Illness Flash

I’ve put myself in a bit of a bind with this prompt. So, I decided to take a brainstorming tact suggested in a TEDxSomerville talk I saw on stage just this morning. Basically, you ask questions until you can’t think of another and then go back over them. It was an interesting concept and I’ll post a link to the video when it goes up. (I’m also going to talk a lot more about some of the other talks I saw today, later, when their videos are up.)

But for now, how do you write about something this…pervasive, this well-done in literature? It’s been done in anger, in resignation, in determination. What can be unique about writing about illness and injury? Dealing with the actual instigating event and its oddities like Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff? Or approach a longer lasting event? But the long suffering patient has been done. Particularly those sickly sweet ones like in A Walk To Remember. So just how was I supposed to go about creating a unique illness experience? And what do you know…I just had an idea…

Janine shuffled her notecards one more time at her podium before she looked up, the lights making the audience into uncertain shadows at their dinner tables. Small kindnesses she thought, before launching into her speech.

“It began when I was in 8th grade. I was stupid at a scouting camporee and ended up throwing myself into shock. But from that day forward, nothing seemed to work right in my body. I became hypoglycemic, started having some serious anxiety issues which developed into what we thought were panic attacks, I developed an allergy to dairy, and then my heart started to do funny things–racing, fluttering, doing a fancy gig at unexpected moments.”

She felt like it might do it again now, though she knew it wouldn’t. It never would again. It had been carefully neutered, tamed. It behaved marvelously, even keeping itself at a steady 120 beats per minute on her run that morning. It was just the nerves of being in front of all these people that made her feel like her body might start misbehaving again.

“Misbehavior, that’s what I called it. And it was getting in the way. I was in med school now, getting my MD in cardiology. I had no time for anything beyond class and had driven my body to it’s outermost limits of stress and poor health habits. They don’t tell you when you start an MD that you have to destroy your body to finish it, which is a bit ironic. The day after I turned in my final papers, I ended up in the hospital.”

Her heart twinged, but it was simply echoing the pain and spasms of that time, 10 years ago. Janine suppressed an urge to take her own pulse, the old habit of rudimentary biofeedback as a coping technique brought back by the tension she felt addressing such a distinguished audience.

“They told me that my heart was going to need to be replaced, that it had somehow gotten damaged and that half the nodes were dead already. They wanted to put in a pacemaker and put me on a doner list in the meantime. I said yes to the pacemaker but I knew I was going to be at the very bottom of the transplant list, but that was okay with me. I was going to fix this before the ever got anywhere near me on that list.”

At this point, Janine looked to her left, at her partner in crime sitting at the head table. She remembered approaching the stem cell researcher with an absurd idea that had come to her as she read his research 15 years ago. It had taken her five years to screw up her courage to talk to him, but this was the last straw. Sometimes it just took being more afraid of something else. He had at first laughed, but sobered quickly, then started asking questions and taking notes.

“I approached Dr. Mathias about a possible solution. I was not a stem cell researcher, so I didn’t know if it would be at all feasible. All I knew is I wanted to be fixed, and fixed now. And we did it. Together we created a cure for ailing organs, a way to regenerate them as good as new within their own body. Five injections into the organ, that’s all it takes.” She thumped herself on the chest for emphasis. “And it’s as though there never was a problem. It’s been five years since Dr. Mathias injected my heart with our special concoction. And, frankly, finally being able to live healthy means a little more than this nice medallion, though I must say, the thought is quite appreciated.”

The room laughed, Janine thanked them once again for the honor, and then sat down beside Dr. Mathias. “Next time we win the Nobel Prize, you’re doing the talking.”

One thought on “Illness Flash

  1. On an oppressively hot, dry, spring day, under a sun-drenched sky, a scratchy and nasal voice interrupted the day’s drudgery. “Attention in the camp, attention in the camp. Air Force Theater Hospital seeking donors with blood type O positive…please report to triage at Air Force Theater Hospital immediately. I say again, blood donors with type O positive needed immediately”. The speaker had not paused for the echo, so many of the syllables collided with the ear in a most unwelcoming way, but the message was unmistakable. They needed universal donors. Now.

    Brian, a civilian working on the base for almost 6 months now, heard the message as though it had been spoken directly to him–not the 30,000 other people on the sprawling base–just to him, because he knew his blood type was O positive. He told his supervisor that he was type O positive and wanted to sign out–meaning go “off the clock”, unpaid in civilian terms because he would be leaving his worksite–to respond to the call of the loudspeaker for blood donors. He suspected the announcement had some eery relation to the heavy traffic of MedEvac helicopters inbound to the hospital’s helipad over the last several minutes. Several troops must be hurt, he thought. Marines, given the model and markings of the choppers. This was no routine call to replenish a low supply, because such calls never came over a loudspeaker. They need blood to go straight into those wounded guys coming in by helicopter. Surely that was the reason for the announcement.

    The supervisor shrugged at the request, acknowledging that the day’s workload was light. Brian wouldn’t be missed for a couple hours. Besides, Brian was going on vacation soon…a trip to meet friends in Italy. Brian was on short-timer’s syndrome, so he thought, and besides…there was no work in the office at the moment. Sure, why not? If he wanted to lose a couple hours’ pay, go ahead. Go do his civic duty, donate blood. What’s it to me? “Sign out, and don’t you dare claim it on your time sheet as work hours!”

    Brian signed the “sign-out” log from his office, and rode his bicycle the quarter-mile to the hospital. Now that he was off-the-clock for the day anyway, he was in no hurry. The “hospital”, as it were, was a ramshackle collection of olive-drab green tents. It looked no more modern than something out of the TV series “M.A.S.H.”, which had been set in the Korean conflict some 50+ years prior. It barely provided shelter from the blazing sun and dust of the Iraqi desert.
    The gate attendant, a young enlisted Air Force man, stopped him. Dismounting his bike and displaying his civilian ID card, Brian said “I’ve come to donate blood after I heard the announcement”. The airman pointed to the triage tent and admitted him.

    A nurse near the entrance to the tent directed him to walk back through several more tents until reaching the lab. It was in that first tent, though, that Brian saw something that would stick with him for years to come. The rough, drab, green, half-story, exterior appearance of the hospital disappeared as soon as he stepped through the door-flaps; inside he was in a white, sterile, stateside-esque emergency room, and immediately to his left was a United States Marine in desert uniform, half-reclined on a stainless-steel gurney. The Marine looked perfectly normal, as though he were there to be treated for a fever or a hangover. Nothing seemed out of place about him except that, as Brian noticed as he walked by, the Marine’s left leg was absent from the mid-thigh down. There was no quadricep. No knee. No shin. No calf. No ankle. No foot. No boot. Merely a stump, exposed, not yet fully bandaged, oozing blood in a slow drip, each falling individually to the floor in an unremarkably small puddle. There was no gore. No screaming. No moaning. Nothing extraordinary. Just a wide expanse of white sheet on the gurney where there should have been a left leg, bordered by a perfectly healthy right leg and a bleeding stump, overhanging the stainless steel railing. The young Marine sat there placidly, not quite upright but not quite lying down, with no special expression at all.

    Brian proceeded back through a few more olive drab, tent passageways. Upon reaching the lab, he was told to wait. A few donors lay giving blood beyond the nurses’ station. As he sat there on a crude wooden bench, likely crafted by the low-paid Pilipino laborers who built such things on the base, Brian’s thoughts drifted to the young Marine he’d walked past. Brian’s own service in Iraq had been entirely civilian in nature; he had left the military years before the war started, and had never been in combat. With this in mind, he felt a bit embarrassed at being there. He felt a type of survivor’s guilt, like maybe he had somehow failed to really do his part when it counted. Now he was in Iraq as a civilian, living in the relative comfort and safety of a large U.S. base, earning a nice salary. The Marine, though, was likely earning a third or a half of that salary, and had just lost a leg for his troubles! The thought would not leave him.

    After a decent interval, perhaps 20 or 30 minutes that might have easily been 2 or 3 hours, some disembodied bureaucrat in nonmedical clothing announced that no further blood donations would be needed. Brian rose and began to retrace his steps out of the facility, back to his bicycle, back to his small office.

    On the way out, he walked through the stark-white triage tent again. It seemed to sparkle as none of the rest of the place had, as if in tribute. He canted his eyes to the right, looking at the same Marine. Now the young man was seated upright, his stump fully bandaged. He was talking with the physician, who was himself wearing an Army uniform. The patient’s face gave no hint of the trauma he’d just momentarily experienced. He had no sign of tears having charted a course down his cheeks. He had no wrinkled brow in testimony of emotional distress. In fact, Brian imagined that the Marine’s face looked at that moment much the same as it probably looked every day prior, as he chatted with his high school classmates, his family, his friends, his bon-voyage-well-wishers before deploying, and with his fellow Marines. Here was this healthy, muscular, handsome young man, sitting legless on a hospital bed; and yet his face belied none of the enormous changes his life had undergone just hours before.

    What could account for the lack of emotion? Was it the morphine? Was it some other drug? What could possibly account for the fact the Marine sat so unmoved, having just lost a limb? This singular thought drew the passage of time to a near standstill for Brian, as he walked past, unable to avert his eyes despite his embarrassment. He could not help thinking that this young Marine’s life had been so normal just an hour or two ago, and now was completely changed forever. The incongruity between that fact and the absence of emotion on the Marine’s face haunted Brian all the way back to his office. Had they given him painkillers? Was that it? Or, anti-anxiety meds like Ativan? No, Brian concluded. That wasn’t it.
    The Marine didn’t know it yet. That was it. He simply didn’t know. He didn’t know that his leg was gone. Sure, maybe he knew it intellectually…but not intuitively. He hadn’t absorbed it yet. Brian wondered then, and for years after, how long it would take for that new reality to set in…but he never forgot the moments in between, the moments he’d seen, when that young Marine was still the same young man he’d always been, and blissfully unaware that his life had just changed forever, and in an inescapable way. It had been an injury as yet unacknowledged, but unavoidable. Many painful realizations were still to come in that Marine’s future, but in that brief moment when Brian had walked by and looked…it hadn’t set in yet. The anger hadn’t come. The bargaining hadn’t come. The grief and the loss hadn’t come. The leg was gone, but nothing negative had arrive yet to replace it.


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