August 19, 2012

Spinal Wars, Part III: Reluctant Organ Donor Blues


An hour after I finally fell asleep in my hospital bed, having spent fifteen hours in the emergency room, a nurse woke me up.

            “What the hell?” I asked. It seemed a reasonable question.

            “It’s time for your morning pills.” She placed a small plastic cup in my hand, the kind that might hold a dollop of communion wine in church.

            “Oh Jesus Christ.” I pushed myself upwards a bit.

             The first question people always ask when they hear you’ve been in the hospital with back trouble is, “Well, did you get some good drugs at least?” In my case sadly it all depends on whether or not you consider Aleve and a pitiful microdosage of morphine in pill form “good.” It certainly wasn’t like the drip I’d been given the day before. But that had been whisked away pretty quickly, though the catheter for the tube remained in my arm. That left me with some hope.

            After the nurse went away I tried to get back to sleep. That’s when I learned I had a roommate. I hadn’t been aware of that the night before when they first wheeled me in there. I couldn’t see of course, and had other things on my mind. But yes, now it was clear that I had a roommate and he liked television. The room had no phone, but two televisions. Not even seven-thirty yet, and my roommate was blasting his supposedly personal television, filling the room with banality. Making things even more horrifying, it seemed he liked sitcoms.

            Not wanting to get off on the wrong foot with this guy, I didn’t tell him to shut that fucking thing off. Instead I tried to drown it out by concentrating on pain and how best to lie in an uncomfortable bed without wincing.

             Although we never spoke a single word, I did learn quite a bit about my roommate from his conversation with the nurses. His name was Tommy, he was thirty-two, and had broken his arm in three places.

            “I was trying to replace a window in my apartment,” he told several of them. “I slipped and fell through the screen. I tried to break my fall on the window sill, but there was this metal thing there.”

            He was also very adamant about getting a morphine drip. “C’mon,” he begged. “Can’t I get one? I had one until last night, and I’m in a lot of pain. Really a lot.”

            He wasn’t talking like a man in severe pain, but I was a pussy. I accepted it at face value, and only later that afternoon as his pleas grew more desperate did I start to become a little suspicious.

            Meanwhile, I was visited by a string of doctors, nurses and orderlies taking my vitals, drawing blood, bringing me food, and asking for my medical history again. Some said nothing at all, merely walking in, checking something, and leaving.

            According to some of them, the CAT scan and X-ray had revealed nothing, suggesting that the problem was no more than a muscle spasm and pinched nerve, and that I was a big baby. Others said that no, the pictures showed that I had two herniated discs. Still others were concerned about kidney stones and an infection, despite the fact that I’d already filled that milk jug on the table next to me three times (I’m sure glad that damn jug wasn’t any smaller). Everyone agreed, however, that they needed an MRI to be certain.

            “And when will this be, do you suppose?”

            “Some time today, probably.”

            That had me a little worried. Not the MRI itself—I’d always kind of liked those—but the mounting bill. I’d already had to sneak out of two cities under cover of darkness in order to duck an MRI bill, and was in no position now to sneak out of Brooklyn.

            My fears were unfounded, though. At least for that day. The hours came and passed, and no one said anything else about the MRI.

            Around four or five, Tommy was informed that he’d been discharged.

            But what about my morphine?” he asked.

            “Oh all right,” the nurse relented. “I’ll go get you a drip before you leave. But while I’m doing that, I want you to read this pamphlet about AA.”

            I’m not sure he ever did, but when the nurse returned with the morphine drip she confronted him.

            “You’ve got to do something about the drinking,” she told him. “This is the third time you’ve been in here now. Think about it—this time you were lucky because you were in a Rite Aid. Next time you might be on a subway platform and fall in front of a train.”

            I nearly started laughing really, really loud, but didn’t. I couldn’t help but note, though, that they might be sending a reformed alcoholic out into the world, but they were also sending a brand-new morphine addict. Take your pick, I suppose. Anyway, I thought it was pretty funny.

            That night after she got off work Morgan came to visit, and pointed out that several hand-lettered warning signs had been taped on the wall over my bed, like “Blind—tell him what you’re doing,” and “Fall Risk.” I made a note to take them with me when I left so I could tape them to my shirt every time I went outside.

            At about three the next morning, I was awakened by a shriek from the next room. I heard some bumping around, then an elderly woman’s hoarse voice screaming in the hall outside my door. “Nurse! Nuuueeewaaw!

            The old woman returned to her room and continued to yell. I didn’t hear anyone respond, but soon there was a thump and the screams eventually quieted down.

            After I was officially awakened in the morning to take my sort-of painkillers (the only ones I would receive all day), I faced a similar array of people taking vitals and blood and bringing me inedible food.

            “So when is this MRI going to happen?” I asked a doctor.

            “We need it to see what the problem is,” she said.

            “Yes, but is it going to happen today?”

            “The CAT scan and X-rays showed some things, but we need that MRI to see the soft tissue.”

            “Maybe I should rephrase the question,” I told her. She was French, after all. “Is it going to happen today?” I still hadn’t received a solid diagnosis, and without that MRI they obviously couldn’t give me one. Until then they just left me sitting in the bed as the bill grew exponentially larger. Until they could diagnose me, I wasn’t going anywhere.

            “Yes. I think.” She left the room quickly.

            Okay, I was starting to get paranoid. Of course I had made two huge mistakes before I ever knew I was headed to the hospital. The first had been listening to the audio version of Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies in the days prior to my back going kablooey. If you haven’t read it, it involves a lame man trapped in a bed in a small bare room. Occasionally people come in to deliver food or take away his chamber pot. Not much else happens. It was starting to feel like my stay in the hospital was not only turning into a real-life version of that novel, but everything else Beckett had ever written as well.

            The other mistake had been seeing too many movies. This was obviously no hospital I was in, but a front for a black market organ harvesting operation. They were just going to keep me trapped there, stringing me along with that “we need an MRI” claptrap, until they were ready for one of my kidneys. That would certainly explain the thrice-daily blood tests. I was never going to get out of this place alive unless I did something, and quick.

            Before I could fully form a plan, however, a young woman with one of those godawful baby doll voices entered the room.

            “Hi!” she chirped. “I’m your physical therapist!”

            Oh god help me. As if she needed to, she informed me her name was Tiffany.

            “So why don’t we see if you can stand up?”

            Strangely, that was something none of the other doctors or nurses had suggested yet. With a little help from Betty Boop there, I got to my feet and found that I wasn’t collapsing in agony.

            “Good!” she said. “Now let’s try to walk a little. I have a walker here for you.”

            Clinging desperately to the walker, I took a few hesitant steps. Then a few more. Then we headed out into the hall. It was a good feeling. More than anything, though, I think I’d suddenly found the strength to walk again, ignoring the searing pain in my lower back, simply because I wanted to get the hell away from that voice of hers. It was no use—she followed me.

            I’d never been out in the hallway before. Not upright anyway. It was desolate and grim and almost completely empty. As we passed the open doors of other rooms, I heard groans and gags and sobbing. One old woman kept yelling “Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!” like a broken and hapless car alarm. No one seemed to be responding. There was something very creepy about the place, though these people didn’t sound much like unwitting organ donors—unless they were the ones who had already been picked clean and now were just being left alone to die.

            It was almost a relief to get back to the room.

            “So,” I asked. “Are there any stretches or exercises or anything I should be doing that could help out?” I couldn’t believe I’d just asked such a thing.

            “Oh, nothing that I can think of, really,” she said. “Just take a seat in this chair here.”

            She dropped me in a soft armchair that even I knew was about the worst possible thing I could do for my back at that moment. “Okay, great! Now just stay there.” She left the room, and I never saw her again. I guess I’d had all the physical therapy I needed.

            Yes, it was now perfectly clear that everyone in this place was out to kill me, but I still clung to the hope that I might somehow be able to sneak a message out to Morgan. I was sure she’d be able to hire a commando unit somewhere or another and get me out of here.

            The day ground to a close with no MRI and no diagnosis. Fewer people still stopped into the room the next day. I no longer had a roommate and so no annoying distractions. I even turned on my own television at one point, much as I hate the damn things. While Tommy was able to pull in endless sitcoms and cop shows, my television only received two channels: a religious station, and a Spanish religious station. I turned it off again, thinking briefly that this wasn’t a black market organ operation at all, but hell itself. If it really was hell, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d been led to believe.

            It occurred to me at some point during the day that I hadn’t gone a day without a drink or a smoke in over twenty-five years, yet here I was on day four without either one and I hadn’t even noticed. To some people this might lead to an epiphany of some kind. A revelation that it was time to clean up and lead a sober and healthy life.

            Yeah, I suppose it might. All it left me thinking was “boy, I sure do miss smoking and drinking.”

            After four days without bathing, I was starting to smell pretty rank, too. Along with the drinking and smoking, I was also looking forward to getting back to soap.

            Again I asked a doctor who stopped in about the MRI. I hadn’t seen this one before. He was older than the others, which gave me hope.

            “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “In this place? They can tell you it’s going to take place at four, and all you know then is that it won’t happen at four.”

            He was the first one to be honest with me in there, so I guess my hope was justified. And miracle of miracles, at nine that night, a man arrived with a stretcher and told me he was there to take me downstairs for an MRI. There was every possibility that he was in fact going to be wheeling me into an operating room where faceless surgeons were going to remove my pancreas to sell to a wealthy family in the Yucatan, but at that point it was a risk I was willing to take.

            The next morning, all my organs still where they should be (so far as I’m aware), the one honest doctor returned to my room.

            “So I looked at your MRI,” he said. “You have two herniated discs, one worse than the other. But if you can stand and walk, I see no reason to take my knife to you.”

            “Oh. Well that’s good, then.”

            “So we’re going to discharge you later today. And I want you to come see me at my office in a week. You have my card?” He reached for his wallet and began to slide a business card free. “What kind of insurance do you have, by the way?”

            When I told him, he slowly slid the card back into his wallet. “Okay, yeah, maybe you better just come to the clinic here.”

             Morgan came and got me, and at six that night they set me free. She took me back home, where I smoked my head into a cloud and drank myself into oblivion, knowing that should I ever wake up again feeling like I’m going to die, I’m just going to lie there in my own damn bed and die.


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