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Just Plain Lucky: Appendicitis,1956

In the spring of 1956 I was eager to graduate from Junior High School, mow lawns all summer and enter the big-boy world of Fairfield Community High School in September. But a sharp pain developed I my lower right abdomen in April, and by the second day the school nurse called my Mom who drove me to Fairfield’s only medical clinic, the Fairfield Medical Center. After WWII, Fairfield had a handful of physicians, but no hospital. So in cases like mine of suspected appendicitis, the patient would have to be taken by car to Mt. Vernon or Evansville. The same forward-thinking city fathers who got the public swimming pool built recognized that a hospital would bring long-term benefits to the community and they succeeded in obtaining funds from the community and state and federal governments to build an impressive three-story, seventy-four-bed hospital. The hospital was scheduled to open in 1950 and the hospital board realized that in addition to their local physicians they would need a board-certified surgeon. Dr. Frankel, one of Fairfield’s general practice physicians recommended Arthur Marks, who he knew from the University of Illinois School of Medicine, which they both had graduated from. Dr. Marks had served in the medical corps in WWII, had recently completed a surgery residency, and was starting to practice in Chicago.

Arthur was a city boy, so when he arrived in Fairfield he hired additional physicians, set up a free-standing clinic, and became the chief surgeon at the newly completed state-of-the-art (1950) operating room at Fairfield Memorial Hospital. And so it was that as soon as Dr. Marks finished examining me and saw my elevated white blood count, he told my Mom to get me to the hospital pronto. Later that day Dr. Marks put me under ether anesthesia and removed my inflamed and ready-to-rupture appendix. What if there had been no Fairfield Memorial Hospital or no Dr. Arthur Marks? Would I have survived if my appendix ruptured on the way to another hospital? A ruptured appendix creates widespread peritonitis and requires a major surgical procedure to lavage the abdominal cavity followed by days of intravenous antibiotics. Patients often do not survive. I was lucky, again. When I was in Los Angeles at a scientific meeting in 2000, I made a special trip to La Jolla to take Dr. Marks to lunch and thank him for saving my life. 

Just Plain Lucky: Fairfield Community Swimming Pool. 1952


Public swimming pools were a rarity in little towns in America’s mid-west in the post WW2 years. But the oil boom and manufacturing of war goods had been good to Fairfield, Illinois. And this, along with forward-thinking town leaders, were the right equation for getting a standard “Olympic” (23 meters long) community pool built in the town’s public park in 1949. I learned to swim there at age 7, the summer the pool opened. Every day from age 10 on I would roll up my swim suit and season pool card in a towel and bike the two miles from my home on West Delaware to the pool. The pool had three diving boards, two low ones and one three-meter board, and one life guard who usually stayed in a raised chair towards the deep end. During summer weekdays the pool was packed with kids, and we played all kinds of games.

Pool tag was one of the most popular, though it was officially forbidden by the life guards. It's rules were simple: you could tag the next guy anywhere, in the water or on the pool deck, but if you were on the deck you had to be careful not to run since if seen by the lifeguard you would be thrown out of the pool for the day. The only other rule was that if you were on the pool deck you could not walk/run around any of its four corners. Instead, you had to either dive into the pool and hope you could swim faster than the guy who was “it” or you could dive across the corner, come up and clamber out of the pool on the opposite side. Naturally, if you were being chased on the deck you tried to make your cross-corner dive as fast as possible.

And so it was that at age ten I attempted a quick dive across a pool corner but miscalculated and smashed head-first into the concrete pool gutter on the opposite side. I was knocked unconscious, slipped down into the deep end, and wasn’t immediately seen by the lifeguard. Fortunately, a teenager by the name of “Slick” Fitzgerald saw what happened, dove in, and pulled me out. I wasn’t unconscious for more than a minute or two. But I was bleeding like crazy since my mouth was open when my head hit the concrete wall which closed it instantly, driving my four lower incisors through my lower lip. Someone called my Mom, and she drove me to the Fairfield Medical Center where the good Dr. Arthur Marks, without bothering with a local anesthetic, carefully explored the gash, picked out fragments of chipped teeth, and put four stitches in my lip. I’m sure my Mom thanked Slick, but from time to time I’ve wondered if he knew he had saved my life.


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