Operation Open Heart
In the spring of 1947, my parents became engaged to be married, and they began their plans for an October wedding. They purchased a house and worked on it through the summer to make it into their future home. The double lot ensured they would be able to decide just how big the garden should be. There would be plenty of room for a swing set, as well as a basketball court, and a small baseball diamond.
Dad was a talented man with a bit of a mechanical mind, and he spent his free time in his workshop – doing, fixing, and making things. I understand why men with carpentry skills enjoy putting toys together, and Dad ended up being a dad who did just that.
My parents may or may not have thought it best to become the parents of eleven children, but eleven children it was, as they raised their five sons and six daughters in their small-town home in Ohio.
Mom was a writer as well as a saver. We’ve all heard it said many from her generation became “savers” because they had lived through the depression.
My mother not only saved stuff, she saved newspaper clippings, letters, and greeting cards. My siblings and I have the job of sorting through piles of what may end up being pretty good reading material.
Just when I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of memorabilia left for us to go through, I found a large envelope that contained a collection of letters and notes written to my sister Elaine back in 1960. I quickly realized what I was holding in my hands.
Elaine was just 6 years old when she had been hospitalized for open heart surgery at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis. The surgery was needed to repair a faulty heart valve. My parents had been told that Elaine would probably not live past the age of 35 without the surgery.
Some of the letters were written to Elaine and some were written to Mom and Dad. The notes were from my three oldest siblings, a couple of cousins, my grandmothers, neighbors, and several of our aunts.
Also tucked away in the collection were letters Mom had written from the hospital back to her children and to her parents. Mom wrote a reminder in one of her letters that the children needed to go to the post office every day.
My mom was 34 years old in 1960, and she was the mother of seven children at the time. My dad was 41. In order for my parents to stay at the hospital with Elaine, they had to make arrangements for someone to stay in their home and care for their other 6 children – 3 older and 3 younger than Elaine.
It probably made sense that my mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Imm, were the chosen caregivers while Mom and Dad stayed at the hospital with Elaine. After reading the letters, the story can be pieced together.
Grandma Imm was born in 1888, so she was 72 years old when she was taking care of the family. Grandpa Imm was born in 1895, so he was just a 65 year old youngster at the time. My dad’s father passed away during the summer of 1947, just weeks before Mom and Dad were to be married. Dad’s mother, our Grandma Kimpel, was born in 1884, and she was living in her home in Hicksville.
Elaine’s surgery was in November of 1960. My brother Lee was born in mid-July of 1961. When you do the math, my mother not only had friends and relatives who were caring for her 6 children, she was also in the very early stages of another pregnancy. Baby number 8 was on the way.
My oldest sister, Marcia, was 12 years old at the time of Elaine’s surgery. Ed was 11. Jayne 9. Carolyn 5. Don 3. And Darrell was 14 months old.
A fun part of growing up in a large family is the fact that you probably have many cousins. And cousins I indeed have. Aunt Verda and Uncle Alfred took up housekeeping in a home behind my parents’ home. My Mom and Dad had 11 children, and the Currys were the parents of nine children. Yes, 20 children, over a 20 year span, in the same back yard.
Then there were the cousins on both sides of my family who lived in the country. There were farms to visit on Sundays. There were barns to play in. A pond to swim in. Cousins to stay overnight with. Stories and memories that stay with you for a lifetime.
Mom had saved two Edgerton Earth newspapers which are now yellowed from age and need to be handled with care but tell us more through the pictures and articles.
One of the newspapers was dated February 26, 1961, and the story of Elaine’s surgery was highlighted because February was heart month. Lee was born five months later in July. I was born the next year in December of 1962. Jeanette arrived in September of 1965. The baby of the family, Steven, was born in May of 1969.
The letters Elaine received were so heart-warming. I knew I had a Great Aunt Goldie and a Great Aunt Flossie, and there at the end of their letters were their signatures. Beautiful notes with the kind of cursive handwriting that would make you suspect they were indeed great aunts, or maybe a little on the older side, when they wrote their notes.
Aunt Goldie sent a dollar in her card with a suggestion to “Get whatever you would like. If you want something to play with or to look at or wear – whatever you would like.”
Aunt Flossie’s letter ended with, “Now be a good little girl and do as the Dr. says and you will be OK. Love Aunt Flossie”
My Aunt Verda’s note let my mom know she and Uncle Alfred were keeping the home fires burning. She also wrote “Honestly Ruthie, the folks are doing a real good job with the kids. I run over now and then to see how everything is, and I always find Darrell, Donnie, and Carolyn enjoying themselves.”
In another paragraph, she wrote “I went over home and pinned up Mom’s hair for the day and also Marcia’s. I hope they turn out pretty, but of course Marcia being pretty like her mother and her mother looking pretty like her mother, there’s no doubt.” What an endearing comment from one sister to another.
Tucked within this packet of letters was another small envelope with newspaper clippings that explained the story even more.
One newspaper article stated final plans were being completed for the surgery, which would take place on Tuesday, November 29.
It went on to explain that operations in which the heart-lung machine is used require large amounts of blood. This must be freshly drawn in special containers before the operation at the hospital where the surgery is being done. The blood donors would have to travel to Indianapolis on the day prior to the surgery in order to donate fresh blood.
Fourteen donors were required in Elaine’s case. Drivers had been “secured.” The article shared the names of the four drivers, two of whom were community members and friends of my parents: Donald Gruver and Karlen Day. The other two drivers were my uncles Donald Imm and Alfred Curry. They met in front of Bob’s Dairy Bar at 10 am and drove together in a caravan to Riley Children’s Hospital in downtown Indianapolis.
I recognized many of the names of the blood donors, and it really did melt my heart when I read who they were: Vernon “Pretz” Stark, Howard Zerkle, Luella Bowers, Art Radabaugh, Leona Betts, James Moody, Evelyn Miller, Cliff Gentry, Richard Goebel, Mary Denny, Verda Curry, Mrs. Delno (Pat) Wise, Richard Mann, Mary Lou Pierce, Dr. Robert Craig, Mrs. Jack (Beulah) Hire, Arthur Cunningham, Mrs. Gus (Vivian) Mieth, Mrs. Karlen (Jessie) Day, Mrs. Leonard (Cecil) Herman, Elmer Weisz, Mrs. Richard Fritch, Eileen McKee, Mrs. Max Day, Don Houk, and Marilyn Balogh.
And just for the record – the pints of blood that were donated were Type O, Rh positive.
On the day of the surgery, Pretz Stark and H.R. Zerkle accompanied Dr. Victor Boerger to Indianapolis to act as standby donors during the operation. It was stated Dr. Boerger would be witnessing Elaine’s surgery.
As I typed the names of those who volunteered to be blood donors on the day prior to her surgery, I was brought to tears. It was a good cry. The kind where tears gently escape from your eyes and slowly roll down your face with plenty of time to keep typing before you have to get up and find a tissue.
My Aunt Verda was a blood donor, and her handwritten letter to my mom and dad was dated “Tuesday evening 8:30” in the upper right corner of the paper. She wrote that Pretz and Anna Stark were just there and told the good news, which was apparently the surgery was a success.
While the Starks were still there, Grandma Imm called to say Dr. Boerger had just stopped over and told them everything. Aunt Luella and Uncle Bob also spent the day with Mom and Dad and drove to Edgerton to relay the good news to the Edgerton relatives. Verda said everyone was so relieved and thankful.
Verda wrote, “This is probably a strange thing to say, but we all had a good time. Eileen and I were both sick for a while, but all was well after we ate our supper.” She went on to say Uncle Alfred stayed home with her on Tuesday and helped her do the washing. She was rather tired, but felt fine when she was writing the letter.
The caravan of travelers arrived back in Edgerton on Monday night around 10:30. Alfred and Donald’s cars were separated in downtown Indianapolis, so Alfred’s group stopped at a “Roller Skating Place” and ate supper in a real nice dining room. They didn’t see any restrooms, so they drove down the road about two miles and stopped at a truck stop. And there was Donald and his gang. They had eaten supper and were ready to start for home.
The kids were still up when they had arrived home that Monday night. Eddie stayed all night with Woody, and they had lots of fun. They went to bed after they heard about the day’s experience.
She went on to write that Jayne was staying the night. Marcia and Carolyn would be staying the next night, and then she planned to have Eddie and Donnie. She wrote “All the kids are getting along just fine, and honestly Ruthie I wouldn’t tell you this if it wasn’t so.”
It was fun to read the letters from my siblings and the Curry cousins, as they were quick to describe the food that had been brought in and the games they were playing. There seemed to be a lot of excitement about the gifts Elaine was receiving. In cousin Theresa’s letter, she asks Elaine “How many dolls did you get?” Aunt Verda also wrote about her two youngest children. Mary was a toddler at the time, and Julie was a one-year-old infant.
Richard and Beverly Mann were neighbors, and Beverly made a snowman cake. Eddie’s letter was the most descriptive. He wrote that the cake had a stovepipe hat; candy was used for the eyes, nose, and ears; the eyebrows were formed with raisins. They were going to try to save the face for Mom and Dad, but I found a sentence in another letter from Eddie, “I guess you won’t get a piece of that cake after all. It is about all gone.”
Eddie wrote in one letter that he would try to write every day. He was writing during recess time. Eugene Kimpel asked him to stay overnight sometime, and he hoped to be able to go if Mom and Dad said it was okay.
Melody, Ketra, and Jayne went uptown to Dick’s Market on the night of the surgery. In Melody’s letter to Elaine, she wrote, “People asked about you, and Jayne told them that you were coming along just fine.”
Marcia wrote a letter to Mom and Dad on the evening of the surgery. In the upper right corner of her letter, she included the family’s post office box address, November 29, 1960, and “O-day” below that.
We learned from one of the newspaper clippings that O-Day referred to Operation Open Heart as well as “O” for her blood type. It had been advertised if you want to be a blood donor, you could have your blood typed at Hicksville Hospital at Mr. Kimpel’s expense.
She said Uncle Donald stopped last night and “told all.” After he left, a ring came to the back door, and Aunt Verda delivered Mom’s letter to the family. Uncle Bob, Aunt Luella, and John had just left. Marcia asked if Elaine received another doll and said she won’t have room in her buggy. She also wrote, “We’ve had the most phone calls.”
Marcia ended her Tuesday night letter with a P.S.: “We’ll pray for Elaine.” And a second P.S.: “This is the slowest week of my life.”
On Wednesday morning, Mom wrote that Elaine had taken her baby “Debbie” doll, the one Zerkle gave her, to the operating room. There was a band-aid on the doll’s stomach, and this morning Debbie lies beside Elaine, and they look so cute.
Mom wrote a letter on Thursday at noon and said, “We have spent all morning off and on with Elaine. She looked so bright this morning. Her cheeks were so rosy and her lips so red. I accused her of wearing makeup. I trimmed her nails and then later the nurse gave her a bath and they removed the oxygen tent. They rehooked her to the other machines, but she doesn’t mind it.”
Kathy Moffett was a young nurse from Edgerton who worked at Riley, and Mom wrote that Kathy had spent time with them and had been so helpful and nice.
She went on to write: “Yes, girls, Elaine got a ‘Miss Vicki’ doll from Mrs. Wilson on Monday before surgery, and today she got a little Betsy McCall doll from Douglas Goebel. It has a ponytail and is wrapped in a little blanket and has a little gown that ties in the back like Elaine’s hospital gown and also included is a little red dress. She was so tickled. She has it in bed with her ‘Debbie’ doll. She also received about 10 cards. I read the letters and cards over and over to her.”
Jayne wrote a letter on Saturday night and said, “When Darrell woke up this morning, he was so jolly. He kissed us. He went right to Grandpa. He felt Grandpa’s whiskers. He liked the feel of them.”
There was snow in Edgerton, and Grandpa got the sled out for the children to play together.
Their neighbor, Irene, wrote she had been in contact with Grandma and Grandpa Imm, and she felt all the children were doing well. She told Mom and Dad they have a lovely family, and Donnie is very content with having Grandpa around all the time.
Apparently Grandma and Grandpa Imm, Uncle Don, and Aunt Isabel, were able to visit with Elaine on Sunday following her surgery. Eddie wrote a letter on Saturday letting Mom and Dad know the Currys, Imms, and Kimpel kids would be together. Looked like Alfred and Verda would be watching the children, and the neighbor, Irene, “donated” her time to take care of Darrell.
Eddie also wrote that yesterday was the last day at school for the Sanders kids because they were moving, and Grandma and Grandpa would be delivering a present from the Studer family.
Aunt Mary Kimpel wrote a letter on Friday night letting them know how happy they were the ordeal was over, and Elaine was coming along fine. Mary had not been to the house because her own family had been ill with the flu. Nancy and Marcella were better but still weak.
Aunt Mary also pointed out Elaine’s surgery was on cousin Rosemary’s birthday. When Aunt Mary called Rosemary on Tuesday night to tell her what they knew, Rosemary said it was a birthday she wouldn’t forget. Rosemary was the flower girl in Mom and Dad’s wedding, but in 1960, she was in nursing school. She told her mother she wished she could have been with her Uncle Vern and Aunt Ruth during the surgery.
Aunt Mary also had beautiful handwriting, and she signed her letter, “Mary, Dutch, and all.”
Grandma Kimpel wrote a letter on Monday a.m. and stated she was so glad to hear Elaine was getting along well and would soon be coming home. She wrote, “I’ll bet you were glad to see Grandpa and Grandma Imm and Floyd’s and Clair’s. I was not able to come along but will be over to see you as soon as you get home. Be a good girl and Grandma Kimpel will be over to see you soon. Lots of Love – Grandma Kimpel”
Another letter Eddie wrote was addressed to Elaine, and he told her Aunt Joan Kimpel brought over three big presents, a box of cookies, and some homemade bread. Apparently our cousins were with her because his letter goes on to say “Kimmie, Jimmie, and Neal ate most of the cookies.” The bread had been made by Mrs. Jerger, who is Aunt Joan’s mother.
Eddie told Elaine that John Dietsch “was thinking of getting you another doll.” Carolyn could hardly wait for Elaine to come home with all those dolls, and she was marking off the days on the calendar. He also said she wanted a baby buggy for Christmas.
Marcia wrote that Mary Denny gave them 14 pretty cupcakes – pink and white with miniature Christmas candies on them. Mrs. Hartman gave them a dollar. Uncle Paul Miller visited nearly every day. Odelia Wickerham made pudding and real good cranberry salad for them. Aunt Mary brought a cut-up chicken and two dozen eggs.
In one of my mother’s letters to the family, she wrote they had learned another parent from Avilla, Indiana, had been sleeping in the hospital waiting room. Welfare was paying for the surgery for her little girl, but she had no sleeping quarters. She had been “living off coffee and a little bit of food since Friday. Later we found her, and Vern gave her $10.00. She was so happy.”
This comment from my mother prompted me to look up the value of $10.00 back in 1960, and my parents had given her the equivalent of $80.00 in today’s currency. But Mom and Dad were the first to point out they wouldn’t have been able to afford this surgery without the help of the community.
One of the newspaper clippings reported a benefit round and square dance had raised $700, and there had been numerous others from the community who made financial donations. All of the money went to my mom and dad.
Two months after Elaine’s surgery, my parents wrote an update on her health which, of course, had a positive outcome. Elaine had returned to school after the holidays.
They thanked the community with these words: “With the financial help of all the good people of Edgerton and the surrounding community, the financial burden that looked so heavy was certainly lightened. We hope that somehow we can help other parents who are faced with a problem such as ours. We also pray that Elaine will someday be a credit to the community that has loved her so much.”
My mother lived a long life, but to us it was too short. She was still writing and telling her family what to do right up to the time she took us by surprise and experienced a stroke – letting us know it was time to be together once again. She lived her last days in the house she called home, for over 70 years. She passed away at the sweet age of 92 and a half.
My father, on the other hand, suffered with dementia in the years before he passed. He was certainly ready to “go home,” and we said good-bye to him when he was 88 years old.
Anybody who knew Dad knew he could fix anything, and he loved to do things for others.
When you think about it, we don’t have to look for a need others may have. We just have to stay connected. My dad was in his 80s when he would travel to a nearby strawberry patch, spend time getting the berries picked, and hand-deliver them to his friends who were no longer able to do what he just did, but love to see him walk in their door with a quart of berries – handpicked just for them.
Like most men of Dad’s generation, he grew up on a farm, and there were no classes on master gardening. You were simply a master gardener. He did things like give heirloom tomato seeds to others. He grew popcorn and would make sugar corn on the stovetop, especially on Sundays when cousins were with us. My siblings and I love the fact that our father really did know how to do everything.
And now I know my mother was ahead of her time, for she had her own form of social media. Not only did she write, interview others, and teach her children to write letters, she too had a “save” button. Her stories were “saved” in her cardboard boxes in the many nooks and crannies of the house she started managing back in 1947.
Isaiah 58:6-12 speaks of the sincerity of our faith when we are reaching out to others through acts of kindness and generosity. We are still the recipients when we are at our most active for God, because we serve by the strength God supplies.
I am left with a grateful heart for the little packet of history my mom and dad saved for us to find. I suspect they both knew those newspaper articles and handwritten letters would someday allow us to take a peek into the life and times of their growing family and the community that stepped up to care for them.