane. This is the route my Dad and I drove between home and school that summer we spent in Gainesville before an interstate highway provided the fastest and most direct route.
There is a full moon bathing the landscape in golden light. Paynes Prairie is ethereal, all lit up in a hazy gold, silhouetting swamp maples and willows which serves as home for a wide range of animals from egrets to alligators to bison.
I pass through small towns with intriguing names – Micanopy, McIntosh – once stops along a railroad long since vanished, ancient by Florida standards, which have now become centers for antique shops and weekend tourists. There is Lake Wauburg, the university’s recreation center with its dock and roped in area for swimming and kayaks for rent where I spent many happy hours as a kid.
I pass a darkened Ruby’s Restaurant and Lounge. The latter part of that name was by far more important in days when Alachua County, where the university is located, was dry on Sundays. Those dying for a drink with their fried fish dinners had to travel the 15 miles south of town to Ruby’s, immediately across the line in Marion County.
Ruby’s went out of business years ago when the blue laws in Gainesville were ended.
At Orange Lake, the golden moon twinkles on the lake surface in the distance across hillsides that once bore Florida’s most northern citrus groves. The freezes of the early 1980s ended any attempts to grow citrus this far north, the same freezes that caused frozen citrus groves to sprout tract housing in this county where I live, named for its once prolific citrus production, Orange County.
As I near Ocala, signs point to the west of this modern four-lane route to the little towns 441 travelers once passed through on a two-lane country road: Kendrick, Anthony, Martin, Lowell. I remember them well from that summer with my Dad at the university.
It is a bittersweet journey home as I drive along soothed by a CD of Gregorian Chant.
Grateful for Rich Lives
My Dad and I talked a good bit over the past few days between his badly needed catnaps. We have talked about how we’ve both been privileged to live incredibly rich lives that have taken us all over the world. And we have had almost unlimited abilities to learn, to grow and to become the persons we are.
We both spoke of our gratitude for the richness of our respective lives. Neither of us take any of that for granted. But most of all, we spoke of our gratitude to have known each other, to have spent time together as family, to feel loved, wanted, needed.
These are hardly givens in this world. And on the long, bittersweet ride back home, I will have my chance to say thank you a gracious G-d from whom all such blessings flow.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston, 2016