Daily Archives: October 9, 2008

Everyday People: It will always be a special Christmas

Note: This story was written in December 2003 and appeared at that time as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

This will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself.

Imagine an Iowa blizzard. Then imagine a guy so brave (OK, foolhardy) that he went out the right dormer window and made it halfway to the frozen chimney before falling to the ground, hitting the porch roof on the way. The imagine God let him live to tell and write about it!

Imagine an Iowa blizzard. Then imagine a guy so brave (OK, foolhardy) that he went out the right dormer window and made it halfway to the frozen chimney before falling to the ground, hitting the porch roof on the way. Then imagine God letting him live to tell and write about it!

But don’t get the wrong idea. Had I succeeded, my death wouldn’t have been ruled a suicide. I had no death wish. On the contrary, I had a lot to live for. I was a 34-year-old man with a wonderful wife; children ages 2, 5, 8 and 11; a great old house and a good job.

No, my death, had it happened, could not have been ruled a suicide. But stupidity could have been listed as the cause of death because I made a poor decision – actually a couple of them – and the results could have been deadly.

The story began the afternoon of Dec. 24, 1983. It was bone-chilling cold, and it was snowing big flakes. A strong wind roared out of the west, causing blizzard-like conditions in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

Our plans called for bundling everyone up and traveling across town to my in-laws’ house at 5 p.m., where, with members of my wife Sherry’s family, we’d enjoy the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ferden and oyster stew her mother had prepared. Then we’d open gifts around the Christmas tree.

About an hour before it was time to make the trip, Sherry said she believed some exhaust fumes from our furnace were backing up into the house. I was sure she was mistaken, but we opened some windows a bit to let in some fresh air, and I went outside to look at our chimney, high in the air in the center of our roof. I didn’t like what I saw.

The brick chimney has a cap on it that I had once installed to keep birds out of it.

What I saw that Christmas Eve 20 years ago was that the chimney cap’s screen, designed to let the exhaust out, was covered with ice. It was so cold and so windy that day that the warm exhaust from the furnace was condensing on the screen when hit by the cold air. The ice on the screen had built to the point that almost no exhaust from the furnace could escape.

I went back inside and told Sherry that she had been right. There was only one thing to do, I said. That was to climb into the attic, go out a dormer window, make my way to the chimney and knock the ice off of the chimney cap’s screen.

Sherry protested. It was too dangerous, she said, and we should get a motel room for the night.

“No, I can do this,” I insisted.

We have a two-story house and a full attic. That means the top of the chimney is three stories high. But, though the roof leading to the chimney has a steep pitch, I had climbed it several times in the past to do work around the chimney. I had installed a TV antenna for one thing and the chimney cap for another.

We’d drop the kids off at her parents’ house, I told Sherry, to get them out of our house and its fumes. We’d return home for what I thought would be my quick fix to the frozen chimney problem. Then we’d go back to her parents for the family celebration. She finally agreed.

The blizzard continued as I bundled up that afternoon, with Sherry at my side, still protesting, and climbed up a ladder and into the attic.

“Tie a rope around yourself and let me hold onto the other end,” she pleaded as I prepared to climb out the front dormer window. I paused for a moment and considered that idea.

“No,” I said, “because if I do fall, I’ll pull you down with me.”

Sherry was still protesting as I bravely – and stupidly – climbed out the window and began making my way uphill beside the dormer, toward the chimney.

I had gone just 4 or 5 feet when my feet began to slip. The only thing to hold onto was the edge of the dormer roof, and that wasn’t much. There was snow on the roof, but that wasn’t why I was slipping. There was a layer of ice under the snow, and that’s something I hadn’t planned on. I had planned to use the rough surface of the shingles for traction, and that was no longer an option.

“Even if I make it to the chimney,” I thought to myself, “there will be nothing to keep me from sliding all the way back down.” Sherry had been right. This was too dangerous. I had to turn back.

Then it happened. As I cautiously turned to go back down, my feet slid out from under me. It was like falling on your fanny while roller skating. It happened in an instant, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I shot past Sherry, feet first. She had been leaning out of the dormer window, watching in shock. It all happened so fast, there wasn’t even time to scream.

Friends would later ask me if my life flashed in front of my eyes, as the expression goes, as I fell. “There was only enough time for the first 5 years of it,” I’d tell them with a laugh.

Off the roof I went. My arms were outstretched, grasping for something – anything – to hold onto. But there was nothing, only air.

I was still stretched out when I hit the front porch roof on my side. Through no conscious effort, I then spun around 180 degrees and sailed off the porch roof head first.

This was the most frightening moment of the entire ordeal for me.

“Now you’ve done it,” I thought to myself in the instant before I slammed to the ground. “You’re going to hit on your head, break your neck and kill yourself. You should have listened to your wife.”

But, thankfully, God had other plans for me. Again, through no effort of my own, I did a 90-degree flip in mid air and, instead of hitting the front yard head first, I landed flat on my back.

I lay there a moment. “You survived! You’re not hurt!” I thought to myself. Then I tried to get up. I was hurt. My torso was suddenly wracked with a burning pain, and I passed out.

When I woke up a few minutes later, snow was blowing across my face. “Why are you sleeping in the front yard?” I asked myself. Then I remembered the terrifying plunge off the roof.

My next thought was about Sherry. She had seen me fall. Why wasn’t she here checking on me? The truth suddenly hit me: She wasn’t at my side because she was in the house phoning the volunteer fire department of which I was a member and the volunteer ambulance service of which I was an associate member.

“Oh, my God. My friends will never let me live this down,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to stop her from calling them.”

Sherry had hurried down from the attic after my fall and had come to my side while I was still passed out, she later explained. She couldn’t help but notice that I looked like a big snow angel, arms and legs outstretched, as I lay there.

She said my skin had a gray tint to it. But I was moaning so she knew I was alive. Sherry then had hurried inside to the phone in our kitchen to summon help.

After I had managed to get to my feet and painfully made my way to the kitchen, I found my wife nervously trying to dial the seven-digit number for the fire department on our rotary phone. She had made several attempts but her shaking fingers had kept her from connecting. (Twenty years ago, we didn’t yet have 9-1-1 and touch-tone phones.)

Sherry was shocked when I walked into the kitchen.

“Hang up the phone,” I begged. “I’m OK.” She protested, but I continued, “I’m an EMT; I’ll check myself out.” She hung up the phone.

Several inches of snow on the front yard and the heavy winter coat I was wearing had helped cushion the impact from my fall a bit, but I knew I had broken some ribs and was sure I also had a concussion. I can assure you that people aren’t kidding when they say it’s not the fall that hurts, but the sudden stop!

I felt pretty stupid about what had happened. I had successfully thwarted visits to my house by the fire department and ambulance service (although my firefighter and EMT friends eventually found out what had happened to me; few secrets are kept for long in a small town.)

My next wish was to keep Sherry’s family from finding out how dumb I’d been. I insisted we return to their house as planned and carry on like nothing had happened.

It wasn’t a very enjoyable Christmas Eve for me, although I was thrilled to be alive to experience it. I spent most of the evening sitting in pain on the sofa. When you break ribs, it hurts to sit down, get up, breathe, cough, sneeze and everything else that causes your torso to move.

When we arrived home that night, I coughed up a little blood. That scared me, so I agreed to Sherry’s wish that I call my doctor, Mike deBlois. He only lives a block away from me, but I didn’t have his home number so I called the physicians’ answering service.

“Please tell Doc deBlois to call Phil Roberts,” I told the woman who answered. “Tell him I fell off the roof tonight, and I think I broke some ribs.”

It wasn’t but a few minutes before my phone was ringing. It was Mike.

“You did what?!” were his first words. I related my story and my symptoms. I also confessed I had waited about six hours to call him.

“Well, if you’re still alive, you’re probably going to make it,” he said in all seriousness. “Have Sherry wrap your chest and, if you get to feeling worse, go to the emergency room.”

We still had a chimney that was mostly blocked, so Sherry opened some more windows to make sure there was plenty of fresh air in the house, and she put the kids to bed.

Both of us then sat up the rest of the night, taking turns dosing now and then.

I thought I should stay awake because of my concussion. Besides, I was in too much pain to sleep soundly. Sherry stayed up because she wanted to make sure the furnace fumes didn’t kill us.

It was weeks before I could move around without feeling pain. But I never complained about it. I just felt fortunate to be alive. And because I wasn’t permanently disabled or killed, God must have had a purpose for me, I reasoned.

I learned some valuable lessons on Christmas Eve 20 years ago. For one thing, if someone tells you that doing something – like climbing up a snow- and ice-covered roof during a blizzard – is too dangerous, listen to them.

And I learned that if you do something stupid and hurt yourself, you may as well swallow your pride and let those who care about you get you the medical assistance you need.

But most important of all, I learned that all of us need to live each day like it’s our last, because it very well could be.

Yes, this will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself, but through the grace of God, didn’t.

Copyright Dec. 10, 2003, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Peeper problem

If I kept a diary, November would have been recorded in it as a good news-bad news month. The children and grandchildren were all home for Thanksgiving. It was a great time. That was certainly good news.

After the surgery and on the slow road to recovery. I only had my head raised for a moment so the photo could be taken.

After the surgery and on the slow road to recovery. I only had my head raised for a moment so the photo could be taken.

It was the first Thanksgiving without my dad, who died last March. Bad news. I discovered a new TV show during the month. Well, at least it was new to me. It’s called “The West Wing.” You see, I work second shift so I don’t see much evening TV. But Bravo, a cable channel, runs back-to-back episodes of “The West Wing” weekday mornings. I saw it for the first time in November and got hooked. More good news.

And, oh yes, there was one more thing about November: I went blind in my right eye one night, underwent emergency surgery 48 hours later and was told that if I wanted to regain my sight, I’d have to keep my head down — basically looking at the floor — 24 hours a day for two to four weeks after the operation. Now that was some real bad news.

The trouble with my baby blues actually began last March or April. That’s when I noticed that images were not as sharp as they had been, even though my eyeglasses were less than a year old.

It turned out that I had cataracts, a clouding of the lenses, in both eyes. That wasn’t really a surprise to me; they run in the family.

In October, Dr. Prem Virdi, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word and a skilled eye surgeon, removed those cloudy lenses and implanted in their place some man-made lenses.

Stitchless cataract surgery is now done on an outpatient basis. It takes as little as 20 minutes per eye.

After the surgery, which was done at Trinity in Moline, my eyesight, especially for distances, was wonderful. Both eyes registered 20-15, which is better than 20-20 vision. For reading fine print, Dr. Virdi suggested I just buy some “cheaters,” those non-prescription reading glasses sold at pharmacies.

Everything was great until Nov. 6. One month to the day after the cataract surgery had taken place on my right peeper, it suddenly quit working.

It was a Saturday night, and my wife and I were dining out with friends when the eye suddenly went blurry.

If I had it to do over, I would have explained to the other folks right then and there what had happened to my eye, and I would have headed to the emergency room. But not being one to run to a doctor, even when I probably should, I waited until Monday, Nov. 8, to get that dead eye examined.

My first stop that morning was Dr. Virdi’s office in Rock Island. He examined my eye and told me there was a hemorrhage in it and very possibly a torn and/or detached retina.

This, he explained, happened to only about 5 percent of the people who undergo cataract surgery.

He then called a friend of his, Dr. Leonardo Antaris, a retina specialist, who agreed to see me in his Davenport office at 2 that afternoon.

If you think of the eye as a camera, the retina, located on the back wall, is the film. Light passes through the lens and is focused on the retina. The images then are carried to the brain by the optic nerve.

So how do retinas tear or detach?

There are a variety of causes for that. In my case, the cataract surgery caused the gel-like substance in the center of the eye that is attached to the retina to shrink. When it did, it pulled some of the retina away with it. The subsequent hole or tear in the retina allowed fluid from the gel-like substance to pass through, causing the retina to separate from the back of the eye.

“You have a torn and detached retina,” Dr. Antaris said, following his examination of my eye. “I need to do surgery.”

“When?” I asked him.

“Tonight,” he said. “Some people believe the chances of restoring sight in the eye increase the faster repairs are made.”

Learning I was about to undergo emergency surgery was a big shock. But my biggest shock that afternoon was learning about how I’d be recuperating.

I was told that, at the conclusion of the surgical repairs, Dr. Antaris would pump a large gas bubble into my eye. Its purpose was to hold the retina against the back of the eyeball until it healed.

For this to happen, I would have to keep my head down all day for two to four weeks. That meant no driving, no work, no sleeping on my back.

The surgery that Monday night, Nov. 8, took two hours and was successful. I spent a night in the hospital, was examined in Dr. Antaris’ office the next morning, then went home to begin my head-down therapy.

I soon became very familiar with people’s shoes and floor coverings. There’s not much else to concentrate on when you’re looking down all the time.

A portable massage therapist’s chair, which we rented, allowed me to keep my sanity for the next couple of weeks.

Through the use of mirrors, I was able to sit down, lean forward and watch TV while still keeping my head down. That’s how I got hooked on “The West Wing.”

I also passed the time the next couple of weeks by recording my memoirs on tape (something my wife suggested) and listening to books on tape that she had gotten me from the library.

I received permission, in my my next visit to Dr. Antaris, 11 days after the surgery, to begin phasing out the head-down regimen.

Following three weeks off work, I returned the Monday after Thanksgiving. These days my life is pretty much back to normal, even though the bubble, now down to about a third of its original size, remains in my right eye. It will continue to shrink, the doctor says, eventually replaced by fluid produced by the eye, until it’s gone. In the meantime, it’s a distraction, but I can certainly live with it; it’s better than blindness.

The bubble notwithstanding, the sight in my right eye is very good and getting better. It was 20-30 at last check.

As you might guess, I have done a lot of reading about retinas and their repair in recent weeks, and I know it often takes months for vision from a repaired retina to become stable. I also read that only about 40 percent of the patients whose retinas are reattached, achieve good vision.

Indications so far are that I’m in that group. Now that’s really good news!

Copyright Dec. 22, 2004. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Long live the fried bologna sandwich

There is nothing better than a fried bologna sandwich. Well, of course, you know that’s not true. Lots of things — like a good steak or some juicy ribs — are better.

But when you’re broke and can’t afford a hamburger, much less a steak or ribs, a fried bologna sandwich (let’s call it FBS for brevity’s sake) is pretty tasty and a great value.

I bought some bologna at the supermarket and ate two FBSs this week. They took me back to my days at St. Ambrose College — now called St. Ambrose University — nearly four decades ago.

The first two years in college, I could run home to Mom and Dad’s house between classes at lunchtime and eat with them. Or, since I lived with them then, I could pack a decent lunch before leaving for the day and eat on campus. I even had some money in my pocket at that time to buy a hot lunch at the food service in the student union if I wanted to.

But that all changed halfway through my four-year college experience: Sherry, who attended Marycrest, and I got married the summer before my junior year. We were two 20-year-olds with a full load of classes and only part-time jobs. We had lots of love but not much money.

There wasn’t much food in our apartment for packing lunches, and there wasn’t much money for buying them. (For years Sherry and I often walked around with only enough coins in our pockets to make a phone call if our cars broke down, which they often did.)

Once I was married, I didn’t run home to my parents for lunch very often because they had been among the people who had suggested Sherry and I put off our marriage until we had graduated. They had said that getting married as full-time students with part-time jobs would be tough. It was, but I wanted to show them we could, indeed, make it on our own.

One lunch hour at school, I saw some other poverty-stricken student order an FBS at the food service, and it was a fraction of what they charged there for a burger.

I tried one, too, and I was hooked. I ate a lot of those my final two years at Ambrose.

I can tell you’re itching to try one. Rest assured, an FBS is easy to make. You take two slices of bologna and fry them until they start to get burn spots on them and curl up around the edges. That means they’re done. This only takes a couple of minutes.

You then slap the pieces of bologna between two slices of sandwich bread, add mayonnaise, yellow mustard and a slice of cheese if you like. The FBS is ready, and you have a quick, warm, tasty — and above all, cheap — lunch.

Life is a lot easier for Sherry and me these days. College — and our early years of poverty — are distant memories. The part-time jobs between classes were long ago replaced by full-time jobs that we’re not that far from retiring from. We still have lots of love and, despite raising four children to adulthood, we have a heck of a lot more money than we started out with.

These days we can pack a decent lunch at home to take to work, or we can buy a burger or something better for lunch if we prefer.

But this week, just for old time’s sake, I went back to fried bologna sandwiches for a couple of lunches. And they sure brought back a lot of memories.

Copyright Nov. 1, 2006. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized