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BED 39

By Shawn Maureen
Copyright, Shawn Maureen McKelvie, 2015
ISBN: 151529868X
201 pages

Bob Corbett
January 2016

These are extremely unusual review/comments for me. It may be the sole case of where I have responded to an author’s request for me to comment on a book. I’ve had quite a number such requests but I have always refused them on the grounds that I just don’t do that. The exception for this book is because the author noted to me that she based some of the details of her book on my neighborhood of Dogtown and she wanted to know how “authentic” or “correct” I thought she was.

That really intrigued me. I will admit to being fairly much an “expert” on Dogtown history, having founded the Dogtown Historical Society and written literally hundreds of pages of Dogtown history. As best I know I’ve done more serious history of Dogtown than any one has ever done before.

Normally I comment on a book on two main issues:

  1. The plot (for fiction) or the “account” for non-fiction. But, with the sole exception of some technical areas of philosophy and material on Haiti, I’m not commenting on the “content” from the point of view as an expert.
  2. The writing.

This is one of those rarer cases where I know a good deal, and probably in this case, more than anyone else alive (excepting, perhaps, my youngest brother, John) about Dogtown’s history. It’s a very strange position. So, as I was reading of course I was checking out the historical accuracy of Shawn McKelvie’s account and, in the main, I think she did a very fine job.

In any case, the hospital of the novel would have been Deaconess Hospital, which just a couple years ago was finally torn down and will eventually become the location of the Forest Park Zoo’s first “out of Forest Park” site. My mother died there and my father went there for treatment a lot and I was treated there for a mild heart myself in the year 2000 where I met my current physical!

The early part of the novel introduces the character Tomas Kominski. He was born in Dogtown in 1937 and was still working with his family in their restaurant in 1964 when the novel opens.

Tomas becomes serious ill and his family has little money and he is taken to a ward at Deaconess that has 40 beds. He is in bed 39 and that is why the novel is so named. After a stay in the hospital for some time where he is given very loving and caring attention, he dies, but DOES NOT LEAVE THE BED. Yep, that’s the case. His body is removed, but he remains, of course invisible, and he is the one who tells much of the story from this time on and various other patients come and occupy the bed. The early chapter of his stay was in 1964. The later chapters of people who occupy bed 39 are in the years 1974, 1985, 1990, and 1995, however, each is at a time when hospice care had advanced in some significant mode, until the last chapter which is where each patient has a room or his or her own, and care is much more attractive, even more attentive care. (There is no mention of the masses of elderly and sick that simply hasn’t the money or insurance for such care.)

The story is quite compelling that enormous changes have been made for those who can afford it, and it’s all told in this fascinatingly effective device of a long-since dead man and former “bed” holder of that bed doing the narration.

I learned a lot. However, since I live in the Dogtown in which the book is set, and I’m in my late 70s and end of life and long-term illness are frequent topics locally, I am very sensitive to the mass of Dogtowners for whom this book would reveal an astonishing and attractive end-life path, but which might as well be on another planet as to be very readily available to most Dogtowners who simply don’t have the wealth or insurance that would allow it.

It is my fondest hope that the U.S. would develop a medical care system over all, which is a birth right for every citizen. I lived in Austria with my family in 1972-73. In those days the Austrian system of socialized medicine was awesome. In that year when I was at the University in Graz, we had one son in the hospital with a childhood ailment for 9 days. He was also treated for a spinal condition at school. Another child severely cut his hand and was not only tended, but also went for months to the hospital for further treatment. My wife had a miscarriage in the local hospital, and I had some very bad major teeth removed. All of that medical care and the medicines that went with them were absolutely and completely FREE OF CHARGE. In those days before the fall of the wall, the Austria system of socialized medicine paid 100% for anything that approximated health care.

In later years I was teaching in Vienna on 7 different years. By that time, with the European Union, the Austrian system was lessened, however, a great deal of medical and dental care were still either free or very low cost and ALWAYS available to all. I would so wish the United States could develop such a system of health care for all as a basic human right.

However, this review is not to deal with the health care system, but to recommend a very daring and creative novel which tells of the historical system of the early development of hospice care in the U.S. and the longer-term outcome of the work that Cicely Saunders who began her work in 1948 that led to the development of today’s wide-spread hospice care.

Shawn Maureen McKelvie’s extremely creative work gives one a very “felt” sense of the meaning of this development and the joy to many that this movement now brings to the last days of those who are able to have access to this such desirable and attractive care.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett