That hospital is becoming too familiar. Since that fateful day last October when Rich took his ambulance ride from the woods to the emergency room at Essentia, we have gotten to know the landscape very well. The cardiac ward seems to be his second home, between multiple surgeries, procedures, doctor visits and rehab workouts. Throughout it all, I have come to learn what it means to be a model patient.
This is the man who rarely remembered names or faces. But from his bedside I could see the pains he took to check name badges and call each assistant, nurse and doctor by name. They responded in kind, treating him as a person not a patient. He cared about their lives as much as they did about his. I could see how it transformed personalities and care.
“Thank you” was constantly on his lips. Every poke, jab, test or adjustment elicited the same response. He was in good hands, these people were there to help him on the road to recovery and he let them know how much he appreciated it. It seemed to come as a surprise to many of his helpers, unused to being thanked for doing unpleasant things. I enjoyed watching the look of wonder come over their faces.
There were many dark days in that hospital. Days when Rich wondered what his future looked like, if he had one at all. But one thing could light up his face. Owls. His owls. All it took was a casual inquiry – “What do you do?” Where once that would have unlocked his identity as a techie and web guru, now it means photography and birds. Last year he traced down a great horned owl nest nearby, and photographed the owlet triplets from conception to independence. With the pandemic gripping the world, his blog attracted thousands of followers. Everyone, it seemed, was eager to watch the daily development of those furry friends – a joy amid hardship.
The best of those photos found their way into a children’s book, Do You Hoot!, which chronicles the owlets’ young lives. Copies sold like hot cakes, and Rich made it available free online to anyone who wants to download it. His passion lies in sharing his owlets, particularly with children, not making money off them.
So that innocent question spawned stories, as many as time allowed. Sometimes it led to photos on his tablet or a card with the link to his photography blog and book downloads. Rich became known as The Owl Guy. Soon his reputation preceded him. New staff coming on duty would come in and say “I hear you’re the one watching the baby owls.” And that smile would travel across Rich’s face again. It was a ray of light in the midst of uncertainty.
Today we re-entered those walls again. For yet another procedure. Rich had been doing great – even back skiing and starting to ride his bike again. And then he wasn’t. His heart reverted to irregular beats, A-fib as we learned to call it. He was in it 100% of the time, and his heart was having trouble keeping up. It robbed him of energy, put an end to his workouts, and planted grim thoughts where hope had been growing.
But modern medicine is wonderful, and there are still answers. Rich went in for an “Atrial Ablation” this morning so they could zap all the erroneous signals in his heart, to return it to a normal rhythm. As I waited with him, numerous staff members came and went. Inserting IVs. Checking his blood pressure. Asking questions. Requesting signatures. Turning off his implanted defibrillator. And one by one they’d look at him, recognition dawning in their eyes. “Say, aren’t you The Owl Guy?” And it would start all over again – the smile, the stories, and of course the thank yous.
The same owl parents have found a new nest this year, and Rich was out during the winter hunting it down. Perhaps they knew his energy was waning, because their new home is much closer to our house. Easily accessible to a birder with limited energy. Rich has already begun photographing this brood’s young lives. He’s pretty sure there are three of them again, barely visible underneath Mama Owl. And God willing, he will document their development as well. Because he’s The Owl Guy.