By Thomas Keating, Jr.
There isn’t a worse time to be in a hospital than during the holiday season, but there I was. I was in the Army hospital at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, falling ill with severe pneumonia during basic combat training, caused, no doubt, by training outdoors that cold, snowy November of 1968.
My high fever and delirium finally broke after a week in the Intensive Care Unit, and they had moved me to the respiratory ward in the hospital. I had difficulty breathing, and coughed constantly, but the fever was gone.
The ward was a large, room, with beige walls and large windows at either end. Sixteen beds were placed along the walls. A few chairs faced a large television hanging from the ceiling at one end of the room. I was wheeled to a bed on the opposite end, near a window. A tall woman with brown hair wearing a white doctor's smock introduced herself. She was Lieutenant Johnson, the ward nurse. She told me I would get well by following instructions from her and her staff. She showed me how to use the ventilator, and to do it four times a day.
Every couple of hours, a Green Beret soldier, learning his nursing skills before joining his unit, would take my vitals, listen to my lungs with his stethoscope, and adjust my ventilator. His wore his Green Beret insignia on his white doctor’s coat.
The daily routine of treatment and rehabilitation was demoralizing. I didn’t feel any improvement in my lungs. The inhalation treatments caused much discomfort, more coughing and labored breathing. Nothing was working, I thought, I wasn’t going to get well.
The television in the ward, on all day, showed commercials full of happy people around Christmas trees, giving gifts to each other. It was depressing. I wanted to be with those people, not stuck in a hospital. I became despondent, snappy and cranky with the staff. Not even a nice Thanksgiving dinner later that month helped my sour mood.
One day in early December, Lt. Johnson announced that a local entertainer was coming to the ward that night to sing some Christmas songs for us. The young lady, Carol, arrived in the ward with her guitarist after dinner. She sang the standards – "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," "Jingle Bells," and other songs in a clear, crisp voice. The ward grew still as everyone thought about Christmas while she sang. After a long string of holiday tunes, Lt. Johnson brought her over to my bed, and said, “Private Keating needs some holiday cheer.”
Carol nodded, and asked, “Can I sing your favorite Christmas song, Private?”
Before I could say anything, she turned to her guitarist and said, “how about 'White Christmas'?” And she began the song.
As she sang, I started to remember past Christmases with my family, listening to Bing Crosby Christmas records and watching Bob Hope’s Christmas Show, and the happy times we had. My feelings got the best of me as my eyes became watery. I let go my frustration at being ill, and started to feel that “Christmassy feeling” like in the tv ads. I smiled at her.
She finished the song and said “Merry Christmas, Private, get well soon” Lt. Johnson gave me a wink and a smile, then escorted the entertainers over to another ward.
My attitude and my health improved after that night. I could feel my lungs healing. My cough diminished. The Green Beret nurse still came every couple of hours, took my vitals, and one day he smiled as he listened to my lungs, almost clear of infection, and said: “You sound good, Private. You’ll be out of here soon.”
I got discharged from the Army hospital on December 19th and sent home from for recuperative leave, weak, but on the mend. And I got home for Christmas
Now, every year, usually just after Thanksgiving, I watch the Bing Crosby movie, “White Christmas,” on my DVD player. I can recite all the dialogue in the movie now, but it gets me in “a Christmas mood”, and I think back to that time when a young woman named Carol gave me the best gift I ever got for Christmas.