Heart & Soul

When I was in my late 20s, I had an unexpected experience with a noted cardiologist that touched my heart and soul. Consider playing this video as you read the post, before or after.

I was the Executive Director of a mental health agency in California. One afternoon the President of the Board of Directors asked to meet with me in my office. Although not uncommon to meet with me, she sounded excited rather her usual calm. After a warm greeting, she said that a close friend of hers was the Director of Cardiology at a major Adult Cardiology and Heart Surgery Hospital. I had recently written and received a large grant for the mental health agency, and she wanted me to meet with the Director of Cardiology and discuss my writing a grant to expand their Adult Cardiology and Heart Surgery departments as soon as possible. That same day I called the Director of Cardiology and scheduled an appointment to meet with him the next day as he was very eager to discuss the possibility of a grant.

I expected an administration staff member to initially offer a tour of the hospital and especially the Department of Cardiology. And then I’d sit down with the Director of Cardiology to casually discuss what the medical needs were, and the time frame for the grant. When I arrived at the 900+ bed hospital, the Director of Cardiology was nervously waiting for me in the lobby. He was exuberant in his appreciation of my willing to write a grant.

He ushered me into a large wood-paneled conference room with many men and women physicians and staff sitting around a large rectangle oak table. The Director motioned for me to sit at the head of the table, as he leaned against a large laminated Anatomy of the Heart Anatomical wall chart.

He introduced me as the Executive Director of a mental health agency who was going to use my grant writing expertise to obtain enough money for expanding the Adult Cardiology & Heart Surgery departments.

“Stephen, please give your presentation to the department heads and staff about how you are going to bring us an abundance of money for the hospital to better serve our patients.”

I must admit I was a bit stunned and not quite prepared to provide a formal presentation. I had also dressed rather casually. I didn’t have any appropriate background information on the hospital’s needs to intelligently address acquiring money through a grant. Not to mention, all the pairs of eyes looking at me with glances and stares representing everything from curiosity, hopefulness, and suspicion.

I took a long pause and a deep breath trying to figure what I could share. I briefly described the process of writing a grant and the large grants that I had written and received for the mental health agency. I explained that I would need more specific information about the needs of the hospital and especially the Adult Cardiology and Heart Surgery departments before I could provide them about what would be involved in the grant and the timeframe.

“Does anyone have a question for Mr. Bruno?”

One physician understandably asked if I had any medical experience. I told him that I was in the medical field with the Army in Vietnam for fourteen months and that I had an experience as a combat medic. An administrator asked about the size of grants and how much governmental red tape was involved. Another physician inquired about the time it took to receive the money once a grant was submitted. A staff member asked if the money had to be returned at the end of the fiscal year if grant money remained.  I responded to these and other important questions.

The question and answer process seemed to appease the group who believed I might have the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully write a grant. The Q & A seemed to be a turning point and I began to feel more comfortable. At the end of the meeting, the physicians and staff approached me at the coffee machine sharing that they were appreciative of anything that could be done to make a difference for the Adult Cardiology & Heart Surgery departments. I could feel the compassion and genuine caring that these people had in their excitement for the possibilities of obtaining high tech medical additions and more physicians and staff.

The Director then took me to lunch in the cafeteria and shared a bit about his personal life, his family, how he got involved in cardiology and all that he looked forward to in the future. I grew fond of him and respected and valued his commitment to compassionate service for more than four decades.  His heartfelt caring for all the patients was refreshing. In some ways, he reminded me of Dr. Schweitzer and his commitment to patients.

After lunch, he gave me a thorough tour of the entire hospital while introducing me as a cardiology Savior to each medical staff much to my embarrassment and probably theirs. The Director’s energy, enthusiasm, and excitement for the medical possibilities was contagious. I too began to feel the same way and couldn’t wait to learn more and get started on the grants.

When we came to the Cardiology and Heart Surgery departments, the Director became more reflective and serious. He described some of the situations of cardiac issues he handled with patients.  It was clear that he still felt deep emotions about the people who did not survive their surgery and his elation for those who went on to lead a lengthy fulfilled life after surgery. I’m not sure if it was more my commitment to him or the hospital in general that inspired me to want to write the best grant that I had ever prepared.

Before I left the Cardiology and Heart Surgery department, I hesitantly mentioned to him that I had experienced some symptoms he described with his previous patients, that had me concerned about my own heart and that I never had a thorough cardiology exam.

“Since you are going to write a grant for us the least we can do is to provide you with a thorough cardiac examination without any fee. I will personally perform the tests and examination along with our best technicians.”

He asked me to return in the afternoon the next day to begin the exam and tests. I expressed my gratitude, and I felt reassured by this generous offer.

I returned to my office thinking about the meeting and trying to figure how in my busy schedule as Executive Director I could have the time to write one or more sophisticated medical grants. I sorted out my options for continued mental health services, and time for the grant and the deadlines. I decided that there were ways to do this with mutual benefits.

The next morning, I received a call from the President of my Board of Directors. She sounded rather solemn.

She asked to meet with me at the office, and I told her to come right over before I left to meet the Director of Cardiology at the hospital. When she arrived, her demeanor was congruent with how she sounded.

“The Director of Cardiology that you met with yesterday suffered a cardiac arrest during the night and died.”

While we both stared at each other, I had to take a few minutes to process what she had said and considered the irony of this doctor so committed to helping people with cardiac issues had suddenly died of one. I thought of his family that he had discussed and their loss and the loss to the hospital. I felt the loss of a new valued friend.

I learned a lot from that experience. I remember him as the epitome of what we would like our doctor to be especially with something as serious as cardiology issues. I have thought about him over the years, and I’ve looked for other doctors who exemplified the same attitude for my personal care and care of my loved ones.

I continued my service on behalf of people needing mental health with a renewed vigor and commitment. I remained at the mental health agency for about another three years before leaving the state and moving on to other mental health services. One thing that never left my mind is how tenuous and precious the moments of our lives are, and how you can’t always prepare for sudden dramatic traumas. I previously learned this in my gang days in East Los Angeles and certainly in Vietnam in the medical field.

I sometimes play one of my favorite Oldies,  Heart, and Soul, which reminds me of how much a difference we can make by lightening the load for others, being enthusiastic and hopeful, and sharing joy, like this compassionate doctor who cared so much from his heart and soul.

Compassion on a Lonely Road at Midnight

2018 © Stephen Bruno

I am old enough and well-traveled to have earned every wrinkle in my face, bags under my eyes, scars on my body, silver in my hair, and nose marks from my eyeglasses frames. Sometimes I feel that I am living the life within the novel, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.

But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

My curiosity has guided me to diverse paths from pleasure to pilgrimage. Each journey brought wonderment. I have lived and worked in diverse areas including Sedona, Arizona; Lake Tahoe, Nevada; San Luis Obispo, California; Crestline, California; Monterey, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Ashland, Oregon; the Oregon Coast; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Truches, New Mexico; Reno, Nevada; Austin, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; San Antonio, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Grand Junction, Colorado and more.

I have lived on an island, in the low and high deserts, at the top of an 8,000-foot mountain, next to the ocean, on a boat, in forests, in houses or apartments, in a mobile home, by lakes, in big cities, small towns, and rural areas.

About seven months ago I decided to begin another journey. I drove my recently purchased car from Prescott, Arizona to Grand Junction, Colorado to look for a house to rent. Sight unseen, I selected Grand Junction for my belief in the friendly people, amazing wildlife, and beautiful nature. I wanted a new area to explore and photograph while I taught Reiki certification classes, provided telephone Life Coaching sessions, and taught wildlife and nature photography. I especially wanted a location where I could complete my novels and nonfiction books and prepare them for publication.

It was time to visit the city of my next home. I got up early, and after driving about eight hours, I arrived in Grand Junction and briefly looked around the area. I immediately felt that this would be home. I checked into a comfortable hotel and quickly fell asleep. Early the next morning I met with a real estate agent at a house for rent that I found online while in Prescott. Time was of the essence, and I knew I still had another 8 hours’ drive back the next morning to complete packing for my relocation.

I received a quick tour of a ranch-style 3-bedroom house on an acre, and I decided to rent it without looking further. I spent the remainder of the day exploring Grand Junction and getting a sense of what would become my new home in a few short weeks. I stayed that night at the hotel and drove the eight hours back to Prescott early the next morning.

Several weeks later I planned on driving back to Grand Junction. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan. The people I hired to load the truck in Prescott arrived several hours late which meant that by the time I got on the road I’d be lucky to arrive in Grand Junction by 3 AM. Although a good friend of mine would follow me later that night in a rental truck with the bulk of my belongings, I also thoroughly packed my midsized car with electronics, clothes and fragile items. The plan was to sleep that night at a hotel in Grand Junction and meet my friend with the truck in the morning to unpack at my new home.

This third trip was a drive I was familiar with even though much of it was during the late evening on roads void of many vehicles, towns or houses. I listened to music, audiobooks, talk radio, and old-time radio dramas. The only brief stops were at gas stations to fill up the car and get a quick snack I could safely eat while driving.

Around midnight I was driving along an isolated area in a different state with only the dark road and radio for companionship. I was enjoying a snack, thinking about how tired I was and contemplating how much farther I had to drive. Nonetheless, I was excited about living in a new area where I didn’t know anyone and had only briefly visited, and especially the wonderful adventures ahead of me.

Suddenly, my vehicle’s high beam headlights illuminated the highway patrol car parked on the other side of the two-way road, facing the way I came. I held my breath and reluctantly glanced at my speedometer. Oh Man! Was I way over the speed limit! I removed my foot from the gas pedal and waited for the inevitable flashing red lights. I didn’t have long to wait, and with resignation, I pulled off the road.

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Books that Influenced My Life

 

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Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.
― Charles William Eliot

It is no wonder how some classic books that I decided to read on my own during childhood and youth enriches my adult life. Here is a quick list of some of these books that created a foundation of entertainment, passion, compassion, inspiration, and enlightenment. I wonder what books you read that influenced your life.

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
  • Alice In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  • The Gift of the Magi – O. Henry
  • The Trial – Franz Kafka
  • Animal Farm – George Orwell
  • The Call of the Wild – Jack London
  • Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  • Pit and Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe
  • Tell Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe
  • Poems – Rudyard Kipling
  • Scandal in Bohemia – Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
  • Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  • Othello – William Shakespeare
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Odyssey – Homer
  • The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  • A Passage to India – EM Forster
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  • To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

The Times They Are A-Changin’

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A few months after arriving in Vietnam in 1969

The Times They Are a-Changin’ is a song written by Bob Dylan and released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name. Dylan wrote the song to create an anthem of change for the fluid times. The ‘60s!  What a significant decade of change for our country. What dramatic unforeseen life changes ahead for me.

In 1960 while living during turbulent times in racially embattled East Los Angeles, California, the White Fence, one of the most violent gangs at the time recruited me. It wasn’t that I had options about being in the gang. Nevertheless, life then was more about daily surviving all the other combined gangs. When the White Fence recruited me I knew their violent reputation even intimidated the other gangs so I embraced the process.  I spent many months learning their criminal activities while initiated into the gang. I carried a Zip Gun that fired a .22-caliber bullet, and I had a large switchblade knife. I remained in the gang for two years losing my innocence once again until my single parent family moved out of the area. If I remained in the gang I can only imagine how my life would have changed.

I was first drawn into politics when John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961. Like so many other people, I was drawn to his charismatic speeches and inspirational approaches to life.  Always curious, I wrote President Kennedy a lengthy letter requesting information about our military forces. I received a prompt letter from Robert McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, who said he was forwarding me boxes of military information, and photographs per the President’s orders. That was an understatement! Years later I donated all of this military material to a local library which filled up several large sections. On November 22, 1963, I had once again ditched high school, and I was back home alone watching television, when I heard about the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Like many Americans, it is a day I will always remember. I knew that this represented a major change in the country. On many levels, I experienced numerous changes.

I remember as a teenager in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, how quickly the local grocery store was empty of groceries and supplies. Most people kept their television tuned to the news which provided an hour by hour update of the impending war with the Soviets. There was fear in the air wherever you went. Daily, we all wondered how imminent the world was to a nuclear war. Any sudden flash of reflection in the sky bought our breathing to a momentary halt and our heart beating so hard we couldn’t hear ourselves think.  Our teachers conducted air raid drills where they would suddenly yell, “Drop!” We were expected to kneel under our desks with our hands clutched around our heads and necks. I didn’t believe that the “Duck and cover” method of personal protection against the effects of a nuclear explosion was going to make a difference. It didn’t help that I had black and blue bruises on my knees and forehead hitting the desk from the constant drills. I simply remained seated or standing much to the consternation of the teachers.  I took the time to think about how serious this all was and even without a nuclear war, how the world already changed and that it would never be the same. And, the world never was the same.

The counterculture of the ‘60s was an unsurprisingly powerful expression of a desire for cultural change. I felt this intimately, and I responded with deep philosophical thinking. In some ways, I was counter to some elements of the counterculture. Turn on, tune in, and drop out was the theme that inspired many and nearly everyone I knew. I did chew on an unlighted corn cob pipe briefly as a Freshman in high school. Nonetheless, unlike most of my peers, I’ve never smoked cigarettes, marijuana, got drunk or tried any drugs. I did grow my hair long and I still do. Recently I was photographing wildlife at the Colorado River and a Park Ranger briefly glanced at me and said, What can I do for you, ma’am? I scratched my two week’s growth of beard and replied politely, It’s sir, not ma’am. He was embarrassed and apologized. Relatively new to Colorado, I guess men with long hair is a bit uncommon. During the ’60s, I dressed in comfortable Hippy clothes which I continue to do. I’ve photographed at the iconic center of the Flower Power movement at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, California. My current Flower Power consists of a house full of plants while dancing to songs from the ’60s as I nurture the receptive plants with water.

My first car while in high school was a used 1957 Triumph TR10 4-door sedan. I remember my girlfriend’s parents purchased a new Ford Mustang 2-door convertible for her at the cost of around $2,615.00 in 1964 which was considered expensive at the time.  I can tell you, given the current monthly payments on my one-year-old Toyota Camry, things have changed.

I recall that in 1965 as a high school Junior, I doubled-dated and we watched the amazing performance of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheatre near Los Angeles. What an unbelievable experience that was! For me, no concert since has come close to the excitement created by the Beatles. Music was changing in many ways and me along with it moving to the momentum and rhythm.

During high school, among the television shows I watched included Perry Mason, Route 66, Ironside, The Benny Hill Show, The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Twilight Zone.  In 1967 I purchased the first edition of the influential Rolling Stone magazine for 25¢. A rolling stone gathers no moss and neither did I that year.

I graduated from high school in California as the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper and a varsity track and cross-country runner. I entered my Freshman year in college as the Editor-in-Chief of the campus newspaper. I had so much to look forward to after graduation as a Journalism major! About two years later in 1968, prior to graduation, I was drafted. It was four months after the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. No doubt they needed more men on the ground. I held no illusions. I knew that I’d go to Vietnam. I felt that with my gang experience and street smarts I’d be better prepared to embrace a tour of duty in Vietnam, so I never thought about avoiding the draft and having someone else go in my place.  The Tet campaign consisted of multiple simultaneous surprise attacks by some 85,000 troops on 100 major cities and towns in South Vietnam.  This year, 2018, marks the 50th Tet Offensive anniversary. How fast time seems to accelerate. The decision to fight wars never seems to change.

In the summer of 1969, more than 400,000 people tripped out to the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York for peace-and-love. It was the largest outdoor rock concert ever performed. As a Hippy I would have made my way there. I belonged in that atmosphere! I’d have loved to hear Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane among others while embracing like-minded people. However,  I was stationed in San Antonio, Texas going through the U.S. Army Combat Medic and Medical Laboratory training at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston. I didn’t have time for the self-indulgence of what I was missing. I needed to concentrate on the medical training since lives would depend on it in Vietnam. Rolling Stone listed Woodstock as one of the 50 moments that changed the history of Rock and Roll. Although I’m certain that being at Woodstock would have changed the course of my life,  I wonder if it would have been as fulfilling given the changes I have experienced.

In future posts, I’ll share my experiences of my 14-month U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam (as requested by my daughter Kelly) including one of the most significant experiences I had when I volunteered for a combat medic mission in the jungle several hours from our base. I know that with the Vietnam War protests this was a turbulent time of change for people back home. I turned 21 while in Vietnam. My experiences during the war remain the most challenging, intense, powerful, and meaningful time of change in my life.

Music through the Armed Forces Radio Network was our savior. There are several songs I heard in Vietnam that still impact my soul like shrapnel through my heart when I hear them again, and I’m sure other Vietnam Veterans feel the same. The one that was very popular during the middle of my tour is, We Gotta Got out of This Place written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded as a 1965 hit single by The Animals. This song hits me the deepest with the truth that while in Vietnam I wasn’t certain that I would get out of that place. I saw many soldiers who never did leave alive. Perhaps, no one felt confident that they would survive the war.  Music gave us the respite from our thoughts and fears. I can’t listen to We Gotta Got out of This Place without reliving some of the more intense experiences in Vietnam and feel the emotions rising. It takes me right back there as if it was yesterday. Click on the link below to hear We Gotta Got out of This Place.

Another song that affected us in Vietnam is, Leaving on a Jet Plane. Written by John Denver in 1966, and picked up by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1967 for their Album 1700 and released as a single in 1969 – their only No. 1 hit. I thought about leaving on that Freedom Bird and returning home nearly every day of my tour in Vietnam. When that day arrived, and the plane gently lifted off the runway filled with military personnel, there was absolute silence. When the aircraft flew beyond Vietnam airspace everyone spontaneously erupted in thunderous cheers! We smiled at each other in celebration. We survived the war.  We were finally heading home.  And then, 10,000 miles of reflective silence. There was a lot to think about.  I thought about how much I had changed.  Again, I lost my innocence. I knew that I was was not the same young man who had arrived in-country 14-months previously. I was older and tougher and younger and more vulnerable. Little did I know how much I changed and that learning this wasn’t the easiest part of returning home. Click on the link below to hear Leaving on a Jet Plane.

When I returned home from Vietnam, it was a culture shock. There were diverse changes in fashions, music, automobiles, attitudes, morality, education, politics, and behavior to mention a few. And of course, the harsh reception from the public towards Vietnam Veterans. It took nearly twenty years before I heard someone say, Welcome Home. Even now when someone reaches out to say thank you for your service, I hesitate before responding to the unfamiliar kindness. Perhaps, other Vietnam Veterans feel the same way. A song that reaches me deeply in a compassionate way is, Where to Have All the Flowers Gone. This song is by the Kingston Trio. I can’t help but think of all the young men and women who never made it home, or returned with horrendous wounds and losses of limbs, not to mention PTSD. I don’t believe any of us fully returned home. I think that each of us left parts of us there during the Vietnam War. Where Have All the Flowers Gone resonates the most in my post-Vietnam years and brings out my strongest philosophical thoughts. I wonder with my heart in my throat and incredulity in my mind, when Will they ever learn? Click on the link below to hear Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

I lived through more than my share of life experiences during the whirlwind decade of the ’60s. And not surprisingly, I remain as always, an unrepentant Hippie following my philosophical and spiritual paths. And still, The Times They Are A-Changin’.