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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

    £18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

    Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral