Blind Willie McTell died at 4.25am local time in the Ingram Building of Milledgeville State Hospital, Georgia, 55 years ago today.

 As my book Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes reports:

Whether Willie was taken into Milledgeville [after his second stroke] by ambulance or train we don’t know, but he arrived on Wednesday August 12, without any luggage or money, and after a partial examination he was placed on the ward for acutely ill patients. The doctor who saw him found him “poorly nourished”. He had no strength in his right hand, and after being asked several times how long this had been the case, he said it had happened the previous night. He could not stand up unaided, and in the days that followed, he had to be cared for in every way, and remained “always quiet”.
            The medical notes [I] obtained from Atlanta show that his condition was monitored constantly, and in great detail... On admission, he was given a “partial physical” examination by a doctor, whose report was typed up that day, and his temperature, pulse and respiration were measured. Relevant aspects of his “blood chemistry” were measured at least once daily, and the results logged. A sheet of doctor’s orders included putting him on a salt-free diet, fitting a catheter and prescribing tablets on the day of his admission and making changes in his medication two days later.
            A serological report was typed up and he was given a Wasserman Test the day after he arrived, and by the next day his chest x-ray had been developed, analysed and written up. The day before he died, the “lab girl” was told to check things every four hours (though she seems to have skipped two of these). His breathing, pulse and temperature were measured and logged twice daily throughout the week; his medicine, quite rightly, was specified item by item, daily.
            His severe deterioration on August 18 was noted promptly  -  the medical note “get stat blood sugar” implies that they were worried he was going into a diabetic coma  -  and they put him on a drip twelve hours before he died. Presumably to cover themselves, a letter dated August 18 was sent from the Director and the Clinical Director to [Willie's uncle and friend] Gold Harris, saying “This is to advise you that the above named patient is being treated on the ward for acutely ill patients and…We regard his condition as potentially critical and such that he is likely to make a sudden change for the worse and the end come abruptly.”
            He died at 4.25 next morning, Wednesday August 19. The death certificate gave the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. The hospital’s more detailed notes were that Dr. M.E. Smith “offered a diagnosis in this case, of: CBS (Cerebral Brain Syndrome), associated with circulatory disturbance, other, cerebral hemorrhage, left side, with psychotic reaction.”
            Today, the diabetes would be better managed, and we would term it Cerebral Vascular Accident rather than CBS. The hemorrhage was on the left side of his brain, so that it was the right side of his body that was impaired. He might well have had cerebral vascular disease for some time, and the earlier stroke may have been part of that: clearly from the medical evidence here, something had happened around nine months previously  -  that is, at the time of [his uncle] Coot’s and [his wife] Helen’s deaths  -  that propelled him into much greater illness. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the nerve-endings in his leg were impaired by blood not reaching it properly.
            There was one more significant fact in the medical records. The Wasserman Test result showed that Willie had syphilis. His “very small eyeballs” and their “opacity” therefore suggests that there may have been  -  may have been  -  congenital syphilis. This, passed through the placenta from the mother, can reveal itself in many other physical abnormalities, which Willie did not have (commonly an odd bridge to the nose), but congenital syphilis could certainly account for under-developed eyeballs and perhaps their congenital cataracts...
            So it might be that this information from the very end of Willie’s life tells us something about its very beginning.

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