“Have you ever withheld a story that was true but might be damaging?”
“No,” my dad said. “I’m old school.”
I beamed with pride as Dad explained his old school philosophy to the cardiologist at Charleston Area Medical Center. “In those days the editor read every piece of copy,” he said.
Three weeks earlier my dad was playing golf with me and my son, Aaron. Between holes Aaron started asking about the Navy, so that evening Dad showed off his Kearsarge yearbook. As Dad reminisced, he felt the joy of being a grandfather. Aaron, who is adopted, recently began telling his friends that “Dave” was not his grandfather at first, but he had become his grandfather.
Two weeks later, Dad watched me play tennis in the Greenmont Open. After the match he asked about strategies and rules. He questioned me like a seasoned news reporter. That Saturday he danced with my mom at the country club anniversary, with a color picture in the newspaper to prove it.
The following Tuesday, Dad play “heads up” bridge at the Presbyterian men’s club and came in second. That evening I called to confirm plans for having come to Charleston for the weekend. He sounded hoarse, but otherwise “OK.”
Early the next morning my mom called from the Camden-Clark emergency room. She didn’t think there was anything serious, but they felt better checking it out. Mom called a couple of hours later to report that Dad might have suffered a heart attack. At that point, my wife, Tammy, insisted that I leave for Parkersburg immediately. I procrastinated and soon learned that Dad was coming to Charleston by ambulance.
Tammy and I met Dad shortly after he arrived at the CAMC cardiac unit. He was calm and at ease, and I noticed that his voice was much stronger than the night before. “I’m in good hands,” he said.
My mom arrived carrying a teddy bear — outfitted in scrubs — that we gave my dad after his first heart surgery in 1995.
The cardiologist, Dr. Stephen Lewis, arrived in scrubs and a lab coat. He introduced himself in a tone that implied he was all business, yet understanding. It meant a lot to me that he always called me Ky.
Dr. Lewis asked Dad if he was a native of West Virginia. Dad responded with his life story. “No, I’m from the Midwest,” he began. He told about living in Chicago and Minnesota, where his father worked as an executive for the Hormel Company, and working for newspapers in Minnesota, South Dakota and Kentucky. Dad finished by telling the story of how he came to Parkersburg. Though I’ve heard the story countless times, he added a detail I’d never known: “I saw in Editor & Publisher the the Fort Dodge, Iowa, paper had been bought by the Ogden group of of Wheeling. I knew Fort Dodge needed a new editor so I sent a resume. When I came for an interview, they said they wanted me for Parkersburg.”
Dr. Lewis turned to the business at hand. “Mr. Owen, how aggressive do you want to be? I could cath you tonight and have a surgeon available. I’ll tell you that there’s not a balloon available that will help. You’re sitting on a dire situation. You could go tonight.”
Without hesitation or even a glance at us, Dad sat up and firmly declared: “Let’s go for it. That’s why I’m here.”
As the nurses prepared for the catherization, Dad told everyone, “I outlived my father and” — eyeing me with pride — “I’ve raised the bar for the next generation.”
Emergency bypass was the next step. We me the surgeon, Dr. Jay Requarth, in the hallway. In contrast to Dr. Lewis, Dr. Requarth wore khaki slacks and a Hilfiger shirt. He excused the quiet confidence of a physician who was paged for surgery while having dinner with a medical equipment representative. Perhaps fortuitously they had been discussing a relatively new device that helped in Dad’s surgery.
Dr. Requarth detailed the risks, but Dad never wavered in his decision to move forward. Dr. Requarth told me I wouldn’t see him again until after 2 a.m.
When I looked in the room and saw five nurses attending to my dad, I realized this was serious business. A nurse asked Dad to confirm his name and location. He recited his full name, adding that “Ferguson was my mother’s maiden name.” Next he told her he was at CAMC, and looked over at Mom and me and added, “I’m not returning from Texas,” an inside joke offered to reassure us that he was in control.
We walked to the surgery area with Dad. As we parted, Mom gave him a kiss and I exchanged a firm, Owen handshake.
As promised, we didn’t see Dr. Requarth until 2 a.m. During the wait we took comfort in the fact Dad had confidently gone into surgery without hesitation. I can’t say how much that meant to Tammy, who loved my dad like a daughter.
Dr. Requarth informed us in precise percentages that Dad came through surgery but survival was not likely.
Dad woke up in recovery Thursday morning and responded positively to the nurse’s commands before being sedated. That was important, because Dad always talked about how his father died during surgery.
Late Friday afternoon Aaron visited Dave, now his grandfather, one last time. I had to leave the room when I say Dad raise his eyebrows seeming to acknowledge his grandson’s visit.
The nurse offered to let us stay after the 5:30 visiting hour. But, Mom declined and told Dave, “I’ve got your billfold and I’m taking these kids out to dinner.”
My cell phone rang at Applebee’s.
“Dave Owen, my father, was a man who was all heart to the end,” was first published in The Parkersburg Sentinel in August 2002.