Tuning in to Obama at Abington Memorial

Theaagnes Augustine, a cardiac patient at Abington Memorial Hospital, watches President Obama with daughter Rita Augustine Alexander (left) and granddaughter Tiffani Alexander (not pictured). (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)

When you are a patient in a hospital - in this case, the cardiovascular unit on the fifth floor of the Lenfest Pavilion at Abington Memorial Hospital - it can be difficult to watch a major presidential address to Congress.

Juanita Brown, in Room L502, was set to watch, but then she had a visitor, and then the resident physician came in to check on her, and then she went down for an ultrasound. In her case, President Obama was speaking to an empty room and an open Bible.

Betty Lightman, 90, in Room L511, who came in yesterday because she couldn't breathe, called the hospital operator to find out what station to watch and was told that almost any would carry the speech. But then a nurse came to get her for an X-ray, and she spent much of the speech in a wheelchair by her room door, waiting for a transport, and could hear the television, but just barely.

"Did he say how he's going to pay for it?" she asked. "I want to know, how he's going to pay for it?"

Some patients preferred to watch Tyler Perry or baseball, or just slept. And when they're recovering from heart surgery, who can blame them?

Three generations of Augustine women watched in Room L528. Theaagnes Augustine, 77, of Wyncote, had just come through a four-hour surgery to replace her defibrillator pacemaker, but she was plenty alert to watch her president, a stuffed bear by her side. Her daughter Rita Augustine Alexander, 57, a teacher in Philadelphia, was not only watching but also taking notes, frequently cheering and clapping.

Rita's daughter Tiffani Alexander, 27, watched the first half of the speech, but gave her grandmother a big hug and an "I love you" and headed home - it was nearly 9.

The grandmother had a dozen cards from grandchildren and others taped to her wall. "Dear Nanna, I hope you feel better and I love you. I'll pray for you every night. Love, Tay Tay." (All in the room agreed such love may be as important as any medicine.) Get-well balloons floated in a corner. Augustine tried her best to watch, but the phone kept ringing, and then her pastor surprised her, walking in and giving her a big hug.

"She's a second mother to me," said Horace Sheppard, pastor at West Oak Lane Church of God. He planned to watch a recording of the speech when he got home.

Rita Augustine Alexander clapped when Obama was finished. "He did good," she said, "but they'll be picking it apart by tomorrow."

During the day, staff at Abington - from chief executive officer Richard L. Jones on down - had a wide variety of opinions and expectations for the speech, probably as varied as the nation as a whole. Jones said he was hoping, for instance, that Obama would take his time fixing the health-care system, as long as four years if necessary, tackling one piece at a time - reimbursement, delivery of services, malpractice reform - and fixing it right. A quick fix, he felt, was sure to make the problem worse.

Others had a very different view. "I'm hoping for real change," said Kevin Zakrzewski, a primary-care physician, who was leaving a staff meeting after a long day in time to get home and watch. "I want him to push it. It may cost him his job ultimately. He has to make people understand that controlling costs is so important."

Richard Scott, 74, in Room L550, a retiree from Warminster, arrived Tuesday with an irregular heartbeat. He said he was pleased with the speech.

"I was interrupted three times, but I heard what I wanted to hear," he said. "I'm glad he stood up and gave the argument for the public part. It's got to be there for the people who can't help themselves."

Staffers on the floor were too busy to watch, and heard bits and pieces when popping into rooms. Some had no interest, while others had much but would catch up with the speech on the news or with rebroadcasts. That was pretty normal for working the night shift.


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.

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