The Pain, Will Robinson
The Pain, Will Robinson
[originally published on my old blog, circa 2006]
So for the past week or so, I’ve been experiencing some gastrointestinal discomfort—sort of a low fever, on-and-off pains in my lower abdomen, etc. Figuring it was a virus or something, I didn’t think much of it until Monday, when it seemed to intensify rather quickly, with contractions coming every 20 minutes or so, causing me to double over. I made an appointment with my doctor, which was my fatal mistake as it sent me off on an medical odyssey that I wouldn’t wish on my enemies, or even my old pal Senior Smoke.
My doctor starts cross-examining me in the typical, bored fashion: “What’s wrong?” “When did this start?” “Have you ever been to Cameroon or been injected with beef growth hormones?” “Has anyone in your family ever eaten cheese on a Tuesday?” “Have you ever seen a grown man naked, Timmy?” All those relevent questions.
Then he begins to physically examine me and the real fun begins! He starts pushing down on my lower abdomen in various spots, checking to see what place hurts the most. After about five minutes of this, Dr. de Sade is able to find the spot that is causing the most pain as every time he pushes down, I wince and involunatarily cringe—it’s like he’s punching a bruise while wearing a spiked set of brass knuckles. He keeps repeatedly poking Ground Zero. “So this is where it hurts, right?”
“Uh, yeah!” I say for the hundredth time, now feeling a little dizzy from all the torture.
“Hmm . . .” he says, eyeing a tube of K-Y jelly on the table next to us. “I better do a quick rectal to doublecheck.” He snaps on the latex, lubes up and you all know what happens next. And as he’s shoving his fat sausage fingers up my rectum, he asks, “Does this hurt?”
“YES!” I actually scream, almost leaping over the exam table. Unless I was Freddie Mercury after an all-night orgy in Provincetown, did he think it wouldn’t?
“All right, you can pull up your pants. I’ll be right back,” he says. I gather up my drawers and what’s left of my dignity, and slump into the chair. Now I can add feeling violated on top of feeling crappy, pun intended/not intended—you decide.
Torquenada comes back. “With the level of your distress, I called the emergency room at St. Vincent’s in case there’s some kind of intestinal perforation. I want you to go down there for a CT scan, some blood tests and to be checked out by a gastrointestinal surgeon. Can you drive yourself down there?”
It’d have been easier if you didn’t spend the last 10 minutes assaulting my colon, I thought, but “yeah, I can make it. Thanks,” I mutter. If I’d known what he was sending me off to, I would’ve punched him in the throat right there and then.
I get to the ER at about 1:15, and unlike the TV show, the level of urgency regarding the patients is akin to a Mississippi fishing hole on an August afternoon. There’s one guy bleeding from the skull, another guy with his hand in a bag of ice, a mother with four kids [d'oh!] one of which is coughing up her guts—plus the more damaged folks coming in by ambulance—and the nurses, orderlies and medical assistants seem more intent on joking around with the overly jovial EMTs than assisting anyone. Seriously, do they realize that it’s not very comforting when a loved one is suffering and they’re all laughing loudly about the last french fry of their happy meals? Not to mention how it seems to long-waiting patients? All I can say is thank Joe Willie Namath that I wasn’t in need of serious medical attention like some of the other poor bastards I saw. And just the general way they treated people .. . .
An example: An elderly man in a baseball cap was brought in by ambulance. They put him in a wheelchair and dump him in the corner by me until a triage nurse can see him. The EMT who brought him in comes over after about 10 minutes to tell him that the nurse will see him in a few minutes. The old guy, knowing better, waves the EMT off, laughing and saying “sure, sure.” The EMT actually says, “I’ll bet you $100 that they see you in 10 minutes.” The old guy waves him off again, but the EMT persists with it. “A C-note, $100, that they see you in 10 minutes.” He extends his hand. The old guy gets a little shine in his eye and reluctantly takes the EMT’s hand. I glance up at the clock—3:09. At 3:14, the EMT has wandered away from guy to join in the jocularity at the nurse’s station. At 3:17, he is scarfing a few french fries. At 3:18, he is standing near the exit. By 3:19, he is out the door without so much as making eye contact again and the old guy is just left muttering to himself.
So I’m checked in, and wait about 45 minutes until I’m seen by the triage nurse, who takes my blood, puts an IV site in my arm, checks my temp [now at 100.9 degrees F] and gives me a tasty barium libation for the CT scan. She never tells me that I’m supposed to drink a second shake after 1.5 hours, and that my CT scan can’t be done until 1.5 hours after that, which at that point in the day would’ve been good information to have. Actually, that would’ve been ANY information; apparently telling people how long they have to wait or what they can expect is not standard operating procedure at St. Vincent’s, something that a med tech confides to me later. During this time, the pain seems to only be increasing. Just swell.
Around 4, the surgeon my doctor had wanted me to see shows up in the waiting room—the only person that I am to meet today that shows any concern or sense of urgency. She is dumbfounded that I’ve been waiting for three hours already, and commandeers one of the triage rooms to examine me on the off chance that I actually have some sort of intestinal perforation that might require immediate emergency surgery, which apparently is the reason I was sent there in the first place.
She is a very attractive Chinese woman, whose skilled hands I’m embarrassed to have in the front of my pants pushing down on my aching abdomen, which is essentially on fire at this point. [There's a joke about "a happy ending" to be made here, I think.] And when she finds out that they haven’t even given me my second barium shake—obviously, I had no idea or I would’ve asked for it rather than just having sat in the waiting room watching ultimate fighting on ESPN with the guy bleeding from the skull and the lady with the four kids—she tells off one of the triage nurses. Sadly, after I get the shake and a promise that I’m to be moved along more quickly, I never see her again. Oh, and my temp now has broken the 101.3 mark.
The triage nurse angrily hands me both my second barium shake and a urine sample cup. Apparently, I’m not supposed to pour one directly into the other, but rather empty one into me and then fill the other out of me. In the restroom stall, it’s quite a trick. I don’t want to put anything down on the gnarly floor, and there’s no place to rest anything, so I have to juggle the shake, the urine specimen cup and myself, all the time trying not to dislodge the IV site that’s dangling out of my arm. In a routine would make Charlie Chaplin spin in his grave, I accomplish my tasks. I bring the sample back to the triage station, where the shift has changed and the medical assistant there looks baffled by the concept. She writes my name on a piece of paper, and puts it under the sample, and slides it off to a corner of the station. About a half hour later, a med tech in the actual ER will be searching wildly for this sample as she asks me three times for it and I tell her each time where it is. In retrospect, I assume she found it—if she didn’t, I wouldn’t want to be the one who stumbles across it.
But first, back to the waiting room, where other patients have now lapped me, later-arriving ones that are even being brought into the main ER. It’s coming up on 5 p.m. EDT, 4 hours after I first arrived, and I’m still out in this part of the hospital. The poor old guy who got stiffed by the EMT on the $100 is still out here, too. He keeps saying he’s got to go, but the staff keeps blowing him off, thinking he wants to leave. When I hear him say something about “handicapped bathroom” and see him holding his groin, I realize he’s talking about a different kind of “go.” I alert an orderly to the fact that this guy needs some help—I’m in no shape at this point to help myself onto the toilet, let alone this guy. The orderly finishes his hamburger, takes the guy off toward the main ER, then returns a few minutes empty-handed. I assume he didn’t push him into a dumpster or just leave him in the bathroom, but I never find out as it is now [finally] my turn to go into the main ER.
Of course, I’m told I have to wait about a half hour before I can have my CT scan done, which turns out to be more of another 1.5 hours. But that’s okay, because I’m put into a very lovely room behind the patient’s bathroom that clearly was a broom closet at one point. And I’m not exaggerating here—there’s one dirty overhead flourescent light, a floor drain, no big humming medical thingys, no TV, no magazines, no machine that goes “ping!”—just a gurney, a locked cabinet and a chair. Later, the same med tech that told me about the lack of patient-friendly services at St. Vincent’s, informs me that people are often forgotten about in this room. My experience to this point suggests it’s not only this room.
But hey, that’s okay. My fever is up to 101.9 now, I haven’t had anything to ingest in the past six hours other than a barium highball or two—not even water, which would be divine right about now—and I’m pretty sure I’m ready to give birth directly through my abdomen to one of the creatures in Alien. Since no one will make contact with my for the next 1.25 hours, I put on my tattered johnny coat as instructed, then intermittently rest, writhe in pain, try not to scare the little girl peeking in from the room next door, and listen to the sounds of other patients being attended to.
The CT scan tech finally appears, and makes me get into a wheelchair. I notice it’s now about 6:15, a full 5 hours after I arrived, which may not seem like an especially long time to some, but when you don’t feel good and aren’t being told anything by anyone about what’s going on, it can seem like forever. The CT scan tech is nice enough, leisurely rolling me through the ER to the CT scan area. I start to become concerned, however, as instead of heading toward another wing of the hospital, we approach the exit doors. “Don’t worry,” she laughs. “The CT scan machines have been moved to the parking lot as they renovate the hospital. Ooh look, it’s raining!”
But she’s not joking. I’m burning a 102-degree fever, wearing a flimsy johnny coat and now I’m going for a ride through the parking lot in the rain—”We’ll just go between the drops” she says. Sure enough, the CT scan machine is in a big double-wide trailer on cinder blocks in the lot, only missing a few chickens running around and that kid from Deliverance with the banjo. They put me on a hydraulic lift with railings around it [think a KISS concert, with a bloated Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley being hoisted to the rafters playing "Rock and Roll All Nite," minus the confetti cannons] and load me up.
Inside the trailer, they put me on the CT scanner, which looks a lot like the thing they load Dr. Banner into before he turns into the Hulk, right down to the laser crosshairs that they align on my face. I glance at my biceps, thinking if they pump me up full of gamma radiation, I hope they stop before I turn green and my pants tactfully split.
No, instead, they’re pumping dye into my arm through the IV site and tell me this: “As the dye enters your blood, you’ll have a warm sensation like you’re relieving yourself, but you’re not. Don’t worry. Only worry if your arm starts to get itchy, because that means you’re having an allergic reaction to the dye. We need to know immediately so we can stop and give you the medication you need to counteract it.” Yeah, this sounds funny, except a friend of my family who was only 14 at the time died on the CT scanner of just such a reaction. Like I don’t have enough to be worried about at this point.
Of course, I’m nonetheless giggling like an idiot because the CT scanner looks like a missile tube, or the start of a ride at Disney—when it’s over I expect to be launched down the tube and through a water flume, ending up in a big splash. Then an exit through the gift shop: “Remember on the way out to buy your CT scan images with Goofy next to you! Ayuk!”
Anyway, no itchies, no Goofy, although I do enjoy another wet ride back through the lot to my broom closet, where a different surgeon is waiting to tell me it’ll be at least a half hour before they get the results. He’s also got with him a teenage girl who’s not in any sort of medical garb but is just sorta standing around watching him probe my abdomen. Maybe he’s trying to impress her with his powers of torture, because he now goes to work on me like an old Italian pizza maker, poking and kneading my gut like it’s dough. He all but throws a few slices on pepperoni on me.
“Diverticulitis,” he finally announces/pronounces. “Of course, we won’t be sure until your CT scan comes back. I’ll be back.”
Like so many others in this tale, he isn’t. Eventually, after being left alone in my closet for another two hours of in-and-out of consciousness, my long-suffering wife arrives, and in 15 minutes or so, is able to find out that my CT scan is clean, and that it is probably a mild case of diverticulitis [I don't wish a severe case on anyone!], which can be treated with antibiotics. At 9:15 p.m.—a mere 8 hours later—the IV site is removed from my arm (along with a sizeable clump of hair), I’m finally given a drink of water and am mercifully released from the hospital.
Oh sure, my intestines were still on fire, but I could go home. And that’s the best medicine of all.