The law of threes

Wednesday February 20, 2013

Ask any nurse about the law of threes. It goes something like this: When one bad event happens it may be an isolated event, but when two bad things happen in close proximity, there will be a third bad event soon.

In hospital nursing those bad events could be a cardiac arrest, the sudden crashing of a patient or even a fire in a patient's room. And it seems that the law of threes is not confined to hospitals or places where there is a greater likelihood of catastrophe.

Last week I experienced my personal version of the law of threes. My mother slowly and peacefully slipped away on Feb. 9. She was 90 and had lived a full life and had been waiting to die for a number of months. Although it was a sad event, I did not consider it a catastrophe.

A few days later I received a call from the sister of a friend. Some local people may know this friend, John Tompkins. He was 74 and died in his sleep at his home in Fort Myers, Florida. John spent a large part of his life in Brattleboro where his father was the head honcho at the Brattleboro Retreat. One of the perks of the job was that his family got to live in the grand house (now a bed and breakfast) at 40 Putney Road.

John was one of the most gregarious and hospitable people I have ever known. He would welcome anyone into his home and make them feel like they were royalty. He was also what I would call a high-level collector. You had to walk sideways through most of his house because of the accumulation of mostly expensive things, but it was worth the squeeze. A unique man, and a unique collector.

Even after I learned of John's death I was not thinking of the law of threes. Two days before my mother's funeral one of my four cats, Manny, started acting strangely. He often had tiffs with the other cats and was overly sensitive to things, so when he hid for the night I just chalked it up to a bad day for him.

The next morning I realized that Manny was miserable. He stopped eating and I could see a few drops of blood come out when I pressed his bladder. I called the vet and Manny was at his office in a short time. The diagnosis was an extremely distended bladder, the size of a grapefruit, and the prognosis was 50/50.

A few hours later I got a call from the vet telling me that Manny's lab work was off the charts and that things were not looking good. They drained his bladder and they were giving him IV hydration and there was a slim chance he could recover. Then I got a second call from the vet in the evening. A saddle thrombus had developed and Manny now had a nearly complete arterial blockage in both back legs.

I was thinking that I should have them put him to sleep right away but the vet convinced me to wait until the morning. After all, he was feeling a little better and even if he couldn't use his legs I probably should at least give him a few more hours of life.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I knew Manny was not coming home and the other cats seemed to know that things would never be the same. There was a sad silence in the air.

Then came the day to bury my mother. I had to drive to Boston but I had to call the vet before I left. I was feeling all different kinds of sadness and I couldn't separate any of it. All I knew was that I just felt miserable.

I sat down on the living room couch to make the call to the vet and, as I did, Manny's sister came over and sat next to me. She looked up at me and she seemed as sad as I was. Just before I dialed the phone, she put her entire left upper leg over my arm and stared me in the eye.

I made the call as she held on. I heard the bad news that things were worse and I asked the vet to put Manny to sleep. On the way to Boston I realized that the law of threes had played out.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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