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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Lots to learn about life at Hospice House

It had been a long time since I’d seen Room 110.

In fact, it was 13 years, three months and seven days.

But on Christmas morning, there I was, standing in front of the room where my dad died at 2:50 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1998.

Until we came upon it, I wasn’t quite sure which one it was. But, when I saw the children’s playroom at the end of the hall, I knew I was on the right track.

Walking up to the nurse’s station, which was right across the hall, was the clincher, though.

I remember running up to it, asking for help when my dad started taking his last breaths.

Hospice House hasn’t changed a lot since then.

It’s still quiet, still a place of comfort and still offers a lot of lessons for the living.

I got one when I decided to tag along with Santa during his visit Christmas morning with the patients at the Cleveland facility now known as the David Simpson Hospice House.

Bill Jindra is a legend at Hospice House, because of the many years he’s been reminding the patients that someone cares, especially at Christmas.

Jindra’s family has been conducting these visits to Cleveland-area hospitals for 95 years now, and there are no plans to stop.

Jindra was surprised when I told him they’re at nearly 100 years. He took it in stride, as though he was too busy concentrating on his mission to care about such statistics.

But in a world where numbers are the measure of a man, 95 is a pretty good one to be associated with.
Jindra’s crew, which includes friends and their family members, wouldn’t consider starting their Christmas any other way.

They disregard the sadness you know they’re feeling because they’re pretty sure that this is almost surely the patients’ last Christmas. What matters is now, and, right now, they’re smiling, shaking hands and wishing them a happy holiday.

They don’t go where they’re not wanted. They’ll come back later if they’re asked.

But when they’re with a patient, no one else matters. Eyes meet, smiles form and laughter ensues.
Sometimes the laughter is because of the unexpected.

Take 88-year-old Mary Dan.

When a Hospice staffer asked if she minded that our photographer come in and take some photos, Dan lit up.

“Who the hell cares?”

She had seen the big man in the hallway and figured it was a way to get him inside a little quicker.

Dan shared her background with Santa and showed him how much she appreciated his visit, reaching down to kiss his hand as it shook hers.

In a quiet moment after Santa headed off to see the next patient, Dan gave me a little advice.
“What you don’t use, you lose,” she said. “If someone does something good for you, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot over the past week. The spunky Romanian native laughs easily, sharing her memories and wishes with anyone who’ll listen.

I’m just glad I was paying attention on Christmas morning.

As I walked out of Dan’s room and made my way past No. 110, I peeked in the door. The double room was empty, but I couldn’t see the side of the room my dad occupied during his time there.

I’d always dreaded my inevitable return to Hospice House, fearing the tears I shed when I left would return as I passed through the entrance.

I’ll admit I did shed a few. But, this time, as I was leaving, Dan’s words were still rolling around in my head.

As the year comes to a close and we, as usual, begin those thoughts of renewal that each new year brings, I realize Dan was telling me to believe in myself and do what I do, because I know how to do it.

Be true to myself, and it’ll all work out.

As it turns out, there was a little life just down the hall from where my dad’s ended.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, December 16, 2011

Humor from little ones a joy at the mall

Kids are funny.

And, yes, I mean amusing.

What’s more funny is that they don’t even realize how amusing they are.

At this time of year, you hear a lot from kids.

The wit is never-ending.

At the mall, it’s fascinating to see the way they lobby for purchase of goods. Nearly begging, they rationalize that they need it now because of some major trauma they’re enduring currently.

On stage at school, there’s always the one kid who won’t sing or say his lines, despite prompting from teachers, fellow performers and even mom and dad in the audience. They stand, despite hours of practice, with a deer-in-the-headlights look as the rest of their group delivers their holiday message.

A friend of mine has been assembling letters to Santa for her publication and sharing one each day on her Facebook page. One of my favorites came last week from Franco: “Is it OK if i leave you Cheetos instead of cookies this year?”

She also posted one from a young lady who asked Santa for a faster Internet connection. I’m with her on that one!

I’ve spent a good deal of time with kids lately, too. But mine has involved something that I love — shopping!

Who doesn’t like a nice long shopping trip where you can spend $240?

The trips I’m taking are part of Clothe-A-Child, which is The News-Herald’s holiday charity in which needy area youngsters receive warm clothes and shoes.

They hit Payless ShoeSource and Sears at Great Lakes Mall with a volunteer shopper (in this case, me) and pick up the items they need, including coats, boots and stuff to wear to school.

This year, I’ve taken two 10-year-olds who loved jeans and the color blue.

Neither one wanted a sweater, but both insisted on cartoon character pajamas.

And, unfortunately for a shopper like me, asked if we were done about a half-hour in. I could have gone on four more hours!

There’s never any whining, though. That’s probably because I start asking questions when they seem restless.

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”

“None of them.”

“How about recess?”

“Recess is good.”

The shopping trips usually start with a couple of hints from Mom about what the youngster really needs. I ask about school uniforms, and we discuss what’s on the banned list.

On my most recent visit to Sears, a mom asked if she could go along, because her son is very shy. I told her it was against the rules, and assured her that we’d be OK when we were shopping. He let go of his mom’s hand, and we headed to Payless for some snow boots.

“Laces or Velcro?”

“I like laces.”

“Just checking.”

He picked up a pair of black tennis shoes, and I asked him if he would say those were skateboard shoes. He thought a minute and said, “Yeah, I guess you could call them skateboard shoes.”

After that moment, that little guy I met when he stood tucked behind mom never stopped talking. He hefted bags filled with his new clothes as we moved back down the escalator despite the fact that they seemed bigger than him.

“Your mom said you were shy. You’re not shy!”

“I can be sometimes.”

I’ll get two more of these trips this weekend as Clothe-A-Child continues to work through the hundreds of kids in Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula counties whose families need help keeping warm.

Trips like mine are made possible by generous donors who support the program. All funds raised go to the children. The News-Herald covers all administrative costs for Clothe-A-Child.

This year marks the charity’s 31st year of helping area children. In all, more than $3.5 million has been raised.

But the need continues, and children like my young friends are examples of those who will receive help this year.

I’ll be at Sears all weekend helping kids just like them find just the right cartoon character, and figure out if they’re a husky or a slim.

Either way, I’m sure they’ll make me smile. Just like always.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The usual tears as future leaders strut their stuff

There were two this year.

In each of the past three years, one was able to move me to tears.

Two got the job done this year. For very different reasons, though.

The first was the most thorough, prompting tissues and napkins to be passed from all corners of Room 2100-A at Lakeland Community College.

He didn’t understand what he’d done, so he just kept talking. And the tears kept coming.

They were sparked by the answer to my innocent question — why did you want to start delivering the Eucharist to the sick at age 10?

The West Geauga senior, appearing before the panel charged with deciding who should receive nominations to the nation’s military academies on behalf of U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, thought for a moment before answering.

I was transfixed by his response.

He said he starting tagging along with his dad when he and his sister were youngsters, and he saw the excitement in the senior citizens’ eyes when someone stopped in to visit.

He said the simple question of “how are you?” prompts such joy that he can’t bear to give it up. Now that his sister has gone off to college, he makes his rounds delivering Holy Communion on his own.

“And, I’m crying,” I said, as he looked over at me in shock. Then he kept talking as I added, “well, I made it to 9:33 a.m. this year. That’s an accomplishment, I guess.”

“The look on their face to know someone is listening is so incredible,” he said. And I just kept crying as Mentor-on-the-Lake Council President Andy Rose handed me a napkin to help dab away tears now pouring from my eyes.

A few minutes later, a Hudson High senior stepped into the room and we launched into our questions about his impressive and varied resume that includes varsity sports participation, volunteering with the Hudson Fire Department and teaching swimming at a neighborhood pool.

In the days preceding the panel’s meeting with the youngsters, I had noted thinking it was odd that this high school football player also was a swimmer.

But the firefighting caught the attention of most of the group. He described all he got to do, and how he thought it fit into his desire to give back to his community.

“Service is important to me,” he said. “More important than grades or sports.”

He shared the story of a horrific wreck Nov. 13 on Terex Road in Hudson, in which a truck and sedan carrying a father and daughter collided, sending both vehicles into a ditch on the side of the road.

He railed against the speed limit on the road, saying it should be dropped from 45 mph to 35, and discussed his emotions as he came up on the scene with car passengers who were bleeding from their major injuries.

“It’s such powerful stuff you see when you get called to a scene,” he said, as a couple of us dabbed at tears.

Then, trying to break the tension, I asked about teaching swimming lessons.

But he got even more serious.

“They go from being scared of the water to being happy,” he said.

He described how these inner-city children came out to the facility where he taught as part of a day camp. He said he could tell from their demeanor when they arrived that life at home was difficult, but that he got so much joy from seeing how they changed as they learned to feel comfortable in the water.

When he walked out of the room, it was about 10:15, and we had 11 more youngsters to meet.

No more tears from that group, but plenty of smiles as the athletes, band members, scholars and staunch supporters of the U.S. military walked in and declared their intention to serve their country.

One made us laugh as he walked in and apologized for his hair, left bleached by the chlorine of hours of swimming practice.

“When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” I told the Western Reserve Academy senior who wore no socks in his untied brown leather boat shoes. Those lay a few feet below his loosened school tie that sat atop the unbuttoned top button of his oxford shirt.

He laughed as he tried to comprehend my thought, which continued with, “you’re so comfortable in your own skin. Trust me when I tell you that’s a good thing and that most people struggle with that most of their lives.”

He wasn’t the final one to step before us, but a senior from Hudson offered the best credentials of any high school student I’ve ever met.

He said he had just applied to Mercyhurst in Pennsylvania because of its Intelligence Studies major. When asked why, he said because the CIA recruits out of that college.

OK then.

He said he’s applied to 11 colleges overall in case he doesn’t achieve his dream of attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He’s received four full-ride offers, to Arizona, Alabama and New Mexico. He blanked on the fourth, saying it’s “an A state.” I’m going with Arkansas, because the other one is Alaska, and it’s too cold there.

There was a voracious reader, one who relaxes in the family’s hot tub and a tap dancer. One enjoyed rugby because “smaller guys get to compete in a very brutal way. It’s a very fun sport.”

A young lady from Geneva, who had a guaranteed appointment because of her track career, also brought in a resume with straight A’s throughout her school career. When I asked if she knew how she’d react to her first B, she admitted “I just got it. I scored an 89.9 in Calculus.” She didn’t seem particularly bothered. I wasn’t either.

Another of the Hudson crew said that she enjoys reading to relax, admitting she’d read three books over Thanksgiving break. But one of her classmates admitted to liking Cut the Rope, a game she plays on her phone. I’d never heard of it, but wasn’t surprised that it’s a physics-based game whose object is to find a way to get a piece of candy into a monster’s mouth.

After making our choices and once again bemoaning the fact that compared to these youngsters, we all felt like we’d wasted so much of our combined youth, we walked to the doors and admitted that they make us feel a little safer with the knowledge that they’re going to be in charge of our futures.

Laura Kessel’s column normally appears in the Saturday edition.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, December 2, 2011

Web no substitute for doc’s diagnosis

Never, ever use medical websites.

Never. Ever.

How can I make my point more clear?

Just don’t do it!

I speak from experience, because for the past month, I’ve been convinced I’m dying from various forms of cancer and a few assorted viruses.

Only, I’m not.


It started when I mentioned during a doctor’s appointment that I thought the left half my thyroid gland had gotten bigger. The right half was removed two years ago when a benign growth began pushing my windpipe out of position. At that time, the surgeon said it’s possible the left side would need to come out, so I proactively mentioned that its size had changed.

The doctor ordered an ultrasound, which I watched on the monitor as the technician measured areas that I knew were nowhere near my thyroid gland.

“Is that my thyroid?” I asked, knowing the answer would be no.

“No, it’s up here,” she said as she whipped the wand back to my thyroid gland.

A few days later, the doctor’s nurse called with the results that revealed “swollen lymph nodes near the clavicle.” She said I’d need to meet with the doctor again.

Doom, followed by lots of Googling.

Big mistake.

My eyes darted across the links, which revealed words such as “cancer,” “lung cancer” and “lymphoma.”
At the next meeting, the doctor explained that the nodes were suspicious, and I’d need a CAT scan.

That test revealed more swollen nodes. Another phone call followed, involving orders for another CAT scan, this time of the entire chest, abdomen and pelvis, as well as an appointment with a surgeon.

The next bit of Googling brought up words such as “tuberculosis,” “Sarcoidosis” and “Hodgkin’s.”

The second CAT scan was far more involved than the first. This one involved drinking a contrast solution that, bless them for trying, seemed to be going for a Gatorade-like taste. They weren’t successful, though.

On the bright side, if you’re looking for a “good stick,” the technician at the CAT scan lab at the Cleveland Clinic’s Willoughby Hills campus is as good as you’re going to get. Two needle sticks within a week in the same arm left only a mark from my aggressive ripping off of the tape holding a cotton ball in place after the procedure.

I was even more uneasy waiting for this set of results.

That call came just before Thanksgiving, saying more swollen nodes were found near the esophagus. I’d need to keep that appointment with the surgeon.

I’d never written the work esophagus before I typed it into the Google search box on Thanksgiving morning.
And I shouldn’t have written it then.

One of the facts I learned was that in most cases, by the time cancer of the esophagus is discovered through swollen lymph nodes nearby, it’s too late to do anything about it.

So, for the next three days, I had that rolling around in my head.

Every sniffle was a new sign of doom. Every ache in my stomach was a clue that something bad was happening.

Sleep was hard to come by before my appointment with the surgeon.

And so early the next morning when the surgeon excused himself to go check out the scans, I took a deep breath and thought “this is where it all changes.”

Apparently not.

He came back in with a baffled look and said the nodes aren’t  that big and he didn’t see a reason to do any further study at this time.

“I don’t want to scare you,” he said.

“Too late!” I answered.

I do need to have tests in six months, but I’m hopeful the only action that’ll be necessary is for me to lose the addresses of the medical websites. No good comes from hunting around and checking out symptoms.

Maybe there is just some information that the average lay person doesn’t need.

Perhaps the next thing I should look up on is “pyschosomatic.”
Twitter: @Lauranh