des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, humor, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, Pop Culture

Juicy details of surgery gone exactly as planned

My friend Mimi pulled her SUV up to the emergency room doors at Iowa Lutheran Hospital early Friday morning.

The first thought I had: “My mother died here.”

That was as grim as my thoughts got on the day that I had arthroscopic knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus in my left knee.

The procedure was practically without risk. I fretted in the weeks leading up to the surgery. My mind explored every possible disaster scenario.

But, in the end, I just let the process play out.

I took a picture of a children’s surgery bed that looks like a Jeep and posted it to Instagram. I suppose I was too big for it, which I was, but I wished I could have gone to the operating room in such a slick ride.

We arrived at 5:30 a.m. The time passed quickly in a barrage of questions, paper signings, and explanations to the procedure.

I tried to pay attention to the details, but the only clear thought I kept in my head is that I just wanted this to be done so I could go back home and watch Johnny Carson reruns on PlutoTV.

My IV included Ringer’s lactate.

This thrilled me. As a boy, I watched “Emergency!” — the Jack Webb TV series about the early Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic program.

Dr. Brackett constantly ordered Ringer’s lactate for the patients whom paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto brought to the fictional Rampart General Hospital.

I had a plastic doctor kit as a boy and I would give shots of Ringer’s lactate to my late father when I played “Emergency!,” complete with my red firefighter’s helmet with the official Rescue 51 sticker.

No matter how old I get, I never seem to let go of the heroes I met through the fuzzy images on the box in the living room or the four-color panels in the pulped pages of comic books.

The anesthesiologist visited to explain his role in the procedure. I was tempted to make an “Ugly John” joke from “M*A*S*H,” but I decided not to because that’s a deep cut even for people old enough to have watched “M*A*S*H,” which this doctor clearly was not.

The surgeon came in. We shook hands.

And then we were off to operating room, No. 10, I believe. I stepped off the cot and got onto the cold, metal operating table. The anesthesiologist asked me to scoot back about a foot. I did. I leaned back onto a pillow. I wondered how long it would take for me to fall asleep.

The next thing I remember is seeing my friend Karen Powell in post-op. Her husband Ric Powell taught and coached baseball when I was a student at East. We were good and close friends. I chatted with Karen about her children and grandchildren.

I met Mimi in my recovery room. The surgeon told her I had two tears of my meniscus, which accounted for the acute pain I’d felt since the joint broke bad in late June. He cut out the damaged portion and cleaned up the remaining tissue.

The news of two tears made me feel better. I am not a person who listens to his body well. I always believe I’m making too much out of something, that the pain is just temporary or not really a problem. So many people donated money, food, and time to make the surgery possible; I felt like the injury needed to fit the charity — it damn well better have been seriously painful.

And it was.

Rest assured, all you beautiful people who helped me: You got your money’s worth.

That, of course, isn’t something anyone asked of me. That’s just one of those terrible self-deprecating thoughts I have — that I don’t deserve the love people show me. That’s a work in progress, but I’m learning.

In recovery, my nurse worried about my blood-oxygen levels. I explained that one of the side effects of obesity is a condition where my belly fat pushes up against the bottom of my diaphragm, preventing me from drawing full, deep breaths.

The nurse adjusted the angle of the cot and my blood-oxygen rose to the appropriate level.

Soon, I pulled on my Incredible Hulk T-shirt and gray shorts. The nurse helped me with my shoes. I noticed the bandages wrapping my leg from above the knee to the ankle.

My foot was orange. This alarmed me, but the nurse said the doctor painted on a disinfectant as part of the surgery. It would wash off when I showered in about three days.

They wheeled me out to the front door and Mimi whisked me to the pharmacy to pick up my medication.

Parents 2.0 came over in the early afternoon.

Mom 2.0 took my laundry home. Dad 2.0 emptied the humidifier collection tray and washed my dishes. I felt decent for having been unconscious on an operating table with a doctor cutting ripped cartilage out of my leg only a few hours earlier.

Soon, I snuggled into bed with Grumpy Bear. Lorde’s excellent new album, “Solar Power,” played on my speakers as I drifted away.

The last few days have been tougher than the surgery day.

Anesthetic makes your body sore. I felt like I had fought 12 rounds with the Hulk. My body was sore all over and even sitting up required effort.

Kind people brought me food. My good friend Tyler Teske and his wife, Sarah, donated three meals and some snacks. My friend and colleague, Sara Sleyster, brought some beef burgers. And my friend Sarah Huffman, a bartender at Jethro’s, brought me some boneless wings and applesauce.

There were other people who helped me not named Sarah or Sara, but I couldn’t resist the idea that two Sarahs and a Sara were part of the team that nursed me back to health.

The biggest surprise of recovery so far has been the thing that last thing to return to normal is your bowels.

I took more stool softeners and milk of magnesia than pain medicine, but No. 2 finally arrived with some consternation at 11:13 a.m., Monday.

I recognize such disclosures are indelicate, but, come on, everybody poops. There’s a children’s book about it.

So, here we are, a week out from the beginning of my last semester of classes before student teaching.

I can stand and walk short distances without my cane. There are still bouts of pain in the knee. The bandages are off. Showers are on.

And the great adventure lurches forward.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, People, Unemployment

Fighting breast cancer, she still helps others

My friend Patty Graziano stopped by with a foil pan of stuffed pasta shells. She brought the dish as a donation to a fundraiser set up by my friend Mary in advance of pending knee surgery. You can still donate here if you’re of a mind to do such a thing.

I met Patty several years ago when I was a columnist for the local newspaper. I saw her at Barnes and Noble, a place I used to haunt. Patty usually sat with a different kid each night.

Sometimes her arms gesticulated wildly. She smiled often and laughed loud. The children seemed entertained and focused.

She obviously was some kind of tutor and one with a big following. I observed her several times and never saw her with the same kid.

I approached her one night in the most awkward way.

I walked up to her table and said, “I’ve been watching you.”

Sometimes I forget how big I am, not just in girth, but in height. Patty’s eyes widened. I quickly produced my business card and photo ID to explain I was a writer who wanted to write about her.

Patty demurred. What was so interesting about a tutor?

I find the people who don’t think themselves to be very interesting often have the best stories.

She worried a story about her would result in a bunch of requests for services, but her schedule was booked.

I pressed her and she told me her story.

Patty and I became friends. When I wrote about dealing with chronic depression and anxiety, she often sent positive messages and told me stories from her own life.

I often think of Patty’s relationships with her students.

When I worked for one of the local TV stations, I booked her as a source for one of the reporters.

I suggested to one of the morning producers that they make a weekly segment with Patty, which they did last year during the school year.

Patty’s segment might have been the one positive thing I did in my brief run in TV — and all I did was suggest it. People who know what they were doing — which was never me — made it happen.

Patty marched right into my apartment and gave me a big hug. I offered to take the dish from her. She waived me off and marched into the kitchen and put it in the fridge, complete with reheating instructions.

I wobbled back to my recliner with my cane.

She plopped down on my living room floor, and we caught up.

Patty and her family recently visited Disney World. She built lightsabers and flew the Millennium Falcon with her children, nieces and nephews along for the ride.

The positivity just blasted out of her. Being in her presence is like driving west on I-235 in the early fall when the sun is setting right in your eyeline. She’s almost too bright to look at directly without wearing sunglasses.

We weren’t wearing sunglasses.

We were wearing masks.

Patty and I are both fully vaccinated.

But Patty is fighting breast cancer.

She has surgery later this month. She’s taking no chances. She doesn’t even want to get the sniffles from allergies.

She talks about the surgery with the detachment of the scientist she is, explaining the procedure and process. Yet, she never hides her humanity.

“There has been constant crying,” she told me.

Patty chooses to embrace hope.

She explained how different generations of her family reacted to her diagnosis.

Her parents, she said, are terrified. Her husband and peers, people in their 40s, are worried. But her children?

“They’re like, ‘yeah, lots of people get breast cancer and survive,’” Patty said.

The advancements in science comfort Patty. Two generations ago, her diagnosis was a likely death sentence. Now her chances of survival and remission are very high.

I like the way Patty’s mind works. I keep her in mind when I envision the kind of teacher I will be. I can’t match her energy — nothing short of a supernova could — but I will strive to match her earnestness and enthusiasm for subject, students, teaching, and learning.

Patty teaches me lessons all the time.

Her Instagram account often includes videos where she talks about the difference between frogs and toads or the parts of a flower in her garden.

The day she visited, she taught me the biggest lesson yet.

This was a woman who was facing a far greater health threat than a torn meniscus. Yet, Patty still took time to drop by and visit a friend and bring some food at that.

My eyes well up with tears just thinking about the kind of decency she embodies.

I see the hand of God in my life through the kindness that’s been heaped upon me by family, friends, readers, and often total strangers.

I worked as a newspaperman so long that my negative thoughts about humans only intensified when I wrote about what my late friend, Des Moines Senior Police Officer Dan Dusenbery, called “all the savage things that people do to each other and themselves, intentionally or unintentionally.”

By the time my career ended amidst the news industry’s obsession with online metrics, I began to think of myself as a failure, a man born too late to have done anything meaningful.

My paragraph stacks flowed out of my fingers into the keyboard and then disappeared into the cacophony of noise that is American life, sometimes hated, occasionally liked, but mostly ignored.

Then I hear from people such as Patty.

And I begin to think maybe it mattered, perhaps not on the grandiose scale I hoped it would, but still, it mattered.

If all I had to show for 27 years as a newsman was a friendship with Patty Graziano, that would be enough.

But all of you have shown it’s so much more than that.

I struggle to accept the enormity of that gift.

You’ve lifted my spirits and pushed me to keep moving forward, to be a better man, and always, always, always put love first.

Thank you, again.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health

How homemade stew taught me to accept love

Mary Hoover played girls’ basketball at East High School. That’s how I met her. She was one the stars of the underperforming Scarlets squad and I was sports editor of the school paper.

I took my job seriously. I went to every game. I took notes. I interviewed coaches and players after games. I refused to do the “give me a quote” thing that was common in high school journalism.

I was very nerdy about it.

Mary was an excellent player close to the basket and a good defender. She was tall and skinny, all elbows and knees, an Ichabod Crane on hardcourt.

She sold ads for the school newspaper with her friend Ginger. I probably flirted with them by making jokes or other childish things because I never learned to talk to girls. This remains true.

The last time I spoke to Mary was probably sometime before she graduated from East in 1992, a year ahead of me. She commented on my columns in the newspaper and my blog posts now and again, but that was the extent of our contact.

I remembered Mary fondly, but I wouldn’t have called us close friends.

I never expected her to lead the charge to rescue me.

A few weeks back, when I started writing about a ligament tear in my knee and the incredible insurance costs, Mary sent me a message through Facebook and said she’d like to bring me a home-cooked meal.

I accepted. She made a beef stew so thick with meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, and corn that I could barely jam the ladle into the container to scoop it out.

She came in for a visit and we updated each other on the last 28 years. I made my way in paragraphs and not much else. She worked in banking, then in marketing for a luxury car company. She married another East alumnus, had a son, and divorced.

Mary asked me if it was OK for her to open a Meal Train page for me. I didn’t know what it was. She told me it was a way for people to help me out while my knee was ailing by donating home-cooked meals, restaurant or deliver service gift cards, or just cash.

I said sure.

Mary was kind, but who else would bother with such a thing? I’ve been out of the public eye for more than a year.

My friends have already helped me a lot since I lost my job and went back to graduate school at Drake University. I couldn’t expect more of them with this latest wrinkle.

As is often the case, I was wrong.

As of early Monday, 139 people have donated nearly $9,000 to help me. Several people have brought meals or pledged to bring meals.

The money will help pay for the surgery and help me stay afloat during my last year at Drake before I earn my teaching license and (hopefully) secure a job teaching in the metro.

Meal Train takes a portion of the donations and credit card fees eat up another chunk. But even losing about $1,000 to fees, I am in a better position today than I was when I first met with the surgeon weeks ago.

I originally planned to get knee surgery on Aug. 20. That’s likely to be delayed less for financial reasons and more because I don’t think it gives me enough recovery time before school starts on the 30th.

A knee brace and cane have kept me mobile enough to do most of my tasks. In-person school means more walking than I’m used to, but I’ve got a temporary person with disability parking tag.

Acetaminophen tablets and prescription lidocaine jelly keep the pain in check. My flexibility has improved, and day-to-day household things are less painful.

I still struggle to stand for all but brief periods. Conversely, when I sit too long, the knee stiffens. It takes a minute to get moving.

This experience has given me new motivation to keep moving.

Positive emotions — especially those directed toward me — are hard for me to accept. Chalk it up to adverse childhood experiences too complicated to get into here.

When Parents 2.0, the people who raised me after my parents died, first took me into their home, they did not understand why I refused to accept their love. To this day, I struggle.

I just don’t see what others see in me. I never have. I’m imperfect. I’ve been cowardly and cruel, at times.

I try to be kind, but that is a relatively new path for me. I spent much more time trying to be cool or smart or right or funny.

It’s been especially hard since I lost my job at the local newspaper. I confused my identity with my job, a common mistake. Even now, with scores of people having lost their jobs during the pandemic, I feel like the unemployed are looked at as shiftless layabouts dragging everyone else down.

But maybe that feeling is just another negative one in the file drawer filled with them.

I look in the mirror and see only the bad things.

At some level, I still think, if you really knew me, if you really saw me in all my ugliness inside, you wouldn’t say all these nice things. You wouldn’t bring meals or send money.

I’m morbidly obese, broke, unemployed, and often very grumpy with a terrible case of self-loathing. I never believed that anything I wrote mattered to anybody. It felt like it evaporated into the ether the minute it was published.

That’s why I am so humbled, so deeply moved by this generosity from family, friends, my community, and beyond.

But you do it.

You keep doing it. And you’ve done so well that I will be able to get surgery, if not on Aug. 20 as originally planned, then after I’ve finished school in the spring.

My friend and Drake classmate Jason Clayworth wrote a story about the community’s efforts to help on Axios Des Moines.

I am so moved by what all of you have done for me. I promise you these two things:

First, I will become the very best teacher I can and pass on all the things I’ve learned about writing, reading, communicating, and being human to my students.

Second, I will work hard to see the me that all of you see, to accept love, and believe that I deserve it.

And this spark of hope started with my friend Mary, who wanted to make an old classmate some homemade stew.

Life, my friends, can truly be beautiful.

If you’re of a mind to contribute, the website is Or you can reach me through any of the contacts at the bottom of this column.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.