Mom and the Age of Medical Miracles

It's hard to be a Luddite when you watch a loved one being saved by technology.

Ten days ago, I was up in my office working on a magazine story when my wife came in holding my ringing cell phone. "You left it downstairs and it's been ringing. Do you want to answer it?"

Figuring it was some PR flack, I almost tossed it on the couch and ignored it. But for some reason, at the last second I answered.

It was my mother. She'll be 85 this year. Looks 70. Born in Oklahoma, traveled the world with my father, made sure he had bullets when he went on missions under the Iron Curtain, drove him to safe houses in Morocco, made my school lunches, led my sister's Brownie troop, is restoring the family's Land Rush farm outside of Enid, a pillar of various local historical and charity groups, and walks about five miles per day. She lives in a house as modern as mine is historic.

I was expecting the usual inquiries about her grandsons, about going out to dinner over the weekend, news about my sister, etc. Instead: "Mike, I don't have any strength in my arms and my chest is feeling very tight. I think you better get me to the hospital."

Five minutes later I'm crawling down a long suburban road in morning traffic, praying for a green light ahead, remembering my old Eagle Scout CPR training and wondering if I'm going to have to put it to use on the sidewalk next to the car. The good news: my wife told me to drive her sports car instead my seven-foot-tall pickup truck (I would have had to sling mom into the passenger seat). The bad news: I'm in a private vehicle with someone having a heart attack, when, as my Montana buddy (who is both a cop and an emergency room nurse) sternly reminded me afterwards, a quick 911 call to the fire department two blocks away would have had my mother in a speeding ambulance, on oxygen, with a defibrillator standing by. The best news: we made it to the emergency room. And I knew that the moment we got her through those doors that her chances of survival suddenly got real good.

Years ago, when I was a young PR guy working at Hewlett-Packard, one of my jobs was to help write the company annual report. It was a dreary, soul-killing job, as annual reports always are to anyone who actually cares about writing, but it did have one nice perk: I got to travel around the country and look at the various HP divisions. One of those was in Waltham, Mass., home of the company's Medical Products Group. There I saw the development and manufacture of some of the first generations of measurement instruments designed not for the surgery, but hospital emergency rooms, critical care wards and most amazingly, neonatal departments.

A few years later, after I became a real journalist, there was a spate of scare books and media Cassandras that decried the dangers of computers and electronics in modern life. My trip to Waltham gave me a two-word response to those Luddites who saw only the threat of technology:

"Fetal Monitors."

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