McGuire on Media

My medical sojourn maddened me and strengthened me

This is not going to be a typical  blog post for me.  It just seems too odd to return to these posts without explaining why I haven’t posted since Sept.23 when I wrote about the Homer Hanky.

I am a transparent person by nature. My wife has always said “Tim will tell his deepest, darkest secrets to the postman.” I  buy into Jeff Jarvis’ belief that personal transparency is important. I admire his candor about his prostate cancer.

Where I struggle  is my 33-year-old daughter Tracy’s constant complaint about TMI—too much information. Personal medical details can get boorish quickly.

I am going to be candid about the incredibly bizarre events that beset me, but  in hopes I can provoke a bit of reader reflection.

I had major ankle surgery on July 23 to fuse my left ankle. As friends know, I was born with a congenital birth defect that necessitated 13 surgeries before I was 16 years old. All those surgeries created massive arthritis in both ankles.  At 61, even after losing 55 pounds, the pain begged to be relieved.  On July 23 I had the first of two planned surgeries.  By Sept. 23, just two months later I had survived a knee stroller and a motorized cart and I was walking in a regular shoe.

On Saturday night Sept. 25, I felt a throbbing pain in my back.  As a seasoned veteran of kidney stones I was certain of the problem. By the next morning I was horribly ill and I couldn’t walk. That began a 23-day journey with four surgeries, two for the kidney stone and two on the ankle. 

The most popular medical theory is that the impacted kidney stone created a massive bladder infection which made me ill. Then the infection traveled to the most vulnerable place in my body, the surgical site. The intricate pins and screws from the first surgery collapsed and my ankle was not fused.  There are other theories including my ambitious desire to walk, the instructions the first surgeon gave me and the first surgery itself.  No matter the cause,  on Oct. 5 I had surgery to remove all that hardware and to take bone biopsies because massive infection was feared.  That came after a surgery the week before to put a stent in the kidney. On Oct. 12, the ankle fusion was reconstructed using a dramatically different technique. On Oct. 18 I had the kidney stent and stone removed. On October 19, after a three week absence from classes,  I taught my ethics class just as I had promised Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan I would.

Four surgeries, nine days in the hospital, massive infections, even more massive antibiotics, vague conversations about amputation and anemia can conspire to create an emotional maelstrom.  Here are some of the thoughts I had during the siege and after.


Most people I encounter want to place blame or want me to place blame. When you try to sort out the various opinions and conjecture it becomes obvious quickly that assigning blame would be a futile, mean-spirited exercise. The best guess now is that I suffered really lousy luck.  Lots of things went wrong for lots of reasons.  Assigning blame doesn’t make anything better. I am reminded of a barbeque an ASNE delegation to South Africa had with Nelson Mandela several months after he was released from prison.  After an hour or so of conversation I asked the gentle, peaceful man why it seemed he so lacked any bitterness toward his captors. He gently responded, “what good would it do me?.” Those words have never lost their meaning for me.


Lots of people have commented on my positive attitude since I returned to the Cronkite School Oct. 19. I have been my bright and shiny self since my return, but there were dark moments. One particular night in the hospital I was scared, depressed and sleepless. I sent out some emails that concerned some people who cared. Mobile phones and Ipads are bad tools for hospital patients!

Through all of life’s trials and there have been a few, I have desperately tried to avoid asking, “why me?” I am not proud to admit that a couple of times during this trial I asked just that. Like the temptation to blame, it passed when I concentrated on all my incredible blessings in this life including all those people who rallied to help.


I could write a chapter or more on how the medical system works during a crisis like this.  I was never satisfied with the level of coordination between the various doctors on my case. I got the terrible feeling I had to prove myself worthy of being dealt with straightforwardly. 

The cost of this ordeal was huge. Despite good insurance the out-of-pocket price tag would devastate normal families. Without insurance the catastrophe is too horrible to think about. I was blessed with good coverage but something has to be done to bring costs under control.  I did not suffer any terrible indignities at the hands of my insurance company, but there is one trend of which I was unaware. 

Home health care is an expanding option and that places an incredible burden on family caregivers. My wife Jean is a little bitter that our insurance company decided she was qualified to administer antibiotics through what is called a PICC line. As she says, “15 minutes of training did not make me a nurse!”   She did an amazing job, but it creates a ton of pressure on a layperson.

The real delight medically for me was meeting all the men and women who do the important nursing and technical jobs. Customer service and comfort seem high on their list. I constantly felt that these people were my advocates and at a time of trauma that’s incredibly important. I engaged a lot of these folks in conversation and I was impressed with how many are continuing their medical education so they can move up the chain.

There are several personalities I won’t forget like the 61-year-old male  nursing tech who is completing nursing school.  Or the x-ray technician who tries to convince you  he’s a doped out hippie, but is actually tremendously professional. The proliferation of “physician assistants fascinated me. Some of them will tell you becoming a physician in the current environment is just too much of a hassle.  They think they have the better part of the deal as an assistant. 


The next time you hear a friend is in the hospital go see the person or at least call. Illness is a profoundly lonely time. Visiting, calling or even a note, are valued more than you know.  I am incredibly grateful to the people who visited me and for much of my various hospital stays, all I could think about was the friend who was very sick this past spring. I never visited him. I felt bad about that every time  a visitor came to see me.

Support goes so far beyond visitors. I do not understand how anyone without a loving partner and spouse like my Jean could deal with something like this.  I think I would have just curled up in the fetal position.   My reappearance at the Cronkite School only happened because of the attention and efforts of Dean Christopher Callahan and his executive staff.

And then there were my students.  Private notes, group cards and  random tweets all made me want to get back to them as soon as I could.  Work has been a safe place to be as I recovered.  Again, the question becomes can you say the same thing about your workplace?


I have always been a fairly introspective person, but this misadventure has forced me to reflect on a issues from life to death to spirituality, to friendship, to love to hope, and to faith. That reflection is a very good thing and it’s something I wish I had done more of as a journalist..


  1. Stephanie Riel
    Posted November 3, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Tim: Had I known you were sick I would have visited or at least written a note. My goodness! I am glad you are feeling better and back at school. However, I am sorry for my ignorance!

    Your reflection is eye opening, consoling and motivating. Your comments on the medical aspect of the past few months resonate with me. 2010 has proven to be a roller coaster year for my health. I’ve been undergoing testing for a slue of issues since July and am still awaiting a diagnosis for what I like to call “feeling yucky all around”, which translates to GI issues. It’s been a stressful process that all but makes me feel any better. And the cost has been quite a burden, even with insurance… It has truly been a learning experience!

    With a great deal of good thoughts, prayers, and continued determination, I am confident that 2011 will be a better year for us all!!

    I know of a student or two that will be in your Future and Business of Journalism class in Spring 2011. Perhaps I will sneak away from my duties and come visit for class one day! That would be a great treat.

    Glad to hear your on the up and up! Hope to see you soon.

    Best wishes,


  2. David Eden
    Posted November 3, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Holy shit, Tim. You are fracking amazing… one of the strongest spirits in a human being I have ever known.

  3. John Matthews
    Posted November 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    What can I glean from all this…that ALL your/our conversations are vague. I guess I am the last to know and I’m truly sorry you had bouts 210, 211, 212 and 213 with the surgeons. Your “I could laugh or I could cry…I decided to laugh” has stuck with me for 26 years. You are one tough cookie…and a very attractive man. Hope you are painless…and hope you enjoyed watching my Giants play in November.

    Your lifetime pal…Matthews

  4. Judy RomanowichSmith
    Posted November 3, 2010 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Tim, So glad things are on the mend for you.

    I read this post with great interest. I had many of the same thoughts and realizations earlier this year when our oldest son Drew, then 20, was hospitalized for 8 days with an illness that could not initially be diagnosed. His red blood cell count was dangerously low. It was agonizing hearing the doctors toss out theories that included lymphoma and leukemia. We saw Drew through a lymph node biopsy and a bone marrow tap. In the end, he was found to have mono, complicated by a genetic blood disorder. He is fine now, back at school in Madison, marching with the Badger band and studying hard (we hope). He lost that semester of school when he was sick, so his hope of graduating in four years isn’t going to happen. But he’s healthy.

    I spent time looking for someone to blame for all of the worry and fear we encountered. I love the Mandela quote; thank you.

    The cost of our ordeal was staggering as well.

    We quickly realized that we had to be bold advocates, asking question after question. There were awesome medical professionals as well who buoyed us and spent as much time as we needed answering questions and discussing everything with us.

    Most of all I want to heartily second the value of support. For the first few days of Drew’s illness, our friends really weren’t sure what to do for us. I finally called a friend and asked her to stop up to see us. We felt so alone. That was all it took for people to understand the exactly what we didn’t need was to be left alone!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this difficult time. Again, I’m glad you are doing well!

  5. Posted November 3, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this, Tim. It was inspirational, and we don’t get enough of that. Sorry for your personal travails. I’ve been through a few medical scrapes myself in the past 18 months and I’ve come out scarred but better for it. Glad you’re on the mend.
    Sincerely, Dan

  6. Posted November 3, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Some people are tested more than others. My last surgery was having my tonsils taken out 46 years ago. It’s the human spirit that keeps a person going and no amount of medicine can trump it.

  7. Chuck Haga
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Tim … It is reassuring to me to see you responding to adversity with inner strength, humor and thoughtful reflection, the tools you sought to reinforce in me some time ago. I imagine you laughing, and it makes me smile.

  8. Charlie Brown
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Tim: I read with profound interest and feelings your wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing. I too believe in being as transparent as I can and I admire your courage and postiveness. I am blessed to know you.

  9. Bill McDonald
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink


    Heard about your trauma from Murph. I can remember when we were kids how tough you were through all those operations. I have always admired your grit. Best to you in the future.


  10. Michael Reppenhagen
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this with me, Tim. I take for granted my benchmark health at times, and knowing all life has thrown at you makes me floored at the stellar demeanor you’ve exuded every time we’ve spoke. You’re an amazing man, and I fell blessed to have met you.

  11. Tom Callinan
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Bless you Tim. Your courage and integrity integrity inspires all. Next time I get back to Scottsdale and see you at Mass I promise to hold your hand in prayer. Look for me snuggled up against the organ. TC

  12. Tim Fallon
    Posted November 7, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    You never cease to amaze and inspire me! Thanks for sharing of your experience and reflection.

    Tracy is right – there are situations of TMI. Your post is not one of them.

    What makes your reflection unique is that it comes from the depths, is not “raw” (although it is gutsy – a huge difference), and leads to sharing wisdom that we all desperately need. That’s never TMI.

    Thanks for your courage to endure . . . and your dedication to finding and sharing the insight, wisdom and meaning that you’ve gained from suffering.

    May your healing continue!

  13. Jim Diaz
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Tim – Had no idea what your October was like. Sorry I wasn’t able to be there to help cheer you on. It sounds like you are on the mend and that as usual you were able to create life lessons for yourself and also, as usual, are willing to share them.
    Having just had a daughter in the hospital for an extended period of time this month, I too was amazed at the commitment to serve that came from some of the front line care-givers. They are often helping in spite of a bureaucracy that some times works against their intentions.
    I also was struck by your thoughts about blame. As you remember, a while back my son was in a horrible accident and it appeared that some of the early treatment may have led to even worse consequences, and some encouraged us to pursue further legal remedies. On the other had we were never sure who and what was responsible but I do know there was a team that helped save my son’s life that night. I have focused on that and not what could have been or should have been. Your thoughts help me reconcile some lingering doubts about whether we did the right thing.
    We may be in Phoenix over the Turkey Day. I will give you a heads up if so. Glad you are feeling better and back on duty at Cronkite. Jim

  14. Gil Stafford
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Tim, my dear friend, my prayers continue with you as they do always – I have been praying for you just because I do – I have to trust that God knows what you need – I will continue to be present in praying for you – may the Lord bless you+

  15. Jennifer Johnson
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Tim, you are a true inspiration. You will be in my thoughts and prayers. I came across this post just this evening when reading some of your more recent posts.

    I hope that ankle is holding up okay now.

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  1. […] Through that decade, arthritis ate away at my ankles until I decided something had to be done. I detailed in a blog post in October my decision to have an ankle joint fusion, the difficulties that followed, and the knee stroller […]