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1:31 A.M. Doesn’t Care Who You Are…

Ken Is Back!

Years ago I learned something from my social psychology professor, but it took me a long time to grasp the concept, not to mention putting it to use in my life. I say I learned it. Mostly, however, I only remembered it. Understanding it was a whole new game. A game that lasted 31 years.

“Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, it doesn’t matter. Gaining your sense of self, derived from what you do professionally, will ultimately end badly for you. Without exception and without mercy.”

— Professor John Sellers, Northern Arizona Junior college.

Wow…really? How do you not do that, when the prevailing questions asked upon meeting is often, “So hey there Ken, what do you do for a living?” The question is so pervasive that it seems to echo over and over throughout every day. “What do you do for a living…What do you do for a living?…What do you do for a living?” And convention dictates that the next 10-15 minutes of conversation gets intertwined around the answer.

What took me so long to understand is that I am not what I do. What I do only allows me to live well enough to be who I really am.

Nurse uniformI’m a dad. I am a self-contained poet. I am someone who weeps openly at the end of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Lassie Come Home.” I am a man who smashed the back window out of a 1995 Honda Civic to pull a half-dead dog out and ran into Bed Bath and Beyond to run water over him until he was brought around. I am a man who went to jail for doing so. I am a man who will gladly do it all over again if necessary.

But I am also a man who systematically trashed two marriages and caused my kids life-long trauma in one form or another. Who I am isn’t all good.

That’s a lot of stuff huh? That doesn’t even mar the surface.

None of this comes close to revealing what I do for a living. That’s because who I am drives me to do what I do for a living. We should all be so fortunate.

One of the main problems is that a lot of us derive our sense of self-esteem from what we do. Policeman…project manager…nurse… Our uniforms project to the world what we are. Unfortunately, some of us want it to project who we are as well.

The problem is that a uniform most often establishes a social or professional order between us, and we project that authority or order in return.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let’s take a few minutes and talk about nurses.

Ken Starks
Ken, in his blue bonnet, all ready for surgery.
On January 14th I was admitted to the Surgical Center of Seton Hospital in Austin, Texas to be prepared for a laryngectomy. The surgery was to remove my larynx and any suspect lymph nodes found lurking in the general vicinity. Turns out there was a lot of vicinity. The removed larynx showed a 90 percent chance of spawning the same cancer we had killed in 2012.

Win some, lose some…my luck hasn’t always been that good.

Fact is, I had a choice in this matter. My choice was to go all Angelina Jolie on this friggin’ monster and be done with it. I may again have cancer but I made damned sure it wasn’t going to be in my throat.

So I can no longer speak. Who I am will push the effort to work around that, and it has nothing to do with what I do for a living.

And if matters weren’t bad enough for Diane, the planned 3.5 hour surgery stretched to just over 6 hours due to complications. Diane was already a basket case because I was undergoing surgery. In her mind, the doubling of surgery time spawned dozens of worse-case scenarios.

But they were complications overcome by master surgeon Peter Scholl, who is in the top 10 percent of his specialty. There is no one I’d rather see standing over me as the last person I did see standing over me before the nighty-night injection came along.

“One hundred…ninety nine…ninety rhinoceros nostrils…ninety Pee Wee Herman in the place of Bogart during the airport scene in Casablanca…ninety Frank Zappa in drag…”

I barely remember the first week of recovery. That time was spent in intensive care and it was a blur of nurses, “Let’s Make A Deal” on the TV, night time awakenings to help me go to sleep, and Diane’s face looking down upon me. I could well have been waking up as the Zombie Apocalypse destroyed the world, and I wouldn’t have cared less.

When I did become fully cognizant of my surroundings, I had been moved to intermediate recovery. Not quite ICU but not quite well enough to join the general population of patients.

That’s where I met Pam.

Pam was the floor Charge Nurse, but she was also assigned me as a patient. It seemed that every time a nurse was checking in on me or giving pain medications, it was Pam. There’s a good reason for that. She worked that late shift…or graveyard shift if you prefer. At the time, I was just a tad bit uncomfortable defining anything concerning my care as “graveyard.”

She would come in promptly at 1:31 a.m. to take my blood pressure and temperature. She also administered my pain meds. Each time, she would ask me what my pain level was. I started out telling her it was a four or a five, but two hours short of my next authorized medications I was pushing the buzzer for some more.

She stopped that nonsense with one simple instruction.

“Think high numbers Ken,” she advised. “Pain level numbers, think high numbers. Let’s talk the number seven. Seven is a good number for you.” And with that, she would inject based on my pain level number seven and I never again asked for pain medications before the prescribed time.

Sometime around the third night on that ward, Pam came in to do her due diligence at 1:31 a.m. and asked me why I was always awake and on my computer all night. I did my best to explain that I was a career insomniac and I did most of my writing between one and four a.m. Then of course, she asked about my writing and I gave her my website for her to look at the next time she was on station and had access to the Internet.

“Sleep your sleep
I’m awake and alive
I keep late hours
You’re a nine to five
So I would like you to know
I need the quiet hours
To create in this world of mine…”

Bachman Turner Overdrive – “Blue Collar”

I was just drifting off to sleep about five a.m. when Pam came in to check in on me one last time. It was then that the “I am Nurse, You Are Patient” sheet dropped completely to the floor. Her uniform or job position was no longer important.

“You do good work, Ken, and I am happy to be able to aid in your healing.”

With that, our 1:31 a.m. visits became much less about pain and blood pressure levels and more about some of the volunteer work she did around Austin when she had time. She would help unload trucks and stock one of the public food pantries. She would volunteer four hours a week at a community clinic in East Austin, and when she had the time, she would deliver for Meals on Wheels.

During her shift, she would find reasons to stop in and talk. Most everyone on the floor was asleep and she had time to share with the people whom she liked. Some of those talks lasted for an hour or so. We were two people of like mind…of like passion and experience.

We were people who did not gain our sense of worth from what we did professionally. I liked Pam. I still do.

The night prior to leaving the hospital, I was disappointed to find that Pam was not my nurse for the evening. Disappointing isn’t really adequate. There were things I had outlined to talk to her about and now I wasn’t going to get the chance. This sent me into a mild funk as I drifted off to sleep about five a.m.

“Hey, computer boy, are you going to sleep the day away? It’s eight a.m.”

It was Pam’s voice and face but there was also some cognitive dissonance. It was the voice and lilting cadence I associated with Pam and one a.m. It turned out that she had swapped shifts with another nurse in order to be the nurse who checked me out that day. I had to undergo an hour interview with the nurse and then with the attending physician, as well as the attending psychologist to make sure my head was right to go home. Many people head-dive into depression after losing an ability or limb. Dr. Raj was more than certain I was ready to leave.

That made two of us.

Pam and I made small talk during the exit interview, both of us realizing that time was slipping and I had to get ready to go. She rolled me out to the car that was picking me up, and when I stood, she threw her arms around me and gave me a squeeze. I pulled away and we both smiled and winked before I got into the vehicle.

“Oh…these are further discharge instructions. Nothing real important. Just give them a glance when you get time.”

My daughter-in-law Roxie pulled out of the semi-circle of the hospital entrance and we headed to Taylor, talking mostly about how hospitals suck and we dually cursed hospital food. We cursed the food a lot.

It was then I became aware of the folded paper in my hand. My final set of discharge instructions. But instead of a number of block paragraphs like the other documents, there were only two handwritten lines.

tshirt“I’ve used Fedora for years and I build my own computers. Call me if you have any volunteer opportunities. Taylor isn’t that far.”

I smiled to myself and refolded the paper and put it in my bag. Nurse Pam does not gain her sense of esteem from what she does. She only does what she does in order to be who she really is. That’s a distinction I believe we should all embrace.

A Samaritan, a giving soul and someone who sees through the clutter to gain a vision to see the real person or circumstance, that was my recovery nurse at Seton Surgical Center in Austin, Texas. I texted her last week. Pam, her fiancé and fiancé’s sister will be out the first week of March to help me put some machines together. However, she warned they would rather work the late night and early mornings.

That suits me just fine.

“I’d like to remind you at four in the morning my world is very still
The air is fresh under diamond skies, makes me glad to be alive”

Bachman Turner Overdrive – “Blue Collar”


  1. Colonel Panik Colonel Panik February 3, 2015

    Thank you Ken.

  2. Gianfranco Gianfranco February 3, 2015

    Welcome back, Ken!
    Thanks for this touching story.
    Keep on being who you are.

  3. Simon Simon February 4, 2015

    In the times we reflect,
    Often the major things we neglect
    For a smile can light the night high heart
    That one thing a pair delighted eyes start
    To live, to strive
    The undending drive

    Glad you are on the bright side of life and out of hospital, thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  4. Jeremy Jeremy February 4, 2015

    You’ve always been an inspiration to me Ken, and to a lot of us. If there is one person that has the character to beat this, it’s you.

    Keep fighting the good fight! I always look forward to your articles, and have been looking for ways to integrate some of the things you do into the curriculum at the small vocational college I teach IT classes at.

    Thank You so much!

  5. Ildefonso Ildefonso February 4, 2015

    Hi Ken!

    Glad to have you back again.

  6. Abdel Abdel February 4, 2015

    “Nurse Pam does not gain her sense of esteem from what she does. She only does what she does in order to be who she really is”. This is very well put. And although it’s something that we should remember all the time, we keep forgetting all the time.

  7. BobK BobK February 4, 2015

    So good to hear your “voice” again Ken! As usual, an amazing and touching story. I think certain people are sent to us at certain times to make it all make sense. Pam seemed to be one of those. Poor Diane, I can imagine what she was thinking during the longer than expected surgery. I put my wife through a similar stress on New Years Eve. I had a minor heart attack, apparently the “papercut” of heart attacks thank goodness. My wife was out shopping and nobody could contact her, cell service sometimes sucks. The local hospital finally contacted her as I was being helicoptered to Louisville for a quick angioplasty and stent. For about an hour all she knew was that I was in a helicopter on my way to another hospital, never a good sign. I’m SO glad you are recovering and I look forward to seeing you at another OLF someday! Love the shirt in your picture by-the-way!!!

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