My friend, Ronnie, is checking into a hospital tomorrow. I hate hospitals.
Anticipating a visit to a hospital, I’m like the abused dog summoned to the brutal master’s house, a pitiful beast of mixed breed standing just outside the door, quivering, fearing what waits once he ventures past the threshold. Some day soon, television ads will be made featuring a B list singer/songwriter who, eyes moist with tears, pleads for donations to support elderly hospital haters.
My dislike of these medical facilities runs so deep that, if an alternate route is available, I’ll take it to avoid driving past a hospital, site of births, healings, disappointments, pain, death. I’ve had several joyous experiences in hospitals — the birth of children, and grandchildren — but I’ve had more experiences soured than pleasant, witnessing the sufferings, declines, and deaths of relatives and friends.
Then, there are my own distressing interludes as a patient: being sliced from navel to pubes, to allow for removal of a cancer-riddled prostate, the surgeon’s blade narrowly missing most nerves (though a slightly damaged boner nerve radically changed my outlook on life), and a neurosurgeon’s high-tech trip to Brainville, in order to hack out a pituitary macro adenoma that was robbing me of my vision, the bulging mass threatening other systems I was told should remain operational if I wished to live.
I was fortunate in the case of the abdominal intrusion that the hospital business manager wanted me out of the building as soon as possible, given my unimpressive insurance coverage. I was discharged the day after I was opened and closed — packed off sutured and whimpering, shuffling to the car with a catheter bag clutched in one hand, a sack full of opioids in the other, dreading an hour’s ride home on bumpy roads.
I was not fortunate in the case of the abdominal intrusion since, skilled as my surgeon pal Frank was, the cancer had escaped the capsule of the gland. “Metastasized,” is the precise term. The initial lab test of tissues near the excavation site showed no sign of the ugliness, but later analyses revealed that, at some time or another, I might expect a nasty surprise to bloom in bone or brain.
The only way to attempt to halt the march of the disease, I was told, is to go to a hospital on thirty consecutive days, and have crazy rays shot into the void once occupied by my prostate. Might work, might not.
What’s likely is severe damage to the bladder, colon, and anus, with globs of radiation-pulverized goo replaced by tubes and bags. Yep, for sure that’s what I’d want … if I were already dead. As a lover of food and drink, I am not willing to lose these parts of my anatomy, and the associated functions. Damage to the boner nerve is discouraging, but when you lose organs and openings related to consumption, processing, and disposal of food, wine, and spirits … no, thank you.
So, I opt to ride the cancer wagon, unirradiated, until it reaches the final stop on the line.
There is one benefit to the prostate extraction: following the surgery, I’m able to piss like a teenager. Before the procedure, prostate swollen to the size of a lime, I stood squeezing out droplets as a succession of adolescents bellied up to an adjacent urinal, let fly with fire-hose quality streams, zipped up, flushed (sometimes) washed their hands (sometimes) and exited the men’s room. Now, you little assholes, the race is on.
My hospital stay following the neurosurgical adventure was much longer, and difficult: three days in the ICU, another five days in the neurosurgery ward, listening to screams from other rooms, a port inserted near the base of my spine, through which cerebrospinal fluid was drawn in order to lessen pressure on the opening in the Dura, allowing that hole to heal, and shut out bugs that would cause an agonizing death.
A shortage of cerebrospinal fluid produces extraordinary pain, the only pain I’ve felt that exceeds that of gout. I’ve attempted to write about this pain in the past, but before I completed the task, I fled the keyboard to drink water-glass loads of Tanqueray, and ingest droppers full of a magical tincture brewed by my pal, Joe.
I don’t recommend the neurosurgical procedure to anyone, even people whose suffering would ordinarily not trouble me, among them members of the U.S. Congress, blockheads who consider fast food palatable fare, diapered members of the local Republican Central Committee, stiffs who plop ice cubes in their boxed wine, and cretins who chat loudly during string quartet performances.
The release of fluid from my spinal column helped the hole to close, and produced a second positive result: my daughter Ivy watched as my clear bodily fluid dribbled into a bag hung at the side of the bed, and she created the recipe for the Cerebro — a cocktail combining limoncello and cerebrospinal fluid, 3-to-1, shaken, not stirred. I am convinced this is a sure moneymaker in the commercial market, given a ready source of ingredients. I’ve located an orphanage just west of Farmington, New Mexico, where I’m certain we can procure the goods.
The surgeons left bits of the tumor intact — where the clod grew into the Dura, and fragments cozied up to arteries. Should remnants start growing, the only possible remedy, as with the prostate cancer, is to fire crazy rays at the mob of ugly cells, melting the lot, and pretty much everything else in the vicinity.
“We should schedule MRIs every six months or so,” said the neurosurgeons, “that way, we’ll know when we need to take additional steps.” I haven’t been back for the MRIs; it’s a long drive from Siberia With a View to Denver, with few decent places to eat on the route. So far, my vision seems in tip-top condition, and I only rarely suffer mini seizures, accompanied by the sensation of a lightning strike inside my skull.
As a result of all this, whenever I am forced to go to a hospital, if only to visit a friend, I fight an impulse to turn from the entrance and walk as fast as I can (I never run) to the safety of my vehicle, then to speed from the parking lot.
Also, I believe I can prove that a dose of ground red Chimayo peppers, added to nearly everything eaten by a recovering patient, significantly accelerates the healing of both physical and emotional wounds.
So, it’s established that I have good reason to hate and avoid hospitals, and to consume ground red Chimayo chiles.
But, I am weak when it comes to avoiding hospitals, as I am in so many things. It is weakness of long standing. For example: as a young musician, I knew that injecting illegal substances was not a particularly healthy thing to do. But, hey, everyone was doing it! I stopped after a while. I suppose the fact I am the only surviving member of the group that was “doing it” is instructive.
In the 70s and early 80s, I knew that regular ingestion of big loads of coke was not supportive of a sound body and a calm state of mind. But, the pharmaceutical wonder was readily available, so what was I to do? I worked as an instructor at a state college (similar, sad fools are now called “adjuncts” — the title offered in lieu of job security, a decent salary, and benefits), and I had several students who sought degrees while plying their trade as coke dealers. They were agreeable to a swap; I was not. They forged ahead, however, and showered me with samples, out of the goodness of their hearts. Or, because they were addled by product.
In one case, though, I became close friends with a dealer who, to my delight, was also the manager of an art supply store. Billy regularly showed up at my windowless office toting large tubes of acrylic paints, a teaspoon, and a Mason jar full to the lip with Peruvian flake. He passed my “Philosophers and the Arts” course with flying colors, without having to spell “phenomenology,” or to turn a page of Heidegger’s “Poetry, language, thought.” Come to think of it, I’m not sure I turned all that many pages of that piece of crap, but with Heidegger and his down-line babbling spawn, you don’t need to do more than unleash an avalanche of incomprehensible talk-poop to simulate a deep understanding of the work at hand. This is something made easy with the help of massive doses of cocaine. Powerful stimulants have a role in the history of Western philosophy: it’s said that Sartre was ripped to the tits on amphetamines — his tits, not Simone’s — when he wrote “Being and Nothingness.” That was good enough for me. Still is.
So, I’m weak. I try to avoid hospitals, but now and then, I succumb to an invitation, and I cross the threshold, trembling. Last week, I went to a hospital because the damned oncologist seemed desperate, and I didn’t want to trouble him.
I once labored as an author of harsh satires, then worked for years as a newspaper columnist and editor, so I don’t fret about causing people a measure of unease; in fact, I enjoy it, and I continue at this late age to hone my skills. But, when the distressed party is a seasoned medical professional, I pay heed, and I don’t wish to give offense. A physician raised me, and I maintain an unshakable bond with doctors; I worry about their feelings, even though I want to murder them, because one of them had sexual intercourse with mom.
A year or two ago, the oncologist responded to my refusal to allow him to shoot me with the crazy ray by suggesting I undergo regular tests to assess blood markers that reveal the progress of the disease. Several bone scans were set in the works. A bone scan takes less time than an MRI, and involves nowhere near the noise; if need be, one can nap during a bone scan. I don’t recommend doing cocaine before the test.
The oncologist reinforced his demand with a somber demeanor that med students learn in “Expressions and Postures 101.” The look on his face signaled profound concern, percolating from a history of consistent, informative experience — science married to compassion. A med school graduate cannot advance to work as an intern without mastering this facial expression, though, after 36 sleepless hours in the ER, many interns find it hard to reproduce.
Raised by a doctor, I realize the expression is but a thin mask, concealing the oncologist’s response to an order from the hospital administrator to amp up consultation and lab fees at every opportunity. The ruse works on most patients, however, since, 1) they weren’t raised by physicians, and 2), they’re scared shitless, because they have cancer. They’re like illegally imported, starving monkeys, stretching their emaciated arms through the bars of a cage, straining to grab a mango held by a keeper. Should they manage to grab the mango, chances are good that it will poison them.
Once the oncologist gets me to agree to the tests, he tells me: “We’ll establish the baseline at our lab, today.” I’m game. I allow a woman with toast crumbs and a smear of jelly on her sweater to draw blood from one of my few usable veins. She hums as she goes about her work. The next week, the oncologist calls.
“You have a PSA reading of 1.03,” he says.
“Gotcha,” I say, knowing that, without a prostate, were I free of cancer, the reading would be zero. I have rogue cells flitting about in my body; they leave evidence.
“We need to take another sample in six months,” he says.
“Two questions, Doc,” I say. “First, can I get the blood drawn at the pretend hospital we have here in Siberia With a View? Second, can I eat triple-cream cheeses and seared foie gras shortly before I arrive at the lab, and will a couple glasses of Clos La Coutale Malbec from Cahors skew the test results?”
I am thrilled when the oncologist tells me to eat and drink whatever I want, though he reminds me there is little reason to worry about cancer if I am going to die of a heart attack.
I’m irritated when he informs me I must drive an hour to return to the lab at the big people hospital.
“We want the analysis done at the same lab where our benchmark was created, since we need to maintain a standard in procedure,” he says, using an authoritative tone of voice all med students learn in “Tone of Voice 101.” Since I was raised by a doctor (the one who violated mom, time after time), I know that the oncologist has received another urgent missive from the administrator, directing him to make sure lab traffic and revenues continue to increase.
So, six months later, I drive 120 miles round trip, and let another stranger tap me. The lab tech seems disengaged when I tell her about a new painting I’m working on as part of my series, “The Old Man’s Final Desires.” The work features three highly stylized and freely brushed representations of asses (complete with apertures) floating above a landscape comprising tangled, highly stylized, freely brushed representations of other body parts (complete with apertures). There is not a face to be seen; the rendering of impersonal lust is stunning. Above a side table in her cubicle, the woman has hung a framed print that includes an image of a smiley face, and the message, “Have a Great Day. Jesus Loves You!” She smells like freshly mown grass.
The next week, the oncologist calls. “We have the results, and your level is up to 1.04. If it gets to 1.07, it’s critical that we discuss your decision to forgo radiation therapy.” The guy is anxious to use his new crazy ray machine: it’s the doc’s bread and butter, and the hospital administrator has demanded it be paid off within a year.
In six months, the oncologist’s office manager calls, and reminds me I need to drive 60 miles to provide blood, stat! I ignore the call, as I do the next two calls, delivered at three-month intervals.
Finally, I respond. My handlers are persistent, and as a somewhat reformed gambling addict, I am obsessed with odds. I know that docs regularly run the stats on lethal conditions, so I can’t resist knowing my new PSA level, and hearing an estimate of how long it will be before I die. This is similar to counting cards at a single-deck pitch table: the firmer the grip on ever-more-limited options, the better the chance for an accurate prediction, and a payoff. I make the trip.
The prospect of a return to a hospital for a lengthy stay is one on which I usually refuse to dwell, though I know it will happen sometime in the near future. When you are nearly 71, and you have cancer, the near future rests at the tip of your nose.
I can’t help but ponder the possibility of such a stay as I drive home from the big people hospital, keeping an eye out for stray elk and shape shifters, and listening to a Keith Jarrett special on the satellite radio system. I remember that I suffered incredible discomfort and pain in hospitals following the violations of my envelope, but I realize that the good thing about non-chronic pain is it goes away; once the pain’s gone, it’s up to you whether or not you choose to recall it. Knowing this, I also realize the reaction I have when I try to write about the agony of cerebrospinal fluid deficit is nothing more than an excuse to drink crippling amounts of gin.
But, there is a pain that occurs in a hospital that does not disappear entirely, the memory of which emerges without warning. That memory curls just below the surface of my conscious mind, lurking there like a behemoth, ready to breach, crush the USS Oblivion, and reduce contents and crew to well-gnawed particles floating in bloody sea foam.
It’s the memory of hospital food. When it comes up for air, there is no way to avoid reliving the horror, feeling the pain anew.
Hospital food is terrible, and as such symbolizes a lot of what is wrong with America. Not to say there aren’t things about our allegedly democratic state to be praised and valued, but there are a number of things that are awful. Many times, when the We the People Brigade lumbers into action, there follows a decline, a dilution of traditions, institutions, and practices that should remain elitist in character if the society is to maintain a sturdy foundation — the mixing of proper cocktails, for example, as well as theoretical physics, art, custom shoe manufacture, the Windsor knot, stock trading, ownership of Fabergé eggs, proper curing and smoking of pastrami, and the baking of soufflés.
When the populist crowd flexes its muscles, we end up with Appletinis, curators, soul-less abstraction, dull-witted conceptual art and a surfeit of MFAs, Crocs, Spam, clip-on ties, smug suburbanites strumming banjos and mandolins, and soggy breakfast casseroles made with tasteless white bread and shredded cheeses that harbor enormous loads of anti-caking agents.
And hospital food.
I understand: hospital food must satisfy the greatest number, and most mundane, of tastes, and should never offend in its effects— there can be very little salt included, in order to attend to blood pressure, few seasonings, little fat; no elements are added that can constipate, or cause a flare-up of acid reflux; dishes must complement the tang of pain killers. The fare must pacify the plebes.
I understand the situation, but I can’t forget it; I can’t keep the monster beneath the surface. I can’t duck an occasional surrender to the memory of the sludge served in the neurosurgery ward, and a repeat of the anguish I experienced. It’s been six years, yet the beast still periodically uncoils to give birth to torment.
In case my memory should fade, Kathy took a number of photos for the archives. She sat through my tribulation, and listened to me groan, when she wasn’t off on a shopping spree at Nordstrom Rack. She believes she earned the right to torture me if and when the urge hits.
Kathy brings the photos up on the screen of her laptop when our oldest grandson visits. “Look, Banzai,” she says, “do you remember when you were two years old, and you sat on the bed at the hospital with Umpy, while he pouted and refused to eat his dinner? You were so handsome. That looks like turkey meatloaf, doesn’t it? Mmmm. Your Bubbe loves you, and don’t forget to practice piano tonight.”
Bonz sat next to me while the monitors beeped, the tyke patiently waiting for each meal as nurses and residents arrived to check me for brain leakage. Bonz loved the shit the hospital served for dinner. After all, he was two years old, he had yet to read Brillat-Savarin, and I had barely begun to introduce him to molé, Thai curries, gratins, and vindaloo, so little else could be expected of him — he didn’t know any better. He ate most of what was on the trays the staff parked in front of me. Several times, he asked for seconds.
While Bonz ate, I was sustained by handfuls of stool softeners and sips of Ensure as I thought about kimchee pancakes, béarnaise sauce, Vaqueyras wines, toro, gin, enchiladas ranchero with a fried egg plopped on the stack, matchsticks of gobo marinated in shoyu and mirin, soup dumplings, bolita beans simmered soft with chiles, a pork hock or three, and garlic, gin, Cotes du Rhone from Cyprus Cuvée, the neutron star-dense lasagna made by a large Italian matron at her hilltop retreat in Sorrento, gin, pinxtos at a favorite Basque bar in Barcelona, gin, sweetbreads vol au vent like my father made (the tyrant who banged mom).
I refused to dine on turkey meatloaf, or “beef tips” braised with limp vegetables, and smothered with something called “gravy,” though I did wonder whether tips of beef (whatever they are, and wherever they’re located) might be removed from a steer if the animal was administered a sedative and a local anesthetic, allowing new tips to grow for future harvest, sparing the corn-crammed animal a trip to the abattoire. At night, I dreamt of favored foods and drinks, my reveries interrupted by nurses who appeared in the dark, ominous silhouettes arriving to wake me, order me to sit and bend over, to test me for driplets, draw more fluid from my spinal column, introduce pain that no non-lethal hit of morphine could touch, and no dream of Totten Inlet oysters could soothe.
But, that pain is gone. The pain produced by the memory of hospital food will remain, I fear, until the wagon reaches its last stop.
Ronnie tells me he is going to the big people hospital tomorrow — something about a damaged right ventricle and a heart rate slower than that of a Blue Whale. I have dined with Ronnie hundreds of times over the past three decades, so I am not surprised that his heart has surrendered; the onslaught has been terrific. His chile con queso can drop a Clydesdale to the ground.
When Ronnie’s problem was first diagnosed, and cardiologists began tinkering with his blood chemistry by pumping him with Big Pharma products, I reminded him of my discovery of the miraculous healing properties of ground red Chimayo chiles. Ronnie grew up in Albuquerque eating red, so a strong base was in place. He immediately jacked up his intake, preparing and devouring carne adovada on a nearly nightly basis. Informed several weeks ago of his impending hospital adventure, he thawed a major load of Hatch hot green every two nights or so, chopping the peppers and adding them, seeds, veins, and all, to whatever simmered on the stovetop.
I believe he is ready.
Ready for everything but the damned hospital food. This is an insult he has never confronted, so today I gently introduce him to his likely dilemma as we speak on the phone, right after he tells me he has left me several items in his will— a $30,000 credit card debt, a broken treadmill, a half ounce of thermonuclear bud grown by a shaman in Dulce, New Mexico, and what remains of his chile stash. He says he will put a key under the doormat at his house; his last will and testament can be found on the end table next to his recliner, scribbled with pencil on a napkin tucked beneath the satellite TV remote, several 2007 issues of Golf Magazine, and ten $25 chips from The Venetian. In the event he dies, he says, I’m to take the chips to Vegas, and play blackjack.
“Try to play smarter than you usually do,” he says. “You might try playing while you’re somewhat sober, and for god’s sake don’t smoke any of the shaman bud before you sit down at the table.”
Tomorrow, the guys and gals in surgical gowns gain entry to Ronnie’s body via an incision in an artery, probably in his groin. I assure him this will be no problem, since the Beta blockers the docs stuff into his system make use of groin-located equipment impossible, even were someone to give him an opportunity to use his unresponsive member on another human being — something that hasn’t happened much at all during the past ten years.
I proceed with a detailed description of what he can expect, foodwise, if the docs decide on a procedure that requires a stay in the hospital— stints, pig valves, bypass, a transplant, whatever.
Ronnie is normally talkative, and on occasion tumbles into the meth zone in terms of the pace of his blather. My description of what waits results in an eerie quiet at the other end of the line; I sense Ronnie’s positive attitude being sucked out of him, replaced by anxiety and despair.
I tell my friend not to worry; if necessary, I will visit him at the hospital. It will be difficult, but I will fight through my trepidation, and arrive at his bedside, bearing medicine.
“I picked up a pound of freshly ground and blended red at Romero’s last weekend, when I drove through Espanola,” I say. “I’ll put an ounce or so in a plastic bag, just in case hospital security has set up a metal detector at the building’s entrance. I’ll sneak the shit up to your room. It’ll go great on the turkey meatloaf and beef tips, and will speed the healing process.
“Plus,” I add, “if I do this, and you don’t die, you have to promise to do the same for me. Like it or not, my time’s coming. Oh, and I’m changing my will and leaving you a painting of highly stylized, freely brushed images of asses and other body parts, with apertures. It’ll look great on the wall above your broken treadmill. You can remember me as you stare at the painting, eat adovada, and check readouts from your heart monitor.”