When I was growing up, our family would visit my father’s many relatives in Southern California. Regrettably, the conversations during these visits often centered on illness, symptoms, and fears of disease. My mother was a student of Christian Science and we never talked about disease at home in this way. We didn't ignore health problems, we just rarely had any problems to talk about.
By contrast, my father's family seemed to enjoy talking about disease even more than the Dodgers. I remember one aunt in particular who would often question my health the moment I walked in the door! Admittedly, I was a skinny little kid for my age, but healthy nonetheless. Surrounded by these discussions, I would sometimes leave feeling nauseous!
Many years later, my brother and I were sailing for a week in the Canadian Gulf Islands. When we arrived back at Friday Harbor, we learned that our father was seriously ill and our mother urged us to come as soon as possible.
When we arrived, my father lay unconscious in a Seattle hospital bed with our mother and other family members by his side. An attending physician asked to speak with me and urged me to prepare my family for the inevitable. He was certain that my father’s death was imminent. I appreciated the physician’s motive in sharing this advice and the care he was providing, but I just could not give up on my Dad. I didn’t tell my family about the dire prognosis and instead remained hopeful and expectant of a full recovery. Not long after, he improved and was taken home where he regained his health and lived for 14 more years.
The experience reminds me of an opposite outcome during the Civil War in 1863. One of the Confederacy's most effective generals, Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, was accidentally shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Days after the accident and having his left arm amputated, the young general was reported to have been cheerful and impatient to return to command. Despite his resilience and expectancy of a full recovery, his doctors disagreed and were convinced his condition was fatal. Even signs of improving health did not change their prognosis.
Finally, after eight days, he accepted their arguments, made final arrangements with his wife, fell into a state of delirium, and died.
History attributes his death to pneumonia, but no one really knows. In 1975, practicing physician Beverly C. Smith, M.D. became interested in analyzing the medical care given to Jackson. She authored an article in the Summer 1975 issue of the VMI Alumni Review that states that the cause of General Jackson’s death remains a medical mystery. Dr. Smith further notes, “This is a fascinating medical problem. There was no autopsy and the true answers will never be known.”