We were sitting in the family room shortly after 1 p.m. Friday, eating sandwiches and laughing about something or other. Then my wife's heart stopped beating.
She fell from her chair. My dear, wonderful Renate, who has stood by my side for more than 50 years, lay on the floor quivering, her eyes rolled back.
I wish I could tell you that I knew precisely what to do. I didn't. I panicked. I started shouting her name. My younger daughter Michelle, who had joined us for lunch, took over. She revived Reny and called 911, and a Cobb County emergency medical team responded in minutes.
Ten minutes later, we were in the emergency room at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. Reny's heart continued to sputter, stop and then restart. Gloved and masked caregivers literally mobbed her. A red-haired nurse named Ann acted as first sergeant. Dr. Rajnish Prassad was captain.
This north metro ER facility, one of the busiest in Georgia, looked like the United Nations. Some of the docs were American-born; most were not. Other medics appeared to be East Indian and Chinese and Middle Eastern and whites with strange accents. Their customers were split between mostly blue-collar whites and Latinos, with lots of screaming babies - plus an older black lady on a stretcher in the hall, who told me she thanked God for Kennestone. She must've been from the marketing department.
The treatment rooms were overflowing. Many patients were on gurneys in the corridors. The area looked as I imagine an ER would appear after a terrible bus wreck or plane crash. Except this was a routine Friday and, I was told, a relatively quiet one at that.
I shall spare you details of Reny's care and treatment, except to say that it was superb. By 7 p.m., she had a pacemaker installed by an East Indian doctor with a slight Alabama accent. He was known to his peers as "The Electrician" for his work with the tiny battery-powered machines. Reny's was his eighth pacemaker operation of the day. Though he looked fatigued, he said the installation could not wait until morning.
Then the operation was over. Reny was suddenly back with us, alert and irritable. She complained to the nurses about the uncomfortable computerized bed and began pointing out the hospital's lapses in service.
In the glass-is-half-empty tradition of all Czechs, she delivered a lengthy and depressing prognosis. She also cited several minor oversights of her surgeons. Someone addressed Grandma as "Frau Doktur Shipp." She didn't think her new title was funny. I knew Reny was OK, at least at that moment.
As this is written, she is not out of the woods, but she is much better. Our house is eerily lonely at night without her. Reny has a seriously damaged heart and will remain hospitalized for some time. Our family - daughters Edie and Michelle, son-in-law Ron and grandchildren - have come together to wait and pray.
The treatment and care Reny received reminded me of something we occasionally forget. American medicine is the best and most advanced in the world - once you get inside the system. Docs from around the world come to the United States and often to the Atlanta area to learn and practice their art. Emory and the Medical College of Georgia are world-class med schools. Mercer performs a grand service in training community physicians; Morehouse shows promise of becoming a leading medical school also - if Atlanta's power brokers can keep Morehouse's only training hospital, Grady Memorial, open, solvent and corruption-free.
In another time, I reported firsthand on the Japanese and Soviet medical systems. Japan OK; Soviet Union terrible. Communism may be gone, but heed this advice forever: Never get sick in Russia.
The national pundits seem to think health care will be the No. 1 issue in next year's presidential and congressional elections. I believe they are right.
However, when they say "health care," they mean health insurance. It is inexcusable that a nation so wealthy fails to provide a health safety net for its entire people, and especially its children.
Even big business is beginning to see the light. In the long run, better insurance for more people is in the best interest of the nation. Don't bother handing me that "Socialist" hogwash. Germany has had universal health care for more than century, since Bismarck was chancellor, and German medical research and physicians are among the finest in the world.
Ah, but I preach. This was meant to be a note to my new friends at Kennestone WellStar.
Thank you for saving Renate's life. I owe you a debt that I can never repay, no matter how comprehensive my insurance may be.
Originally published Oct. 10, 2007