My great escape: Garrison Keillor

A stroke forced author Garrison Keillor to face up to mortality – and gave him a sobering insight into the stark realities of America's healthcare debate

September 16 2009. The doctor who saw me in the ER wrote in her report: "Nice 67 y.o. male, flat affect, awake, alert and appropriate."

I had appeared with slurred speech and a balloon in my head, had driven myself to United Hospital in St Paul, parked in No Parking, walked in and was triaged right in to a neurologist who trundled me into the MRI Space-Time Cyclotron for 50 minutes of banging and whanging that produced a picture of the stroke in the front of my brain, so off to the Mayo Clinic I went and the St Mary's Hospital Neurology ICU and was wired up to monitors. A large day in a nice 67 y.o. man's life.

I stayed at St Mary's for four days of tests and when I left, a neurologist shook my hand and said: "I hope you know how lucky you are." That was pretty clear as I walked down the hall, towing my IV tower, and saw the casualties of serious strokes. Here I was sashaying along, like a survivor of Pickett's Last Charge at Gettysburg who had suffered a sprained wrist. My mouth felt fuzzy but I was essentially unscathed, though touched by mortality. Which I have been on the run from for a long time. I never wanted to be a nice 67 y.o. man. I still have some edgy 27 y.o. man inside me.

But when the doctor talks about how you must go on a powerful blood thinner lest a stray clot turns your fine intellect into a cheese omelette, you must now accept being 67 y.o. and do as he says. You had intended to be a natural wonder, an old guy who still runs the high hurdles, but mortality has bitten you in the butt.

I like this hospital. St Mary's is a research and teaching hospital so you get to observe troops of young residents go by, trailing close behind Doctor Numero P Uno, and watch them try to assume the air of authority so useful in the medical trade. The nurses, of course, are fabulous. Like many nice 67 y.o. men, I am even more awake and alert around attractive young women (though I try to be appropriate). A tall, dark-haired beauty named Sarah brings me a hypodermic to coach me on self-administered shots of heparin, and without hesitation I plunge it into my belly fat. No man is a coward in the presence of women.

Nurses are smart and brisk and utterly capable. They bring some humour to the situation. ("Care for some jewellery?" she says as she puts the wristband on me.) And women have the caring gene that most men don't. Men push you down the hall in a gurney as if you're a cadaver, but whenever I was in contact with a woman, I felt that she knew me as a brother. The women who draw blood samples at Mayo do it gently with a whole litany of small talk to ease the little blip of puncture; "here it comes" and the needle goes in, and "sorry about that", and I feel some human tenderness there, as if she thought "I could be the last woman to hold that dude's hand". A brief sweet moment of common humanity.

And that is a gift to the man who has been struck by a stroke: our common humanity. It's powerful in a hospital. Instead of a nice linen jacket and cool jeans and black T, you are shuffling around in a shabby cotton gown like Granma in Grapes of Wrath, and you pee into a plastic container under the supervision of a young woman who makes sure you don't get dizzy and bang your noggin.

Two weeks ago, you were waltzing around feeling young and attractive, and now you are the object of Get Well cards and recipient of bouquets of carnations. Rich or poor, young or old, we all face the injustice of life – it ends too soon, and statistical probability is no comfort. We are all in the same boat, you and me and ex-Gov Palin and Rep Joe Wilson, and wealth and social status do not prevail against disease and injury. And now we must reform our health insurance system so it reflects our common humanity. It is not decent that people avoid seeking help for want of insurance. It is not decent that people go broke trying to get well. You know it and I know it. Time to fix it.

Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets", published by Common Good Books

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