It all started when I was 25 years old, in the spring of 1972. The perks of my job at Temple University’s Athletic Department included my use of the facilities on a regular basis. One particular lunch hour, I decided to go out to the tennis courts and practice hitting backhands against the big green wall outside of McGonigle Hall. After about a half-hour, I felt a dull ache in my lower back. The pain increased over the next few months, and I decided to go to Temple Hospital’s Orthopedic Department to find out what, if anything, was wrong. Testing determined that I had either a herniated or, perhaps, a ruptured disk: L-5, to be exact. For a year or so, my condition worsened, and I underwent the usual treatment, which included exercises, heat treatments, and wearing a back brace during my waking hours.
None of this helped, which led to more aggressive treatments. I had two weeks of bed rest at home, lying on my mattress, which sat on top of a ¾-inch thick plywood bed board. I was allowed to get up only to shower and use the bathroom. The bed rest didn’t help. I was admitted to the hospital twice for several days of “traction,” where weights would hang from my feet to relieve pressure on the spine. That didn’t help either. Finally, by August of the next year, I tried one last-ditch effort to improve my condition and avoid surgery: I wore a body cast that started at my shoulders and wrapped around my entire torso. The cast was the old-fashioned, plaster-of-Paris kind, hot and heavy, especially in August. I wore that cast for a month, and then we waited three more to see if there was any improvement. There wasn’t.
Running out of patience, I spoke with my doctor and told him, “I’ve had enough of this stuff. Let’s get the surgery done.” Of course, there was no guarantee of success. Back in those days, there weren’t any noninvasive, laser surgeries. I had to be cut to have the disk removed. The disk in question was pressing on the sciatic nerve, which caused my entire left leg to be completely numb, and the pain was like a constant toothache. The hope was that the surgery would allow the nerve to regenerate over time, and healing would take place.
With doctor and patient finally on the same page, I checked into room 939 at Temple Hospital on Dec. 19, 1973. My surgery was set for Dec. 21. I had an elderly roommate, a Jewish man named David, who was there to have a heart valve replacement. Although very common now, this procedure was considered quite risky back then. Dave was a wonderful old guy, and we talked for hours about our families and agreed to pray for each other’s successful outcomes. On the 20th, the day before my surgery, with Dave still snoozing, I quietly turned on my transistor radio to hear the news.
What I heard was shocking: Bobby Darin had just passed away due to complications during a heart valve replacement – the same procedure Dave was facing. I quickly turned off the radio, thinking that this news was the last thing ol’ Dave needed to hear. Fortunately, he was still asleep. Every time the nurses came in, I told them not to mention anything about Darin’s passing, and since Dave didn’t like TV, I was able to keep him in the dark.
My parents came to visit that evening. Mom gave me her little statue of the Virgin Mary to keep in the room. That night, Dave asked about the statue, and I explained that we believe Mary can intercede on our behalf to her Son, Jesus Christ. Since we believe He is the Son of God, it’s a no-brainer to ask His mom to help us. Dave had learned that his surgery would also take place the next day. He asked me if he could see the statue. I picked it up and, after giving the figure a kiss of reverence, handed it to him. Dave looked at it, smiled, and also gave it a little kiss. He then turned to me and said, “I ain’t taking any chances.”
Thank God, both of our surgeries were successful. I was allowed to go home on Christmas Eve; Dave had to stay in a few days more. When I hugged him goodbye, it felt like I was leaving a good buddy, even though he was old enough to be my grandfather. As I was leaving, he told me he knew about Bobby Darin’s passing, after all. The lady who brought dinner had mentioned it to him while I was napping. Dave knew I was trying to protect him, so he didn’t want to make me feel bad by letting on that he knew. Talk about a man with a good heart!