Driving Country Roads to the ER

These days, I work most of my shifts about 45 minutes from my ‘house on the hill.’ At one of those jobs, the day shift starts at 06:30. Which means I’m rising from my bed at 04:30 in order to get on the road in time. I’ve started waking up at four, spontaneously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I lay out my clothes the night before, so as not to awake my darling wife in her sleep. Sometimes I am able slip out without her knowledge. Others she wakes to kiss me goodbye. Then I go downstairs and put together some lunch, get the backpack and make my way out the door. I know that my wife and children are safe upstairs, as I lock the door behind me.

The door creeks a little, or did until my son Elijah oiled it. (One always wonders why a teenage boy oils a front door…) Occasionally I lock it as I realize I left my keys inside, and poor, tired Jan opens the door for me patiently. On the front porch, by the soft yellow of porch-light or the shock of flashlight, I step over dogs freshly awakened from sleep, who look at me with gentle annoyance. The sharp-eyed cats sleep in more secret places, so are seldom seen in the morning. Other dogs (we have five), sleep on the gravel drive in the summer and seem confused as to how to react when my Tundra rolls towards them, slowly, and I roll down the window. ‘Get up, you silly dog!’ Heads and tails down they amble away.

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Up the long drive and down the road, I am suddenly all but alone on the two lane roads that lead me to Tiny Memorial Hospital. Despite the early hour, I am ‘awake, alert and oriented.’ The sky is dark, and in winter stars shine down when clouds don’t lay low against the earth. I scan the roadside for deer, their eyes reflecting the truck’s headlamps. Opossums sometimes shuffle across, along with squirrels and rabbits. (One day I saw a big, black bear on a hill by the road. He ran away as I stopped for a photo.)
I drive through forests, past sleeping houses and across a dark, still lake where sometimes, the light from a bass-boat shines across the emptiness where someone has fished all night…or started very early. Or a campfire on the shore still burns as their line rests untroubled in the water.

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It is so early that I drive past gas-stations and convenience stores still dark and locked, the ‘closed’ sign reminding me to keep on moving. The air, even in summer, is cooler and in winter, positively cold. Winter is my favorite, I think, with the heat of the truck turned out, and the chill wind blowing past.

I think as I drive. And I pray. And I listen to the news, a recorded sermon, a pod-cast. Many mornings I turn on an oldies station from the North Carolina mountains; in the loneliness of the drive the music of Sinatra, Johnny Cash and others, make me feel I’ve gone back in time.

I cannot talk on the phone (hands free or otherwise). I pass through places where cell-signals are only a dream, and often even radio reception is poor. Remote areas, mountainous places, lonely and beautiful places defy cell signals and seem to say ‘look around! What else do you need!’ Even at 5 am, I agree.
Eventually I am near, and I find a fast-food joint for the obligatory chicken biscuit and tea, because, well, the South and all. And then I roll into the ER parking lot, lock things up and head to work.
Because this is no urban trauma center, the early morning is sometimes very slow and relaxed. A few patients may be waiting for turnover, but often none. I can sit and think, I can ask about the previous night. I can ease into work. My drive has already prepared me, but it’s nice to have a few minutes peace in the department before the chaos of the day begins. I text Jan. ‘Here safe, love you,’ and she answers. ‘Love you back, have a great day.’
There are those who don’t have to drive long distances. For most of my career it was about 15 minutes to work. And there are those who have long commutes through traffic, and through the waking body of a large city, people and cars just starting to fill its veins and arteries. Sometimes I am jealous. It can be lonely where I am.
But I think I’ll keep it for now. There is a solemnity, a serenity to my mountain and lake commute, with animals heading to bed and people not yet rising, with my own thoughts and prayers to myself.

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And I suppose that if there were a better way to prepare for the madness, badness and sadness of the ER, I don’t know what it is.

Appalachia Deserves Our Respect (And Already Has My Love)

This is my column in yesterday’s Greenville News.  Happy Birthday West Virginia!  June 20,1863.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/06/19/ed-leap-appalachia-deserves-our-respect/85974188/

 

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Tomorrow is June 20th, a special day in the hearts of my people; West Virginians. On June 20th, 1863, West Virginia entered the Union in the midst of a bloody struggle for the soul of the young nation. It was, prior to that, the sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater of the elegant, beloved Virginia, soul of the South. After June 20th, however, it was…well, a sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater all its own. But a free state that rejected slavery!
Those who live in South Carolina are generally well acquainted with my fellow West Virginians. I have a theory that West Virginians share a gene which, at various times of their lives, causes them to have an irresistible urge to drive to South Carolina’s coast. In fact, when the mines close down for two weeks every summer, untold numbers of miners and their families head to Myrtle Beach, which has been affectionately dubbed ‘the coal miner’s Riviera.’ Some of my earliest vacation memories are of the Grand Strand. My wife Jan, a true ‘coal-miner’s daughter’ has similar memories.
If you doubt the connection between SC and WV, I have a vignette: my brother-in-law Dave worked in the WV coal mines as a young man out of high school. His early cell-phone plan included, as local calls, Huntington and Charleston, WV and (you got it!) Myrtle Beach, SC.
I write about this today because West Virginia is in the heart of Appalachia, which stretches from Southern New York all the way to Northern Mississippi (passing through the Upstate of South Carolina). Appalachia is defined as a ‘cultural region,’ and indeed it is.
More to the point, I write this because Appalachia is struggling. Although poverty has improved over the decades, Appalachia as a whole still faces financial woes, much of it made worse by those who are all too anxious to kill coal, but provide no other employment options for those terminated as part of an environmental purge. As if the ‘coal industry’ is only some vast robotic behemoth, and does not represent the hopes and dreams, and often the only financial possibility, for an entire ‘cultural region’ of America.
Appalachia is also struggling with rampant drug addiction and broken by the many funerals, ruined lives and crimes that widespread addiction brings in its wake. From pill-mills dispensing oxycontin to meth labs and imported heroin, the toll in lost lives and lost hope is crushing.
When Jan and I have traveled home over the years, deeper and deeper into Appalachia, up Highway 23 through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky and then home, it’s easy to see a place of magnificent beauty, resilient people and serious, inexpressible hopelessness. I never know if the drug abuse is the cause of the loss of hope, or the result of it. Cart, horse. It’s all tragic.
Sadly enough, America frequently just isn’t interested. Appalachian people are still acceptable sources of scorn for much of urban, coastal America. They’re live in ‘flyover country.’ Trailer-trash, hicks, rednecks. People who ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,’ to quote a well-known political figure. When a culture is endlessly mocked and derided, its people get the message loud and clear. Don’t try. It doesn’t matter.
But this June 20th I’d like to speak for my ancestors, and the forebears of so many, who settled in the Mountains of WV and other portions of Appalachia after leaving the press and stagnation of Europe. I’d like to speak for those who still live there, and who find solace and connection in the ghosts of their ancestors, the starkness of the mountains and valleys, in the life, faith, culture and music of the cities and towns. Like me, they stay there because in Appalachia, the past and the present are difficult but inextricable.
And if nostalgia isn’t enough, let us remember Appalachian people keep the lights (and i-Pads, DVR’s and electric cars) on by mining coal. They also provide timber and produce, work in important industries and share their region for the recreation of any and all. All too many have also shed their blood in America’s many wars, and continue to boldly, proudly ‘stand on the wall’ around the world.
America loves to talk about its multiculturalism. And one of its greatest cultures is firmly entrenched, despite its pains and struggles, in the vast region we call Appalachia. It deserves our respect.

My uncle Darrell Leap; a mensch among menschen…

My Uncle Darrell Ivan Leap recently passed on to glory.  Let me set the stage for you:  Darrell accomplished much in his 78 years on earth.  He was raised, with my father Keith and my uncle Karl, in rural West Virginia, on a small family farm.  From humble beginnings he became a well educated world traveler.  He served for a time in the US  Navy, doing oceanographic mapping of the Persian Gulf.  He was an expert in hydrogeology, ground water, and worked on some of the Nevada nuclear weapons test sites,analyzing the effects of blasts on underground water.  The Navy never left him, and he loved recounting stories of it.  He was  a professor emeritus of geology at Purdue University and a consultant to communities on the effects of toxic waste.  He sang in Bach Chorales, played the piano, composed and published music and always loved working with tools.  Appalachia never left him; so much so that in the end my dear aunt, his wife Myra, helped him take online tours of his hometown and environs. The following is the tribute I wrote for him. I was unable to attend his funeral.  (Unfortunately, emergency medicine is job where schedules are difficult to change.  More on that in another post.)  This was read by the pastor who gave the service.

 

I remember Uncle Darrell from very early in my childhood.  Darrell was a kind of mythic

figure to me.  He was always off on an adventure and he always brought interesting things back to show me

at Grandma Leap’s house, on Grapevine Road in Huntington, WV.  I still have Maracas and an African letter opener he

gave to me many years ago.  I recall a time when he came home and was completely exhausted from travel, but we stayed

up as long as he could keep his eyes open, putting together a model engine in the dim, small kitchen in

Grandma’s house.  He represented many things to me as a child:  courage, learning, the exotic and the

benefits of hard academic work.  ‘Take more math,’ was his endless mantra.  Sorry Darrell, it just didn’t

click.  More on that later.

 

One of my favorite things of all was to sit and listen, quietly, while my dad, Keith, Darrell and

Karl (of blessed memory as well) would sit and discuss their memories, or world events.  I just wanted

to be like them.  Strong and capable, men among men.  Menschen, in Yiddish; men of of honor and

integrity.  Together they ever inspired to greatness.

 

Fast forward and I was on summer break after my junior year in high school when Darrell took

me on a field trip with his geology students from Purdue.  He brought me to Indiana where we prepped

for the trip.  Then, for two wonderful weeks of 16-year-old freedom, I was among college students in

hotels and dorms, wandering alone around the wilds of Montana while they worked on projects and

I tried to avoid rattlesnakes, and ate Vienna Sausages alone on hillsides over rushing streams.  Heaven

must look a little like that; at least to a boy.

 

Life moved on.  Darrell married the love of his life, Myra, my treasured Aunt.  I found a girl,

Jan, and we were married.  Darrell and Myra were always welcoming to Jan as my wife, and to us as a

couple.  And when, in due course, children were born to us, they were always excited for our new

additions, always curious and encouraging.

 

As the children have grown into near adulthood, Darrell remained a figure who loomed large in

their lives.  He gave them his collected recollections and genealogical material, with which to anchor

themselves in time, place and history. And he always asked them about their interests, or was leading them

into his. We still have rock hammers and hand lenses he and Myra sent.  Darrell’s life, whether as Naval

officer, researcher on nuclear test sites or academic has always inspired my three sons and one

daughter.  I recall going over some photos once and our daughter Elysa said:  ‘Is there anything else

incredible he did you haven’t told me about?’  In fact, our youngest son, Elijah, has made it his life’s

work to exceed Darrell in mathematics, and has always been terrified that he wouldn’t be able to take

differential equations and thus at least match his great-uncle.  Darrell’s status as a professor emeritus

fills Elijah with awe, as an aspiring academic himself.  And don’t get me started on the harpsichord

Darrell built, which all of my children find fascinating, but especially our very musical son, Seth.  Sam,

Seth, Elijah and Elysa viewed their great-uncle Darrell as an inspiration and a joy, and always looked

forward to visits with him; he was a story teller, like all Appalachians, and he loved sharing them with

us.

 

Perhaps one of our best memories of Darrell was the time, several years ago, when we met

Myra and him at their cabin in Colorado.  It was a brief time of hikes and meals and board games,

when we slept in the cool mountain air after the generator shut off the power and there was perfect

darkness.  Maybe he liked to pretend he was a pioneer. We all certainly loved the experience.

Alas, you are here to honor him in has passage.  I am not, because my work in the emergency

room will not allow me to leave. I will blame Darrell for encouraging my academic life.  (You can

laugh now.)

 

When I told my first-born, Samuel, that Darrell had died, he texted back:  ‘Don’t worry Papa,

you’ll see him again.’  Indeed.  I am confident that I will see him in glory; but I will have to seek him

out among heavenly mountain rock faces, or in the choirs angelic, or as he walks along with Bach and

discusses music.  And he will be vibrant and whole as always.  And forever.

Uncle Darrell was a man among men.  And he lived life fully; the physical life, the life of the

mind, the life of family, the life of faith, and in his love for Myra, in the life of the heart.

I will miss him.  But I will look forward to our reunion. As I hope all of you will.

Thank you.

Edwin

Tell me about your little hospital!

I’m putting together a project on small hospitals.  While I’m particularly interested in critical access facilities in rural areas, other small facilities (urban and rural) are welcome.  I’ve always contended that big teaching centers get all the ‘love.’ There are television shows and books and movies about the enormous referral hospitals in big cities.  But not so much about the little hospital at the end of the road on the mountaintop, or on the windswept coast or in the desert Southwest.

And yet those places have dedicated staff who do great things, save lives, comfort the sick and do most of it on a pretty limited budget and in all kinds of weather.

So if you are interested in being part of this project (I’ll reveal more in time), tell me about your hospital.  Where it is, why it matters, its great successes and struggles.  If you have anyone I can contact there, please let me know that as well.

I want to hear your stories!

You can respond here or e-mail me at edwinleap@gmail.com.

Sincerely,

Edwin Leap, MD

 

 

 

Learning to Love Freedom

I have to admit that I’ve become a bit of a freedom junkie.  As a native West Virginian, there’s this desire, deep inside, to be unfettered.  When I was a child I expressed it by wandering all day long through the hills and valleys around my home.  No phone, of course, and no radio.  No way to contact, or be contacted by, anyone else.  I remember being about 13 or 14 when my dad let me go off into the woods with my single-barreled shotgun to hunt.  I never shot anything.  But I was free.

Later I was encumbered in some ways by college, medical school and residency.  But when my wife and I moved to South Carolina, and ended up in our rural, hilltop log-house, I rediscovered the deep inner peace of freedom.  Our family roams at will through the woods around our home, the state forest across the road.  On July 4th and New Year’s Eve we set off fireworks as long as we want.  On Halloween our bon-fire roars high as the tree-tops.

We throw clay-pigeons over the back yard and shoot them; we have lost untold arrows in the woods, and have behaved like barbarians for years, simply for the joy of doing what we wanted to do.  Our five dogs and three cats collude in our freedom, and have furry smiles as we sling dinner scraps over the back deck into their un-caged, happy mouths.

In 2005, my wife and I discovered a kind of liberty that we had never imagined.  We began to homeschool.  That adventure liberated us from the constraints of state-determined schedules, curricula and ideology.  It allowed us delicious, lavish time together, whether the kids were playing in the pool while rehearsing Latin declensions with my wife, or traveling to the Grand Canyon during the off-season.  We were unencumbered, and while the children learned much and learned well, we had precious little oversight to pester or constrain our wild, free time together, when we rolled about in our fragrant love for one another.  If we had known how it would be all along, we would have started homeschooling much earlier.

Two years ago, I found more freedom.  I took the plunge, left my partnership of 20 years and Jan and I started a small corporation, LeapMedicine.  I began working as an independent contractor.  I worked where, and when, I wanted.  I still do.  If I don’t want to work a holiday, I don’t.  If I want to work, I do.  If I work a shift and don’t like it, I don’t go back once my committed shifts are over.

There are costs to freedom.   It’s magnificent but unpredictable.  The cost of owning a business is sometimes daunting in America today, although I wish I had done it sooner.  There are others.  We recently tried to refinance our mortgage.  We discovered, to our chagrin, that large companies want people in communities of boxes.  You can refinance a house in a subdivision.  But a log house on a hilltop is unnerving to banks and lenders.  It isn’t the same as everyone else.  It’s less predictable, and understandably.  It may not sell.  Only so many people are comfortable away from the crowd, away from the comfort of commonality.

Indeed, we are nationally obsessed with being members of a herd.  Ask a kid in school if it’s OK to be different, the way every kid book with a quirky penguin and a sad skunk says it is.  It isn’t.  There’s a price, and it’s paid in bullying or marginalization.  Maybe it’s good training, because the same dynamic certainly exists in the world of adults.  Try saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong emblem, believing in something unpopular, standing for a viewpoint on principle not popularity.

Bullying just takes different forms; like social media campaigns, or lawsuits.  Being marginalized means ridicule by a professor, lack of promotion by a boss, firing by a corporation.  America, the land of the free, doesn’t really like freedom these days.  Freedom means you might hurt someone’s feelings, crush their fragile self-esteem, say something shocking.  Freedom of ideas is a beautiful dream, but the kids on the adult playground of modern thought are like the bullies from our childhood, dressed up in suits, with law degrees and political offices; and with the same fragile sense of self the old bullies had.  But they have more power to punish the free, more power to torment the outlier.  Fortunately, truly free people relish their freedom so much that they become hardened to the ways of bullies and go on living in joy and liberty.

I set out to write this as an homage to homeschooling.  But as so often happens, I discovered that homeschooling, and even business ownership, are merely some of the sweet fruits of an attitude, of a decision, to be free.  It was what made America, once upon a time, a great country.  It’s what real Americans long for, live for and are willing to defend and die to preserve.

I hope that my children, and their children and all the rest can remain free.  I hope that they can thumb their collective noses at those who silence, subjugate, manipulate and ridicule those who just want to live and be left alone.  I hope they take their children on trips and walk away from unnecessary constraints.  I hope that they forge new ways to be free and remake this nation.

Freedom.  Take every step necessary to preserve yours, and your children’s.  Because once it is surrendered it does not return easily.

And once enjoyed, perhaps the most addictive thing in all the world.

Summer Wants You Dead! My column in today’s Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/08/08/ed-leap-careful-summer-wants-dead/31298333/

Enough of the tedium of politics and culture! Let’s focus on the real enemy. Which in the South is clearly Summer. I was working in a Southern ER recently, in a location which is beautiful, full of Northerners, and which shall remain unnamed. We’ll call it ‘Vacation Memorial Hospital.’ Lying before me was a charming lady of some 80 years, who had fainted.

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘Well, my husband and I decided to ride bikes to lunch. It’s such a pretty day and all. And after about three miles I just felt funny and when I sat on a bench I passed out.’

(Relevant fact for the reader: The heat index was 115 that day.)

‘Oh my! It’s very hot outside. Where are you from?’

‘We’re here from Chicago.’

‘Do you ride bikes at home?’

Laughing, says ‘Oh no, only when we’re here!’

So, living in a city which feels nearly Arctic most of the year, my patient comes to South Town and rides a bike three miles in heat that makes the hardiest Southerner cling to the AC unit with something akin to worship. But this was certainly not the only misguided person I saw who did something similar. There were variations of course: ‘I drank a 12 pack and went to the beach for a few hours.’ Or, ‘I paddle-boarded for 8 hours against the tide, starting at noon.’ You get the picture.

Please excuse my bluntness and paranoia, but the fact that non-Southerns don’t realize about our summers is this: nature wants to kill you. Heat and humidity are its favorite weapons, and dehydration and heat stroke it’s favored techniques. (It’s the opposite of life in the far North, where nature wants to terminate you by turning you into a solid block of ice.)

However, as I realized long ago, it’s more than the heat. Summer in the South has many weapons at its disposal. For instance, it has water. More specifically, water and alcohol, the combination of which makes a fine cocktail but a very poor form of recreation. Summer doesn’t mind drowning the unwary.

Summer also employs creatures. I spend a large part of my summer finding, and destroying, the dozens of wasp nests that inhabit our property in the summer, and which make every expedition outside an exercise in looking for ‘booby traps.’ (I’m not vindictive; one of my sons is dangerously allergic.) There’s a nest on every door frame, in every shed, in the ground over which we mow, under the diving board, in the old can in the woods. Ditto for spider webs; a giant black widow was living happily under my wife’s lawn chair last week.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention venomous snakes. Copperheads have been particularly busy over the last couple of summers, causing painful bites and no doubt receiving financial kickbacks from the makers of $2000 per vial antivenin. Apparently, they have also been communicating with the shark population on the Carolina coast to start some form of horrible insurrection worthy of a B movie.

However, perhaps the most insidious technique of summer is the use of the lawn. The lawn compels us to expose ourselves to the intense sun, to stinging insects and to power equipment. Now, I’m pretty careful about blades turned by engines. But if I ever have a heart attack, odds are it will happen while I’m trying to start the 2-cycle engine of a weed-eater, already partly destroyed by ethanol-containing gasoline. Furthermore, it’s not only a danger to my earthly body. The anger and profanity that boil up while working with the weed-eater, or reprobate mower, are surely enough to make a Baptist into a backslider.

I know, this sounds crazy, but I’m ready for Autumn. And especially for that first freeze when stinging and biting things take a break, when the lawn grows more slowly and when a bike ride needn’t be accompanied by a 9-11 call.

I have a theory about why Southerners make up such a large proportion of our Armed Forces. It’s because of summer. As Southern children we learn that nature, for all it’s wonders, has it in for us. And we spend our time fighting and enduring temperatures, creatures, Kudzu, Poison Ivy and every other nefarious thing thrown our way. We learn caution, appropriate distrust and how to fight dirty. These are lessons that our visitors would do well to understand. Because like it or not, Summer wants you dead.

Now go and enjoy your bike ride!

 

Sweet Tea: A Delicious Force For Unity

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/05/09/ed-leap-divided-sweet-tea/26993623/

(By the way, I didn’t write the newspaper title for this piece.  I find it a little confusing given the context of the column.)

I have traveled all over America for the past year and a half. I have worked in hospitals large and small, in areas urban, rural and utterly remote. I have flown through so many airports that I have an internal list of my favorite concourses in which to be trapped by weather, and how to run through them when late for a flight.

Because travel for work is a lonely business, and when I’m lonely I eat, I have also accumulated quite a selection of favorite restaurants and fast-food places in the assorted towns where I have traveled and plied my trade. I find the Denver International Airport to be a place of delightfully varied gastronomic opportunity. I know that in Jasper, Indiana, nothing compares to the Schnitzelbank if it’s genuine German food you crave. The Double Barrel Saloon, in Craig, Colorado, has wonderful lamb stew, from locally grown livestock. That’s just scratching the surface.

However, as a wandering Southerner, it’s a lot harder to find proper sweet tea. This fact, dear reader, is just below ‘leaving wife and children behind’ as a source of deep pain and angst for this particular aficionado.

I think it’s important that we hold tightly to sweet tea as an integral part of our common bond as Southerners. So as we enter Spring and Summer, truly ‘tea time,’ it’s a good time to be reminded of what tea, proper iced, sweet tea, is and isn’t. Let me start with the negative. God did not intend tea to be sold in a large metal container under pressure, then poured through plastic tubes to a spout right next to the Coke, Pepsi, Sprite or Mountain Dew. It may say tea, but it isn’t. It’s heresy.

Next, tea shouldn’t be put into the ‘freshly brewed’ dispenser from a large plastic bag of tea, sent from some far away place where it was not made by loving Southern hands. That is trickery, mockery, disdain for all things holy and pure. When I recently discovered this travesty at a favorite establishment, I was out of sorts for days. ‘I can’t believe they, well, it’s…wrong!’ My daughter is tired of hearing about it. ‘That upset you didn’t it?’ Eyes rolling. These are not bags of tea in my opinion. They are bags of syrup, unpleasant at best.

Likewise, sweet tea isn’t just unsweetened tea with wretched little sugar packets poured into the cold, unrelenting water to collect on the bottom like dead sea-monkeys. How many times, dear Southerners, have we been in some northern clime and asked for sweet tea, only to be told by an unenlightened individual, ‘we have sugar.’ Ghastly.

Furthermore, as with fine wine, beer or bourbon, the tea lover can tell in a glance if things are right. In one Mid-Western restaurant, I was served a glass of iced tea that looked very much like red-clay from my yard, stirred and left suspended in dirty water. It appeared as if it had been made the year before and left in the back of the fridge for the next time some yokel asked for sweet tea. I took a picture to remember the horror.

There’s no single way to make sweet tea. Hot water in a pot, iced-tea maker, sun tea and others. We all probably have our own techniques and preferences. And to avoid contention and alarm, I won’t recommend any particular way of making the delightful nectar of Southern life.

In the end it is a medium amber color, sweetened with sugar and mixed with a little extra water to balance the flavor. It smells like hot days and cool evenings, like the beach and Thanksgiving. And when mixed with ice, it is truly the drink of the gods; ambrosia below the Mason Dixon Line.

It is one of our many gifts to the world, like shrimp and grits, barbecue, shag and camouflage lingerie. We drink it with our meals, by the pool, in the car, at work. We drink it at parties and picnics and it is, unlike Bourbon or beer (of similar color palate) fully acceptable and expected at church dinners. ‘Y’all, weren’t the Leaps supposed to bring tea? We should pray for them. Something must be wrong.’

God help us, we’re entering a Presidential election cycle. We are divided on many issues. But at least in the South, we should be united by one thing across all lines of race, sexuality, gender, religion and party alliance.

And that thing is sweet iced tea.

Grandparents raising grandchildren. (My column in today’s Greenville News.)

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Have a wonderful evening.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/04/25/ed-leap-grandparents-find-youth-raising-children/26332523/

They say that there may be children, born now, who could live to be 1000 years old. Can you fathom that? Some humans could continue to live for what would be well more than ten current lifetimes. We aren’t there yet. But this isn’t so far out of the possible. Some medical researchers are already talking about resuscitating those who die up to five hours after death. It involves special technologies that aren’t widespread, but it’s on the horizon.

Of course, if humans could live that long, who would we allow to do it? Would we choose only the best and the brightest, or the rich? Would we favor the genetically gifted? Would we, instead, grant fantastically long lives only to those willing to travel to other worlds through centuries of the blackness of space, spreading humanity to the far reaches of the galaxy?

Personally, there are some I would choose. For instance, if we could reverse the ravages of disease, if we could suddenly undo the physical and mental ravages endured by untold millions from injury, disease and inheritance, I would offer it first to them. I would pick those who spent lifetimes in wheelchairs, in hospital beds, unable to enjoy the wonders of this world except vicariously. Who better to spend 700 or 900 more years, walking, talking, working, loving? Who could enjoy it more thoroughly than those with the incredible perspective of liberated prisoners?

But another group comes to mind. And that would be the amazing, and dedicated, grandparents who are currently spending their old age raising their grandchildren. I see them all the time in the emergency departments where I work. For whatever reason, their children cannot (or will not) raise their own sons and daughters. And for reasons of love and devotion, of duty and mercy, grandparents fill the void.

Some are young grandparents; raising children again in their forties or fifties is not easy, but the memories are fresh. They still have much of the strength of years recently past. Others, however, are 60, 70 or more. Ordinarily, they would slow down and rest. They would take what little retirement they had saved and visit family, friends or places they always dreamed of seeing. Instead, out of absolute passion for the children of their children, they circle back around once more and start fresh.

They fight for custody, they change the diapers, feed and bathe the children. They take them to school, clothe them, care for them in their sickness. They help them with homework and take them on vacation. They protect them and indulge them. Sometimes, the original family is reinstated with time, or after troubles have passed, jail terms have been completed. Many times, however, grandparents are the only parents children will ever know.

If I could, I would grace these people with fresh youth. I would reset their cells, renew their joints, freshen sick hearts and lungs, build new muscle, eradicate the risk of death from cancer. I would fit them for the task ahead; for running in parks and swimming in rivers, for wrestling and jumping on trampolines. I would give them the strength they need to keep working to support their grandsons and granddaughters, the strength they desire to have fresh, unmitigated passion and capacity once more.

And then, when they had done that precious, monumental task, when they had modeled parenting and protected and cared for their descendents, I would let them start all over. I would reset them so that they could go to school again, try new careers, travel to new places. I would give them the ability to continue on in health, joyous in the knowledge that they did what was necessary, what was vital, for their vulnerable grandchildren. It’s a long way off, no doubt. But I can dream.

Just like I dream of a world where all children are safe in families. Where no child is abandoned or lost, ignored or wounded or left to his own insufficient devices. The grandparents I see who are raising their grandchildren have the same dream, and are willing to sacrifice to see it come true. And from what I’ve seen, simply being with their grandchildren is a kind of rebirth and extension, by necessity, of a bit of their own youth.

If I could give them 1000 years, I would. But it appears that for most, raising those children in safety is all the reward they really want.

Sinners’ stories leave the deepest impressions. (And we’re all sinners, by the way.)

My column in Sunday’s Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/03/27/ed-leap-sinners-stories-leave-deepest-impressions/70569286/

I have met some characters in my career, and their stories are forever archived in the library of my mind. Some of them were physicians, of course. I recall one who, when paged, always called back collect. I could only laugh and shake my head. There was another who made me so angry that if dueling had still been an option, I might have asked, ‘sabers or pistols, sir?’

I recall one of my residents in medical school who disappeared on call nights and in ‘morning report’ (the daily debrief of the night’s joys and terrors) explained how shocked he was that his pager just hadn’t worked all night! Not a good way to earn the love of your co-workers.

Crazy doctor stories are always fun, but in the end they pale in comparison to the stories we hear from our patients. Privacy laws being what they are, I am constrained. Nevertheless, I recall crime confessions made while a knife protruded from one patient’s back. (The prospect of one’s possibly having a luncheon meeting with the Almighty apparently provides a certain moral clarity.) I remember the addict who had perfect, flawless hair and told me the same story, like a church liturgy, every single time I saw him. In short, someone always stole his pain pills.

I’ll never forget the alcoholic (a previously convicted violent criminal), who in his antiquity threatened to kill us every few ER visits. And then, in the harsh, bright, relative sobriety of morning would laugh and shake hands, and amble his way out the door to go home and begin the cycle all over again. My heart breaks at the thought of the young man with mental illness whom we legally couldn’t hold, but whose mother wanted to admit for his own good. I hope she saw him again after he sat down in the taxi, stone-faced, and drove away into the night as she cried.

Thinking over these tales of woe, I realized how few of the things I remember best were good news, or easy situations, or ‘nice’ people (in the traditional sense). I don’t have a great list of happy stories told by polite, productive citizens who were injured while feeding orphans. I remember the difficult ones. I remember the problem children, as it were.

I’m sure any competent evolutionary biologist can devise a reasonable explanation for this. For example, perhaps they were all object lessons. I remember them so that I won’t repeat their mistakes. I once saw a shirt that said, ‘it may be that the entire purpose for your life is merely to serve as a warning to others.’

On the other hand, I remember them in part for the same reason that I read the names in old, overgrown graveyards; so they’ll not be forgotten. Not yet. The same reason I read names on monuments, or the dedications in books. As homage.

But on a different level, I think I remember them because it’s the difficult people, the hard people, the wounded and sad people who need our attention the most. They are the lost children. They the squeaky wheels. Maybe I remember them so that I will know who to look for in the future, and be attentive to their special needs, their deeper wounds, shattered dreams and aching hearts. So I’ll know to look beyond intoxication and anger to the slightly smudged and tarnished image of God before me.

They help me, you know. Here in the Bible belt, it’s always a dangerous temptation to associate worth with being clean and proper and good. One only needs to go back to the scriptures to see that for the lie it is. Some of the best of the cast of Biblical characters were, in some very real ways, some of the worst.

This Palm Sunday we remember Jesus, himself a lover and teller of stories, a man ever drawn to the lives and stories of the broken and suffering, riding into Jerusalem near the end of his time on earth. He was ready to complete his mission to ‘seek and to save that which is lost.’ One of the many accusations against him was that he was a ‘friend of sinners.’ A sinner myself, I’m happy to hear it.

But honestly, it’s no wonder! They recognize their deep need. And they almost always have better stories than ‘nice’ people.

 

Snow, milk and bread. Still a mystery.

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Snow, milk and bread; still a mystery

(I resurrected this post from 2009, as our entire region of Upstate, SC is on lockdown from ice and snow.  Thank God we have tea and sugar!)

Living in the South for over 21 years, I’ve always been amazed by the general response to snow and ice. In particular, I am constantly fascinated by the grocery store dash for milk and bread. I grew up in West Virginia. Sure, we didn’t have winters like Michigan or Maine, but it was still cold and snowy. Nevertheless, I can’t ever remember my family saying, ‘Run to the store and get milk and bread!  The storm’s a comin’!’

This comes to mind today because all around our hill-top home, the forest is an ice covered work of art and the roads are slick highways to death and disability.  Being South Carolina, of course, everything is shut down.

But I digress.  The point is that I have contemplated this for quite a long time, so I have a few ideas. It may be that there is some secret knowledge that born and bred Southerners possess. Milk and bread may constitute the keys to some Gnostic cultural insight that I’m not privy to knowing. Or, it may be a kind of generally accepted joke.  If so, it’s a lucrative one for grocery stores. Whatever it is, I’ve decided that, in honor of winter, I’ll suggest some reasons why we might actually want, or need, milk and bread when ice and snow descend.

1) The most obvious answer is that we can drink the milk or eat whatever cereal we can find in the cabinet.  We can make sandwiches out of the bread.  And yet, this simplistic explanation it leaves me unsatisfied; hungry for some other answer, so to speak.

2) When the wind is stiff and the house (or camper) poorly insulated, we can mix milk and bread into a paste and caulk the walls for warmth.

3) When mixed into paste, milk and bread could also be used to write HELP, NEED CHEESE PUFFS! (or OXYCONTIN or XANAX) onto the sides of our houses. Unless they’re already white, or too snow covered for the letters to be visible (thus, food coloring).

4)) If a new ice age suddenly descends, we can use the milk and bread to lure animals like squirrels, rabbits, black bears and stray cats onto the porch, then drop cartons of frozen milk onto them, or snare them with nets made of plastic bread bags. We can then make breading to use whilst cooking them. Also applies to gerbils, guinea pigs, hermit crabs and large goldfish.  In a pinch, annoying neighbors may suffice.

5) Milk and bread may be combined with sugar to make some sort of winter confection to satisfy our need for something to eat besides milk and bread.

6) Milk and bread can be bartered on the black-market and exchanged for more exciting things like i-Pods and liquor, or more useful things like ammunition and camouflage. Except that everyone else also has milk and bread, so…

7) If one has purchased enough bread, it can be put under the back wheel of a vehicle stuck in the ice and snow to provide traction, so that the driver can venture forth to find… more milk and bread.

8) When the children are bored from being stuck inside for the 4-5 hours that snow actually lasts in the South, we can play games like ‘dunking for bread,’ ‘pin the cap on the carton,’  ‘cover baby sister in milk’ or ‘bread Frisbee.’  And our children can entertain us for hours asking ‘Mama, can we have something else besides milk and bread?’

9) Because we always get milk and bread but always forget dog food, we can mix the milk and bread and give it to the dogs (who will roll their eyes and eat it out of duty, but who will have already torn apart the trash for chicken bones).  But if thus conditioned, this will make #4 above much easier.

10) We can burst upon the art world with ‘milk and bread sculpture,’ which is almost as cool as ice sculpture but does not require power tools. (But may, unfortunately, sour before art critics can descend upon our area to review our work for the New Yorker.)

11) We can make hot chocolate and toast until the sun shines again. Unless, oh, you forgot the chocolate, didn’t you? Well, it’s back to milk and bread for you.

12) Milk and bread can be used in some sort of odd, Southern fertility ceremony. It must be true, considering the number of children born 40 weeks after the happy couples stocked up.

13) Milk and bread can be substituted for pseudoephedrine and ether in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Well, not really, but it’s much less dangerous and way more healthy.

14) It gives Southerners something to laugh about that people from other countries, like New York and Miami, don’t understand.

15) Going to the store for milk and bread reminds us of the things we need that are really important!  Like sugar and tea-bags,  chicken-livers, pop-tarts and Red Box movies to help us through the next 24 hours until everything melts.

If any of these are right, please e-mail me and let me know. I have to get to the bottom of this! And if it turns out to be a carefully planned conspiracy by dairy farmers and bread makers, then bravo, guys, bravo! Capitalism is alive and well.

Edwin