Several years ago, my friend Elizabeth Burke and I rowed twice a week through the Seattle winter. We ventured out without fail as dawn was breaking - rowing two single shells or a double. We'd row from the Fremont Bridge to the Chittenden Locks and back, or maybe across Lake Union and on to Lake Washington. Sometimes we'd come back to our home at the Lake Washington Rowing Club and wipe the ice off our boats. But we always came back with an irrefutable sense of moral superiority! We'd done it again!

Rowing - particularly Rowing Through the Winter - provides a richness of metaphors...instructive in my life as a Family Physician and the Home Dialysis CarePartner for my profoundly ill husband, Steve Williams. Now that Steve is gone, rowing reminds me of consistency and focus - so critical during grieving. Rowing requires balance, as does my life.

Row with me this winter. Linda Gromko, MD

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thirty-nine degrees and a Maxfield Parrish Sky

I leave my home in Lake Forest Park at 6:30 a.m. My car thermometer registers 39 degrees, and there's fog hovering above the freeway.

Steve is tucked in at home, freshly turned to a new position in his hospital bed so that his reduced mobility won't prompt a bedsore. The hired caregiver is reading her newspaper. As I leave, I warn her that Steve will likely go to the hospital today to have his dialysis fistula imaged, maybe re-opened. We are running out of dialysis access options, and his last potassium level was high.

But at the boathouse, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Sue are already on the dock. I hustle my oars down, and lift the open-water "Piglet" over my head. I carry it deliberately to the dock and gingerly set it in the water.

The morning sky is surreal: a Maxfield Parrish print, but ordered in the "denim" colorway. The water is perfectly still; no wind.

We row our four singles to the Ballard Bridge, then to the Locks. A homeless man nods at me, bundled up in his parka on the side of the ship canal. A workcrew from one of the many industrial ships waves. Our human-powered single shells represent a different species - distinguished from the too-fast, too-loud pleasure boats that dominate the waterway in warmer weather. We are part of the working waterfront; we belong there.

At a water break, Elizabeth asks, "How's Steve?"

     "Rough," I answer. "Kidney failure is a tough disease. I think it's worse than just about anything. It impacts everything: heart, blood, bones, mind. Even with good dialysis, you get only about ten percent of normal "kidney" function.

     "I never say 'It couldn't get any worse,' because it always has. The only thing worse that I can see is the burn unit - a total body burn could be worse than this, I guess."

Elizabeth nods sympathetically. "It's affecting the water in his body; that's what we are - water!"

We row on, back to the boathouse.

I struggle to lift the Piglet out of the water onto my head and shoulders. I always did it before, but not today. Elizabeth rescues me, and we carry the boat back together.

As always, in rowing, I'll get a do-over on another day. I'll get it; I know I can.

The four of us scramble to gather up oars and "accessories" at the end of the row. We are all smiling. We look like a Title Nine Sportswear ad: strong and vital, happy.

     "So how old are you anyway?" I ask one of the women.

     "Fifty-nine. And you?"


I know the fifty-nine-and-a-half, because I just took money out of my retirement fund without a tax penalty: money to support my medical practice, money to support the one-on-one care we need for Steve. They money we pay because Medicare won't - even though Steve was rejected by all Skilled Nursing Facilities.

Never - in my wildest imagination - would I have envisioned this collage of circumstance.

After a shower, and a stolen coffee break at Peet's to compose this blogpost on my computer, I realize that never before have I had the tools to deal with such complexity either.

The restorative tools of fitness and rowing, creativity and writing. And meaningful, creative work that I truly love.

Linda Gromko, MD

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