I was actively conscious that I was a Sickly Kid. My mother told me, daily, that I was allergic to almost everything (possibly life itself), that I had contracted pneumonia every year since birth, that I should stay home from school if the temperature fell below 15 degrees, that, all in all, I was more fragile than a Ming vase (if not worth half so much).
My being became so tied to the idea of sickness that my parents gave me an adjustable sickbed table for Christmas – which I enjoyed and which I can still picture in minute detail, including the one filed-down roundhead bolt (nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell) that Dad used to replace a missing flathead bolt.
Whether in bed or out, this table was where I spent much of my time with my humongous coloring book that was divided into sections: standard outline figures for coloring; numbered connect-the-dots arrays; find the hidden figures; pages for painting; and my favorite – the almost magical sheets which, when swished with a brush dipped in plain water, brought forth different colors on the formerly black and white pages – I can still picture the emergence of Dagwood’s pinky-red pajamas.
Let me clear: Maybe I really was the sickest human being on the planet. I don’t care: No parent should ever do such a thing to a child! It’s the spiritual equivalent of reaming the kid’s emotional innards with an ice cream scoop. What was Mon’s point in this? Possibly to keep me close, the one son whose closeness she might salvage.
I missed 100 days of school in first grade, 80 in the second – one whole year’s worth of class days. Not surprisingly, I felt no connection with my fellow students. The mere thought of school made me heave my breakfast most mornings. My inner and outer sicknesses had merged into a scattershot spray of terrors, what I later named omniphobia – fear of everything.
My most humiliating school experience was my recovery from chicken pox. In those days, you were quarantined until the disease passed (or flew the coop). With the pox gone, I stumbled off to school that morning, reported to the office and was told that without an official doctor’s release I must return home. Back the three or four blocks, cast out even from a place I loathed.
Now that we’re thoroughly enmeshed in sickness and misery, lets flip through a brief catalog of doctors I’ve known through the years.
Sulfa drugs, a product of the ’40s, pulled me through those early yearly bouts of pneumonia. I have a single vague memory of a doctor visiting when I was about four. Can’t see his face, but I think physically but not emotionally severe.
Pinprick tests by another visitor showed I was violently reactive to dust (plenty of that at our Hastings Ave. house), lamb, chocolate and – orange juice?? Nobody’s allergic to orange juice. My father made chocolate chip cookies for the family and left me the chip-free, bottom-of-the-bowl scrapings – why not just throw me under the steamroller?
After we moved Powelton in Philly, our first doctor was officed down at the end of our block. I enjoyed his little sugar pills with their enticing, alcoholic under-tang. I never thought about it until a few years ago when brother Rod noted that Dr. F. was a homeopath. Rod also claimed he was a misanthrope who let someone die on his front porch because it was past office hours.
During my teens, I was shunted to a woman doctor downtown, on Rittenhouse Square, the ultra hoity-toit of Philly hoity-toitiness. (Her house was later bought by the art collector next door and incorporated into his brick mansionlet, with its bronze guard dog eternally reclining by the steps.) She didn’t make appointments. So, unaccompanied, having ridden the underground trolley in misery, dripping snot and half falling off the waiting-room chair, I’d sit among the bilious and indisposed until my turn came, wishing I was at home, dying quietly.
In her office, she’d blast existential-smelling shit up my nose so I could blow the plugged contents of my sinuses into monstrous Kleenexes: Normal folks never see these tissue mothers – I wish I had them today. She’d hand me a little bottle of powdered penicillin, then back home on the subway to keel over and sweat under a pile of blankets.
(I later had a massive reaction to the penicillin powder – or, from what I read later, possibly to the filler used at the time to make us believe we were getting a Whole Lot of Medicine. I broke out in hives that fused until I became a uniform 1/8-inch thicker, head to feet. Then I passed out. My mother, on some amazing instinct, stuck me in the shower. I revived without further incident. Huh!)
Slightly later, I got athlete’s foot (“Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll get athlete’s foot” – Killdozer lyric). I think I got the feet of the entire NY Yankees. I became a fungal sideshow, my toes and arches blistered and swathed in gauze, barely able to hobble.
Back then, you first squished on Desitin, a zinc oxide prep that did slightly less than squat. Next step up, you soaked your feet in a scalding hot foot-bath of potassium permanganate – a brilliant, scintillating purple beyond the hope of the most potent of Oriental potentates. Oh, did that feel good on my tormented tootsies. I guess it was supposed to oxidize the microscopic bastards – you could almost hear their tiny screams. But, in my case, the bitty athletes just laughed. Last step, I had my feet irradiated. It worked. The suppurating ooze was Nagasaki’d away – yet I could still have children!
In the fall of 1977, I had an eye operation. All my life I’ve had double vision. Growing up, it was an ever-present half image (on the left) behind and underlapping a full image (on the right). You get used to such things, right? NO! I could never ignore that second half image. It gave me a headache, almost every day.
At Wills Eye Hospital in Philly, a short, compact, smug surgeon told me that shifting the muscles controlling movement of the left eye would be merely “cosmetic.” Oh, really, Dr. Smartass? Happens I’m very familiar with how my eyes work.
Cosmetic my ass – I haven’t had an eye-related headache since the operation. But the morning after, as I blundered from my hospital room, I experienced two corridors, one branching right, the other left, with a grey emptiness between. I loved it! It took a couple days to resolve my vision into the “real” world. The first time I saw what a tree actually looked like, I cried.
In the ’80s, Linda and I routinely visited Dr. Fetter, downtown, on 21st St. He was in his late 60s, early 70s, a compassionate, superbly decent, fully knowing, competent professional who charged the decade-before-last’s fees. He first diagnosed Linda’s ulcer (alas, before ulcers were found to be bacterial, but he treated it to effect) and relieved the worst pain I’ve ever had (either from food poisoning from a barely-shrink-wrapped sandwich on a return flight from interviewing Noam Chomsky, or – extrapolating from later experience – a kidney stone).
Going to acupuncturist Dr. Wheeler Yin in the ’90s mornings, I’d listen to the Drexel University station broadcast mostly punk. I’d hear Mikey Wilde, a loose Philly nut, sing “I Hate New York,” which ends with the bubbling refrain, “fuck you New York, fuck you – New York fuck you.” Drexel shoved in random bleeps that bore no relation to the placement of the “fucks.” Heh.
Dr. Yin worked from a semi-basement office in Society Hill, down by the river. You lay under a stained drop ceiling and meditated or fell asleep. Acupuncture doesn’t hurt. The micro-slim needles slip in without your body noticing, just ahhh. Something inside my shoulder had ripped when I’d tried isometrics in the ’70s (don’t!). It had stabbed me in odd positions for over 25 years. After 6 or 7 insinuations of Dr. Yin’s needles – total, lasting relief.
(Up in Sullivan County, I tried acupuncture for my back, performed by an American doctor sporting a mustache with tightly cured end-hairs and a Dr. Seuss tie. Nada. Maybe it needs the Asian touch?)
Somewhere in and around Dr. Yin, I took a congeries of ailments to a woman on 46th Street recommended by both my elder daughters. Most times I take their recommendations, because they’re far wiser than I am. Most times. In this case, I’m surprised Morgan and Erin are still functional.
More than once I arrived at her office to find from her mildly depressed receptionist that the doctor’s own ailments made it impossible for her to attend me that morning. Couldn’t miss malamind have called me?
When I finally got through to the doc about my hand and arm numbing, she unravelled a remarkable skein of possibilities involving angry responses from my spinal vertebrae. She recommended a regimen of Xrays and MRI scans. I did sign on for the Xrays, but something about her outlook unsettled me, and I never went for the MRIs, which would have walloped the health system for a sizable amount.
After our move upstate, it became clear that my whole arm-wrist-hand thing was carpal tunnel syndrome, a fairly common and obvious complaint (doesn’t the Carpal Tunnel carry trains through the Alps?). Dr. Nazar, a Mexican who doesn’t give a flying fark about convention, operated on both my wrists, humming the whole time.
At one point, under local anesthetic, I tried to see what he was doing. He stepped back: “You don’t want to see the inside of your hand!” Slight pause. “You want to see the inside of your hand?” He immediately held up my slit, blood-drained, wide-open palm for review, explaining everything visible in the chicken-white interior. Then he went back to humming. When he was through, he slingshot his latex gloves into the trashcan across the room.
Our family physician most years since 2000 (when, on Halloween, his receptionist, who owned a local winery, greeted me in witch’s hat) is both a superb doctor and a blues musician. He prodded me to eat good food (I resisted) and to have pieces of metal rammed up my arteries (I rejoiced).
In 2010(?) I came to him because my intermittent mild chest pain had become more frequent. When it refused to be intermittent, he sent me to the ER in Williamsport – two weeks before I’d flunked an echo-stress test (running a treadmill like a gerbil while someone took grainy brown-tinted pix of my heart that looked like the fur on our dog’s back).
At Williamsport I was re-tested and quickly admitted as a patient for angioplasty… again. (I’d had a stent inserted there a few years before.) In the OR I was greeted by 3 lively, lovely, friendly, chatty nurses. Everyone on the Williamsport staff was bright and eager to help (even over-eager). A few of the women were genuine foxes, which didn’t hurt at all.
Angioplasty consisted of sticking a tiny catheter into the femoral artery through a small incision near the groin and snaking it up into the coronary arteries, where a little balloon-thing on the end flattened fatty deposits against the artery walls (“Oh no, Daddy Art! Not the Catheter!”).
None of that may sound like fun, but for somebody like me… it was. I had only local anesthesia, but none of the procedure really hurt: The area around the incision was mildly dulled with some green stuff that looked like the translucent primer we used on the decks of the oil tankers I worked on. And the insides of blood vessels have no nerve endings, so they don’t know you’re bothering them.
The catheter then delivered a dye that showed up on videos taken by a monstrous camera hanging over the table from beams. This horse of a device danced delicately around at the whim of the tech taking pix. The cardiologist then had his Aha! moment, noting that a coronary artery was indeed badly obstructed. His next step was to recommend insertion of another stent, a bitty, spring-like metal mesh that holds the artery open once the obstruction has been flattened.
He handed the actual insertion off to another surgeon, who wouldn’t be available for half an hour. In the meantime, he told three really bad dirty jokes involving fishermen and hot-chocolate enemas. He actually did say “Oops!” at one point. I really liked this man.
While waiting for doc #2, the chattiest nurse leaned on the table and delivered her life story to me. It was neither boring nor intrusive, just an honest give and take.
The second doctor, a volatile Polish Jew, looked at the video and rubbed his chin. “You have two choices, a stent or a bypass. There’s a lot of calcium in there, really hard. I can try getting through it, but I’m not sure I can. If I can, good. If it starts to close on me, boom! a heart attack! We’d have to get you down for a bypass right away.”
“What do you think is best?” I hazarded.
He shrugged. “It’s your choice.”
Again, I liked this man and also really trusted him, so… “Go ahead, I know you can do it.”
There’s some mild pain associated with angioplasty, when the balloon expands, which it does for about 20-30 seconds each time. Ouch. Ahhh. Ouch. Ahhh. Running the balloon back and forth, expanding it along the way, he tunneled successfully through.
“I knew he could do it,” said I to a nurse.
He then inserted the drug-coated stent, anticlimactically.
Back in my room, I lay still for six hours with a 10-lb. sandbag on my leg to assure that the invaded femoral artery stayed closed to heal. That was the worst. Try lying still for 6 hours with a 10-lb. sandbag on your leg when you really, really need to take a crap. Try even thinking about it.
I went home, the chest pain gone – except for a dull ache from oh, my somewhat broken heart.