on vacation in Florida

July 28, 2017

… was a hospital gown, a gauze mask and a pair of surgical gloves.

This was not the fashion statement I had in mind for the Sunshine State.

The night before I left for Florida, with a cold English spring pressing against the windows, I packed sandals and Fitflops, a bathing suit with functioning elastic, three summer dresses still in their dry cleaning bags, bug spray and a monster tube of factor 50.

This was my tropical kit.

I’ve never spent time in Florida.

I didn’t know what to expect, because I didn’t know what Florida was about. On the basis of not very much I’d formed a mental picture of humidity and vegetation, fist-sized insects, Latin dancing and an uneasy co-mingling of rednecks and retirees.

I’ve never wanted to spend time in Florida.

I don’t like heat or bugs or travelling 4,000 miles in order to get someplace I don’t want to go. But I like my father and Florida is where he and his wife live for much of the year, in a gated community with man-made lakes and a Spanish-style clubhouse.

So I hauled my tropical kit to Heathrow and boarded a plane.

On the flight, I amused myself by roughing out my holiday schedule: mornings, breakfast on the lanai of my father’s house, with noxious wildlife kept at bay by the floor to ceiling screens. Afternoons, I’d try a spot of bodysurfing in the ocean and evenings we’d pile into the car and check out some of those Miami samba clubs.

I wasn’t entirely sure there was such a thing as a Miami samba club and as things turned out I never got to verify it one way or another because while I was still 36,000 feet in the air, wondering if it was jellyfish season in Florida and dosing myself with vodka in an attempt to ignore the turbulence that had the plane swooping and dipping, my father was being bundled into the back of an ambulance.

When I landed I found out what had happened: my 92-year-old father had suddenly come down with flu, which, just as suddenly, became pneumonia. High fever, compromised breathing and a precipitous drop in blood pressure. It was very quick, this downward spiral, no more than 48 hours between the first onset of mild symptoms and an edge-of-death dash to the hospital in a screaming ambulance.

In the A&E, they pumped my father full of steroids and antibiotics, shoved an oxygen tube up his nose and placed him in a kind of isolation chamber.

Which is how I came to spend my Florida vacation dressed like a lab technician.

Masked, gowned and gloved, I was permitted to enter my father’s room. I was instructed to maintain a cordon sanitaire of five feet. Robed and obedient, I kept to my corner while my father, merrily festooned with tubes, kept to his, giving the occasion the slight tang of a royal audience. Conversation was stilted. The masks distorted our words and turned them into a rich, indecipherable sludge. This necessitated multiple iterations of the same sentence and I discovered even the most heartfelt utterance, for example, I thought we’d lost you, loses all meaning when repeated six times, each time at a higher decibel level.

As a result, I fell back on banalities. My second visit, after an ear-blasting exchange about the weather, I shouted, ‘You’re lucky the hospital was so close’. I don’t think my father heard me, but it didn’t matter because as soon as the words emerged from behind my mask I experienced something of an epiphany: I suddenly understood what Florida was about.

It wasn’t a matter of luck that had a hospital less than a mile from my father’s house because in 21st century Florida there’s a hospital less than a mile from everyone’s house. In fact, that part of the state, Palm Beach County, there’s some variety of medical care on pretty much every corner, right next to the Starbucks. And nine times out of ten, it’s medical care targeted to seniors. Block after block, in the strip malls that line the four-lane highways and in what looks like manor houses set back on manicured grounds, you see signs for stroke and heart attack treatment, hip replacements and cataract surgery.

That’s what’s taken root in the Floridian bush: clinics and A&E units.

Home-grown conservationists and biologists, along with writers like Bob T Epstein and Carl Hiaasen have condemned the strategies and greed that have transformed the face of Florida from a semi-tropical (if occasionally treacherous) paradise to a tarmacked, car-dependent landscape of high-rises and gated communities. Their objections are two-fold: first, that the state has evolved into an environment in which near poverty-line Have-nots service the Haves and, second, that all the man-made changes — the long stretches of interstate, the energy hungry urban sprawl — have grossly contributed to global warming in a region that is already far too vulnerable.

They’re right, of course. What they say is true.

But what’s also true – and this brings us to the eternal capitalist dilemma – is that Florida is a state that’s evolved to meet the needs of its key consumer market: the tens of thousands of retirees such as my father who moved south to the heat and sun after a lifetime of hard work.

My father was released from hospital a couple of days before I flew back to Britain. He recovered, and it wasn’t a matter of luck. It was Florida, the geriatric health care centre of the universe.