I have been absent from this space, because this is a winter full of discontent (to purloin a phrase) for me, and I know anyone visiting me at this space has no need of my cloudiness. But here I am, purging the seeded clouds of my sad January. Then I will move forward, anticipate the Spring- and in fact, relocate to Florida for a patch of sun to hold me steady until the cold weather capitulates to the rotation of the earth and delivers robins and tulips.
I have spent the last 9 months working my way out of my knee replacement, and it has been a different road than I imagined. I was guided on this quest by a physical therapist I met at Hinsdale Hospital, Gus Flick. He was the gatekeeper to my release. On the fourth day after the cut-and paste of my bionic knee, Gus opened a stairwell in the hospital and directed me to head upstairs. He took my “I can’t” in stride, and told me I would be staying over. With that, I dragged my rickety ass up and down, after which he escorted me around the ward for a few laps. Al the nurses told me that Gus only appeared on the rare days when the beds were all full, and there was a great need. He was the best, they crowed, and I was most fortunate. He parked me in my room, gave me a few survival tips, and bid me farewell. I was free!
Three weeks later, my doctor wrote my outpatient therapy prescription to Gus’ new clinic, Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation on Ogden Avenue in Hinsdale. There, Gus and his amazing specialists embarked upon a course of treatment that included medieval torture, strength training, reprogramming and encouragement. I hit every benchmark for extension and flexion, but my new knee was not tracking. The kneecap wobbled and bobbled, and each therapist brought unique skills to the problem. Always overseeing my progress, or lack thereof, was Gus. My pain did not deter him. He was determined to see me through to a complete recovery. We became friends, ruminating over our kids and our spouses- (in his case, his wife’s ambivalence to sports, and in mine, about Steve’s absorption.) I laughed that he was refinishing a set of Comiskey Park seats, because the years of accumulated paint represented a storied history, which he was scraping away. He was a 6 day a week worker, with side jobs as they came up. His leisure time was spent rehabbing, exercising, cheering for his Sox. When I started, the Sox were slumping, and we were mad. During the summer, they came back, we held our breath, then lost faith together. We played “Name That Tune” with the oldies station he used to cover up our groans. He confided- shyly for a direct man- that he was a fan of Steve’s. He thought they were kindred spirits with their wilder, younger selves. He remembered being at Comiskey Park, then leaving before all Hell broke loose to get some beers. He also remembered me pulling off to the side of the road and screaming at Steve- and thinking that a wild man needs a tough, tethered wife. He said he had found such a wife, and it had made him a good man. I was honored to transition from patient to friend. He wanted Steve and me to meet Jackie, his wife, so we could be ambivalent about sports together.
Then Gus got sick- out of the blue. He had a sore throat, which turned out to be thyroid cancer. Not the readily cured kind of thyroid cancer- Gus was special. His was a rapid growing, chemo and radiation resistant cancer, that wrapped around his throat. He became a resident of the University of Chicago Hospital, fighting and submitting to two surgeries and weeks of inpatient chemo-rad. Ultimately, every ounce of available tissue was removed so the cancer would not regrow and choke him. He was a tough customer, and remained optimistic. He would e-mail me or text me now and then, and even in the cold world of e-communications, I could sense his fatigue, with an undertone of fear. My son Patrick had a Blackhawks One Goal book autographed by Patrick Kane with “Get Well, Gus” for him. I missed Christmas, and mailed it in January. He never saw it.
On January 17th, August Flick, my friend and mentor died, leaving a wife, two sons, a daughter and a giant group of friends and patients. We are all heartbroken and incredulous.
Being a physical therapist is a taxing job, because your clients are in pain. We complain. I saw that men were more likely to sublimate their complaints, but women want to air their concerns. In addition to the challenge of manipulating, massaging, pressing tissue and stretching us- they absorb all our crabby energy. They continuously try to elevate our spirits. At the end of the day, I believe that most medical professionals have absorbed far too much negativity. It has to be a terrible burden. The people at Gus’ clinic never gave up on anyone. If one method failed, they regrouped. They taught me to tape my knee so it would track. Lurana had blown her knee out, and so she had special tricks to share. Susan was a tape magician, loosening the scar from the tissue below. Amanda organized the appointments and was never flummoxed if I showed up on the wrong day. Nicole came in when Gus was out, to help manage the case loads. All of them operated with a “can do, will do” attitude that Gus was the Captain of. He made all his patients believe that they would continue progress. We believed. We were also sure that he would triumph, because of his rugged determination. His death jerked us back to a reality – that we are tissue paper in an iron universe. We do not control the molecules. Our only option is to squeeze every ounce of joy from each day.
At Gus’ prayer service, patients and friends mingled with his despairing family. I met his Mom. Gus told me tales of her refusal to take him to the doctor for strep throat when he was a kid. He was raised tough, lived tough. But these memories also informed his decision to see a doctor immediately when his throat hurt in the summer. He did everything right. I am not sure how much comfort that provides, when all is said and done. His family knows Gus made many, many lives better. We know they probably missed him, since he worked so hard.
Lots of us who rehabbed in his clinic paid respects on a cold Friday night. We barely recognized each other, dressed in regular clothing, with combed hair, make up, and without contortions of pain. Yet we were part of an adjunct family, grateful for our time with Gus in it.
His will and his spirit will guide us forward, to accept challenges, respect our fragility and appreciate every day. Those of us who touched Gus will carry his legacy: we know you have to work for what is valuable in your life. If you are dogged, and lucky, you just might succeed. I hope the clinic he started continues, because his co-workers encircle a patient with the tools to get well. It is a rare circumstance for patients, and a tribute to its creator. Since my knee continues to wobble and creep sideways, I will be needing a team (and a scope) to reach my goals. With his guidance, they are able to win without their Captain on the field. August “Gus” Flick will be forever in our memories and hearts. One thing is certain: we would prefer to have him nagging us on the Total Gym. Or even strapping our leg to the torture table. I remember him every time I use the stairs.
Ironic that Gus would be the Tin Man- he certainly had an oversized heart under all his bluster. Thanks to his dearest friend and adjunct daughter Maura for these photos. I was not lucky enough to be in Gus’ big circle of special friends- but even as the subject of his house of rehab horrors, he will forever have a spot in my heart.
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