It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.
The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.
Dr. Jack Lewis
Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.
Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.
Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons.
The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Dr. Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.
His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.
“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint,” Lewis said. “After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under fake names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago.
“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”
Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”
More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals.
Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event failed miserably at the gate.
“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.
With Omaha’s success as College World Series host, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.
“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event, Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”
Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.
While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes.
After graduation from Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.
Right away, Lewis’ sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes – jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track, football players at his alma mater Central high School, where he has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.
Lewis’ passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport. He applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.
“I think the greatest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”
Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.
“There has been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”
Despite the smaller number of young boxers, Tom Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.
“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”
Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.
“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals (Golden Gloves).”
In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ’37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960 and most recently Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.
In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.
“Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”
Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.
“It wil let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain – the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world-class boxer. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”
He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”
“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals.
A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things.
“It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”
“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” Lewis said.
A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.
Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.
For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.
Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Children’s Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico
It seeems as though every year or so now I get an assignment to write about a medical mission team from Omaha that travels beyond borders to deliver care. In this Journeys story for Metro Magazine I write about the trips led by Dr. James Hammel and his team to the peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California and the city of La Paz, where life saving operations are done on infants and toddlers.
Visit the digital edition of the magazine, including my story, at–
Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Childrens Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
The peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California is a tourist draw for its ocean-front beaches and vistas. But isolation from the Mexican mainland makes it hard for residents to access specialized medical care. Poor residents lack the means to travel, much less afford treatment. A lack of pediatric heart services results in many congenital defects going unevaluated and undiagnosed. Consequently, many children die before getting an opportunity to be treated.
To bridge that care gap Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. James Hammel twice a year leads a medical mission trip to the southern city of La Paz in that Mexican state. He and his all Children’s Hospital & Medical Center team were there in November and they’re back again this April.
Before starting the La Paz trips four years ago, Hammel was a veteran of medical missions to Honduras and Nicaragua. His work in Mexico grew out of a collaborative with a Sioux Falls, S.D. health center that received children cancer patients from Big Sur through the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation based on the peninsula. Foundation founder Tom Walsh is from South Dakota. Children sent to Sioux Falls who presented heart problems then came to Omaha for treatment.
When a boy named Mario died before ever making it to a Chidlren’s operating room, Hammel resolved to provide care in Southern Baja in order to circumvent the delays that result in such needless tragedy.
“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.” – Dr. James Hammel
“It was obvious to me he’d been turned away again and again and again,” Hammel says. “His mother was very sweet and she had taken him repeatedly across to the mainland and sort of begged for surgery from one of the centers there. But they just couldn’t get it. That case firmly cemented my commitment to this charitable foundation and when the opportunity did arise to work down there that seemed like a lot better option than bringing people up.
“Bringing kids up is very expensive, cumbersome, difficult. It takes a long time and it’s only possible to do in very small numbers. I thought. Well, for the same amount of money we could treat a dozen children there by bringing our team down.”
Hammel leads some 20 medical professionals, most specializing in critical care, on each 10-day trip. They’ve instituted many firsts there.
“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.”
He brings intensive care doctors, children’s pediatric intensive care nurses, a perfusionist to run the heart-lung bypass pump, cardiac anesthesiologists, operating room nurses and a surgical assistant. Everyone volunteers their time. Their care is entirely free to families.
“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful. I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.” – Dr. Bridget Norton
It’s taken awhile to build trust with local leaders but a permanent program is now in the works.
“Little by little the administration of the hospital we’re working in and the government health ministry and the state government began to take an interest in the possibility of making an ongoing program. That’s when my goals took their last maturational step,” Hammel says. “We’ve been back every six months for a total of six missions and we’ve operated on 68 children – some with simple diseases but some with very complicated heart defects. Mostly they’ve done fine.”
Some children require multiple surgeries.
“My goal is to establish a new cardiac treatment program to be a permanent part of that state’s health care system. In all of Mexico there are about 11 pediatric cardiac surgery programs and eight are located in Mexico City itself, thus the distribution of this resource is really poor and access is really limited. There are probably 18,000 children born in Mexico with heart defects every year and probably only about 3,600 corrective operations and catheter procedures performed. So, nearly 80 percent of the children with heart defects likely die, It’s a really big unmet need in the country.”
His goal is to help the Mexicans “build a viable, self-sustaining program that goes on treating these children when we’re not there and even after we stop coming.” He adds, “We have recruited to the state two pediatric cardiologists, a pediatric intensive care doctor and the first cardiac surgeon in the state. We have trained a group of pediatric intensive care nurses in special techniques for cardiac intensive care nursing. We trained the operating room staff.”
Before it can be self-sustaining, he says a “critical mass of manpower” is needed. Progress to get there is being made.
“It’s a gradual thing. This last summer the program performed its first open heart operation without us being there. They have performed a larger number of non-open heart cardiac cases, simpler cases, so they’re beginning to get going.”
He expects the program to reach a major milestone in 2016.
“When we get the program fully accredited by the Mexican federal government the hospital system can begin to receive some reimbursement for each case they do. It amounts to about $6,000 or $7,000 per case, but we can do it for that. It’s going to take a little more investment for needed supplies before we get to that point.
“In the meantime, we go and we do a dozen cases twice a year and that’s wonderful. It’s a great thing for the children we treat and their families, but it’s not enough. I would estimate there are about 60 children born in this state of Southern Baja a year with critical heart defects who need an operation, so we’re not reaching all of them.”
“The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.” – Shannon Hoy
He’s created a nonprofit, Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts, to coordinate the medical care and logistics of the trips. It partners with the Los Cabos foundation. Children’s may soon be formally involved.
“Our hospital administration has seen the positive effect this kind of work has on our staff as far as their resourcefulness, their creativity, their career satisfaction. It’s something that really brings us together
and that has real tangible benefits in terms of our ability to do our job with excellence. I think Children’s is coming to see this work as a two-way street with great benefit to the people there and to our patients and staff here.”
Dr. Bridget Norton, a Specialist in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine, has been on all but one La Paz mission. She says it’s a “team-building” experience for both her and her fellow professionals who go.
“We make relationships and connections and friendships with colleagues we wouldn’t necessarily make without that experience.”
Many things Children’s does in Omaha, such as blood conservation and comfort med administration, have come out of what the team’s learned to improvise with in resource-poor La Paz.
Norton says the trips put in perspective the gifts she and her mates have to give.
“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful.
“I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Perfusionist Joe Deptula, who’s made multiple Central American mission trips with Hammel, says the work is about “being able to give back.”
Shannon Hoy, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), has made many mission trips herself. She sums up the La Paz mission as “a great experience,” adding, “The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”
The team can’t forget a patient named Oscar.
“Oscar came to us with a very serious congenital heart defect, which was previously operated on during a different trip,” Hammel says. “Due to his age and heart defects, his heart had sustained a lot of wear and tear and we were unsure how well he would do despite the repair.”
When the team left for home his vitals looked good. Then a fire in the unit forced a patient evacuation. His lines were cut and he expired off the meds. News of his death hit the team hard as he’d twice beat the odds only to lose his life anyway.
Most operations are scheduled in advance but families often show up unexpectedly with a sick child. The parents of a 6-month-old named Derek drove hours to reach La Paz, where the team found the baby so fragile they simply admitted him for observation without a single line or anything started lest the trauma prove too much. The boy’s surgery the next morning went well and today he’s totally repaired and healthy.
The life-and-death surgeries and the intense emotions take their toll.
“You are exhausted and not just physically,” Norton says. “It’s hard work and we work long hours. We do overnights in the hospital. But it’s also emotionally draining. You just have a lot of feelings and emotions you work through.”
Once back home, some decompression is necessary. Thoughts of La Paz, however, are never far from Children’s team members’ minds. Not only do patients and families leave an imprint, but so do staff.
“We’re like family,” Norton says of her team and the Mexican team they work alongside. Collaboration is vital to the program’s success. “They’ve been amazing and are on-board with the mission. We really couldn’t do anything we do without them – all the support services they provide, the hoops they jump through, taking care of the equipment we leave down there. Any blip that comes up, they handle it.”
Los Cabos foundation former executive director Greg Edwards now heads Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts with Dr. Hammel. He says building the program has inherently high stakes and complexities because it’s critical care. Since that care is largely delivered by Omaha specialists, much coordination and navigation is required. These specialists not only practice their healing arts in La Paz but impart expertise there. Locals also travel to Omaha for training.
“The support of Dr. Hammel’s team and friendships that exist at Children’s has been essential for this to happen,” Edwards says. “You cannot have a cardiac program without intensive care. Building a pediatric cardiac care program is no small task. It has meant creating relationships with Mexican officials. recruiting qualified staff, turning the surgeries into not only life-saving operations but a training theater for the local Mexican medical staff, creating a pipeline for medical supplies needed for the surgeries and intensive care from Omaha to Baja.
“It really is a huge undertaking.”
Abriendo Corazones accepts donations to support its efforts at strengthening hearts. Contact Dr. Hammel at 402-955-4360.
For more on the trips, visit http://www.loscaboschildren.org/donate/.
A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death
When Omaha Magazine inquired if I would be interested in tackling a story that followed a family’s experience with hospice I immediately jumped on it because both my parents received hospice care in their final days. The Hospice House in Omaha offered their cooperation and identified the family who I profile in the story that follows, the Hummels. The plan was for me to spend an extensive amount of time with the patient, Phil Hummel, and his family and I did at first and then, as things often unfold in such situations, circumstances changed and I was unable to get the same access I had before. But I did get to know Phil, his wife Jo Ann, and their son Al fairly well before Phil passed and then I got to visit with Jo Ann and Al the day of their loss. My piece is the cover story in the November/December issue of the magazine, which is distributed at select sites all over the metro. You can subscribe to the publication. To see the story as it appears in its 12-page spread visit omahapublications.com or http://www.readonlinenow.com.
Phil Hummel near the close of his coaching-teaching career
A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in Omaha Magazine
Even though the end of life comfort care known as hospice is better understood today than decades ago, misconceptions linger. Some mistake it as denying care. Others assume it’s only for special cases. The myths and misapprehensions make sense given how death and dying tend to be topics avoided rather then engaged in America. No two end of life scenarios unfold alike. But charting a real life journey through hospice can remove some of the fear and unknown that follow a terminal prognosis, which is why the Hummel family agreed to share their experience at Hospice House, the Josie Harper Residence. Executive director Gary George welcomed this reporter in to give readers a glimpse at a patient-family-caregiver story. The center, at 7415 Cedar Street. just east of the Bergan Mercy Medical Center, is a collaborative between Alegent Health, Methodist Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Nebraska Medical Center.
A Rich Life
Family patriarch Phil Hummel of Woodbine, Iowawas a resident there 10 weeks last summer. Hospice provided a dignified end of life path and offered loved ones peace of mind his every need was met. Hummel, 78, died gently in Room 2 on September. 1. That last day, like each of the 69 preceding it, Phil’s wife JoAnn and son Alan were present. They were with him when he drew his last breath. In the weeks leading up to his death, his daughter Gail was on hand along with other family members and figures from his career as a high school educator and coach.
Married 56 years, JoAnn and Phil met at Tarkio (Mo.) College. She attended on an academic scholarship. He, on an athletic scholarship. Phil, a Riverton, Iowa native, excelled in sports at Sidney High School, where’s he’s a Hall of Fame member. His football-track exploits also earned him a spot in the Tarkio College Athletic Hall of Fame. After the couple married Phil was drafted in the U.S. Army and JoAnn followed him, first to New Jersey, then to Japan.
JoAnn and Phil in Japan
Back home, his military hitch over, the couple started their family and taught together at Woodbine High School. Her speciality was business ed. He taught U.S. government and American history. Summers he ran a house painting crew that did work all over western Iowa and the Omaha metro area. He was by all accounts as demanding a boss as he was a coach. During a highly decorated coaching career he led teams in many different sports but mostly made his mark as a cross country and track coach. He won several coach of the years honors and was a longtime Drake Relays official. The Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame inductee twice led USA Track and Field youth teams to China. “Sports were a big part of our life, that’s for sure,” said JoAnn. “He was really busy coaching, and then on the side he was an official, and he refereed. He was gone a lot. And then when he wasn’t doing that he was hunting and fishing. It was a good thing I loved sports because that was Phil’s life. I was at all the games.”
Her husband, who made his runners take the steep cemetery hills on the west edge of town, was a living legend. “Phil was known all over the state of Iowa,” she said. A measure of the impact he had on young people is the seven pages worth of condolence memories on the Fouts Funeral Home web page after his death. Like any good coach, Hummel was a surrogate father to his athletes. One young man he drew especially close to was Guy Mefferd, who with Phil’s guidance turned his life around and went on to serve as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Jan Sauvain, a family friend Phil coached in basketball, said he could be a strict disciplinarian “but never vindictive or to humiliate you or to demean you, just to give you a little insight into what you did wrong, and he cared about the kids after they graduated.” She said Hummel, unsolicited, recommended her to an AAU basketball coach in Omaha and wrote a glowing reference letter for her brother. “He did care, absolutely,” said JoAnn, who typed her hubby’s correspondence in her unofficial role as “Phil Hummel’s administrative assistant.” She said, “He was always interested to see what happened to students down the line. That’s why so many people came to see him in the Hospice House. Sometimes we had five to ten a day. They came from all over.”
Comfort and Care
When word got out Phil was dying, scores of athletes he coached, along with fellow coaches, even old teammates, came to see him. Each shared a piece of Phil’s end of life journey with him. As did Hospice House staff and volunteers. With its many windows looking out on nature and the great room’s soaring cedar ceiling, there’s a bright, uplifting feel to Hospice House. Also an intimacy and communal aspect quite unlike a hospital. Community meals are convened. Families and volunteers share treats. Musicians come to perform music. Children and therapy pets visit. The emphasis, said Ann Cole, a staff registered nurse, is comfort. ”
Death is really the final stage of growth and dying is a natural part of life and if we have enough time to work with people we can help them and make this really a positive time,” she said. “We can help them to accept what’s going on. First of all, we’re able to control the adverse symptoms that go along with the dying process — things like pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, constipation, agitation. Those are all things we often see in varying stages as the dying process progresses. “If we can control those symptoms and the patient knows you’re going to be with them, you’re going to support them, and you have enough time to develop this relationship, then there’s always something we can offer to comfort them. We can control these symptoms, make them the least they can be, so they can live a really comfortable life until death comes naturally. This is our area of expertise.”
Because Phil was alert and active almost his entire stay, he savored many moments with those dear to him and developed rapport with caregivers. He felt well enough most days to relax in the courtyard. He even went on regular outings to favorite haunts, such as the Horseshoe Casino and Olive Garden restaurant. He told stories and shared memories but mostly he listened, laughed and cajoled, holding court on the deck or in his room.
My intro to the Hummels came via a phone call to JoAnn’s cell. She answered from Phil’s room with, “We just got back from the casino with some of Phil’s friends. Phil just ordered Jimmy Johns.'” It’s not what I expected — a dying man living it up, so to speak. I came to see it as his serene surrender to fate — making the most of what time he had and appreciating everybody and everything around him. “He wasn’t scared,” said JoAnn.
Phil loved singing the praises of Hospice House. “Oh, I mean, they are so good it’s unbelievable,” he told me, his voice a heavy rasp from the radiation that seared his mouth and throat tissues. “That doesn’t mean we get everything we want. It’s just — they have a care and a love, and people come in and it doesn’t take long for people to understand that. I don’t know where you can move to a better place. There might be one, but I don’t know of any.”
For those, like Phil, given the opportunity to appreciate the life left to them, hospice is not the dour, bitter end but the last bright stage of things.
“People think of hospice as a death sentence so often and it’s really about quality of life,” said Cole. “Hospice is working with the patient and family — supporting, teaching, making that quality of life a real possibility, and I think that’s what we did for Phil. If you can help families know what to expect, what will be done, and follow through on those things, they really learn to trust and the trusting relationship is very important.”
JoAnn and Alan praise the staff for easing the path. “They were wonderful there. It’s just a fantastic place,” she said. When she and her son left to go home at night, she said, they could be assured Phil was in good hands. Said JoAnn, “We knew if he needed any little thing they’d be running right over here because the nurse’s station is just around the corner.”
Alan admits he wasn’t sold on Hospice House before placing his father there. After moving him in though he became a convert. “Looking back now it could have been a cave as long as those people were there. The people that work there make that place what it is. Ninety-nine point nine percent go far beyond the call of duty.” JoAnn, a native Missourian with a show-me attitude, noted the sincere empathy. “When they had kind words to say I never felt they were just making it up to make me feel good. I think they really felt that way. That’s why they’re there.” A little warmth goes a long way. Besides, said Ann Carol, “Who wants a cold nurse?”
It wasn’t just healthcare providers who impressed JoAnn either. “The volunteers are fantastic. Like the Cookie Lady. Her husband was a resident there and she wanted to do something for the Hospice House, so she decided she’d bake cookies. Every Thursday she brings them in. It smells so good. Even the cleaning ladies are fantastic. Nice, pleasant, do a beautiful job.”
Gary George, who’s headed the center since its 1998 opening, said everyone who works there embodies “a sense of passion,” adding, “We want to be doing this kind of work.” He describes it as “a calling to be working with people at end of life that then links to an honoring of life and a recognition that end of life is part of life, not something to be feared, not something to be run from. It’s recognizing all the rich…things that can come out of end of life when people are being walked through that journey.”
“Compassion,” is the common denominator said certified nursing assistant Joanne Waltsky, who, like Ann Cole, got close to Phil. “These people are like our family. We get some of the crabbiest people in the world and they always end up loving us — I mean, always. It’s awesome, it just makes us feel good.” The Hummels shared how Waltsky’s habit of singing while making her rounds rubbed Phil the wrong way, at first, before he melted under her buoyant charms.
“The first night I came in here it was a helluva night,” Phil said. “Six o’clock the next morning, somebody came in here singing. Who the hell can be that happy in the morning? I told my wife,’ I don’t think I can put up with that.’ By noon she had me won over. You want to know why? This gal had everything we needed whenever we needed it, before we knew we needed it. That’s not a joke. “And she’s still going, and the others are just like her, just happy as clams, which made us happy of course. I can’t say any more about this place than if I tried, and I’m trying, because they’re good.”
The following was read at the funeral:
A Thank You from Phil:
How can you thank your wife for almost 57 years of support and loyalty and
for the work doing the driving to Omaha 60 miles down, 60 miles back, not
letting anyone share the load?
How do you tell your children thanks for being the people they are after their father spent more time with other people’s children?
How do I show Bob Sauvain my feelings about my old hunting and fishing
buddy, who took me with him even when he knew I was long past my prime?
There are others in my neighborhood.like Dave and Jane Gardner for the
food. And Jane for getting the flowers and planting them in the pots on our
deck, knowing how well I like the deck with flowers.
To Bob and Sharon’s kindness and help at our beckon call.
To Joe and Cheryl Book for the many times they helped us out of many
simple things we were unable to do anymore.
To Randy Taylor for all the help that was given to us.
To John, Peggy and Matt Monahan for helping us during the winter snows
and also the summer yard work.
I was blessed to be hired by the Woodbine School District and to able to
teach and coach with some of the best in the profession. With me it became a love affair each day. I was where I wanted to be.
To Carter Oliver, who always stopped by in the evenings to see how the old
folks were doing.
I was lucky to meet many coaches across the state and many in the Mid-West who shared their views and thoughts.
Thanks to the Iowa Association of Track and Field Coaches for the many
cards, letters, phone calls and emails. Particularly Denny White, Steve
Halligan Family, Ira Dunworth and Kirk Schmaltz for the visit.driving all
the way to Omaha from Ames to see me.
To The Boys Association and Drake University for the opportunity to serve
on their committees and Drake Jury.
Thank you to all in the Woodbine community for support in taking the
Washington, DC trips, trusting me to take their children for 6 days on a trip
they would remember for a lifetime.
To Sue: I was off to college and in the Army before you became my little
sister. Had things been a little different, I know we could have been a lot
Last but not the least, Brother Ted: I love you Ted. The one thing most I
remember is when we were growing up in the summer. Every day when
breakfast was over, dishes done, I was out door. I would grab the bat, ball,
glove, jump on the old bike, down the hill, go up the dusty road stirring as
much dust for you as I could. All the time you were yelling wait for me, give me a ride, take me with you. How I wished I had stopped and picked you up.
Thank you All.It’s been a great run.
Posted by: Gail Hummel – Sioux Falls, SD – daughter Sep 16, 2011
Because Phil was there so long and his wife and son there so much, the bonds between caregivers, patient and family had time to to ripen. “Everybody was really attached to him and they were really fond of him,” Alan said. “They want to keep from getting attached but your dad won them over,” JoAnn told Alan. “They won him over,” Alan replied.
Attitude is Everything
Waltsky said in contrast to some patients who sink into despair and wallow there despite her and her workmates’ best efforts, Phil embraced his remaining life. “We try to bring people up but they don’t always want to,” she said, “but Phil every morning got the day planned and told us what he was doing. He touched everybody there. He was so independent. He was everybody’s friend. He had so many visitors. When his coaching friends and past students would come in he’d always introduce me like I was family. I just loved him.”
She said the entire Hummel family made an impression. She was struck by how JoAnn and Alan befriended a woman without any family in the room next to Phil’s, checking in on her, bringing her goodies. “They’re just loving people, you know, and everybody loved that. They were just joy.” JoAnn Hummel returns the compliment by saying she never conceived hospice would be such “a positive thing. I’m so glad we went there. That was the only place for that kind of care. It was either that or go back to Woodbine to a nursing home, and Phil didn’t want to do that. This was just perfect.” She’s certain Hospice House helped extend his life. When he arrived in June, he was given less than a week to live. Ten weeks later, he was still there.
A Life Interrupted
His cancer jolted the couple. They were busy enjoying their hard-earned retirement, traveling to Las Vegas, wintering at a Florida condo, spending time with family and friends. The Council Bluffs casinos were favorite getaways. Phil loved the outdoors. Then, in April, he discovered a large lump on his throat while shaving. After going in for tests at Methodist Hospital, the bleak diagnosis of cancer unsettled his and JoAnn’s world. “The worst you can have,” is how a physician put it. Inoperable. An aggressive regimen of chemo and radiation in Omaha followed. “I truly think the doctors knew it was an impossible slide but worth a shot and I thought it was worth a shot, because the alternative would not be any good if you just left it alone,” said Phil. “I had all the faith in the world the treatments were going to fix it,” said JoAnn.
Only Phil didn’t get better. The tumor didn’t respond as hoped. “I just saw him get sicker and sicker and more miserable,” said JoAnn. Making one-hour drives each way for debilitating treatments took their toll. “We would drive back and forth every day,” she said. “On the weekends he would just go in the bedroom and stay in there in the dark. He couldn’t eat. It was terrible. His neck was getting worse and worse, just burned.” “I couldn’t get anything down,” Phil said. On Mondays it began all over again. “It was a hard time,” said JoAnn. Spring turned into summer when the oncologist reported what the couple already suspected — the tumor wasn’t shrinking. “That was a bad day for me when he said we are going to stop all treatment,” said JoAnn. “I know when it was exactly — the 22nd of June. We came in here (Hospice House) the 24th.”
Phil was precariously near death. “When we came in here the doctor said maybe five days,” JoAnn recalled, “Phil hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for two weeks, only kept alive with hydration. He couldn’t raise his head off his chest.” “I couldn’t move. I was bad,” Phil said to me.
Phil Accepts Impending Death but Continues Embracing Life in Hospice
But then a remarkable thing happened. “When the swelling began to go down from the radiation treatments he began to be able to sip a couple sips of water and eat a little apple sauce,” said JoAnn. “It wasn’t long before he was eating more things.” Alan plied his father with food but Phil could never hold it down. Yet the better Phil felt, the hungrier he got for his favorites, including hamburgers. It’s all he talked about. Alan was reluctant to give him one, until he finally threw caution to the wind. “It took us awhile to figure out it doesn’t matter — give him whatever he wants. I went to Five Guys Burgers and Fries and brought it back. He didn’t eat very much of it but it was the first time in at least a week he was able to hold down food,” recounted Alan. “You would have thought it was the first hamburger, the best hamburger, some kind of divine hamburger. Seriously, the look on his face…That hamburger is when he turned the corner from being where we thought there was no way to maybe there’s some hope he’ll hang in there a little while, and it was.”
Phil gradually regained strength. Not long after his rebound began, tells JoAnn, the doctor that gave Phil precious little time to live stopped by Phil’s room. “He sat down and pulled his chair right up to Phil’s face.” “Nose to nose,” is how Phil put it. “And,” JoAnne continued, “that doctor said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ That he’d come around. And you have to give a lot of credit to this place because it’s a wonderful place.” Phil agreed, saying, “You know, I feel so far from where I was when I came in, but I accepted it (his fate). Maybe it’ll give me some more days down the road, I don’t know.” “It’s a miracle you’re even here,” Alan told him then. Five days turned into 10, 10 into 20…
Certainly no one expected Phil to venture out, albeit confined to a wheelchair, to eateries and attractions, but that’s what he did and if residents get there early enough it’s how hospice ideally transpires.
“The fact he was so positive about going out on his little excursions, and I’m sure he probably didn’t always feel the best, is what hospice is about. It’s to go out and do the things you love to do. You’re not confined to bed in this place. We encourage people to do what they can do. We’ve had people go home and stay overnight a couple days and come back,” said Cole.
The turnaround Phil experienced, said George, “is neither usual nor unusual, it happens sometimes, and for who knows how many reasons.” He added, “Sometimes people do seem to have some spark, some different amount of energy when they get here, and for some people it may be due to more stimulation and activity, for other people it might be a sense of relief — some sort of freeing up and letting go of responsibilities, letting loose of some things.
“Lots of people bring treasures here that mean things to them. For many people that’s photos. For one guy it was a full life-size cutout of John Wayne. For one of our earliest residents, John, it was a little bookshelf filled with these thick novels and I said, ‘Oh, John, you must have brought along your favorite books,’ and he said, ‘Oh, those aren’t my favorites, those are just ones I have left to read.’ I don’t know how many he got to read while he was here but that’s what he planned to do. I thought that was amazing. “People come with a bit of a sense of adventure sometimes. I always admire that attitude of here’s something new and different — kind of leaning into it.”
That same leaning into one’s dying days is what Phil Hummel exemplified. A small bulletin board in his room displayed photos of things and people he cherished: family, friends, track. An American flag emblem. And a hand printed Bible verse from his granddaughter Jessica about the virtues of love. He literally lived for visits by friends and loved ones, former schoolboy tracksters, hunting-fishing cronies, and for those casino-restaurant forays. Not everyone can be so active. For most, their illness is too advanced to allow for much mobility or independence, whereas Phil prided himself on going to the bathroom alone.
“Our residents tend to come to us later in their disease process then they used to, so on the continuum Phil was a little bit more on the active end of things when he came,” said George. “Most of our residents are no longer at a point where they’re any longer coming and going so freely and wanting to do that even. But he also was a person who came, it seems to me, with that drive — this is what I want to do, this is how I want to do this. He kind of made that happen along with his family.”
An Unforgettable Character
Phil himself theorized his “cantankerous” spirit may have spurred his comeback. Action follows attitude, even when dying. Phil Hummel’s gregarious, generous attitude set the tone for his end of life experience and everyone around him. “You know, he was one of those patients none of us will ever forget,” said Cole. “He was just a delight, really a people lover. I picked that up. He really, really cared about people. He talked about his coaching days. It was so obvious he cared about everybody. And even the last couple of days, he was not a complainer. “You had to really take a lot of nonverbal cues as to what’s going on, which is something we do all the time. He always thought about other people, never about himself. ‘How was your weekend?’ he’d say.”
Alan Hummel remarked, “I don’t know how he did it. I thought he was in a bad mood for maybe only one day — and that was the first day.”
The Beginning of the End
After thriving for so long, the end came rather abruptly. On Friday, August 26 Phil was, if not a picture of health, a still vital man. He was keen for the college football season to start so he could root on his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Still stinging from a “disasterous” day at the casino, he anticipated better-luck-next-time. He played amiable host to two journalists in his room. Small talk came easy to him as he relaxed in the tranquil courtyard. The last image of him was a tired but content man ready to meet whatever life next presented him, even death.
When I called JoAnn Wednesday, August 31about stopping by she informed me in a taught, severe voice, “Phil’s taken a turn for the worse.” The morning after I saw him he’d suffered a bathroom fall, not breaking any bones, but hitting his head and scuffing his arms and legs. He didn’t lose consciousness. JoAnn and Alan were there. Alan was the first one in to help his father. The nurses were soon on the scene to attend to his scrapes and bruises and make him as comfortable as possible in his recliner. The fall precipitated a rather rapid decline.
“Thats what started it. From then on it was down hill all the way,” said JoAnn. “He whacked his head pretty good. I think he might have been a little concussed,” said Alan. “I don’t know he was in a lot of pain, he didn’t talk about pain,” said JoAnn. “He would have never told anybody if he was,” said Alan. “Had to be strong,” added JoAnn.
Acting on cues, the nurses gave him morphine. “We left him in his chair and he slept the whole day, and then that made him sore,” said JoAnn. “He didn’t eat anything. That was Saturday.” “He slept all day Sunday,” said Alan.”He was conscious but he just didn’t want anything to eat, and he really didn’t want to talk,” said JoAnn. Another sign Phil’s body was shutting down and he was slipping away was when he stopped showing interest in the therapy dogs he used to enjoy. Through the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday he was more and more in a somnambulant state. “He’d wake up, talk a little bit, say a few words, and go right back to sleep,” said JoAnn. “He started babbling, too, like talking to someone who wasn’t there, reaching for stuff,” said Alan. “It was the beginning of the end I’m afraid,” said JoAnn.
Into Wednesday though Phil clung on to what he could. “When they tried to put him into bed he absolutely refused,” said Alan. “They had to sedate him to get him out of his recliner into the bed. Mom said he didn’t want to go to the bed because he knew once he did that was it — he wouldn’t come out…” The robust Phil they knew soon disappeared. “That’s the last we heard from him. When his eyes would open it looked like no one was home…they were all glassy,” said Alan. “Usually when I said something he would look toward me,” said JoAnn. No more. “That was extremely hard to watch, extremely,” said Alan.
The Gift of Time
For the family, there was the consolation of two extra months. A true gift. “How many times did I say that today?” Alan said to his mother the day Phil died. Even though they knew it was coming, losing a loved one still hurts. “At the risk of being cliche, and Mom said it this morning, too — you say you’re prepared, you think you’re prepared, and there is no preparing. You just can’t be prepared,” Alan said. “I figured we would have been at this point a long time ago. We knew the outcome was going to be bad, but he had a good couple of months, seriously.”
Sitting at the dining room table in Alan’s home only hours after Phil passed, son and mother recounted the blessing the Hospice House turned out to be. “All those people who came to see him. Dozens and dozens and dozens of people,” JoAnn said. “I should have kept track of the names.” “It’s been really good,” said Alan. “I think he actually had fun.” “He did,” JoAnn confirmed. “It sounds horrible, but it’s true, I think he had a good time,” added Alan. “When all the track people came from eastern Iowa, they stayed five hours. They sat out on the patio and Phil ordered Jimmy Johns. They all had lunch out there. He had a great time. It made him forget what the situation was,” said JoAnn.
If we have the choice, maybe we should all go the way Phil did. “Absolutely,” said Alan. “Millions of people never get that opportunity.” JoAnn said while “it hasn’t been easy” what helped make it more tolerable was the gradual transition Phil made “from one stage to the next stage,” the “wonderful” care he received and his own serene attitude. “Phil was just resigned, too. He didn’t fight it. If this is the way it’s going to be, it’s the way it’s going to be.”
Hospice House became such a routine in the family’s life that being separated from it feels like a loss, too. “I’m going to miss it, I hate to say that. It’s going to be funny not to go there,” said Alan. “We were there a lot of days,” JoAnn said. “It was weird to leave there after cleaning out the room and it was empty. No one there. None of my favorite girls around,” said Alan.
Lasting Impressions and a Request Fulfilled
What workers were present the day Phil died were moved by Phil’s passing. “A lot of tears were shed that day by the staff,” JoAnn said. He seemingly touched everyone there.
“Phil was a leader and teacher all the way to the end of his life,” said Gary George. “I will remember Phil and his family taking every opportunity to continue to come and go from Hospice House to enjoy life to its fullest. On many occasions I saw them heading out the front door for some adventure together.” The same front doors Phil and family came in and out of are the doors Phil exited for the final time after his death. “We do not want to ‘usher death out a side door,’ or make it seem that death is too awful to look at ” George said. “This I believe is an important feature of Hospice House.”
For Ann Cole and Joanne Waltsky, Room 2 will always be Phil’s. Said Cole, “You couldn’t help but love the guy. He was totally about seeking the positive things in people and affirming that and making them better. You would walk away from his room and just feel so good and hope that you had given him half of what he gave you. He was, oh, so gracious.”
George said when a resident dies “families and friends are given the time, space support they need and my co-workers stand by ready to offer whatever they can,” adding, “This may involve tears, hugs, tissues, offers of a beverage, another chair, a shoulder to cry on…silence, storytelling, or tears mixed with laughter.”
The giving goes both ways. JoAnn and Alan brought flowers from Phil’s funeral to Hospice House, where, per tradition, a candle burned in his memory. JoAnn will be back — she has walnuts and gooseberries for the Cookie Lady. The family asked that memorial donations be made to Hospice House and many were made. Typical of the man, Phil Hummel wasn’t interested in how he would be portrayed. But he did request we emphasize the quality caregiving and warm sense of community at Hospice House. “I want you to give as much attention as you can to this facility,” he said.
- A Journey’s End Becomes Mainstream Medicine (kitsapsun.com)
- What Is Hospice? (mademan.com)
- A Special Space (psychologytoday.com)
- Book Spotlight: Death with Dignity by Robert Orfali (bookmarketingbuzz.com)
I met the subject of this New Horizons story, John H., while on assignment for another story. His intelligence and honesty struck me and when he revealed some hard things about his life I knew I wanted to write his story. This is the result. This account of his struggle with alcoholism is written mostly in John’s own words. After all, he’s lived it, and because he came out the other side to become a treatment specialist at a detox unit, he can speak with the authority of someone who’s been there, done that. I lost track of John after the story appeared. I don’t even know if he’s still around. I really like him though. Maybe I’ll make a call and see if he’s still in town. I have no doubt that if he’s still living, he’s still helping others out of the dark and into the light., because that very service is part of his own recovery process.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
“I always knew I was going to die drunk. Now I know I will die a drunk, but hopefully a sober one. And there’s a difference.”
The bittersweet words belong to John H., an Omaha resident and recovering alcoholic who works as a treatment specialist in the detox unit at the Omaha Campus for Hope, a Catholic Charities counseling and shelter site formerly known as St. Gabriel’s. It is precisely where John finally got dried out some 11 years ago after decades of abusing alcohol and other drugs. If nothing else, his journey from client to staff member there proves addicts can make a fresh start if they really want to.
Born into a family of heavy drinkers in Chicago, John tried quitting booze several times but could never stay on the wagon more than a few months. His drinking wrecked four marriages, strained relations with his children, cost him several jobs and sent him on an odyssey around the country as he fruitlessly searched to escape his worst enemy — himself and his addiction. He suffered frequent blackouts, developed cirrhosis of the liver and squandered opportunities in a constant quest for getting his next buzz or fix. In the end, it took a savage assault that nearly left him dead before he realized a higher power was looking after him and he finally accepted the fact his life was too valuable to waste away in a permanent vodka-induced stupor.
Omaha Campus for Hope
Today, John shares a modest home in north Omaha with his youngest child, Shawn. The house, whose exterior is ablaze in color from all the flowers John has planted, is mere blocks from both his job and from the scene of his catharsis. A witty and intelligent man with an Irishman’s gift for turning phrases, John works one-on-one with active drunks and drug addicts in trying to help them kick the habit. In detox he sees desperate people contending with the agony of withdrawal.
“Getting clean hurts,” he said. “It’s easier to stay clean than it is to get clean.” It is not a pretty sight between the night sweats and the hallucinations, but it is exactly what John himself went through himself and that experience allows him to empathize with clients and, hopefully, use his own story as a model of sobriety. “I love it,” he said of his job. “Where I work we try to share our experience, strength and hope. That’s all we can do. I think sometimes it helps if clients know you’ve been there yourself. I let them know I have.”
As he sees it, the job boils down to providing unconditional support to those with no where else to turn. “We can’t fix anybody,” he said. “What we try to do is help them fix themselves by talking straight to them. No alcoholic-addict gets clean and sober until they hit bottom and the only place they can go then is up. What we try to do is raise their bottom so they don’t have to go so far down. We never see our successes. They go out and lead normal lives and we never see them again. We see the failures. We don’t really consider them failures as individuals, but they’re people who just haven’t got it right yet and keep coming back.”
He said the last thing users need is reprimanding because that only exacerbates the depression and self-loathing that accompany drug abuse. “Alcoholics-addicts have no self-esteem and no self-worth. I think they know what they’re doing isn’t right, but telling them that won’t do any good. They’re already down and all you’re doing then is deflating their own low opinion of themselves. Besides, they have a disease. It’s not a matter of choice after awhile.”
With the perspective of time, John has come to understand how and why drinking overwhelmed his life. The roots of his problem extend to early childhood, when he and his siblings were weaned on alcohol as a rite of passage.
“Both of my folks were alcoholics, as were my grandfolks and aunts and uncles. From a very early age there was always drinking around me. Being the oldest of four kids, I saw how my folks would pour some Rock and Rye in a glass and stick their finger in it and rub my sisters’ and brother’s gums. So, I suppose, that’s when I started drinking too. My folks were also the type of people who gave us a small glass of wine or a weak high ball with dinner when we were children. The assumption was, ‘Well, they’re going to drink when they get on the outside, so they may as well learn how to do it at home.’ The whole family drank. It was just the status quo. There were lots of arguments because of the booze. It got very, very ugly at times.”
Drinking shadowed every family activity, even the clan’s shared passion for the Chicago Cubs. One of his clearest schoolboy memories is coming home after class and finding his mother well on the way to tying one on while rooting for the Cubs. “We lived in a 3rd floor apartment within walking distance of Wrigley Field and in the summer I can remember coming home from school and entering the apartment, which had no air conditioning, and there would be my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of beer in a Pilsner glass in one hand and an iron in the other while watching the Cub game on television.”
Wrigley Field and surrounding neighborhood
His own serious drinking habit developed in his teens. “In retrospect, I know now that I was more than likely an alcoholic in high school,” he said. As a young man, he somewhat successfully masked his drinking but in reality he was what he calls “a functional alcoholic.” He adds, “I could still maintain some decorum of sensibility and reasonableness. Then, by the end of the disease, I would just fall off the edge of the world when I drank.” Bothered by the turmoil in his family, he often stayed away from home. He left home for good at 17 when he and his girlfriend eloped the night of their high school graduation. The young couple lived in Texas and a number of other places before the marriage collapsed. He worked his “way back up north” and it was in Kansas City that he met wife No. 2. She was an Omaha native and her desire to return to her roots first led John here.
In his mid 20s John and his second wife suffered the loss of a young child to cancer, an event that may have triggered more intense drinking in the grieving father, who acknowledges he was bitter and inconsolable over his son’s death.
With no real skills to speak of, other than a gift for gab and an intimate knowledge of liquor, he gravitated to the one line of work he seemed eminently qualified for — bartender. He was a natural, plus the job gave him access to all the booze he could guzzle on the sly, only he didn’t always get away with it. “I was a good bartender at first until, toward the end, when I became my own best customer. Then it was not so good. It got me fired a couple of times,” he said.
Between bartending gigs he put his people skills to work selling women’s shoes and hawking greeting cards as a traveling salesman. For several years he hit the road selling door to door, relocating several times along the way. including to Atlanta and Nashville. When regular jobs like these petered out, he always went back to tending bar. All this moving around, he said, was his desperate bid to find “the geographical cure for alcoholism,” which, of course, doesn’t exist. By the time he moved back to Omaha in the 1970s, John had been through three broken marriages and several careers. He was back to tending bar again and his drinking was worse than ever. He was descending into a kind of oblivion whose end result was inevitably going to be imprisonment or death.
“Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It keeps getting worse. By the time I finally got help there was no high, there was no enjoyment, there was no pleasure in drinking. I drank so I didn’t get sick. It was pure maintenance drinking.”
His first couple attempts at getting help did not take. “I was in two treatment programs. First, I went to Immanuel Hospital as an out-patient and after a few weeks, I said, ‘I’m wasting your time and my money because by coming in only a couple times a week I keep going right back to the same environment doing the same things.’ Later, I went to Immanuel as an in-patient and I stayed there a month. I stayed clean and sober for, oh, maybe three months and then I went back and stayed out for maybe eight years.” Why didn’t these tries at sobriety work? “I wasn’t ready,” he said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was on me. Alcoholism is a disease where you’re not going to get clean and sober until you’re ready to get clean and sober. It just depends on you. It’s strictly up to you.”
For a long time, he convinced himself he could control his drinking by moderating it. He knows now he was fooling himself. “I will never control it. Even now, going on 11 years of sobriety, I don’t control it. Abstinence is the only thing that will work for me. So, as long as I don’t take the first one (drink), I don’t have to worry about the last one.”
The leap from dependency to sobriety is a great one because it involves changing an entire mind-set. As John explains, an addict is obsessed with the acquisition and consumption of his/her drug of choice. “Your life revolves around the alcohol or drugs. You wake up in the morning planning on using. I would wake up at a quarter to six. By the time I got up, got dressed and walked to the liquor store on 30th and Laurel, it was 6 o’clock. I would get a half-pint of vodka. That was my breakfast. I would drink it on the way home, come into the house, smoke two cigarettes and start getting the kids up for school. Then I would go back and get a larger bottle and get serious about it.”
As the disease evolves John said an alcoholic alienates and isolates himself more and more from the mainstream of life until he or she is totally, utterly alone. “You start out drinking socially but you eventually hit a point where it’s just you and the bottle. You weed out people one at a time because you don’t even want your fellow drinkers to know how much you’re drinking. I had a drinking buddy for, oh, like 19 years. He had an old, battered pickup truck and we would drive to a park and sit there and drink. He and I would take turns trying to get sober. He did get sober a year before I did and that was the longest year I ever spent in my life because now it was just me and the bottle.”
Just as in the classic 1941 drama about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, John said the shame of addiction led him to try and conceal his drinking from disapproving spouses and the disorientation of drunkenness put him on constant edge.
“You think you’re hiding it, but you’re not hiding anything. Everybody knows you have a problem except you.” In his case, he usually confined his drinking to public settings, although he sometimes snuck a bottle home. “I would very seldom bring a bottle in the house. I would just go up to the store and get some and drink it on the way back. I could kill a pint of straight booze in a few blocks. When I finished it I’d just throw it in the alley. Once in a while I would bring a pint home and hide it somewhere. I would go to bed, wake up an hour later and take a couple nips, then go back to bed and wake up another hour later to take a couple more. Well, you do this three or four times and you get paranoid, and you move it. Now, the next time you get up you can’t find it. You don’t know whether you can’t remember where you put it or whether your wife found it and threw it away. And you sure enough can’t ask her, ‘Did you find the bottle I hid in here last night?’”
By 1990 John was a wreck. He was separated from his fourth wife and raising their two oldest children alone. He functioned, but moved through life like a ghost. Life was a blur. Everything was muted and dulled in a kind of permanent haze or fog. He was about to get a rude awakening.
On a September night he walked from his house to fetch — what else? — a half-pint of vodka on his way to a meeting at the Viking Ship community center in nearby Miller Park.
“I was cutting through the park and I saw three guys sitting on the side of a hill and one of them stood up as I approached and asked me if I had a cigarette. I reached down to grab one and as I looked up I got hit in the face and that’s the last thing I remember for a month,” he said.
Immanuel Medical Center
The beating he absorbed at the hands of the strangers, who were never apprehended, left him with five fractured ribs, a jaw busted in three places, broken bones above and below his left eye (whose sight is permanently damaged), a broken nose and countless cuts and abrasions. Amazingly, he managed walking home, where his kids answered the door to find a grotesque figure sagging on the porch. They did not even recognize their own father for all the blood, bruising and swelling. He was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, where he drifted in and out of consciousness and needed weeks for his concussion and other injuries to heal.
What happened to John that night had nothing at all to do with his alcoholism, yet he attributes the event and others following it with finally getting him to make the pledge to stop drinking stick.
“I have very mixed emotions about it,” he said of the beating. “It was a negative event but it had a positive result.”
Before he could make the commitment to stop drinking, he still had one last bender to go on.
“My jaw was wired shut and when I got it unwired I went out and got drunk that night, and I drank for a couple months. My last drunk was like a two-week drunk and it was a real bad one. Eight consecutive days are a total black out. Then, I finally got sick enough that I quit. In the meantime, my wife filed papers with the Douglas County Attorney that I was a danger to myself and others, and I more than likely was. Sheriff’s deputies came to my house and hauled me off in handcuffs to the psyche unit at Immanuel Hospital (Medical Center).
After his release from Immanuel John checked himself into then St. Gabriel’s detox unit. Before entering detox, however, he had a whole weekend on his hands at home, which posed yet another test to his resolve. “I had free reign to do what I wanted and yet I found myself not even wanting to drink. Even in my fuddled-up condition I thought, ‘There’s hope now.’ That was the start of it.”
Upon completing treatment at St. Gabe’s, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, whose program he continues in today and that he intends participating in the remainder of his life. These days John is a content man who finds love and support among both his AA family and his own family. His son Shawn is living with him and sharing in his new life. He said, “Shawn got a lot of the benefits of my being sober. I’ve taken him places and done things with him that I never did with the older kids, who were out of the house by time I got sober. There was some resentment by my older kids, but we’ve been able to talk about it and work our way through it.” John’s dream is to one day retire to Mesa, AZ, where his beloved Cubs have spring training. Until then, he remains ever vigilant.
“Recovery is a continuing process. The first time I think I’m recovered, I’m drunk. I was an alcoholic yesterday. I’m one today. I’ll be one tomorrow. They’ll always make the stuff. They’ll always sell it. I’ll always be addicted to it. That doesn’t mean I have to give into it, though,” he said.
He realizes that without the support of his AA sponsor and circle of friends, he would be lost again. His philosophy about sobriety reflects the AA creed.
“It starts with attitude. And for the first time in my life I am comfortable in a sober world. I am not comfortable with my sobriety in that I take it for granted. I do what I have to do to maintain it.”
That means attending daily AA meetings. For John and others like him, sobriety is a one day at a time thing,
“All it is a daily reprieve,” he said.
- AA marks 75 years of helping alcoholics ‘rise from the depths of hell’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Getting Sober: Hope In the Rooms and Online (beliefnet.com)
- Alcoholism: The Basics (addictionts.com)
- A Dry Drunk is a just as mean as a wet one (spreadinformation.wordpress.com)
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse (addictiontreatmentnow.wordpress.com)
- Is addiction a brain disorder? (theage.com.au)