Chapter 13: Disappointing diagnosis?

Standard

About two weeks after following up with Mike Burke with the proper Wilson ancestor information, and approval from Sacred Heart Hospital’s general counsel, I received this email message:

Well, there it was: An official hospital record indicating Emmett was an alcoholic. But was that enough?

In research, one has to triangulate the data — I had Jim Milligan’s genealogy, which stated Emmett became an alcoholic. That’s two sources. I wanted to dig around some more, to reinforce what I had already.

Lo and behold, thanks to the miracle of the Worldcat database, I  located a second Wilson family genealogy, written by Arabella (Belle) Fannin Wilson, wife of Emmett’s oldest brother Augustus Maxwell Wilson.

Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. The original document is in the archival holdings at the Miami-Dade Library.

 

Belle also mentioned Emmett’s alcoholism, but it doesn’t sound certain:

Excerpt from Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. It’s another mention of alcoholism, but Belle doesn’t seem to be absolutely certain of Emmett as an alcoholic.

 

But I remembered that I also had the funeral report from the Rev. Dr. Melville Johnson, which reported Emmett died of the “D.T.s”

“Cause of death: D.T.” Delirium tremens?

At this point, I wondered how in the world the Episcopal church pastor would write “D.T.s” if:

a) he hadn’t observed Emmett in distress before his death himself, while visiting parishoners in the hospital,

or

b) he wasn’t told of this by the nursing/medical staff for his official record? 

In other words, I doubted Dr. Johnson would have made this up. Still, I reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast for any information on Dr. Johnson (the kind of guy he was), and inquired if there was a copy of Emmett’s eulogy on record.

 

Dr. Johnson didn’t leave a copy of the eulogy at Christ Church, so I was hoping perhaps one was sent to the diocese office, since Emmett was a congressman.

A staff member of the Historiographer Team got back with me about two weeks later, and said that unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on record for Emmett’s eulogy — but with regard to Dr. Johnson’s character, he was known to be a rock-solid, compassionate, reliable shepherd of his flock. It would be very unlikely, in other words, that he would have written anything about his congregation in official records if it were not so.

The family may not have wanted it known on record that Emmett died of alcoholism, i.e., they may have been able to keep that part out of the newspapers, but Dr. Johnson didn’t budge on the facts. Apparently, neither did Dr. Bruce.

Considering the news article announcing Emmett’s death “after a short illness” on the front page of The Pensacola Journal for May 29, 1918 didn’t appear exactly true, I considered that some may want to present a sanitized version of Emmett’s demise. Again, the Episcopal Diocese staff said there would do that; nor would there be any reason to think Dr. Johnson was casting aspersions on Emmett’s character — he was simply reporting what he was told, period, and he’d have no reason to change an official record just to save another person’s reputation. 

I felt confident that I could consider the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s report to be that of an objective third party.

I also figured that if Emmett’s physician in Pensacola, Dr. E.F. Bruce (who’d also signed his death certificate) wrote an alcoholism diagnosis, the disease is not something that suddenly appears, nor is it ‘short term’ in any capacity. Emmett’s obituary had said he died after a ‘short illness.’ Emmett’s alcoholism — which, according to Dr. Bruce, was the reason he was in the hospital — led to his death.

Uremia. Kidney failure. From Emmett Wilson’s death certificate.

But the death certificate had reported “Uremia” as the cause of Emmett’s death –so I contacted Donna the Nephrologist and showed her what I’d found.

Donna said that a physician is always required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder, and even if it was the primary cause of Emmett’s demise, it can’t be listed as a cause of death, even nowadays. (Original source of quote here.)

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “…For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off)…”

But you can be sure, she said, that if he was in the throes of the D.T.s at the end, cirrhosis was present.

I asked her what it was probably like for Emmett at the very end. Back in the day, there wasn’t much more a medical staff could do besides restrain patients, help them through the end. It wasn’t that being strapped down was mistreatment; it was for their own safety. She said that if Emmett was in end-stage kidney failure AND was presenting with cirrhosis, it was the end, and the staff knew it.

“According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she added.

“Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system (which is what happened at Pensacola Hospital), the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since an alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, and so the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.

“Emmett’s body could not handle it; so he likely went into a coma.

“And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

Reposted from an earlier writeup on this blog.

OK. Well, I can say with certainty Emmett was an alcoholic. That was what got him in the end.

Was I ‘disappointed’ with the diagnosis, though?

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question — I didn’t really know Emmett all that well yet, and I still wasn’t sure why the hell he asked me to write his story. I kept coming back to this question: What was the purpose of this project? It was too intriguing for me to set aside.

Mike Burke’s comment in the email made me realize that even today, in our enlightened, scientifically advanced society, alcoholism is stigmatized — maybe less so than it was in Emmett’s day — but you can be sure folks still look upon those of us in recovery as “less than” in some ways. (Personally, THAT doesn’t bother me so much; what other people think of me is none of my business.)

It is still hard, even in the enlightened, scientifically advanced society today to get help with one’s addiction. Recovery is never successful unless the addicted person is absolutely ready to do the work; no one else can do it for them. Emmett had very few resources available to him in the 1910s; even if he wished to take advantage of them, he and his family/friends would have had to keep it absolutely quiet, which might have been near impossible as he was a public figure from 1910 on. So, there was a personal AND public struggle going on. Sobriety statistics are rather low for alcoholics in recovery.

Regardless, new pieces of information were starting to trickle in, and Emmett’s story was just beginning.

Next: Surprise, surprise.

Advertisements

His Death Came “As a Great Shock”

Standard

Here’s another new-to-me clipping discovered through routine checking of updated databases:

Pensacola_Journal_1920-08-05_9

Obituary of Emmett’s father in The Pensacola Journal, August 9, 1920

Emmett’s father’s obituary contains interesting information.

For example, even though Dr. Wilson had been ill for several days, his death may have been unexpected, as it was a ‘great shock.’ Dr. Wilson’s death information (from a second source) mentioned he had blood poisoning, but it didn’t indicate the source of the infection. My colleague, Donna the Nephrologist, told me that blood poisoning (also called sepsis), can turn deadly rather quickly if not treated immediately, and perhaps those treating Dr. Wilson didn’t realize what it was he had at the time.

FYI — Dr. Wilson wasn’t “officially” practicing medicine anymore in 1920; he’d retired several years earlier (before Emmett’s death in 1918) because of poor health related to a heart condition.

There’s an error in the obit:

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 5.19.11 AM

He was related to the Maxwells by marriage.

This part is rather confusing — actually, Dr. Wilson was married to Elizabeth Virginia Maxwell, the daughter of Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell (Emmett was named for his grandfather). Elizabeth died in 1891, when Emmett was eight years old. (I’m not sure where the obituary writer got the idea that Dr. Wilson was a son of Maxwell’s half-sister, but it just goes to show that one has to read the old clips carefully, and check the facts.)

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson

The surviving wife (as mentioned in earlier posts) was Kate Langley Jordan Wilson, whom Dr. Wilson married about 18 months after Elizabeth’s death.

By this point, Dr. Wilson had lost three of his sons: Meade Wilson, Dr. Percy Wilson, and Emmett. Percy and Emmett died in 1918.

The last item about the sugar plantation in British Honduras has been also mentioned in earlier post, and it does cause some confusion, because at the time the Wilsons were living in Central America, the British government did not allow foreigners to own their property — and so, Dr. Wilson would have had to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown (thus revoking his American citizenship, which meant Emmett [born after the family moved to British Honduras] was a British subject, and therefore should have been disqualified from serving in Congress).

But I have seen family records stating Dr. Wilson never gave up his American citizenship, and Emmett once stated in an interview that his father only owned ‘a share’ in the plantation — not full ownership.

Still, the issue has always made me wonder. In fact, one reporter once shared in an interview that if you really wanted to piss off Emmett, ask him about whether or not he thought he was truly an American citizen or not, given his birth in British Honduras. Emmett would routinely fly off the handle and give a reporter hell about the question.

Emmett doth protest too much?

 

He Just Went to Sleep

Standard

Notice the date.

May 29, 1918.

May 29, 1918.

In sum, here’s what happened, 97 years ago.

Emmett was hospitalized at Pensacola Hospital for almost a week prior to his death; he went through a few days of harrowing delirium tremens (and was likely strapped down during the time). It wasn’t a regular hospital room; Pensacola Hospital put alcoholics in the psych ward, which was basement level.

That was the typical way hospitals handled alcoholic cases like Emmett’s. Pensacola Hospital was a brand-new facility, too; state-of-the art equipment and trained staff for 1918. Emmett wasn’t being mistreated or mishandled; there just simply wasn’t anything else to do for patients presenting in his condition.

Emmett had cirrhosis, and was in end-stage kidney and other multiple organ failure. When he showed up at the hospital, it was the end, according to my friend, Donna the Nephrologist (a colleague and physician who has been vetting my research along the way), and the staff knew it.

According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she said.

But, Emmett wasn’t given any alcohol while in the hospital at the end. We know this because we have a statement indicating Emmett went through the DTs. Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system, the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since the alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.

Emmett’s body could not handle it; he went into a coma.

And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.


 

 

Emmett's candle, in St. Therese's corner at church.

Emmett’s candle, in St. Therese’s corner at church.

The seven-day candle lit for him this week has just about burned out.

Today, I’m remembering Emmett, and feeling thankful for the gift of his story in my life.

Rheumatism as Euphemism

Standard

Some alcoholics ‘hit bottom’ (i.e., reach a point where they become teachable, where they are sick and tired of being sick and tired) sooner than others.

I knew it was the end. I didn't even catch a buzz the last time I had a drink. Source: someecards.com

I didn’t even catch a buzz on the day of my last drink. The romance was over. Source: someecards.com

For myself, it came after about 30 years of moderate to occasional heavy drinking. At the end, it wasn’t as if I was having blackouts or medical issues related to the drinking (other than massive hangovers and nausea), but I was tired of feeling ‘this way.’ In fact, my last drink was awful: It was White Zinfandel from a wine box. Nothing sexy, fun, or exciting about that. Just gross. I had only one or two glasses of it that night, no buzz. The relationship was done.

For Emmett, I know he hit absolute bottom twice: First, on December 15, 1914, while he was a congressman in D.C. Second, on May 29, 1918, when he died.

But when he first hit bottom in 1914, it was called “rheumatism.” At least, that’s what the papers were told.

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

Rheumatism or alcoholism? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

In reality, Emmett had several other serious medical conditions, all of which found their common starting point in alcoholism. According to a friend who is helping me with the medical research, Donna the Nephrologist, a physician was required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder.

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “There were other things going on with him outside of a general rheumatic diagnosis. For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off), very likely cirrhosis was present.”

So, why the rheumatism diagnosis? Donna told me that at the turn of the century, rheumatism was used all the time as a safe public diagnosis for patients who were alcoholics. “Then, as today, people didn’t want to be called alcoholics. It was shameful, and there is still a stigma about it. Because of who he was, it was probably easier to keep out of the papers, and call it ‘rheumatism’ than for someone who was not a congressman.”

In Emmett’s day, there wasn’t much available from the medical community, in terms of pharmaceutical help. Psychotherapy was still new, and mostly suspect. Most people, when ill, would turn to their drugstore and purchase over-the-counter medications to treat themselves.

Even if you weren’t an alcoholic back then, it was easy enough to become one, innocently, just by taking OTC medicines.

In this example, Radway's was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

In this example, Radway’s was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

The government fined Radway's for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

The government fined Radway’s for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

(By the way, if you are interested in reading about some of the cure-alls Emmett and his peers had available to them as over-the-counter medication, you can read all about it for free, online via Google Books. The book is: Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery, reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 2 [Google ebook].)

N&QtitlepageWhat’s interesting in this book is the sheer number of over-ther-counter ‘medicines’ that included what we, today, know as controlled substances. I mentioned this to Donna; she confirmed that many of the OTC products he likely took, just to get some kind of relief, probably damaged his liver and kidneys further.

For instance, lithium.

At one point during 1914, Emmett did try to sober up at a spa that was well known for its natural ‘lithia water’ spring. Donna said that lithium, today a controlled substance, probably did make Emmett feel better (it is used in treating manic depression), but it was another chemical, not a true solution to his problem. Lithium also wreaks havoc on already-damaged kidneys, she added. With Emmett, lithia water might have played a role in hastening his death.

Lithia water was touted as a 'cure' for 'rheumatism.' Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to 'cure' alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

Lithia water was touted as a ‘cure’ for ‘rheumatism.’ Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to ‘cure’ alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

“I’m sure he was feeling rheumatic,” she said. The toxins would settle into a person’s joints because if your kidneys aren’t processing toxins out of the body, the toxins have to go somewhere, she added. “It was awful, painful for him, and it didn’t just go away after a day or so.”

Something else Donna said: Back in the early 1900s, if you had serious kidney problems (i.e., episodes of complete kidney failure), there was little that could be done for the patient. So, she added, as of 1914, Emmett was on borrowed time. “The damaged kidneys can still function; but, they are never again 100 percent healthy. Any minor illness he would pick up along the way would compound his problems.”

So, that cold he picked up at the football game? That could have been the start of the problem that landed him in the hospital in December, 1914?

“Very likely,” she said. “Your boy was a lot sicker than probably he, himself, realized.”


Did you know you can actually still purchase lithia water? One lithia water website will ship it to your door. Interestingly, it includes a background information link to “Wikipedia”, not to a vetted medical journal or more credible resource. I’m not sharing that link. Caveat emptor, people.