Mary was a 67 year old woman who was significantly overweight and just a few inches over six feet tall. Several years earlier Mary suffered a stroke which left the right side of her body paralyzed. She was left without the ability to speak and consequently it was difficult for her to swallow. She was also unable to take care herself, at least that is what her family thought, so they sent her to live with my mother who ran a private rest home for the elderly. Mary was capable and proud enough to be able to keep herself clean, dressed and active and she loved to go for long walks, watch TV, and pick flowers. She would spend hours bent over a patch of clover in pursuit of the elusive four leaf variety. She could find them, too. Since Mary was ambulatory, responsible, and had her wits about her, my mother gave her free reign. Mary could come and go as she pleased and often took the dog for long walks around the neighborhood. Reggie, a black spaniel, loved Mary.
Because Mary’s stroke made it difficult for her to swallow her food, my mother had to grind most of Mary’s meals into a mush. Meat was always a problem for her to swallow. Anything that required chewing had to be rendered into small bits. How Mary loved to eat. There was not a food she did not like, she always cleaned her plate and often asked for seconds, hence, her large girth. Mary would often help clear the table and sneak-eat the leftover food the plates of the other residents. My mother had to watch her closely but it wasn’t always easy.
One warm and sunny weekday afternoon I was visiting my mother. Usually, whenever I visit somebody’s house, I park out on the road, but on this day for some unknown reason I pulled all the way in to my mom’s driveway right up to her back door. Her minivan was parked in the garage which was also not common. She usually occupied the spot outside the back door because there was limited space inside the garage for the ladies to climb inside.
On this day, the phone company was working on the lines and the entire community was without telephone service for the afternoon. This was in the days before cell phones. My mother had just given the ladies their lunch: Hot dog’s, everyone’s favorite. Mary’s, as usual, had been put through the grinder and was like a mound of brown mashed potatoes. Mary quickly shoveled hers home and and proceeded to clean up the dishes from the table. One of the ladies did not finish her dog and Mary picked it up. She quickly stuffed it into her mouth and tried to swallow it whole. She immediately began to choke then dropped everything and ran to my mother who was in the kitchen. My mother screamed for me. I was in another room and came running. I immediately recognized that Mary was choking and got behind her in an effort to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Since Mary was so large I could not get my arms around her. I told my mother to call the ambulance and she said the phones were out. At the time we did not know that the entire community was out of service. I thought it was just my mom’s phones. So I ran out the door to the neighbor’s house and pounded on the door. There was no immediate answer and there were no cars in the driveway. I turned and made a four foot jump off of their porch and running for the next home I jumped over a four foot picket fence. There was no answer there either. I ran through that backyard and leap to the top of a 6 ft. high stone retaining wall to the next neighbor. Before I got to the door I heard my mother scream my name. I turned and ran back to her house.
She and Mary had made it outside where my mom was standing by the back door. Mary was laying on the ground and her skin was purple. My mother was screaming “Do something!” In one of those apocryphal moments, and I would never believe if you told me this happened to someone else, I picked Mary up in my arms as if I had super human strength. My mother opened my car door and I set Mary in the passenger seat. Lucky for both Mary and me, I broke tradition that day and parked in the driveway.
My mother lived on a small quiet country road. In three tenths of a mile it joined a busy 55 mph highway. Half of a mile further it led to the center of town were the speed limit drops to 30 mph. A mile further from there, was the office of the town doctor. I got in my car and drove 70 mph all the way to the doctor’s office. There was not a single vehicle coming or going the entire way. I had the whole road to myself in the middle of the day.
I arrived at the doctor’s office and pulled up to the front door, parking on the lawn. I left my car door open as I charged into his office. I screamed at the receptionist “Where is the doctor?” and the receptionist said that the doctor was not in that day. I told her to call an ambulance, there was a choking woman in my car. She told me that her phone was not working and to drive up to the fire department and volunteer ambulance building which was about a quarter of a mile away. There, I could break the glass alarm on the outside of the building and help would quickly arrive.
Across the street from the doctors office lived a volunteer fire department EMT. She wasn’t feeling well that day and called in sick for work. She happened to look out her front window as I drove up, recognizing that something was wrong and seeing somebody slumped back in the passenger seat she ran out to my car to assist in any way she could. By the time I got back outside, she already had Mary lying on the ground and she managed to extricate part of the hot dog and performing mouth to mouth. She had a hand held radio and called for an ambulance. Only when the retinue of rescuers arrived at the hospital were the able to get all of the hot dog dislodged from Mary’s throat.
I knew that my mother would be worried so I went back to her house to tell her everything that had happened and she asked me to stay and watch the other ladies while she went to the hospital to tend to Mary. When she came home later that evening she told me that Mary was going to be okay. Since Mary had a history of strokes they decided to keep her overnight for observation.
The next day Mary was back home and doing well. I walked into my mother’s house later that evening and Mary was standing in the doorway, watching and waiting for me to arrive. We looked at each other with tears in our eyes and we hugged. Long. Though Mary couldn’t speak there were no words that needed to be said.
Mary continued to sneak food. My mother tried to watch her as best she could and warned Mary time and again not to eat food that was not prepared exclusively for her but Mary was stubborn and hated to eat ground up “baby food.” I can’t say I blame her.
One day, Mary was heading for the bathroom when she was struck by another stroke. She fell to the floor and was unconscious. My mother called an ambulance while two visiting social service employees tended to her but there was nothing anyone could do. Mary fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. After about two weeks in the hospital, Mary died quietly in her sleep. Only my mother was by her side.