“So what happened? “ said the doctor, leaning over me, “Tell me once or twice from the top. Were you unconscious? ”
It was two thirty in the morning, and Doctor Vivian Westphal had been called in to provide a second opinion. How can you sparkle this much this late at night, I wondered. She was slim, in her forties, dressed in a black silk blouse and swishy black pants with fancy sandals. Diamonds were dancing on her tassels. A real authentic medical bloodhound snapping out her questions like Inspector McGonigle.
She was a hospitalist, whatever that was; she was in the employ of my health program. She had come to me out of the dark night, probably from some social event. She had sprung me from an ordinary room downstairs and had the nurse’s wheel me over to critical care to have some telemetry work. She thought I might benefit from a neurological evaluation.
Soon I was in the fourth floor of the critical care ward of our hospital, all hooked up with cardiac monitors. I could see things for myself, I had been studying the lowest line on the monitor, and I knew I wouldn’t last until the morning. The sine waves had a hypnotic splendor. There was nothing in them that spoke of regularity or reassurance. They spoke of earthquakes, seaquakes, political upheavals, sudden Nebraska-style prairies, and then little blanknesses when nothing at all was happening. My heart was a winded old one-lunger farm engine ready to give a final wheeze and go clunk. Neurology. I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Let’s concentrate,” she said, “Tell me what happened.” She reached up and turned the monitor off.
“Hold on, let me get some help. I’ll be right back.”
Soon a nurse came in, and with the doctor helping, they moved my bed so it faced the window. Outside heavy snow was falling on the half-empty parking lot. Maybe there would be no school tomorrow.
She moved her chair over by my bed, and sat there. She seemed to be watching something behind me.
“ It was like this,” I said.
“Hold it for another minute, Mike.”
I lay there watching the snow fall. The light down at the corner of Elm and Locust went from red to green, but had no audience. The streets were empty. It must be two or three in the morning. The whole world was quiet. In a minute or two the light changed again.
“OK” she finally said, “Tell me what happened.”
I told her the story as straight as I could. I told her there was nothing splendid or even interesting in my last day in normal existence. I had moved some wood out in the back yard, had a glass of wine, a slice of quiche and salad for supper. We had stayed home; we were watching an old episode of LOST on the DVD, episode three. It was about nine fifteen pm. The doctor in the show was working feverishly on the security guard, who had barely survived the plane crash, when the quake began at 17 Summer Street. My wife was on the couch; I was sitting in my daddy’s armchair. The whole room began to stagger around me. I sat there patiently and waited for this little episode of dizziness to go away.
“You didn’t stand up and then get dizzy.”
No. But now the dizziness began to gather some force and traction and became the eye of a storm. It lifted me up to my feet with a biblical promise that the end was near. I was going up to heaven. I was walking on tippy-toes, light as a fucking feather, and the floor fell away. Everything began to pitch dramatically; the floor suddenly came back up and smacked me a good one on my chin. The next thing I knew I was down on my knees in the stove room holding onto this spidery antique table and dragging it around as if it could help me somehow. My wife was on her feet and calling to me.
“ Mike, what’s happening, Mike what is going on?
I had no idea of what was going on. The perfect idiot. Who or what was I fighting and why couldn’t I get a decent punch in? I tried to talk and had nothing to say. I somehow made into the bathroom and got my pants down and suddenly there was an awful mess. Twin accidents, pants that had to be gingerly stepped out of.
“What can I do?” My wife’s frightened voice came from far away. “Tell me what to do.”
I tried to talk and the words all poured out and danced around me in a word-players jumble. The lord of incontinence, works of great import lay at my feet. I concentrated comically, the good Lord trying to concentrate on what to do. The fecal matter had import. Something was drastically wrong. I thought I needed help. “Call 911.” I said. After a couple minutes the phone was in my hand and I managed not to drop it. Soon I was talking to someone who was calm, oh Lord in heaven how I needed people who were calm and friendly and were doing nothing at the moment but sitting quietly by the phone having a cup of coffee and maybe doing a crossword puzzle. I burbled something in code and he got it. Help was on the way. The first to arrive was a policeman. He saw the mess on the floor, saw me with my skirts up, and took out his notebook.
“They are on their way, Mike.” he said.
I thought I knew him from somewhere. Then was a whole crew of people. A cuff was on my arm, the chief helper whistled when he had a twenty point drop from the next-to nothing reading he had when I was sitting down. That was an impressive stunt, the first of many I was to perform.
“Were you unconscious at any time?” said the doctor. “Would your wife know?”
“She’s asleep now. Don’t bother her.” I knit my brows extensively, and thought about it for a long while.
“I am not such a good observer. “
I looked over at her and shook my head sheepishly and shrugged. I was oddly proud of that little confession, which had multiple implications. I was a writer. No stories tonight. No dramatic fiction for the doctor, who was trying to help. No exaggerations. I had to think clearly. The lady doctor didn’t like the ER diagnosis. Here she was, a free unsolicited second opinion arriving wearing silk and looking glamorous. There was class-based envy from a plump RN who grumbled to him why Doctor Westphal could keep her figure with so little effort. The news didn’t seem relevant, the news from her that she was gay was. Another “no” vote for us men. She wondered why the ER doctor hadn’t noted that this explosion of fecal matter was more consistent with a stroke. I couldn’t grip the doctor’s finger with my right hand as hard as she thought I should. I followed her finger from right rear to left rear. Her clear eyes saw a lot.
“You might have had a seizure or a stroke. There are certain things that are not consistent with a fainting spell caused by an overdose of blood pressure meds.”
“Oh, things that were in the ambulance report. Your readings. Your difficulty in talking, fecal and urinary incontinence coming on suddenly that way. Were you on the way to the bathroom in the first place?”
“But you ended up there. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“It reminds me of the West Point syndrome.”
“Prolonged periods of extremely low blood pressure can bring on seizures and, in some cases, strokes.”
A stroke, I thought, as she concentrated her penlight into my left eye, and then the right.
“Why West Point?”
“Oh” she laughed, “You know West Point. Cadets stand at attention in the boiling sun for hours for inspection. The blood pools in their legs, they often faint. But in West Point, the men on either side of a faintee hold him up to save his honor. Falling is a good thing, they wake right up and no damage is done. Standing when you are unconscious means that the low blood pressure is prolonged, and you get seizures or strokes.”
My father had his stroke in the junior high school gym, three days before his retirement day. His ruddy good-natured Irish alkie glow gradually faded away in the weeks before he died. We just watched him come and go, grey and pasty and resigned. On Thursday March 23rd he was going to come home for good, and then he would have nothing to stay sober for. The buffer went wild as he fell, banging against the walls and crashing about until it finally yanked its cord out and went dead. Later they would mop up the blood and when I got there, the next day, there was nothing to see. The gym floor shone malignantly, the bleachers and the score board were all rigged up for the big game that night with North Quincy. Life went on.
“I noticed something, “ said the doctor. “When I got here you were watching the monitor. I sometimes think we would be better off having them turned off when they are not needed. We turned your bed toward the window. There was a really, and I mean really dramatic drop in your blood pressure in a couple minutes. Here we are pumping the saline into you to get your pressures back up, and now its back down to eighty over 50. If we let you get up, you’d keel over again. “
“Really?” I said. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.” she said, “What were you thinking about when you were watching those monitors?”
Out on the distant streets the lights had gone red again. Everyone stops.
“I was worried. I was looking at that monitor and I was scared to death. My lines were all over the map. My old man died of a stroke.”
“Ah,” she said. “ So that is it. I’ll be right back. Think peaceful thoughts. You’ll be here a couple days, I think, until some tests come in. Think about snow. No school tomorrow, I guess. Even the high school is going to be out. 12 to 18 inches Tom Bavaqua said.”
In a few minutes she came back with the nurse and they moved my bed around again so it faced the line of monitors.
“What do you see?” She said. “You are number three.”
No jagged peaks, no cliff-side drops, just a simple sine wave. A slow surge, then a smooth drop then building toward another hilltop. A peaceful series of ocean swells.
“You see it, don’t you?” she said. “I went back and looked at the tape to make sure. The good news is your heart is ok. No signs of coronary disease. But you have all these adrenalin-type surges. You’re emotional, you seem to have a lot of anxiety about things, and I think it is affecting your heart. I looked at your history and you would come into the clinic with these stroke-level readings, and your regular doctor kept cranking up your dosage. Anxiety-related pressures, I think. You were taking all the medicine in the morning, and by late in the day they all were working hard, and you weren’t. Let’s wheel him around again, Jennie. And let him get some sleep. ”
On Monday morning a cardiologist saw me. He had discontinued most of his blood pressure meds. There was only a tiny 10-milligram Lisinopril in my morning cup. I should see my doctor in a week.
Two days later I went to the town of Devens to do some research. Our group of preservationists were fighting an uphill battle with city hall to save the beautiful main building out at our state hospital from the wrecker’s ball. I had filed a freedom of information request to get some state records, and it had been approved. Devens was a two hour drive. My wife didn’t think I should go, but I had arranged it all weeks ago, so I went anyway.
Plowing through two big cartons of records in the new headquarters of the MassDevelopment, the quasi-state organization that was doing the developing, I found myself going back and forth to the bathroom, pissing like a trooper every half an hour. I didn’t feel so good; I had a headache. With only two volumes left to go, I struck some pay dirt, a log of meetings among development staff that targeted with precision their decision to knock down the historic cluster of buildings my group wanted to save. I remembered that the ER physician said I had been dehydrated. I broke for lunch. In my bitterly cold car, I took off my coat, drank my Evian water, took off my shirt and took a reading. It was really, really high.
Afterwards I had an egg-salad sandwich at the brand-new Devens mini-mall. I looked on gloomily as inappropriately cheerful young Army soldiers in desert fatigues bound for Afghanistan ate lunch and cracked jokes. The mini-mall pretty much had the hilltop to itself, a town center waiting for a new town to grow up around it. MassDevelopment had created Devens out of the wreckage of another old hospital and an army post. Now there was this vast open space that was slowly filling up with modern buildings and for sale signs. In a couple months they would probably start work in my hometown knocking down our old state hospital. And when they were done, there would probably be a mini-mall up there, maybe a couple of factory buildings, and some new houses. Well-connected developers would make money. All the local politicians were on board with the decision and there was plenty of gas for the bulldozers.
Everyone was on board but me and my group. We were running out of options. I would call people and only a couple die-hards would show up. Some day I probably would call a meeting and there would be no one there except a woman who I’m sure is secretly taking notes for the Mayor. We weren’t doing well. Giving up was not easy for me. I am one stubborn son of a bitch.
I looked around at the hilltop and made myself see it. It was time to quit thinking and let this all sink in. This was what was ahead for our site. This is what Massdevelopment did: they knocked down everything. They didn’t do preservation. This was reality, everything else was a pipedream, the standard vision of me single-handedly stopping progress. It wasn’t going to happen. Here was the future. It was time to give up. Throw in the towel. Cry in the towel. Slap yourself around with the towel and wake up. I was an old man addicted to fighting losing causes. I had some serious medical problems that had to be addressed, or I would end up keeling over just like my old man did.
The last of the obstructionists. I thought about the cheerful sexy doctor with her diagnosis. Maybe she should have tied me down, filled out a ten day paper, and sent me up on the psych unit to cool off.
I went into my briefcase, found the papers I just had just copied. I ripped them up and threw them all into the MiniMart official wastebasket. There. I felt better already. Why do you keep going and going with things when any reasonable person would say that I’ve done enough?
It was half past three, time to go home. At an intersection in the little town of Millard, distracted by a photogenic main street full of throwbacks like a 5 & 10 and a real live A & P market, I willfully, foolishly took a wrong turn. And like a fool kept going. I kept looking for a sign that would point me back to Route 2 west. I never saw one. I found myself lost, as lost as I had ever been. It was now dark, and now there was fog. The winds were blowing and I was blowing before them, afraid to stop, afraid to disappoint all of the drivers behind me who were all depending on my stupidity. Now I was on Route 12A, a road to nowhere, lost in a warren of streets lined with three-deckers and sub-shops. For almost an hour I jigged and jagged. I stopped at gas stations and asked directions and then forgot what they were. Two or three times I found myself caught in the same channel of one-way streets in the center of some town. Left, right or straight ahead? The signs offered subtle clues, but I couldn’t focus. I had a splitting headache, I felt lousy. I was beeped and cursed at as I crept along, making inappropriate turns or braking suddenly. My wife would be worried sick about me by now.
At the corner of Duck Hill Road and Bemis Road I lost it entirely; I sat mutely at the wheel in a state of paralysis. The light turned from green to red and I didn’t move. A chorus of horns booed; angry drivers went around. One of them flipped me the finger. To the left, the local hospital. A huge blue H with an arrow. To the right, the airport. I went left. The triage woman at the Washoba Regional Hospital took my blood pressure and made a little face. Doors opened, a gurney materialized and the supporting cast appeared from off stage. In no time at all I was wearing wires. Tests were ordered, I flashed my Medicare card and it was the best of everything. An hour later all the tests came back and my ginger ale was turning warm. My blood pressure was very high, but coming down, and my heart and lungs sounded ok. They gave me some meds to hold me over for a while. By six thirty it was time to move on; the triage lady gave me a set of instructions as how to get home. Route 2, it turned out, was very close. For an hour now I had been avoiding it.
I stepped outside the door and there it was, a quiet insistent roar of its traffic. No more than a couple hundred feet away. One right, one left and I was on the cloverleaf headed west. It was rainy, it was foggy, my dumb headlights were weak and ineffectual. I was starting to wander again like a lost soul, looking for that dotted line on the left, the solid on the right. Only when the reflectorized markers started west of Athol did I settle down to the straight and narrow, and pile on a little speed. An hour and a half later I was finally home.
When I arrived that big pile of green wood was still in the driveway waiting to be stacked. Apologies to my wife had no perceptible affect and she wasn’t talking to me. She turned up the volume and ignored me, as she should. I got a can of Budweiser out of the refrigerator, threw a couple pieces of wood on the fire and sat down to get a grip on things. No more adventures. Four days ago, about this time I was kneeling right here holding onto to that stupid table, whimpering for mercy. I went into the bathroom, arranged all my pill canisters before me in an artistic manner, and took my blood pressure. It was still very high. I filled my weekly tray.
“There’s no fool like an old fool.” I said to no one in particular.