August 14, 2016

Gonna Get My EMG—I’m a Teenage Neuropathy!


The commonly accepted myth, and it’s one I get from strangers at least two or three times a week, holds that if you lose one of the five major senses, all your remaining senses will quickly be honed to near superhuman acuity. Lose your hearing, and in a blink you’ll be able to spy on fruit flies square dancing three hundred yards away. Yeah, well, let’s just say that’s not exactly what you might call “true.” What really happens, and you can see where the extrapolation and exaggeration come from, is that when you lose one sense, you’re forced to pay much closer attention to the ones remaining, and in some cases use them differently. A slight change in the pitch of the sound around me, for instance, can tell me when I’ve passed a bus stop or reached a corner. As I think I’ve noted here, it transforms daily life into an ongoing phenomenological exercise. Which made the recent developments all the more disturbing.

            I’d always been a clumsy oaf, for assorted and often obvious reasons. I had to wear leg braces as a kid, so have always walked a little funny, making tripping all that much easier. I was graced with no internal sense of rhythm, and my hand-eye coordination left something to be desired. But over the last year or two other things began cropping up, things I never really put together until recently.

            Along with the usual array of dropping things, spilling things, kicking things and knocking things over, I tromped through a big tray of spackle some handymen had left in the building’s entryway and didn’t realize it, stomping back upstairs leaving a trail of thick spackle footprints behind me. I could likewise walk through puddles of cat puke in my bare feet and not realize it. If I was filling a glass or pot with water, I couldn’t just stick my finger in there to check the level. I couldn’t feel the dampness. What I had to do was splash it around a little and gauge by the sound. There were some days when I simply could not type, though I usually put that down to the hangover or the barometric pressure. I blame a lot of my shortcomings on barometric pressure. I was making dinner one afternoon, and when I went to take a pot off the burner, the oven mitt I was wearing caught fire. I didn’t realize this at the time, just continued going about the business of finishing up dinner with my hand ablaze. It wasn’t until Morgan got home that night and saw the horribly charred oven mitt that I realized what happened.

            Adding it all up and running a few rudimentary tests of my own, it was clear something was amiss. My hands and feet weren’t numb, there was no tingling. I could feel pressure and so could walk normally, know when I had a grip on something and such, but it was like the nerves had been dampened. I couldn’t determine temperature or subtle texture with my fingertips, so had unconsciously been using the back of my hand instead. Maybe, I figured, it was time to pay a visit to my neurologist. Better to start with the basics before concluding that autism was finally taking hold.

            When my original neurologist had a little thing with my first wife, I decided maybe I’d try and find one closer to the apartment. That was in the mid-Nineties. I lucked into one about a block away, and though he never impressed me much with his sharp medical knowledge and insight, I still went to see him a few times. His office was dark, windowless, and claustrophobic. His staff tended to be on the brusque and surly side, and the doctor himself didn’t have much to offer by way of bedside manner. Worse, I got the impression he didn’t really have any idea what he was talking about. My previous neurologist may have run off with my wife after getting her hooked on pills, but at least he knew his business. The new neurologist looked at a recent MRI in 2003 and told me I was suffering from premature brain atrophy, but could tell me nothing more in regards to a cause or a cure. I think that was the last time I saw him. There was no reason, really. I wasn’t having seizures the way I used to, not so long as I kept gobbling the pills, anyway. And if my brain was shriveling into a raisin, well, there you go. So it had been well over a decade.

            So now that it seemed time to pay another visit to a neurologist, well, I guess I was lazy. I still had his name and number handy, and even if he was criminally incompetent it was a hell of a lot easier than trying to find a new one. So I picked up the phone and made an appointment, even though it would mean a trip back into the acid guts of Park Slope.

            It was in the humid middle nineties that afternoon, and the Slope was as ugly and hateful as ever, but things had changed with the neurologist. He was in the same building, but had moved to a much larger and nicer corner suite with huge windows. The staff was suddenly friendly and helpful and funny, which left me wondering how it could exist in that neighborhood. Even the doctor had transformed from a cool and distracted dullard into someone who was genuinely curious and energetic. Later I wondered if maybe it had something to do with my being an older type with short gray hair and a (sweaty) button down shirt instead of a snot-nosed kid with long hair wearing a Stalinist t-shirt, army jacket and ratty fedora.

            Whatever the case I laid out the symptoms, and he started running the usual neurological tests—checking for tremors and weakness and sensitivity to cold and pressure. All along the way he explained what he was doing and why, which is something he’d never done before. Maybe he was on a new medication, who knows?

            “I have a wooden stick here,” he said at one point. “And I just broke it.”

            “I’m sorry. Can I get you a new one?”

            “No, I’m going to poke you with it.”

            “Oh. I see.”

            He asked a few questions about RP and my family history, then said “Excuse me, but I’m just going to think this through a little and jot down some notes. It’ll take about five minutes.”

            “Okay,” I said. “I’ll just wait here patiently.”

            I folded my arms and kept my mouth shut. Eventually he spoke again, telling me I was likely suffering from neuropathy, a form of nerve damage that tends to affect the longer nerves to the extremities. Since it seemed to be at work in both my hands and feet, it was specifically known as polyneuropathy—or what more colorful neurologists call ”gloves and socks neuropathy”—which means it wasn’t simply the result of a pinched nerve someplace.

            “The three primary causes,” he told me, “at least among Americans, are diabetes, dialysis, or alcohol abuse.”


            “And since you don’t have diabetes and aren’t undergoing dialysis . . . ”

            “Yes, well.”

            But just to make sure, or simply to torture me for being a horrible sloppy drunk, he scheduled me for a series of EMGs, electrical nerve tests he promised would be “extremely uncomfortable,” which left me thinking he and my Italian doctor were probably in cahoots.

            Nevertheless I left the office and hit the stinking sidewalks of Park Slope feeling relieved. Sure, now I had another disease to add to the fucking list, but at least now I have a viable excuse for being a clumsy oaf.


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