The attending physician did not take long with Tom. It was obvious that he would need some sort of major operation. The attending simply took a cursory look and then called for the surgeon.
Tom would need surgery to repair his broken arm and his broken right leg. He would need skin grafts on both legs.
An orderly wheeled Tom into the pre-op room. The on-call anesthesiologist arrived to administer the sedative and general anesthesia.
Tom yelled, “I have told you shit-head people that I don’t want no damn sedative!”
The anesthesiologist calmly replied, “Well, Mr. White, I do recommend the general, but if the surgeon is okay with it we could just administer a local…”
“Goddamn it!” Tom shouted. “I don’t need no pain stuff! I’ll by God do this on my own!”
The anesthesiologist, two nurses, and an orderly tried to argue with him, but they got nowhere. When Tom White had made up his mind, some scrub-clad hospital employees would not be able change it. Tom was determined to face his surgery without any kind of numbing drug.
Dr. John Roper, the surgeon on call, had finished scrubbing up and preparing for the operation, and he walked into the room as the staff was debating with Tom the need for general anesthesia.
Dr. Roper was a portly middle-aged man with an unfortunate balding pattern on his scalp. Instead of thinning in a uniform, dignified manner, his hair appeared as if it had retreated in piecemeal fashion, with various patches making valiant stands on asymmetrical sections of his head. His appearance did not inspire confidence. However, his experience in the operating room with unusual patients was extensive.
The surgeon grabbed the anesthesiologist by the arm, pulled him aside, and asked, “What’s going on?”
“This one won’t take the sedative,” the anesthesiologist said. “Says he doesn’t need any pain killer.”
Dr. Roper sighed. “Okay,” he said.
He turned to the patient. “Mr. White, I’m Dr. Roper. I will be doing your surgeries today. I understand you are refusing pain medication?”
“Damn straight,” Tom said. “Don’t need any of that shit.”
“Okay,” Dr. Roper said. “That’s fine with me. Let’s get started.”
Dr. Roper took his place at Tom’s right side and called for a scalpel.
“Just to warn you, Mr. White, this will hurt quite a bit.”
“I can take it,” Tom said.
For a couple of seconds, Dr. Roper hovered his scalpel above Tom’s right leg. Then he started cutting.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Tom cried.
“What’s wrong, Mr. White?” Dr. Roper asked.
“Uh….maybe…uh….maybe I will let you put me to sleep after all.”
For only the second time in his life, Tom had been out-willed by someone.
A few hours later, young Tom White and his wife, Betty, were waiting in the hospital family room. Dr. Roper stepped into the room, still wearing his garments from surgery.
“Mr. White? I’m Dr. Roper, the surgeon. I do have some good news for you. Your father came through the surgery just fine. We were able to successfully complete the skin grafts, and we set all the broken bones. He is in recovery right now, but you can see him as soon as he has come to.”
Young Tom exhaled deeply. “Okay, thanks, doctor. Is there anything I need to do, or anything I need to know?”
“Well…I was just getting to that,” Dr. Roper said. He had given bad news countless times in his career, but he never found it to get more enjoyable as time went on.
He said, “Mr. White, the leg wounds were very severe. At his age, they are going to be very difficult to recover from. It might be impossible. I can’t say for sure, but from what I have seen today, I don’t think your father will ever walk again.”
Young Thomas Robert White laughed. It was the deepest, most carefree, most absurd laugh Dr. Roper had ever heard. This man was laughing the laugh of a person whose weightiest burdens had just been lifted from his shoulders – the laugh of a person who had just heard the funniest, most ridiculous story that could possibly be imagined. It was the laugh, Dr. Roper thought, of a man who was losing his mind.
For a second Dr. Roper was mortified. He looked at the man in front of him who was wearing a steel brace on his left leg and limping around the room. Obviously a polio victim. Maybe the remark about not being able to walk…
“Mr. White, I’m not sure I understand…”
Young Tom tried to calm himself down enough to talk, but it was another minute or two before he could get any words to come out. He was laughing so hard that his eyes were squeezing tears out from between his tightly clinched eyelids.
“I’m sorry, doctor,” Tom said when he had calmed down enough to talk. “You don’t understand.” Here he started laughing again. “You said that he wouldn’t ever walk again. That just shows me that you don’t know my old man. You just tell him that he won’t ever walk again. He’ll walk out of here this afternoon just to spite you!”
It did not happen that afternoon. But three weeks later, old Thomas N. White – the veteran of the trenches of France, the strong-bodied teamster and railroad wrecker, the stubborn son of Missouri farmers, the man with a will the strength of iron – walked out of the Poplar Bluff Hospital under his own power.