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Following Cal's example


WOULD YOU have given your right arm to see Cal Ripken break Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played? That's literally the dilemma I faced a week ago.

It began simply enough. I awoke on Tuesday, Sept. 5, to find a small whitehead on the right side of my right hand. I squeezed it, blotted it dry and applied an anti-bacterial ointment and a small Band-Aid to it before driving to work in Easton. Around lunchtime I noticed that my hand had turned red around the area. I applied more ointment and thought no more about it. As I prepared to leave work, I noticed that the knuckles of my ring and little fingers of that hand were badly swollen. I immediately went to an outpatient center operated by Memorial Hospital in Easton. There my condition was diagnosed as cellulitis and I was put on a strong oral antibiotic to kill the infection.

I tossed and turned that night because my hand ached; I awoke early the next day but remained in bed for another hour. It was the day of Cal's big game. I was really excited, having watched all of the previous night's festivities -- when Cal tied Gehrig's record -- on television. Later that day my wife and I were planning to go to Camden Yards to witness Cal play in his 2,131st record-breaking, consecutive game. We had bought our tickets in April and were eagerly awaiting the game.

With these happy thoughts in my head, I went into the bathroom, turned on the light and saw that the swelling had not gone down, instead my hand had doubled in size. I attributed this to having been in the resting position all night; I reasoned that another dose of antibiotics would reduce the swelling.

At work, I got permission from my boss to take a half day of vacation so my wife and I could get to Camden Yards early and soak up the excitement leading up to the big game; my boss, who also was going to the game, had the same plans. I called my wife to alert her to meet me for the unexpected early departure.

While straightening my desk, I caught the end of my shirt sleeve on my stapler. As I was twisting my right arm to the side to free the shirt, I noticed something peculiar on the underside of my arm: Two bright red stripes -- about a quarter-of-an-inch wide -- were running parallel from my wrist to past my elbow. I felt that I was in trouble. I recalled from the "letter of instruction" given to me at the outpatient center that "red stripes on your arm" was a warning sign that meant "head for the hospital immediately."

This time I went to the hospital's emergency room. There the attending physician examined my arm and asked me several questions about the type of work I did and my hobbies. I told him I was planning to go to Camden Yards to see Cal Ripken's record-breaking game.

The doctor told me that I had a decision to make: I could go to Cal's big game and risk losing my right arm or I could be admitted to the hospital and be put on strong, intravenous antibiotics to halt a rapidly growing infection in my arm. My heart sank. Of course, I knew I had no choice. Cal couldn't play without his right arm and neither could I (piano and golf for me). Cal had kept in shape for all those years and now I was being asked to follow his example on the day set aside to celebrate his achievement. I agreed to be admitted to the hospital.

I called my wife and broke the news to her. We decided to give the tickets to our daughter and her husband who live in Frederick. To get the tickets to them, my wife decided to drive (a three-and-a-half-hour round trip) to Baltimore to meet them. She drove in heavy traffic under the stress of knowing my serious condition.

That night, I watched the game on TV from my hospital bed. My wife arrived home just after the game started. Over the telephone, my wife and I shared the thrill of seeing Cal make his ceremonial run around the stadium, touching the hands of his fans along the way. I looked down at my badly swollen right hand and arm, scarlet from knuckles to elbow, and noticed that the red stripes were beginning to fade as the antibiotic did its job.

The next day, an orthopedic surgeon who examined by arm said I had been infected by a spider bite. When I squeezed what I thought was a simple pimple on Tuesday, I had removed the puss but probably drove the spider's poison deeper into my hand along with bacteria on the skin's surface.

I then recalled that while golfing on my vacation (Sept. 2) in South Carolina, I had lost a ball under a low bush. I had gotten down on my knees and lifted the fronds of the bush with my right hand during my unfruitful search. I recalled a little sting on my right hand as I released the bush. That sting probably came from a little brown spider that didn't appreciate all of the disruption.

My two days in the hospital were filled with calls and visits from concerned family and friends. It was especially filled with the love and concern shown by my wife who wouldn't go to the big game without me. One visitor was my boss who upon returning to work the day after the big game was shocked to discover that I hadn't gone to the game, too, but was instead hospitalized. In the hospital, he presented me with one of his prized possessions: a Cal Ripken Jr. souvenir book that he had waited for over an hour to get at the stadium. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and told him so.

Sept. 6, 1995, will always be memorable for me. Cal's big game, of course, is important. But I truly treasure the example of Cal Ripken Jr. who -- by his lifestyle of keeping physically fit -- helped make the decision not to attend the game easier for me. Thanks, Cal.

Gene Prevost writes from Centreville.

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