Bryson City Tales — The Arrival (Part 1)

This is from the second chapter from my best-selling book, Bryson City Tales. I hope that you’ll enjoy going back to Bryson City with me each week, and that if you do, you’ll be sure to invite your friends to join us.

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THE ARRIVAL – PART 1

It was October, nearly one year before the murder. I was in the last year of my residency training at Duke University. During my residency, Barb and I had fallen in love with North Carolina and her people. I would finish my training the next summer, and I needed to find a place to ply my trade. We were also looking for a place to raise our family—a special place where we might even spend the rest of our lives.

During residency, we would use our vacation time and the rare long weekend to look around the state for places in which to both live and practice. First, we looked at the Outer Banks and along the beaches of the southeastern part of the state. None of these sites really clicked with us. Then we looked at small towns in the midlands. But after one trip to the Smoky Mountains, we knew that was where our hearts were calling us.

And then, there we were, driving toward the heart of the Smokies for my interview with the board at Swain County Hospital. Barb and I had spent hours and hours reviewing information from each potential practice site—information sent by the local hospital or the town’s Chamber of Commerce. The packets would often include appeals from local political officials that extolled the benefits of their locale and why a physician could experience permanent bliss only by choosing to practice in their town or area. Conspicuously absent was any explanation as to why, if their town was so perfect, they were not already overrun with doctors.

Quite frankly, our motive for agreeing to an interview in Bryson City was because we had friends who had camped and hiked there and who had lauded its natural beauty and its relative isolation. So we wanted to see the area, but we were pretty sure we would ultimately end up in one of the many other towns whose public-relation materials were so much more attractive. One by one, however, the towns had been checked off our list. Now only Bryson City remained. Would this town open her arms to us? And if so, would we feel called to accept her embrace?

As we drove along, I glanced over at my wife of nearly seven years. Barb, my best friend, reclined in the passenger seat, fast asleep on a fluffy pillow. The so-called air-conditioning of our aging Toyota Corolla was laboring to keep the car cool and gen- tly blowing Barb’s blond bangs off her forehead. I smiled. I felt for- tunate to be married to such a remarkable woman. We had known each other since we were five years old, growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Voted by her high school class as the most likely to succeed, Barb had earned her bachelor of science degree in English education at Louisiana State University, where she had been both the sweetheart of my fraternity—and of me. We were married during our last year of college, and then Barb had been a teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in Durham, North Carolina—first putting me through medical school and then through family medicine residency. At LSU, she had been awarded a Ph.T. degree—Putting Hubby Through!

Our first child had been born during my internship. I was on an emergency-room rotation—forty hours on and eight hours off, followed by forty more on and eight more off. Barb’s water broke five weeks before Katherine Lee was due, and our prema- ture daughter was born on the night before Halloween during one of my eight-hours-off periods. Although I had been a physi- cian for less than a year, in medical school I had delivered several hundred babies in the charity hospital system in Louisiana. I had taken care of many more in the nursery. I had seen babies of all sizes, shapes, colors, and looks. And, speaking quite objectively, I had never seen a more beautiful baby than Kate!

But when Kate was about four months old, Barb became very concerned that our daughter wasn’t progressing normally. Our family doctor tried to reassure us, but over the next two months Barb became more and more concerned. Finally we were referred to an elderly, but gentle and wise, pediatric neurologist. After his exam of Kate, he told us that he too was concerned. It was the first assurance Barb had received that her maternal instincts were accurate. The neurologist then ordered a special brain X ray called a CT scan.

I vividly remember when Dr. Renuart broke the terrible news. “Barb and Walt, Kate has cerebral palsy.”

He let the words sink in and then continued. “Two-thirds to three-quarters of her brain has died and has dissolved away. This must have happened at some time during the pregnancy, and I suspect we’ll never know what caused it. Maybe it was a knot in the umbilical cord; maybe it was just a kink. But somehow her brain lost oxygen and nutrients and died. On the right side, she has no brain at all—just water. On the other side, she has about one-half of the normal brain mass.”

We were in shock. He continued. “Barb and Walt, Kate will grow physically. She’ll probably grow to a normal adult size. She’ll be bigger, but she’ll never be better. She’ll probably never walk, she’ll never talk, she’ll never think abstractly. You’ll just have to take her home and love her the way she is.”

He was quiet. The waiting room was quiet. It was as though the sun had set permanently and the lights had gone out. The room seemed colder, the world crueler.

Our marriage suffered. We suffered. I now understand why over 70 percent of couples with a child who has a disability end up divorced. But with the help of several terrific neighbors and a caring faith community and church, Barb and I got through our first two difficult years with Kate. Our marriage became stronger as Kate became stronger. In her development she was already defying the experts’ prognoses. And right now she was snoozing contentedly in her car seat in the back of the yellow Toyota.

When we crossed the Swain County line, a remarkable transformation took place in the geography. The mountains seemed to be higher—and they seemed greener and lusher. There seemed to be more open space and less clutter and development. I breathed in deeply as I took in the vistas looking north, into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mountain ridge after mountain ridge as far as the eye could see.

I left the four-lane highway at the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit and found myself on a small two-lane country road that followed a wide, slow-moving river. Suddenly the air cooled and Barb stirred. “Are we there, honey?” she asked through a yawn and a prolonged stretch.

“I think this is it.”

She returned her seat to its full, upright, and locked position and started to look around.

“It’s beautiful, Walt,” she whispered.

We were both awestruck at the scenery. It may have been the first moment we knew that this is where we might be for a while. Barb pulled out the directions to the inn where we were to spend the night. It was a Sunday afternoon, and our interview at the hospital was scheduled for the next morning.

Winding up the side of the Tuckasegee River valley, we drove slowly to admire the fall wildflowers adorning the sides of the road. The leaves were beginning to turn a hundred shades of yel- low and orange and red. We came upon a quaint house with a beautiful flower-and-vegetable garden to the side. A small sign by the driveway announced The Douthits. I hit the brakes, coming to a sudden, screeching stop.

(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT FRIDAY)

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© Copyright Walter L. Larimore, M.D. 2016. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.