One goal Bonny and I created for this trip was to seek out friends now scattered across the U.S. and set up “reunions”. Unfortunately, our lives do not come with a “rewind button” so you can’t wait too long. We decided to be proactive and go see friends. We, of course, assumed they wanted to “see” us but that may just be our egos speaking. We haven’t been turned down yet!
There were two reunions in Houston. The first, was with Jim Livesay and his lovely wife, Robin. Jim and I were about two years apart in our UCLA residency days. Jim is from Texas and has that laid back, gregarious personality so common of Texans (Jim, that is a compliment!). We became friends and shared a few adventures together in our younger residency years. I am referring to an attempted flight from Santa Monica to Mammoth for a weekend of skiing. We were in a Cessna 172 and I was flying. After being tossed and pushed through the sky as we started up the long valley from Mojave we decided that the turbulence was too much for us and landed in a small town and rented a car. We enjoyed the skiing and the smoooooth flight home 2 days later. Jim and Robin were married toward the end of our residency. They moved to Houston, where Jim has established himself with Dr. Denton Cooley as a premier cardiac surgeon. He is wrestling with retirement decisions as I know only too well. It was great to share a meal with them both – Sunday we went to church together for a special morning. Good friends make good memories. Thanks, Jim and Robin.
The second reunion is difficult to describe so I will ask the reader to bear with me. As a surgeon from 1971 until my “retirement” in 2014, I have operated on many patients and dealt with many, many families during difficult and anxious times.
This is a story of one of those patients and her family. In 1971 I was a senior medical student at UCLA and taking an elective rotation in Pediatric Surgery. A beautiful, little, two year old girl named Felice Pampolina was admitted to our service at UCLA. She had been diagnosed with a neuroblastoma with probable lung involvement. This particular tumor is a very aggressive childhood solid tumor of primitive neurological tissue. She was a delightful, beautiful little girl accompanied by very similar parents and grandparents. They were a strong Italian family focused on this brave, small little girl
I have NEVER, EVER forgotten Felice and her parents and all that happened so long ago. This little angel died of her tumor after two or three weeks of surgical biopsies, attempted resection and other frustrating treatment attempts. The great medical center, and the great practitioners were powerless to stop her disease or to help her. We were all humbled and frustrated. This little girl and her family became so special to the nurses, medical students and the residents that we all were devastated when the inevitable came. I knew that dreaded moment would come. In my heart I remember saying something like, “No, God not her, not now, not ever.” Her death was very hard to deal with for us all on that Pediatric service on that dark day. Her passing challenged all our faith beliefs and we all asked “Why?”
The other loss that sad day was that the wonderful family, the kind grandparents, the gentle beautiful mother, the gregarious ever present father were all gone – gone from our lives forever! It was done.
Over the many years I have always wondered – how are they? Did they stay married after the loss of their first child? If so, did they go on to have other children? Are they happy? What has transpired over the 45 years after this devastating death so long ago?
Fast forward to December 2015. After telling her about Felice, Bonny encouraged me to try and find the Pampolina family. With the help of Google I found Felice’s mother, Ginger, as a real estate agent in Houston Texas. I will jump past all the phone calls and emotion and excitement and say that we all agreed to meet at their home for a real Italian Sunday Family Pasta Dinner and celebrate Felice! After those phone calls, Bonny and I added Houston to our cross country trip.
Last Sunday was the day. It was a healing and wonderful day for me beyond descriptive words. I found the same special, warm, life loving family that I remembered from UCLA! YES they are married and happy, YES they had two more children who both came to dinner. It was wonderful to meet Phil, Ginger, Carla (Queen Bee), Damon (the Entertainer) and his lovely wife, Jennifer. The real entertainment for the evening was provided by Damon and Jennifer’s energetic son, Roman.
We talked about those dark days and how Phil and Ginger adjusted. We had conversations about the grandparents (now deceased). We talked about their eventual move back to their beloved home state of Texas. And we talked about Felice for a long time. Bonny and I were shown family pictures of Felice as an infant. We simply enjoyed being reunited and being in a home so filled with love. Finally, my questions from 45 years ago have been answered – all except “Why?”.
To this day, the family regularly visits a small little grave on a hillside in Rose Hills Cemetery just off the 605 freeway. There they honor their little angel with birthday flowers. Felice is still very much alive in their hearts and memories – and now ours. Thank you, Felice, for bringing us all back together in 2016. Bonny and I will be visiting Rose Hills soon – you are still very much loved and remembered. Someday, I may understand the answer to my question, “Why?”