The severity of my illness during the summer of 2006, required me to be hospitalized for two months that included half of July, all of August and two weeks of September. After the first week, I was confined to a hospital bed with three tubes placed in my abdomen, two chest tubes in the left and right chest cavities to drain accumulated fluids, and a catheter inserted into my bladder to monitor my urinary output.
A central intravenous line was inserted into a large vein in the upper aspect of my chest to accommodate massive doses of antibiotics, an essential life saving therapy that I needed to counteract the large abscess that sat on my liver. My allergic reaction to Erythromycin caused my body to blow up like a balloon, which was another burden for my overworked kidneys. After the initial antibiotic therapy and during it, I lost my appetite and meals became burdensome. My intake of food diminished; I could not stand the sight of food. Therefore the central intravenous line also became a crucial source of nutrients for me.
I had cardiac leads on my chest to monitor my cardiac status and a sensing device on my finger to keep track of the oxygen levels in my blood stream. A nasal oxygen catheter was required to maintain my intake of oxygen; the accumulated fluid in my chest cavity compromised the functioning of my lungs.
My days in this unreal environment were consumed by daily blood tests and bedside chest x-rays. Periodically I went, via a stretcher, to a CAT scan lab to evaluate my liver abscess and to visualize the position of the drainage tubes in my abdominal cavity. The cause for my elevated heart rate needed exploration, therefore at the bedside I had my peripheral vascular system and my thyroid functions checked.
The antibiotic therapy caused me to have diarrhea, therefore I was in desperate constant need for a bedpan. The ancillary personnel were exasperated by my frequent requests, but I did not have a choice. I understood that they were overworked due to the shortness of their staff. The nurses came to check the flow of my intravenous lines and administered my oral and intravenous medications or questioned why an EKG lead became dislodged. My interaction with the staff was task oriented.
Every morning, the surgical and medical residents and interns made rounds, so I had a troop at the bottom of my bed assessing my current regime and its results. During the day, many physicians visited me, in fact, I lost track until I received their bills.
Most mornings around 7AM, as I opened my eyes, Doctor Cohen, the surgeon, stood at the bottom of my bed. I knew that it was only matter of time before he would perform an exploratory laparotomy. Five weeks after my admission date, Dr Cohen did the surgery as planned. My last tube, a nasal gastric tube, was placed in my stomach to keep it empty of its normal fluids. This was the last tube added to the ones already in place and the first one to be removed.
Early on Sunday mornings, from 1998 until the fall of 2005, I traveled by train from Suffolk County on Long Island to New York City. Usually I had packages that needed to be taken to my apartment, and from there I walked through Central Park to reach my destination, which was the New York Society for Ethical Culture, at 2 West 64th Street.
As I entered the Ethical Culture building my thoughts would be on the cup of coffee that I desperately wanted. When I went downstairs and entered the small room next to the Social Hall which had the coffee urn, I invariably found Claude drinking his coffee, eating a small muffin or two and reading The New York Times.
As I sat down next to Claude, he would start to talk to me. The main object of these conversations was to share his thoughts and opinions on the "far-fetched liberals," as he called the Democrats. His topics would provoke lively discussions and rebuttals from the others who were present and became an opportunity for me to gain a different perspective from an intelligent person.
There were times when I enjoyed being in opposition to Claude, because that would precipitate a blistering reaction from him: "So! That's the way you liberals think!" I was never offended by his packaged remarks. They were Claude's opinions, and since trying to convince him of mine might take forever, after five minutes I usually diverted our conversations to some other topic. Claude placed his own time constraints on our talks, since he was a prompt person and never wanted to be late for the weekly meetings in our auditorium.
Reliably, each week Claude would sit in the third row of the auditorium, on the right side. Many times during the "platform" address, you could see Claude's head shaking from side to side, in obvious disagreement with the speaker. He would make comments to himself that could be distracting to the speaker and to those within earshot. This sort of behavior created a lot of space for Claude. He was a lonely figure shouting his conservative views amidst a sea of liberals.
Many who attended the meetings would eat lunch together afterwards down in the Social Hall. The chairs around the table that Claude decided to sit at would often remain empty, until those who could not find other seats had no choice but to sit with him. Or, unknowingly, some of the newest members would sit at his table. Then Claude would have the company he craved. Soon he would start spouting off his ideas about that day's speaker and the theme of the lecture, rarely giving others a chance to express their opinions. Claude's behavior would at times provoke anger, at other times just silence.
After he finished his meal, he would visit other tables, interrupting people who were engaged in conversation to make his views known. These interruptions annoyed me but, sensing Claude's loneliness, I tried to respond politely. One time, as we talked, I happened to touch him on the shoulder. He quickly retreated in horror. I was unnerved by this reaction and tried to remember to avoid any physical contact with him.
On numerous occasions Claude commented that, other than celebrating some of the traditional Jewish holidays with his nephew and his family, attending our meetings and those of the veterans' association were his main social outlets. Claude was a private man; only on rare occasions did he allow you to glimpse into his background. One Sunday morning, at coffee time, he spoke of his heritage as a German Jew. He and his family had escaped the Holocaust and come to the United States when he was a young boy. He told us that his name originally was Claus, but that he had changed it legally to Claude to prevent being called, "Claus, the louse."
Claude became a patriotic American citizen and gladly joined the armed forces when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War. During the conflict, he lost the lower part of one of his legs, but his rehabilitation must have been remarkable, for he walked without a noticeable limp. Claude overcame his physical scars, but the scars of his troubled childhood and the abandonment he felt from Nazi Germany left their lasting mark on him. He was a sad person and now he is no longer with us. I hope in death he has finally found some peace.
Claude Weiler was a loyal member of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Now he is a memorable part of our history, an unforgettable character. When I think of him, I am overwhelmed with sadness, and tears come to my eyes. I will miss Claude.
Copyright © 2007 by Marcella Montaruli