Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nurse Jennifer

The Lord, before whom I have walked faithfully, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success.”-- Genesis 24:40

What is it about this woman that makes me cry every time every time I speak with her?

Nurse Jennifer called me again this week. She’s the nurse from my insurance company who has been checking up on me ever since I got out of the hospital last month.

She made the first call the day after I had been discharged from Lutheran Medical Center.

I was in such a fragile emotional state at the time that I started blubbering uncontrollably as she gave me all this great advice about making my apartment safe should I decide to have surgery.

Later I thought Jennifer was calling solely as a company employee, making sure that I wasn’t needlessly racking up medical bills.

However, I have since come to believe that this lovely woman has genuine goodness in her heart that has nothing to do with profit or loss.

Each of our chats starts off the same way. Jennifer recites some legal boilerplate spiel about the call possibly being recorded for instructional purposes and how the company values my privacy.

But then the tone of Jennifer’s voice immediately shifts from robotic to empathetic and she’s ready to hear my story and offer me advice and comfort.

I decided to call her the other week when I returned to work after getting a colonoscopy. It seemed that nothing whatsoever was working for me. I felt trapped, angry, and isolated, and I needed to talk to someone immediately—or sooner.

I could’ve reached out to a number of people but something made me call this total stranger who is just a voice on the telephone. But it’s a very special voice to me. So I dialed her number and promptly freaked out all over the phone.

Voice of Reason

“I want to quit my job!” I wailed. “I can’t take it anymore!”

Jennifer listened to me while I ranted and whined and then gently advised that this was probably not a good time to make such weighty decisions since I was so agitated and confused.

“I’ve been there,” she said with incredible sincerity. “I know what it’s like.”

Hearing her talk so gently and so sensibly helped calm me down. We agreed that if things really got so bad at work that if I couldn’t take it, then, yes, I should probably think about bailing.

I voice my concerns about losing health benefits and she reminded me that I could always sign up for COBRA if I had to. That’s not an attractive choice, by any means, but it is an option, and one that I had been unable to see thanks to my nutzy view of the world.

She promised to call me in a week and, yes, I got all teary-eyed. Lord, I’m such a mutant…

Jennifer was as good as her word and she called me a few days ago. I was feeling much better by then, both emotionally and physically, and I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do.

I told her I was getting second and third opinions on my condition and she said that was a good idea. And then we agreed that it was time to close the file on my case.

My company is switching to a new insurance carrier on the first of the year, much to my regret, so it is unlikely that Jennifer and I will speak again. I thanked her profusely for all her help and wished her and her family the best for the holidays.

“If you need to call me,” she said before she rang off, “please feel free.”

“I will,” I said, my voice cracking, “take care.”

And once again I started to cry.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Right this Very Minute

I may not be feeling the holiday spirit at the moment, but I still managed to see my two favorite Christmas trees in the last two days.

The trees at Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are the two big ones for me and I thought I wouldn’t see either one this year due to my ongoing medical misery.

My viewing of the Rockefeller Center tree was a fluke, as I just happened to be riding the express bus down Fifth Avenue on Friday night when I looked to the right and there it was, climbing straight up into the sky.

Traffic was moving so slowly that I got a pretty decent view of the tree and of Fifth Avenue, which was ablaze with lights and decorations.

The air was so cold and the sidewalks were so clogged with humanity, that I was very glad to be sitting inside a warm bus.

The only reason I was this far uptown on Friday was because I was seeing a specialist for a second opinion about my internal plumbing problems, which have cracked my personal Kris Kringle into a million pieces.

The surgeon and I discussed my options, which come down to either going in for an operation or doing nothing at all and hoping I don’t have another colon flip like the one that sent me to the hospital last month.

Obviously the thought of skipping surgery entirely appeals to me no end, as I would very much like to keep my innards inside where they belong. But there’s the risk that my colon could misbehave again at some inopportune time—like in the middle of vacation, for example.

The doctor asked to see the CDs of my latest CAT scans, which means I have to go back to the hospital and buy a set—the perfect Christmas gift!

On Saturday my sister, auntie, and I went to see the Met’s beautiful Christmas tree, which is not only lovely, but also located indoors, so we were spared the discomfort of freezing our tails off.

This is my favorite Christmas tree in town. It is decorated with the fabulous angels and surrounded by a beautiful an 18th Century Neapolitan Nativity scene, and, since the tree is located in a controlled environment, the Met conducts a number of tree lightings throughout the holiday season.

Oh, Christmas Tree...

I’ve seen this little ceremony more times that I could possibly count, but I still love it. Everyone crowds around the try while the lights dim and the room falls silent, or at least we hope it does.

Then a small beam appears of the manager, while “Silent Night” begins to play. The tree gradually becomes brighter until it is fully lit. It doesn’t last more than five minutes, but the experience stays with you for a long time.

After that it was dinner at a Belgian restaurant and a crawling cab ride down Third Avenue to my aunt’s apartment in Murray Hill. I found that I was getting crabbier with each passing moment.

I was tired and feeling sharp pains in my hip, which could mean that back trouble is cranking up again.

I try to remind myself that now, when I’m feeling so low, is the perfect time to reign in the anger and be grateful.

It's easy to be serene when everything is going your way, but the real test comes when you can shine even though you're neck deep in all manner of grief.

I'm sorry to say that I haven't been shining much lately.

I had hoped to get the surgery done before Christmas and start the New Year off with a clean slate, but that’s not going to happen. I won’t rush into an operation and it’ll be better to have the holiday madness behind us before submitting to the scalpel.

It’s so strange, but the season is rolling right off me. I’m not doing any “bah, humbugs” or screaming at orphans. I just don’t feel like I’m a part of the holidays this year. It’s like I’m still enclosed in that bus, looking out the window while everybody else is making merry.

I haven’t sent out one Christmas card, even at this late date, and the only “shopping” I did consisted of pressing a few buttons this afternoon and shipping a gift out west.

We could all use a little Christmas right this very minute, but you have to make that happen on your own.

The real miracle is overcoming our doubts and fears and living as happily as possible. That kind of awareness doesn’t come down the chimney; it comes out of your heart.

Now all I have to do is believe.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Big Breath In

I heard a voice coming from somewhere behind me as the fog around my brain started to fade.

“This guy’s got a long colon.”

I suppose I should’ve thanked him, whoever he was, but I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not.

I could feel all sorts of weird activity in and around my caboose, so I was either being probed by aliens or getting a colonoscopy.

As things become clearer, I realized I was in Lutheran Medical Center and not having a much-too-close encounter. And the speaker over my shoulder was my gastroenterologist.

This has been a week for doctors. In addition to seeing my internal medicine man, I also had to go to a pulmonologist for a breathing test to make sure I could handle being sedated for the colonoscopy.

For the breathing test I had to wrap my mouth around a large tube—wow, this story is getting pretty twisted, ain’t it?—while a very nice young woman gave me commands like “big breath in!” and “breathe out quickly!”

Once I passed that little ordeal I began the prep for the colonoscopy. People say that this is the worst part of the whole (hole?) experience and gosh, they are so flipping right.

You have to consume gallons of a vile liquid that is essentially Montezuma’s Revenge in a bottle and your diet for an entire day is restricted to water, chicken broth, Gatorade, and, oh, God help me, gelatin.

Say Cheese

It amazes me that I've eaten more of this crap in the last three weeks than I have in the last 40 years.

As awful as a colonoscopy is, my biggest fear is being sedated. I’m terrified that I will close my eyes and just not wake up. I know I hit the Xanax pretty hard when I fly, but at least I’m in control of that situation. In the hospital I feel like an aging schnauzer being put down.

Luckily I survived and I was soon in the recovery room sipping apple juice. My doctor told me that my colon is somewhat tangled, which probably explains the ongoing agony in my southern hemisphere.

The hospital gave me a full write-up of the test and, bizarrely, actual photographs of the doctor’s keester parade. Gee, thanks, folk, I can’t wait to post these babies on Facebook. Can I get an 8 x 10 and a wallet-sized photo of my alimentary adventure?

My sister, God love her, picked me up after the procedure and we went to lunch, where I ate real food for the first time in 24 hours.

When I got home, I flushed the leftover gelatin down the toilet and said a prayer for any fish that might ingest that jiggling atrocity.

From here I have to consult with the surgeon and set a date for my operation. I have officially run out of sick days so any time off will cost me money.

I guess I should have saved some of my vacation days, but I took two great trips this year and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I must say all this medical activity is wearing me down. I’m getting work-up over the slightest things and my aunt encouraged me to be open about my feelings.

“You’re tired, upset, and nervous,” she told me. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”

No, there isn’t. And doing so might make life just a little bit easier. I’m trying to learn from this experience and to be my best when I’m at my worst. It’s been a real challenge, which means it’s worth pursuing.

So I declare from the bottom of my twisted colon that I’m scared, angry, and confused. But I’m also grateful and determined to find something good out of this situation. I'll do it, or, so help me, I’ll eat my weight in gelatin.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sky of Blue

The two fighters squared off in the cage as one of them unloaded a huge right hand toward his opponent’s chin.

I tensed up, anticipating a brutal knockout. This was going to be a haymaker and—shame on me--I was actually looking forward to it.

And then suddenly I was watching CNN.

What the hell--?

I was flying back from L.A. on JetBlue, where I was shoehorned into a window seat at the southernmost section of the plane, and the guy next to me had inadvertently changed the channel on my TV—and ruined the fight clip--when he moved his elbow.

“Uh, sorry,” he mumbled.

Yeah, pal, me, too. I was tempted to throw a flying armbar on this stiff, but it really wasn’t his fault. We were stuck in a flying sardine can where you couldn’t help but invade someone’s space.

The flight out from New York was no bargain either. Once again I was crammed into the window seat--fear of heights, people, hello?--where a young woman sitting next to me had put her head on the food tray upon takeoff and promptly slipped into a coma.

I’m hardly one to complain about airborne stupors, given my blatant Xanax binges, but I was tempted to check this lady for a pulse. A short time later, when I was realized I was trapped in my seat, I was tempted to poke her with a cattle prod.

I’m willing to overlook the cramped seats and two-mile hikes down the length of the airplane because I like JetBlue and enjoyed the fact that they didn’t hit me with a bogus 20-buck baggage fee.

But that’s all changing. JetBlue recently announced that it’s introducing a three-tier pricing system, sticking the third class passengers with that baggage fee, cramming more seats into their planes, and, unbelievably, reducing leg space. I hope they don’t try to reduce my legs.

You’re Cleared for Rip-Off

Supposedly the new seats will be lighter and thinner than the current model, but I don’t care. It still means more bodies in the air and I’m wondering if they’ll be nailing seats to the ceiling next.

JetBlue’s president said the plan "delivers improved, sustainable profitability for our investors, the best travel experience for our customers and ensures a strong, healthy company for our crew members."

Just focus on the first few words here, that bit about “sustainable profitability for our investors.” That’s all you need to know.

Now Southwest Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier still offering two free checked bags on domestic routes.

I remember when none of the airlines charged for baggage. They also served full free meals—not the cheese and crackers routine—and gave away the earplugs instead of charging for them.

The flights I took already had the class system set-up, starting with Mint, followed by Even More, and then my section, which I like to call Even Less.

I know money talks, but it seems now like it’s stopped talking and started shouting—“hooray for me and screw you!” The one percent rules and if you don’t have the money keep walking until you reach the end of the plane.

God knows I’d go straight for Mint if I had a mint. But I wonder if our increasingly divided society will drive some people to cut corners, take chances, or flat out steal to get ahead.

As a reporter, I get regular press releases from the FBI’s New York office and hardly a week goes by that the feds don’t announce they’ve nailed some loser for embezzlement, stock fraud or some other flimflam involving tons of money.

It’s turning into an ugly world and it’s important to keep that harsh attitude from infecting your spirit. Remember to be compassionate, loving, and kind.

And watch where you put your goddamn elbows.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Between Rounds

“How are you?” the young woman at the supermarket asked me this afternoon.

I’ve heard that line several times this week—I’ve said it myself--but it sounds a little strange in light of my recent trip to the ER.

I was tempted to say, “well, I just got out of the hospital and I’ll probably be going back, and I’m dreading it. My left arm still hurts from having an IV needle stuck in it for three days and I feel tired, old, and cranky. How’s by you?”

But the cashier isn’t getting paid nearly enough to listen to my grief, so I just smiled and said, “I’m fine.”

I feel like I’ve been away for a long time. But unlike vacation, I don’t feel refreshed or relaxed; I feel drained.

I looked at the pictures I posted on Facebook of my L.A. trip and I can't help but think that it wasn’t so long ago that I was happy and healthy, no idea that one of my organs was about to go haywire on me.

I'm so emotionally fragile that I actually got teary-eyed when a nurse from my insurance company called this week to see how I was doing.

"The insurance company doesn't care about you," my auntie rightly pointed out. "They just want to make sure you don't cost them any more money."

I hate missing my gym workouts, even though I know that I obsess over the gym too much and that there are more important things to life than working up a sweat and lifting weights. But I like the routine.

Food is a big topic now that the holidays are upon us, but I’ve lost interest in eating much else beyond soup, yogurt, and bread.

When I got out of the hospital I swore I’d stuff myself like Henry the Eighth, but now my appetite seems to be hibernating--along with my social life.

"In the criminal justice system..."

I’m scheduled to see my surgeon tomorrow where we’re going to talk about the next steps. I was supposed to get a colonoscopy, but the gastro-internist wanted to wait until my guts settled down before going to work. My oxygen numbers were also a little too low for his liking, so he wants a pulmonary specialist to determine if my lungs can handle the anesthetic.

I know there are people out there who have it much worse. Richard, my former roommate at Lutheran Medical Center, is a prime example. Richard, a large West Indian man, was being treated for diabetes, which had resulted in massive swelling in his right arm.

No one came to visit Richard during my entire stay at the hospital, even though he mentioned that he had both siblings and children. I don't want to imagine what that's like, given the way my family, particularly my sister, was there for me. And the friends and family who couldn't make it were wishing me well on the phone and online.

Richard had a pronounced accent and several missing teeth so we didn’t communicate particularly well, but that was partially my fault because I was so upset at my own situation that I didn’t feel like talking.

I had elected instead to feel sorry for myself and binge watch “Law & Order” episodes to a point now that I feel like donning an overcoat and grilling murder suspects with Jerry Orbach.

However, even though I felt rotten, I could sense Richard was enjoying the program too. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have someone like my sister to pay for his TV service, so I cranked my set around so he could watch along with me. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

When I was discharged from the hospital, my sister came to pick me up and noticed that Richard had no telephone service. She gave him cash and even left a message for Richard’s sister in New Jersey. I was more concerned about getting the hell out of there, but the discharge process takes forever.

As we left the hospital, Richard was being loaded onto a gurney for some kind of procedure. We wished him well and Richard raised his bloated arm.

“I love you,” he said.

I thought I was hearing things, but my sister confirmed it for me. This stranger, with all his problems, said he loved us.

Thank you, Richard. I hope someone is taking care of you now so you'll be able to say "I'm fine" and mean it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nothing by Mouth

I forgot how much I hate Jell-O.

I’m back home now after a three-day stint at the hospital, where gelatin was the one of the few things I could eat—when I could eat at all.

This particular hell ride began on Thursday morning when I started feeling stomach pains. I assumed I had eaten something that disagreed with me and that whatever it was would soon pass.

I was incredibly wrong. The pain worsened over the course of the day, even though I was wolfing down Pepto-Bismol tablets by the handful.

I kept telling myself that I was okay, but my doubts grew as the agony increased. I got into bed at 11pm, but the pain was so terrible that I knew I had to do something.

Finally, I got up, dressed, and called for a car to take me down to the ER at Lutheran Medical Center.

But I was still telling myself that the doctors would give me something for my guts and send me home in a few hours. I had even planned on going to work the next day.

Clearly fortune-telling is not my strong suit.

I entered the surreal netherworld of the ER, where time has no meaning, and ushered into a small room where the doctors began performing tests.

“Is your belly always distended like this?” one physician asked when she rolled up my shirt.

“No,” I said, noting that I could barely button my pants.

As I lay there waiting for tests results, I could see a cop bringing in a handcuffed young man who looked physically fine and mentally twisted. He was taken to a booth in a distant corner where he soon began screaming “Nurse!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs.

Your Room is Ready

“Will somebody please tase this fuck?” I groaned.

No such luck. The loser, apparently angered by the number of immigrant ER staffers, began insulting them.

“You’re not American!” he roared. “You’re not American! I’m an American!”

And I’m thinking of leaving the country, thanks to you, you worthless freak.

Two young doctors came into my room and told me that, according to a CAT scan, a portion of my colon had come lose and was now blocking up my innards.

“It’s pretty serious,” one of them said.

Serious, yes; pretty? No way in hell.

The nurse set about finding me a room and, at about 6 AM on Friday morning, I finally decided to contact my aunt and sister and tell them what the hell was going on.

And I here I have to say that my two favorite ladies were absolute angels during this trying time. My sister was at the hospital every day for hours at a time, visiting with me and conferring with various hospital officials. I am such a lucky little bastard to have her in my life.

I thought about the times I had come to Lutheran Medical as a visitor during my mother’s many illnesses. And I believe the last time I was here was in 2007, when my father died.

Now I was the patient. I was the one in pajamas walking the hallways and tugging the IV stand around like a silent dance partner.

The doctors didn’t want me to eat or drink anything, so I sat in my bed with a tube down my throat sucking the gunk out of my stomach. The sign over my head—“Nothing By Mouth”—made it clear that I should not be fed.

The tube was removed on Sunday and I was allowed to finally start consuming broth, fruit juice, and yes, gelatin. I didn’t like this stuff when I was a kid, but it was a regular feast after days of starvation.

The food started making things happen in my lower regions, if you know what I mean, and I dutifully reported this activity to the nurses.

“I have all these dreams of being a famous writer,” I told my sister during one of our hallway hikes, “and now my biggest accomplishment is taking a poop.”

The head surgeon initially thought that I could go home without surgery, something that brought boundless joy to the hearts of my family and myself.

However, he later conferred with other doctors at the hospital and decided that I will have to submit to a less invasive form of surgery within the next three weeks.

I’m not happy about this, but I can’t risk suffering another attack. If this condition had flared up just a few days earlier, my fabulous California vacation would have been a disaster. For that I am very thankful.

So soon I’ll be back at the hospital, back to no food, and, ultimately, back to Jell-O. But if I can put an end to this suffering, I’ll gladly walk those halls one more time.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Worthy Endeavor

The little girl sitting behind me on the plane Tuesday night said it best as we landed at JFK.

“I want to go back to California right now!” she declared.

“Me, too,” I muttered.

Not that I’m complaining. Well, yes, of course, I am. I had no desire whatsoever to see my vacation end since I had an absolutely fabulous time visiting my Uncle Joe and his wife, Sara.

I soared to new heights on this trip, as I tracked the migration of monarch butterflies in and around Monterey, hiked around the space shuttle Endeavor, met up with some of my West Coast cousins, and, craziest of all, took part in a “Pitch Slam,” where aspiring screenwriters like yours truly sit down with producers for a five-minute rundown on what they have to offer.

I was only in LA for one night before we hit the road and headed north in search of the migrating monarchs. These amazing creatures cover thousands of miles as they make their way to their winter home.

It’s just about impossible to photograph the monarchs without special equipment and the sharpest image I got was of an injured butterfly, which is kind of a cheat I suppose, but it’s still a nice shot.

Getting a decent shot of the Endeavor proved to be difficult as well. I took some photos at the shuttle’s location in the California Science Center, but you really need to see it for yourself.

It was amazing to look up at this spacecraft and think of what it’s been through, how many miles it’s traveled. You just can’t capture that with an I-phone.

In the Slammer

And then it was time to put pleasure on hold and take care of business at the Pitch Slam. I often go through guilt trips when I go on vacation, scolding myself to stay at home and write or make a short film like I’ve been threatening to do for too many goddamn years. So I felt good taking out the time to do something for my career.

As one of the hosts explained, the slam is like speed dating for writers. I have never done anything like this before in my life and for that alone I consider the event to be a first class success.

I was very nervous at the outset of this thing—like I am at speed dating nights. And just like speed dating and other singles affairs, I was tempted to run out the door before the show even got started.

But I held firm, going from one studio rep to another. I was very nervous at first, speaking too quickly and stumbling over my words. There were close to 30 reps in the room and I wanted to bail after talking with the first three.

However, as my confidence grew, so did my desire to speak with more people, so by the end of the day, I had run through all the tables like Minnesota Fats on a billiards blast.

I was initially wary of the other writers in the room, but then I realized that we were really allies, not adversaries. Everybody in that room wanted to see their dreams come true. I met some really nice people, including an 85-year-old man on a walker. It was a real slamming day.

I saw this little ditty about advice from a butterfly. Among other things, it suggests that you let your true colors show, take yourself lightly, take time to smell the flowers, and look for the sweetness of life.

I think I accomplished those goals.

When I went to get my luggage at JFK, some guy actually hit me up for change, proving beyond a doubt that I was back in New York. I was going to tell him to get lost, but I decided to slip him a buck. Even though vacation was over, life still tasted pretty sweet to me.