“He’s great, and he’s a cross dresser.”
Even if that hadn’t been the only qualifier we had for the ER surgeon, it registered to both my wife and me as an extremely odd piece of information to divulge under any circumstance.
“Do cross dressers make better surgeons?” we asked, which in turn confused the attending physician who had actually said, “CrossFitter.” Given we were at the Good Samaritan Hospital, I had visions of our surgeon being responsible for fitting little Jesuses on all of the crosses in the rooms, but she was appealing to my affinity for Triathlons and felt I would be comforted knowing the surgeon on call was a fellow athlete, a CrossFitter as in CrossFit training.
15 minutes later, disoriented, distressed and dressed in one of those little blue backless gowns on a gurney, I was signing pieces of paper in which I acknowledged that anesthesia takes out more people annually than base jumping. In a few moments, I would be operated on by a surgeon I had never met, in a hospital I had never heard of.At about midnight the night before, I awoke cursing the chicken salad I had had for dinner. It seemed to be rebelling in the form of a nauseating throb just below my ribs. By 2:00 AM, I assumed I was on my way to a 24 hour bug, sweaty and nauseous, drifting in and out of dreams about the movie Alien in which a chicken burst out of my chest spewing raisins and walnuts, putrid mayonnaise coursing through its veins. The odd thing about it was that I never got sick, and no matter how I contorted myself in bed, butt up, down, east, or west, the pain never subsided. In fact, it grew.
Always imagining myself a likely Mensa candidate, and in true husband-like form, I posited to Reggie at about 7:30 AM that I just “sleep it off.” Roughly 20 minutes later, just before 8:00 AM, she had me at the CityMD in Nanuet. While I was complaining about the wax job I was given when they removed all those little sticky posts they attach to your chest and legs for the EKG, the doctor announced that the pain I was experiencing was the result of one of three things 1) a heart attack, 2) appendicitis, or 3) the accursed chicken salad. I told him I vigorously favored the third option, and while he agreed that was the most likely scenario, he set us on an immediate course to the E.R. in Suffern.
They named Suffern after the processes of drawing blood, inserting IV’s, taking X-rays, sliding you in and out of CAT Scans, making you wait, and attaching and then ripping off the bevy of EKG stickers 3 times in the course of 12 hours. At the end of the day, my chest and legs were pock marked, resembling the tee at a public driving range or the psychotic pallet of some blind epileptic barber.
Father Brian, making his rounds in the E.R. walked in late afternoon, and with a thick Irish brogue asked if I was Catholic. I could tell by his expression when I said, “no,” that my odds for an early release had plummeted.
At 7:30 PM, 20 hours after I had last eaten anything and a good 2 hours after the CAT Scan, a cardiologist I had never met entered the room, confirmed I was me, and delivered the welcome news that my heart was in terrific condition, assuring me that the missing patches of hair on my chest and legs would eventually grow back.
But before I could sit up, shout Hallelujah, mumble “Tums” and “fucking chicken salad” to myself, the attending physician returned and announced she had been right.
“You have appendicitis.”
Google the doctor. Google appendicitis. Google the mortality rate at Good Samaritan Hospital. Google Vegas odds of health insurance covering anything. Weigh the options. Call a few doctor friends. Get some referrals. Make an informed decision before any incision. With amazing suddenness, in an ER that had moved at a glacial pace all day, none of those were options. Not even Father Brian was available for a quick good Word. We had been whisked out of the ER room so fast, one of the consent papers was still floating in the air when we reached the end of the hall. Richard Petty Jr. powered my gurney to pre-op; I was signing release papers; everything I had with me was bagged and handed to Reggie who was providing my medical history to one of the nurses; “Judi with an i” put a cap on me; the anesthesiologist injected fluids into my IV; and a decidedly non-athletic, jolly unshaven guy in green scrubs and strangely perfect teeth tripped on a chair as he went to fetch me a pair of non-slip socks.
“If that’s Dr. CrossFit,” I anxiously told Judy with an “i,” “I am going home right now.”
This was the type of Thursday that could give a guy a heart attack.
I faded-into consciousness lying on my right side staring at four nurses literally poised to pounce on my me. There wasn’t a what, where, why or when that even remotely registered in my head. A Japanese woman with a fairly pronounced accent was plugging something into my right arm, and with her face bizarrely close to my own, she kept repeating “you no man?”
Then my brain started to unscramble.
Surgery. Appendicitis. She was the anesthesiologist. “You know man?” I could definitely hear. I was alive, but apparently Dr. CrossFit had cut off the wrong appendage.
“You no man?”
Before the surgery, Reggie had warned the nurses that 10 years earlier, after a 4 ½ hour shoulder operation, my resurrection from anesthesia had been tumultuous, featuring a long stretch of delusional rage, short term memory loss, and an embarrassingly explicit and loud rant about intimate moments she and I had shared the night before. But this reentry was gentle and G-rated. I had only been under for 30 minutes.
“No,” I said hoarsely. “I’m not mad.”
Reggie was there before I could even ask where she was, assuring me everything had gone great. The night nurse was writing her name “SIGY” and my homework (Pee, Pass Gas, Reduce Pain) on the whiteboard across from my bed. Jesus was eternally groaning on the cross between my white board and my roommate’s board, whose homework was “Manage Pain, Stop Infection, No Bleeding, Bowell Movement.” After a goodnight kiss from Reggie, I fell asleep to the rhythmic beat of the air pumping into the compression sleeves on my legs and the periodic electronic beep from the IV regulating the drip into my right arm.
Wednesday evening, pre-chicken salad, I had run 5 miles at the gym, tacking that run onto the end of a day that had begun with an early morning 1-mile swim. A heartbeat later, at 1:00 AM Friday, Sigy, my IV and I were gingerly shuffling mandatory laps around the recovery wing. At the east end of the corridor, an oddly dwarfish 4 foot ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary held her arms out, gesturing toward the rest room on her left. At the other end of the corridor, a hideous wood carved figure of Jesus hung on a pencil thin iron cross. It was also an odd size, about 2 feet in height. It seemed to have been chiseled with a screw driver and a hammer by Stephen King, its mouth gaping, arms and legs spindly, and an oversized cavernous chest marked with divots from a large flat head screwdriver.
“Sigy, I know what happened to Jesus.” I said, pointing to his chest. “It was those damn EKG stickers.”
She shuttled me back to my bed, handed me a plastic bottle, and tapped with a marker on the first homework assignment on the board, “Pee.” Another nurse came and drew some blood. And so it went every couple of hours. Sporadic and often startling moans and tears from my neighbors on the floor. Plastic bottles. Vitals taken. A dozen laps around ceramic Mary and chiseled Jesus in the angelic care of a selfless and caring hospital staff.
Just after dawn, Sigy passed the torch to Dong Hwa.
“I’ve read about you,” I said. “Are you from Spain?”
She stopped writing on the board, took a long look at me and said, “Korea.” And then after writing her full name, “Dong Hwa Ham,” and tapping it, she erased my previous homework and replaced it with the words, “go home.”
Dr. CrossFit, came by to say I would live to run another Tri, and checked the 3 incisions. The timing had been close on the appendix. “Not something you wanted to have burst on a flight, a bike ride, or an open water swim.” Then he added, “You’re lucky. You have a smart wife,” two facts I had long since learned, though I wasn’t entirely clear if he thought I was lucky to have gotten surgery when I did, or if he thought I was lucky to have a smart wife. Either way, I thanked him profusely.
Dong Hwa walked me to the lobby. We shared the elevator with Father Brian.
“How are you?” he greeted. “Comin’ or goin’?” He didn’t remember me from the day before. I told him I was on my way out.
“Are you Catholic?” he asked. “Still not,” I said. I asked him if he was making his rounds. He told me that sadly, he was off to give last rites, suiting up for someone whose Thursday had taken a far more dramatic turn than mine.
“You wife and daughter coming,” Dong Hwa told me. “All of us lucky.”
“Yes,” I told her, euphoric and grateful to see Reggie and Dylan walking in from the parking lot, “all of us very, very lucky.”
Epilogue: A quick accounting of the accounting portion of this event is listed in Appendix A