“Come to the third floor. And bring your wallet.”
These words sent a chill down my spine, which was no mean feat as I was wearing the prescribed compression stockings and had two layers of blankets on me that the nurses kept insisting I needed.
I explained to the billing department person on the phone that I was still in their bed, almost wearing a hospital gown with an IV still hooked up.
“It might be a minute—and have you seen my pants?”
How did I end up on my back, pants-challenged and with a significantly improved grasp of Spanish language medical terminology?
It all started in the summer of 1978 in Havana. I had just….
No. That’s not exactly true. At all.
This particular sequence of events actually started on a slightly rotten boardwalk in Chile a little over a month ago. Thing #2 was walking next to me. There was just enough space for the two of us to amble along. He was, per usual, full of thoughts of how he needed (in no particular order): sugar gliders, emus, a husky and an indoor aquarium for a colony of crabs. The list was interrupted when he stepped on the next board and it descended on his side and flew up on mine as if it wasn’t nailed down at all. It wasn’t. This board had upwards of one job to do, and it failed in a spectacular way.
Using all the dexterity a 50-year-old, 235-pound man with a bad knee can muster, I continued my forward progress and watched my foot disappear into the void about two-and-a-half feet below (not impressive in void terms, but a void nonetheless). My leg, in typical fashion, followed my foot.
One or both of us then stepped on the shabby bit of wood as it swung back down, pinning my leg at the knee. I remember trying to grab onto Thing #2 for support but, as I outweigh him by roughly 400 pounds, all I succeeded in doing was pulling him on top of me as everything but my leg below the knee crashed into the swampy stuff to our right. It is a strange, uncomfortable feeling to look up and see your leg bent sideways at the knee. That kind of flexibility is normally reserved for shoulders (more on that later).
My knee, much like the Galloper I used to own, has been playing for the other side for many, many years. Ten years ago I tried to have it fixed (the knee, not the Galloper as there is no way to fix the Galloper). I recall waking up in the recovery room—a misnomer—and seeing a nurse’s face just inches from mine.
“You’ll be on crutches for about six weeks,” she stated.
I had entered into this arrangement based on the recommendation of a friend who told me that this particular surgeon worked miracles with knees. In my brief conversations with said surgeon, there had been talk of removing “loose material” and “cleaning things up a bit.” It sounded vaguely like trying to hide porn before my mother came into the room, but was an otherwise unremarkable plan.
As it turns out, the nurse was whispering about a long vacation on crutches because the surgeon had opted to do something called micro-fracture surgery. I learned (later) that this procedure involves punching holes in your bone with the hope that it will form scar tissue that gets in the way of your bones hitting each other (kind of like putting a skinny pillow between Things #1 and #2 when they sit in the back seat). I also found out (later) that punching holes in bone creates a lot of bleeding.
My knee thanked me for this unintentional attempt to permanently repair it by forming a blood clot. After six months of blood thinners (rat poison) with the prerequisite twice a week blood tests to make sure I hadn’t eaten too much spinach and ruined the efficacy of said poison, I was pronounced clean; free to limp out my days.
Back in the almost here and now, and post many long flights and cramped car rides to return from the wonderful country of Chile, I soon noticed that my knee wasn’t my only problem. The customary pain confined to the shitty knee had spread to my calf, which looked quite impressive. It was, minus the scary relief map of veins, the kind of calf that people pay good money to achieve with implants or, worse, exercise.
The next day said pain decided to march up to my upper thigh. I limped over to my gig as a volunteer gardener and, for about twenty minutes, pretended to prune. I was, in reality, more than a little worried that in my wooziness I might clip off the end of my finger and really take things to a different level.
I eventually came to my senses, not easy for me, and went to the local private clinic. Our mountain is a magical, wonderful place free of traffic (except cows, and tourists), smog, and nearly all equipment related to modern medicine. There was once an x-ray machine in town. Before that clinic closed, they kept the machine in a separate, insulated room. Unfortunately, they never hired anyone able to run it so the machine sat and thought about whatever lonely, underutilized x-ray machines think about.
Back at the still-open clinic with no equipment, the local doc’s eyes widened. Machines that did not exist were, in this case, not actually needed for a diagnosis. Orders were given. I tried to drive myself down the mountain but my bride insisted that we needed to bring our kids to the hospital in San Jose so they could sit in the emergency room waiting area for seven hours playing video games (and, perhaps, because she did not want me to drive off a cliff).
By the next day, the list was assembled. Pulmonary embolism? Check. Clot the entire length of my right leg? Check. Unhappy cyst with a possible side of complications on my right kidney? Check.
And so, I was poked and prodded for several days in the hospital. I was awakened to ask if I was asleep. I suffered through a strangely erotic sponge bath given by two nurses who giggled a lot (no doubt at how masculine I looked with the frilly compression hose they’d had to remove).
After I brought my wallet to the third floor and was eventually released from the hospital I was ordered to stay in a nearby hotel in case I broke something else or exploded. I was eventually given the “all clear, until March when we remove your kidney and whatever else displeases us” order. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, to NOT fall down. I am on the new-fangled type of blood thinners that free me from the tyranny of blood checking and salad avoidance, but the significant downside of all of this luxury is that there is no antidote.
“So, what happens if I fall down and hit my head?” I asked this question with our extremely slippery wooden stairs and my newfound penchant for compression hosiery in mind.
“Don’t.” I was told.
“But, if I do?”
“Then save the money for the ambulance ride here.”
“Because I won’t need an ambulance?”
“Well. It wouldn’t be a good use of your inheritance.” I should add that this is not an actual quote as no medical professional tells patients to avoid treatment.
I did, as it turns out, take a really spectacular fall a few days ago. It had nothing to do with my pantyhose and slippery stairs but was instead entirely the fault of my lousy choice in footwear (Crocs) and a strange compulsion I had to buy irrigation hose at a new hardware store with an entrance that’s basically a pile of rubble.
“Why?” my doctor asked when I described the size of my new hematoma and how I was going to name it.
“This, like just about everything lately, was not my plan.”
He didn’t like my answer. Neither did I. I was, back in the day, quite famous for my planning. I was good at it—so good that people even paid me for my planning services. I appear to have now entered into the fat tail of the planning bell curve. That part just outside the third standard deviation (nothing kinky) where stuff refuses to obey the normal laws/rules.
I’ve since had lots of conversations with various doctors. I’ve done intensive medical research using something called Google. Most of these efforts leave me frustrated.
“So, you live on a mountain with bad roads, in a three-story house with slippery stairs. Your driveway is unpaved, with rocks and debris. The road from your house to the main road is uphill with large holes where the rocks should be. You are, optimistically, three and a half hours away from a good hospital.”
“You’ll soon be down to one kidney. In addition to any additional findings from that surgery, you’re probably going to be on blood thinners for life.”
“Your shitty knee — your words — will have to be replaced in a few years. The best rehab would involve a lot of cycling but you’ve chosen to live in a place with extremely poor roads and drivers who — again your words — should not be allowed to sit anywhere but the passenger seat.”
“And if you fall from your bike, which you yourself say happens fairly frequently, you could bleed out if you take a blow to your gigantic head. You could also take receive a hit to your back and lose your remaining kidney.”
“I don’t remember saying I have a gigantic head.”
“Ok, yes, I have a gigantic head.”
“And tell me more about this permanently torn rotator cuff. It’s also on your right side, yes?”
“I don’t want to talk about my rotator cuff.”
“Two surgeries to repair it?”
“And how far could you throw a baseball right now?”
“In inches or centimeters?”
“Could you use yards or even feet as the unit of measurement?”
“That seems optimistic.”
“So, you’ve elected to forgo any further medical treatment to your shoulder. At the very least you should be getting aggressive physical therapy, but that doesn’t really exist where you live.”
“Not so’s you’d notice, no.”
“Mr. Cobb, you’ve got a chronic condition in both your right knee and shoulder. You also had eight screws inserted in the little finger of your right-hand last year and you’ll soon lose your right kidney and possibly other items in that vicinity. Is there anything on the right side of your body that works?”