Chapter 13: Disappointing diagnosis?

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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.

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