Something in the Blood

What does an 80-year-old man with a bad kidney and failing heart have to live for?

The week of September 15 started the way every week has started for Frank "Bud" Woolsey since last August. His wife Dorie drove him to Lakeland Dialysis on 43rd and Nicollet in south Minneapolis, where, at 6:00 a.m., he walked through the back door, past the signs that say "Oxygen Closet" and "If You Need Assistance Walking, Please Ask," and where, amid the sounds of pumps and monitors and the murmurings of first-shift nurses and orderlies, he settled into the big green patent-leather recliner he's been occupying every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past 13 months.

First the nurse hooked up Dwayne, Bud's next-door dialysis neighbor. Then she propped up Bud's left arm and slipped two needles into the vein in his wrist. The needles were attached to two tubes, which were attached to the dialysis machine, a yellowing contraption that looks like a garage-sale robot. By 6:15, the blood in Bud's arm was being moved from his vein to the dialysis machine, which removes waste and extra fluid and returns the blood to his body; it's the same procedure that some 200,000 Americans with kidney disease use as a last resort until their kidneys either kick in or give out.

For the next four hours, Bud sat in the recliner, where--when he isn't reading or napping--he's had a lot to think about: good life, great wife, nine kids, 22 grandkids, five great-grandkids. His days as a star baseball and basketball player at Washburn High School. His days working at the old Nicollet Hotel on Hennepin Avenue. His days as a semi-pro baseball player. His days as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot in World War II. His days, most recently, working part-time at the neighborhood funeral home, and the fact that, even if his kidneys do recover, the dialysis will eventually affect his 80-year-old heart, and his days will be numbered.

On September 15, the nurse took the needles out of Bud's arm and put a bandage on his arm to stop the bleeding. Dorie picked him up and took him home, where he took a four-hour nap, which is what he needs to do, because the dialysis takes so much out of him. So much so that when he started the dialysis, his daughter Joanie, a nurse, told everyone but Bud that it would be the end of her father's lifelong love affair with golf.

Bud started golfing when he was eight years old. When he was a young man, he augmented his team sports with golf. When he was a father and a salesman, he took every Friday afternoon off for golf, or his "therapy," during which he'd forget all his worldly problems. So immersed was Bud in the Tao of golf that he started making his own golf clubs, first for himself, then for Dorie and the kids and the grandkids.

"Golf has always been a connection for my Dad and I," says Scott Woolsey, 48. "All my life, through all of the shit I put him through, no matter what, we could always go play golf. And whatever differences we had, in a way, they were always forgotten out there."

Joanie was right: When Bud started the dialysis, he had to give up his golf. Ten itchy months went by, the longest he'd ever spent not swinging a club. Then, in May, Scott took him to Hiawatha golf course. It was a disaster. Bud was unsure of himself; he was swinging with his upper body only, his knees hurt, and when he left the course that day he was scared he'd never play again. So he stopped, and when he did, something inside him died.

A couple of months ago, Bud's best friend Bob Johnson started bugging him. "C'mon, let's go golfing," Bob would say to Bud, but Bud put him off. His legs were too weak and he couldn't hit the ball, he'd tell Bob, and he didn't want to embarrass himself; he didn't want to play if he couldn't play at the level he'd played all his life. But Bob, who played high school baseball and basketball with Bud, wouldn't take no for an answer.

They started a regular Tuesday game at Arbor Point, a nine-hole course in Inver Grove Heights. The first two months, Bud was beyond frustrated. He couldn't play the way he used to, and what's more, for the first time in his life, he was using a motorized golf cart. But at the end of August and beginning of September, it started coming back. Even though he wasn't as sharp as he was before, Bud was starting to hit the ball decently, and his drives were straightening out. His therapy was returning. He was having fun.

On September 16, Scott accompanied Bud and Bob to Arbor Point. On the second hole, Bob reached into his bag for his eight-iron. He pierced the earth with the sharp end of a tee and balanced a freshly scrubbed ball on the other end. And, with wrists that had been tied to a life-saving device 24 hours earlier and would be again 24 hours later, with new-old blood pumping through his veins, with a heart that hadn't yet gotten the word that it should be toast by now, Bud Woolsey took a swing. The ball shot off the tee and rose high into the blue heavens.

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