Healthcare in my Dad's Time

A Few Final Thoughts


There is a great deal of truth to the statement that “doctors make the worst medical patients.  An Example:  for most of his life Doctor Joe was overweight.  Despite his high energy level, the rich foods he loved (and his patients supplied on each house call) by the time he turned 65 they had started taking their toll.  He began having episodes of fluid build-up in his lungs.  His x-rays showed an enlarged heart.  He had secretively been self-medicating for hypertension.  It is also likely he suffered from Type II Diabetes and likely treated that problem in secret.  He could not keep his sleep apnea a secret, although he tried.  He drove at his usual break-neck speed between San Francisco and Healdsburg and had an episode where he suddenly fell asleep at seventy miles per hour.  That experience left my mother shaken.

However, for the most part Doctor Joe’s attending physicians were able to keep him leading a productive life to the end.  The bouts with congestive heart failure kept returning and became more severe.  Doctor Joe began using oxygen and slept sitting up.  He continued to see patients at his office on a limited basis.  And, he still puttered in the garden and hauled his hoses at the Healdsburg property to keep his fruit trees, vegetables and flowers wet.

Doctor Joe had one particularly severe episode of congestive heart failure while I was on business in Las Vegas with an associate.  I had checked into our hotel when I received a phone call from my mother saying the venerable doctor might not make it.  I left my associate and drove all night with the windows down so as not to fall asleep at the wheel.  When I reached U. C. San Francisco Hospital the doctors treating Doctor Joe had drained a great deal of fluid and got him stabilized.  That week-end was my anniversary and I prepared to drive to Orange County where I lived.  Before I could drive away my phone rang.  I answered.  The party on the other end of that call was on staff at the University of California’s Cowles Hospital, the student hospital in Berkeley across the bay from where I was.  I learned that my youngest brother, Bill, had been in a motorcycle accident and his leg was broken.  so, I called my wife, told her about this new emergency and drove to Cowles Hospital.

I found brother Bill waiting in a pre-op room with a compound leg fracture.  There was no anesthesiologist on duty, so Bill had received some pain killers while we waited.  About an hour later, still waiting, a nurse suddenly popped her head in to ask, “Are you any relationship to Joe Raffetto?”  No, not Doctor Joe, but my brother Joe, whose charisma made him quite memorable to all he met or entertained.  Brother Bill and I laughed uproariously because it happened so often.  Our laughter upset the nurse until we apologized and explained.  I’d been with Bill nearly two hours before the surgeon and anesthetist arrived to set the leg.  I was pleased that both my father, Doctor Joe and my brother Bill came through their respective ordeals.

The week before Doctor Joe’s final trip to U.C. Sn Francisco Hospital (which he drove to by himself) I came home to find him up on a tall ladder hosing out the accumulation of leaves and debris from the rain gutters.  That day he even went in to his office to treat several of his patients.  But, that evening fluid build up in his lungs made breathing difficult, so he admitted himself through the hospital’s emergency room.  I got a call the following morning saying that Doc wasn’t responding to treatment.  I flew into San Francisco International Airport from Orange County and went directly to the hospital.  I found Doctor Joe hooked up to a Bird Respirator.  He couldn’t talk, of course, but he was alert and very restless.  He penned a note and pressed it into my hand.  It said, “Bird Out,” meaning he wanted the respirator removed.  But, his attending physicians wouldn’t hear of it.  “Absolutely not,” they said to all of us, including Doctor Joe.  He became very agitated and frustrated.  shortly thereafter, he developed a stress ulcer, went into a coma and died from internal bleeding.

He was taken to a funeral parlor far down Mission street.  And yes, the parlor was owned by a long-time patient of Doctor Joe.  My mother got a great deal on the coffin, plus a lot of services were thrown in for free.  Doctor Joe would have been angry with us because we didn’t negotiate the price.  But, under the circumstances and knowing that the funeral home was providing every concession possible, no one was inclined to practice what Doctor Joe preached.  Preparations for Doctor Joe’s funeral are something of a blur for me.  However, I do recall that while my mother was trying to select a casket, I heard dance music.  I looked out a window and there across the street on the second floor, I could see ballet students whirling and jumping to the music.  It’s a surreal picture that has re-occurred more than a few times in my dreams.

The actual service was torture.  I don’t remember any words spoken by the Presbyterian minister.  It didn’t seem to interfere with all the catholic families in attendance as they went through their rosary beads praying for Doctor Joe’s soul.  I do know that the chapel where the funeral service was held was filled with mourners, among them George and Tula Christopher, he the former mayor of San Francisco.  I’m not name-dropping here.  The Christophers were our neighbors who lived directly across the street from us.  The fact that George was a well-respected political figure is unimportant.  what bears acknowledgement was how both George and Tula went out-of-the-way helping my mother through a very difficult period.  What made that funeral so terribly difficult because our emotional props were repeated knocked down, were patients, some I’d never seen before, others I knew slightly and still others that were close family friends, each coming forward with tears in their eyes to describe how Doctor Joe had saved the life of a loved one, or cured a persistent illness.

After what seemed to me an eternity the coffin was closed and placed in a hearse. Our family directed the funeral procession to follow Mission Street past Doctor Joe’s office on Santa Rose avenue and Mission Street one last time and then out to the Colma cemetery and “Patalu.”  Don’t know if the word is spelled right but Doctor Joe and his first cousin, Mario, used to joke about dying and going to a place they called “Patalu.”  I think it describes a place where there are no worries about salt intake and calories.  I can visualize Doctor Joe’s mother, my “Nonna Raffetto” throwing some of her home-made ravioli pieces onto her old wood stove to watch them dance on the hot surface until they were golden brown.

For all that he was a talented doctor, he was also my father, my mother, Vivian’s husband and the gruff old bear with a tender heart.  But, the way I’ve chosen to remember him is in the back yard of our San Francisco home on a windy and brisk day.  I see him stooped over near the clothesline umbrella where he heard a ruby-throated hummingbird’s song just over his head.  With nectar easily available from all the varieties of fuchsias, this hummingbird was a year-round resident.  Slowly, Doctor Joe straightened up.  He raised his hand upward and behind the hummingbird and carefully placed his hand around the bird, without disturbing it from its perch.  Maybe the warmth of his hands kept the hummer calm enough so the bird could be lifted off the clothesline.

Slowly, doctor Joe walked over to the steps leading to our back door and called us out.  Quit e pleased with himself, he carefully opened his cupped hands to show us the hummingbird, whose iridescent olive-green feathers and that shimmering red throat showed brightly in the sunlight.  “How’d ya catch it Dad,” we asked.  “Don’t you remember anything I ever tell you?” he chided.  “All you have to do is put a little salt on a bird’s tail and they are easy to catch.”  Then he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a salt shaker.  And, with that he raised his open hands.  The hummingbird flew straight up, hovered a moment and looked at us.  It then called out in a very scolding manner and flew out of sight.


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