I've been MIA lately, I know. It seems the less I write, the less I feel like writing, so I have to do something about that, because I really do like writing. So I have a story to tell you. I spent $27,500 dollars about a month or so ago. I would like to say I purchased a new car, or put an addition on my house or even spent it on hookers and blow, but no. I spent it for a single night's accommodations in a drafty room in the city so a burly guy named Steve with a tattoo on his neck could offer me injectable drugs. Yes, I spent a 27K on a single night in the hospital.
And the kicker is, I did it of my own free will. It's not like I woke up in the hospital and the last thing I remembered was the grill of an 18 wheeler coming through my living room wall. In fact, I came so close to not even going to the emergency room that I'm still kicking myself in the ass for not playing the odds.
So let me tell you what happened, and you can decide if I'm an idiot or not.
About five years ago, I was watching TV and my eyes decided they couldn't take another minute of Sons of Anarchy, and they checked out. My vision went all funky, and I had zero peripheral vision. I thought I was having a stroke or something, so off to the ER we went.
By the time we got to the hospital, I was fine. They checked me out, gave me a CT Scan, had an eye guy look me over, and sent me home with a diagnosis of ocular migraine (migraine with aura, if you want to get all medical about it) and instructions to see an eye specialist for a follow up, just to make sure it wasn't anything with my eyeball nerves. After that checked out fine too, I was given the all clear, and told it might be a one-time thing.
Well, it turned out that it wasn't a one-time thing. It's continued to happen once every four or five months for the last couple of years. So I'm pretty familiar with the regular symptoms. Basically what happens is that I'll be minding my own business and suddenly I'll notice that it's difficult to read small type, because the center of my vision looks like it has sparkles in it. Remember when you were a kid and you pressed your palms to your eyeballs until it looked like white static? And then it took your vision a few seconds to come back? Like that.* Eventually, with my particular brand of migraine, after about ten or fifteen minutes, the sparkly part starts expanding into a ring, and it gets wider and wider until it's at the edges of my vision. Then it goes away and I have a slight headache for a few hours. It helps to take a couple of aspirin as soon as it starts.
A couple of months ago, I was sitting in my office working on the computer and I felt a migraine coming on. It was getting hard to read the screen, so I sighed, stood up, walked to the bathroom and downed a couple of aspirin and went out to the living room to wait it out. My wife was home that day, and I told her I was having a migraine and I just took a couple of aspirin, but talking felt a little...strange. Like I knew what I wanted to say, but it was really hard to get it out of my mouth. You know that feeling when the exact word you want is on the tip of your tongue but you can't remember it? It was exactly nothing like that. I could remember the words, but it took me a few seconds to wrap my tongue around them.
So that was weird. My wife was engrossed in a difficult and arcane knitting ritual, so she really wasn't paying much attention and just said, "Mmm hmm," and went back to tying complex knots in string with large needles. I walked back to my office, and for absolutely no reason at all, I turned on my iphone and opened up the BBC and picked an article at random. I don't even remember what it was, but I started reading it out loud. The results were hilarious, and truthfully, a little alarming. So for instance, my eyes read and understood this:
These two features of a perceiving system – sensitivity and bias – are always present and independent of each other.
But my mouth said this:
These two feet of a principal dragon – sensitivity and blenders – are aluminum car wax in presence of three otters.
I tried again, more slowly. I found that if I concentrated on each and every word, I could get through it, but if I tried to read at a normal rate, all sorts of random hell would break loose. My mouth was saying real words, but together they made no sense. This continued for about a minute or two.
I walked back into the living room and said, "I'm not 100% on this, but I'm thinking maybe I should have you bring me to the emergency room, because I just had this weird thing happen where I tried reading out loud, but my mouth wasn't saying what my brain was reading, if that makes any sense."
My wife looked at me strangely and for a second I thought I had been spouting gibberish, but then she said, "OK, let's go." When she stood up to change out of her pajamas I waffled a bit, since I seemed completely fine, but then after a few minutes of discussion, we decided it was better to be safe than sorry since this was something I hadn't experienced before. (But to be fair, I had never tried to read out loud or talk to anyone while I was having a migraine before so it could have been completely normal. I usually just crash on the couch for a half hour and try to rest.)
So off we went. I'll fast-forward through the part where we went to our local hospital and they told me that they'd need to send me to a different, better hospital since they had no neurologists on staff, and that I'd have to go by ambulance for liability reasons, and I told them to go fuck themselves - we were driving, and they made me sign a piece of paper saying that I absolve them of any liability if I took a dirt nap on the highway between the two locations, and then they sent me on my way. That little cursory examination and push out the door, I found out later, was going to cost me close to two grand.
When we walked in to what I shall refer to from now on as the "real" hospital, I told them I was a transfer patient and handed them the papers we got from the fake hospital full of sick people I feel sorry for now because I'm putting their odds at 50/50. Since the paper said, "Possible TIA" they were all over my ass thinking I had a mini-stroke. They asked me a ton of questions about weakness and blurred vision, dizziness and slurred speech and whether or not I could smile and stick out my tongue and touch my finger to my nose with my eyes closed -- all of which I answered with a string of "No's" because it was all the same shit I ran through myself five minutes into the episode because I know all about TIAs. They asked me if I had taken any medication, and then they immediately stuck me on a stretcher and brought me to get my head irradiated by a CT Scan.
I asked them if they could give me an MRI instead, because I'm generally opposed to the amount of radiation they use in a CT, and they said that no, the CT was better at making sure I didn't have any bleeds in my brain. (I didn't feel like my brain was bleeding, but who am I to say? How would I know? They could have said, "We'd like to make sure your spleen isn't smoking" and I would have believed that too.) After that, they took me back to the ER and dumped me there, and I watched some TV and waited for the doctor to show up, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.
When the doctor came in, he was followed by about eight students (this is a teaching hospital/|med school) and they all crowded around me in this tiny room that was barely big enough for a bed and a chair. He introduced himself as Dr. Mallory, and said he was the chief neurologist on staff. He told me that the initial CT scan looked good, and we talked about what happened. This was now about the third time I had told this particular story, so I was getting the short version down pat, but holy shit, this was like public speaking inside a crowded elevator. I could feel myself getting nervous, and I stumbled over my words a little bit, like I usually do if I'm tricked into public speaking.
"Did you suffer any weakness?" He asked. "Any dizziness?"
"No," I said. "No dizziness, no weakness, no mental confusion. I even went into the bathroom and stuck my tongue out at the mirror. I did the eyes-closed, nose-touch test, the smile test, walked on my heels, all that crap."
I had realized what I said, and amended it sheepishly. "Well, not that I think it's necessarily crap, I just meant that..you know...that it's..." and I stopped talking, since I knew I was just digging myself deeper. He turned to the crowd of students and in a sad voice said, "My life's work is crap," and all his students cracked up. I liked this guy.
The next thing he did was point to his stethoscope and say, "What's this?" I looked at him strangely for a second. "Don't they teach you guys that in med school on pretty much the first day?" I asked. He laughed and explained that with aphasia, there is sometimes a lingering difficulty finding the right word for something. So instead of saying "Stethoscope" I might have answered "thing you listen to heartbeats with" or something similar. So after he explained what he was doing, things went a little more smoothly.
He pointed at it again, and said, "What is it?" I started to panic. He was clearly pointing at his cuticle. It was like a game of charades and suddenly I felt like I was losing. Shit! Another name for cuticle. Think, man!
"Your lunula?" I asked, hesitantly.
He looked at me questioningly.
"Scrabble," I said.
"Ah. The more general term?"
"WAIT! I GOT IT! FINGERNAIL!"
"YES!" I said, and pumped my fists. Then I went for the high-five but he left me hanging. I bet if his students hadn't been there, he totally would have gone for it.
Convinced that there were no after-effects, he said that he wanted to run some additional tests to completely rule out a mini-stroke. "You can either stay here for one night, and get them all over with, or you can schedule them over the course of three or four weeks and run around to appointments and wait for the results," he said. "I recommend you stay. That way you can get it all done in one place, and we can observe you for 24 hours. We'll bring you down for another CT Scan only this time we'll add contrast. That will tell us if your vascularity is sound, and whether or not there are any blockages."
I agreed that sounded fine, although I wasn't crazy about another high dose of radiation. (And I was sort of upset that he was questioning my vasculinity, but it turned out I just heard him wrong.) Then I thought, Screw it, we're probably all dead from Fukushima anyway. He said they were also going to do an ultrasound of my neck, an MRI of my head, and an echocardiogram, but probably not until the morning. I was going for the record. The last time I had seen this many tests run on one person in a single day was on an episode of House. I was just hoping it wasn't sarcoidosis.**
He said that after the second CT scan, they'd set me up with a room for the night, and he'd be back in the morning to check on things. He turned and walked out, taking his gaggle of scrub-wearing goslings with him.
A few minutes later, after signing a bunch of papers I'll probably still regret someday, they made me sit down in a wheelchair so they could bring me down to imaging.
The second CT scan was uneventful, except for the injection of a radioactive isotope that rushes around in your bloodstream and lights up your blood vessels like a lantern. I am not a fan of contrast. I've had it a few times, and every time as they're injecting it, they say, "OK, this may make you feel like you have to pee," and every time it's a lie. It doesn't really make you feel like you have to pee. I think a better description would be, "OK, this may make you feel like your asshole is blushing furiously," but I supposed they'd get in trouble if they told you that.
After the second CT scan, they brought me to my new room.
Unfortunately, the room they brought me to had a bed for people who can't get out of bed. What that means is, in order to prevent blood clots and bedsores and other nasty things, the bed is constantly in motion. It's blowing up and deflating at random points and random times, and laying on it makes you feel like someone gave you a nerve block from the neck down, then tied ropes to your arms and legs and turned you into an unwilling marionette. Your arms and legs and back and ass are constantly in motion and while it's moving it makes all the noises you'd expect. Pump up! BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP. It's like someone put a bumper jack under my ass. Then one leg. Then the other. Deflate! PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTTT...and everything drops down four inches and I sink into what feels like a half-inflated bouncy house. PUMP UP! BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP BRUP. Sweet Jesus, what the hell is that giant lump between my shoulder blades? PSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTT. Back into the deflated bouncy house. I was laying there marveling at this technological torture device, trying to figure out if there was a way to get it to pump the hell up and stay there, and that's when I met Steve for the first time.
He walked into the room and the first thing I saw was the shaved head and the no-necked bulk of someone who was probably 6' 2" and weighed 275. Then I noticed the chinstrap beard, the earring and the job-stopper, in that order. If you don't know, a "job-stopper" is what they call tattoos on the hands, face or neck. Usually, a tattoo like that means that the person in question has determined at some point in his or her life that they're not cut out for polite society. I know tattoos have become more mainstream, and I myself have a single tattoo that means a lot to me, but as a general rule, you don't tattoo a bleeding skull with a snake coming out of its eye socket onto your neck and then go on to apply to medical school. When Steve had first walked in the door, I initially assumed that he was a Russian mobster who had just killed the cop stationed outside his door, donned a stolen scrub top and made a wrong turn trying to escape the hospital. But then he introduced himself.
"My name is Steve. I'll be taking care of you tonight," he said menacingly. I just nodded and said, "OK," and sat up on the edge of the bed and put both feet on the floor in case I had to make a break for it. I wasn't sure if he was going to be "taking care of me" in the traditional "Russian mob" sense, or in the traditional "new fish in the cell-block" sense, but either way I didn't like the sound of it. Then he stuck his giant, ham-like fist in my face, and I flinched a little before I realized he was trying to shake my hand. Before I realized it, I had mine out too. Damn you, automatic social niceties! He could have killed me right then. Instead, he just shook my hand and then turned and slowly wrote his name on the dry-erase board in big block letters, four inches high, like I was five years old. Or like he was. It could have gone either way. He turned back around and said, "So what can I do for you?" I was going to ask him to spare my life, but instead I said, "Can you get me some food? I haven't eaten since 8:30 this morning." It was now a little after 5pm.
"No can do," he said. "Dinner trays won't be coming out for another hour or so," but I'll make sure they hit you up when they do the rounds. Anything else?"
"Yeah. Can you make this freakin' bed stop doing whatever the hell it's doing? Can't you just unplug it or get it inflated and leave it there or something? There's no way I'm gonna be able to sleep on this nightmare."
"No can do," he said again. That was kind of his go-to phrase. "Unfortunately, these beds are for people who can't get out of bed."
"So you torture them with this, huh? I asked. "Can't you unplug it?"
"Sure," he said. "I can unplug it, but you're just gonna sink down to the hard metal underneath."
"OK, thanks. I'll probably sleep in the recliner," I said.
"You wouldn't be the first," he said, and left my room to kill again.
About 30 minutes later, a nurse came in with a needle. I eyed her suspiciously.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Oh, we give this to everyone," she said, nonchalantly. "It's a shot in the stomach to prevent blood clots in your legs." That got my attention, and I sat up. "What do you mean, everyone? There's no way in hell you're jamming that into my stomach," I said, still unbelieving. "That's just crazy," I added. "People let you do that?" I stood up next to the bed just in case she decided to call in a couple of orderlies to hold me down.
She said, "Yeah, you look pretty active, you probably don't need it."
"Yeah, no," I said, and began doing some jumping jacks for emphasis. "Take that away."
She held out some pills. "These too?" she asked.
"What are those?"
"These help you...you know. Move you bowels." I must have hesitated for a second or two, because she dumbed it down for me. "They make you poop," she added helpfully.
"Did someone tell you I couldn't poop?" I asked, confused. Was there someone spreading rumors about me in the hall? "Hey, pssssst. You didn't hear this from me. That stringy lookin' guy in room 6c ? Yeah. Poor bastard can't poop."
"Yeah, you can keep those too," I said. "I have no pooping problems currently."
"Besides," I added, "I haven't eaten anything since 8:30 this morning. Trust me, I have nothing that needs pooping."
"So no, then?" she asked, still trying to push her poop pills on any willing takers. She must have had a quota.
"No!" I said. "Jesus. I'm fine in that particular department, thanks."
A couple hours later, Steve came back. "Dude, where's my food?" I asked, the second he came through the door. "I gotta eat something so I can poop for the nice lady."
"Bad news, man," he said. "They're not gonna let you eat or drink until you pass the swallow test, and we don't have anyone here who can give you one tonight."
I wasn't sure what a swallow test was. Is it a written test? No, oral would make more sense. I wasn't sure what sort of specialist they needed to round up, or why. I just wanted some food; I wasn't auditioning for a porno.
"I swallow all the time," I said. "In fact, I just swallowed a few minutes ago. I ate some stale crackers out of my wife's coat pocket and even drank some tap water without any problems."
"Sorry, but there's nothing I can do," Steve said, apologetically. "They won't give you food until you have the test."
At this point, I was pissed. "If I don't get some food, I'm gonna walk out of here and go to Starbucks across the street and buy one of their shitty, overpriced sandwiches," I said. "I'm serious."
He just shrugged and said, "Well, if you happened to get some food somehow and happened to eat it while I wasn't watching, I'd probably never even know."
Steve was OK in my book, and now I was committed to a shitty sandwich. My wife went out and came back with a sandwich and a coffee, and it was the best sandwich I ever ate.
After my wife left, I was killing some time screwing around with my phone and watching TV, and they came and got me again. "Time for your MRI," the new female nurse said. This was at about 10:30 at night, and the hospital was more akin to a morgue at that point. She wheeled me through the dark, mostly barren hallways to a room in the basement. This is it, I thought. This is when I disappear.
"Where's Steve?" I asked, missing my co-conspirator in flagrant disregard of the secret hospital swallow rules.
"Oh, he works second shift," she said. "He's gone for the day."
"Lucky bastard," I said, as they wheeled me into the darkened room and told me to get up on the table.
This was a long MRI. The longest I've ever had, since they were doing both my neck and my head. I think I actually fell asleep for a while, which, if you've ever had an MRI, is actually pretty impressive since it makes incredibly loud noises while you're in the machine. Picture someone holding your head down next to a blender that someone else is throwing rocks into and hitting the Pulse button every two seconds for 45 minutes, and you'll be pretty close.
After the MRI, they wheeled me back up to my room, and surprise! It was full of people, and there was a party going on. All on behalf of my new roommate, Walter. I only know this because six of his relatives kept saying his name at the top of their lungs, because poor old Walter was almost deaf and they were trying to get him to respond. They had drawn the curtain between the beds, so I only glimpsed him as I passed by, since the bulk of the opening to his half of the room had been blocked by his relatives. The poor guy was a mess. Over the course of about an hour, I pieced together that he had suffered a stroke a year ago, and was in the hospital now for an apparent fall and the obligatory busted hip. He couldn't talk, he couldn't feed himself, hell -- he could barely move, and all he could do was make these gargling, hissing sounds with his throat. Just kill me at that point. Put me out of my misery.
By this time it was almost midnight, and the nurses were kicking his family out. As they were leaving, one of the guys there to visit him stopped for a second at my curtain and looked in at me. "If I were you," he said, "I'd try to go to sleep before he does, because he snores pretty good." Then he left.
"Snores pretty good" was kind of an understatement. His snoring sounded like someone was sucking up a bathtub full of jello with a shop vac. And the worst part of it was that he'd snore loud enough to wake himself up, and then he'd have a coughing fit. A wet, juicy, coughing fit. At one point I was pretty sure he actually died, but then he took in a great, gasping breath and it started over again.
And in addition to Old Walter's snoring and coughing, he kept rolling over on his IV which immediately caused an alarm to sound. An alarm that was very similar to the sound a truck makes when it backs up, and almost as loud. Did I mention that Old Walter was almost deaf? Yeah, it didn't bother him in the slightest. He snored and snorted and gargled right through it.
I decided to get ready for bed anyway, so I got up and looked around for some bathroom-type stuff. I hadn't planned on an overnight when we had left for the ER, so I had nothing with me at all. On the shelf across from the bed I finally saw what I was looking for. On one end of the shelf was a small container holding a comb, a tooth brush, and a tiny bottle of mouthwash. On the other end of the shelf was a box of tissues and a small bottle of lotion. It was like, "Hey, if the date doesn't work out, don't worry, we got you covered."
I brushed my teeth, went to bed and thought I'd at least try to get some sleep but didn't hold out much hope. I was lying in a bed that was actively trying to dislodge me, I was so hungry I was digesting my own stomach, and Walter kept alternating between rolling over on his IV and trying to cough up his own asshole. I think someone should write down this sleep deprivation technique so the CIA spooks can use it at Gitmo.
Somehow -- probably out of sheer exhaustion -- I must have dozed off in spite of all this. It wasn't meant to last, however. At 3 A.M., I was rudely awakened by a giant, bald black dude shaking my arm and yelling at me, with his face about six inches from mine. "MY NAME IS RANDOLPH AND I'M GOING TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD!" Just like that, a single string of 100 decibel words, in a complete monotone. You could tell he was used to taking blood from old deaf people.
"What? Why? You need more blood? They just took it," I said, groggily.
"MY NAME IS RANDOLPH AND I'M GOING TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD!" he repeated, which cleared things up completely.
"You don't have to yell, I'm not deaf." He didn't say anything in response, but at least he didn't tell me his name and mission again. Instead, he just held my arm down, jabbed me with a needle, filled up a couple vials, then left. I never saw him again. In retrospect, I'm not even sure he worked for the hospital. At that point, I was so tired, I didn't care what he did. He could have cut my wrist open and drained it into a bucket and told me he was letting the evil spirits out, and I wouldn't have given a shit. At least he didn't come in and say, "MY NAME IS RANDOLPH AND I'M HERE TO GIVE YOU A SWALLOW TEST!" Thank god for small favors.
I woke up pretty early, after grabbing a couple hours of sleep in the reclining chair. The bed had defeated me sometime shortly after my three A.M. rendezvous with Randy. Around four A.M. I had just unplugged the fucking thing because I couldn't stand listening to it any longer. It deflated sadly one last time and I moved to the recliner and didn't look back.
By the time 9 A.M rolled around, I was really, really hungry. Luckily my wife showed up shortly after with a couple of danishes and a cup of coffee. I was still officially waiting for a swallow test, so they said the weren't going to give me any breakfast. I ate the danishes and awaited the rest of my probing.
While we waited, they brought breakfast around. Even Old Walter got some breakfast, but we didn't think he liked it. The curtain was drawn so we couldn't see what was going on but from what we could gather, they were trying to feed him, and he was having none of it. It was then that it hit me. I finally realized why Old Walter's grunting and groaning and hissing sounded so familiar. Behind the curtain, there was a poor old guy whose health issues made me feel really bad for him and his family. I wouldn't wish his poor health on my worst enemy. But when you couldn't actually see him, what you pictured was this:
Old Walter was a Walker. And he was strapped down and pissed. I leaned over to my wife and said, "Walter sounds exactly like a walker," and from then on, we couldn't keep a straight face.
The nurse said, "Walter, honey, you have to eat your peaches. Don't just move them around in your mouth. Swallow them!" and Walter would hiss and gargle and spit his food and I immediately leaned over to my wife and whispered, "You can't teach a zombie to eat peaches. No way. Complete waste of time."
At one point, Walter got a little feisty and he bit down on his spoon and started hissing like a cat.
"Walter! Let go of the spoon!" one of the nurses said.
"He won't let go of it until you stop trying to feed him peaches," someone else said.
Watch your fingers, I thought. Don't get too close.
I'm going to burn in hell, I know. But at that point, I wasn't sure what the hell was wrong with me, and I tend to alleviate stress with dark humor in a situation like that.
Shortly before 11 A.M. they came and got me and took me down for the ultrasound of my neck arteries. That was relatively quick, and I was back in my room inside of an hour. Old Walter's visitors were gone, and the nurses who had been trying to feed him peaches he didn't want were gone too, so other than the random beeping of Walter lying on his IV again, all was quiet.
We were waiting for the echo when the neurologist came in, and gave us the news. "We didn't find anything," he said. "All your tests appeared normal, and at this point we think your original diagnosis was correct and you had a migraine. Sometimes aphasia can happen with a migraine, but it's better to be sure it wasn't something more serious, since as far as you know, this never happened before. I still want you to have the echocardiogram, but you can schedule that somewhere else and just send the results to your primary GP. I do want you to take a baby aspirin a day, though, because people with migraines have a slightly elevated risk of strokes. Just a preventative measure. I'll put in the paperwork and get you discharged ASAP."
And with that, he shook my hand and was gone. ASAP wasn't all that quick, and it took another three hours of ineptness before they finally cleared me for takeoff, but that was it. I walked out of there a free man. Sure, I had more than my share of radiation, and I knew that all those tests were going to cost me, but at least I knew my headache was just a headache. I'm sure you've all seen the video of the CBS reporter Serene Branson -- but here's a good summary if you want to know more about this weirdness.
So it cost $27,543.00 to get a bottle of baby aspirin. Worth it? Who knows. My wife thinks yes. I'm still on the fence.
P.S. - If I'm ever talking to you and I sheetrock candlewax, just know that I spandex orangutang.
*Kind of the same thing that happens if you stare at Nancy Pelosi for more than 30 seconds. That may be total BS, but on the other hand, the vision thing might be the first symptom of turning to stone, so I haven't been willing to chance it. Also kids, don't do that shit. It can't be good for your eyeballs.
** A good drinking game is to watch an episode of House and drink a fifth of scotch every time someone says "Sarcoidosis." OK, maybe it's not a great drinking game, but you'll still get drunk. Another version is to watch Bones and drink whenever someone says "phalanges," or if you really want to get drunk fast, watch Law & Order and drink every time someone says "unsub."