Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My grandfather left his lung in Chicago

As I was being interviewed Tuesday night by Michael Sweeney and Tyler Rippeteau, a couple of big-city bloggers who host "Progressive Blogosphere on the Air" on WPHK in Chicago, I began to wonder about the audience make-up. Mostly Chicagoans, probably, with a few members of the American Blogosphere -- Wyomingites too -- fishing in the online stream.

I have very few links to Chicago. I spent one long winter weekend in the city interviewing for jobs. My old college roommate, Bob Page of Independence, Mo. (Hi Bob) grew up on the South Side and introduced me to the writings of Mike Royko. For this, I'm eternally grateful.

I do have at least one family connection to the place.

My maternal grandfather, Martin Hett, lost one of his lungs in Chicago.

This is the story as I remember it. When he was 12, Martin walked away from his large family and their hovel in County Roscommon. He made his way to England and worked in a coal mine. He lived with a Brit family who treated him better than his own family. He earned enough money to sail to the U.S. during World War I. He joined up with his older brother in Chicago. They worked in the railyards.

During the winter of 1919, Martin got very sick. Blame the weak lungs of Irish immigrants. Coal dust, too. He coughed and spit and then developed a fever. His brother urged him to go to the county hospital emergency room. After waiting for many hours (some things never change), the doctor gave him the once-over and decided he had empyema which is "the presence of pus in a bodily cavity" (Webster's), usually caused by an infection. The bodily cavity in my grandfather happened to be an important one. Since this was way before antibiotics, and Martin was a poor man, options were limited.

1. Do nothing and hope it goes away
2. Do nothing and die
3. Get rid of the infected lung

Grandpa chose the latter one. The doc couldn't give him the usual anaesthetics --ether or chloroform -- because they tended to cause lung problems, namely pneumonia. So he gave Martin some rotgut whiskey, slit him open, chiseled out two of his ribs, removed the infected lung and sewed him up.

It hurts to think about it.

The doctor advised him to find a healthier climate. He recommended Arizona or Colorado. Dry places with (in Arizona's case) warm climates. At the time, Denver was home to many sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients. So Martin recovered and made plans for life with one lung. That summer, he said farewell to his brother and got on the train to Denver. He arrived at Union Station in the middle of a sunny day. He pondered going on to Phoenix and the baking hot desert. He decided to stay where he was.

Martin Hett was 90 when he died in Denver. All his mortal remains were interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. But for the one lung. Its remains are somewhere in Chicago.


mpage225 said...


Thanks for the shout out. I miss Mike Royko. Credit to my Dad for introducing me to Royko and to the habit I maintain of reading the paper every morning. Coffee and the paper is a habit I am unable to break.


Michael Sweeney said...

A bit late, but thanks for our shout-out, too. We enjoyed having you the "Blogosphere" segment of The Stonecipher Report radio show; we'll have to do it again in the future (AND at a more reasonable, regularly-scheduled hour!)

Take care, Michael Sweeney