1980: A reputation, especially a bad one, is a difficult thing to shake.
When I was first told the second attempt at my neck surgery would take place at Pomona Valley Medical Center (PVMC), I’m not going to lie, I was scared shitless. I’d never been the place before, but the stories that made their way around the rehab hospital were the stuff of medical nightmares. In my mind, PVMC was that house in your childhood neighborhood that nobody wanted to go near and was occupied — at best — with a family of cannibals and at worst, well, a family of cannibals with an appetite. People went in, but they didn’t come out. Posterior and anterior neck surgery was bad enough, having it done in Satan’s “pick and pull”, only added to my uneasiness.
On the day before the surgery, I was strapped to a gurney, loaded into one of the rehab hospital’s vans and transported down Garey Ave. to the hospital some 15 minutes away. And while that part of Pomona isn’t exactly the most dogeared chapter in the “Great Views of California” book, it was at least a view and had I been able to see it I would’ve cherished it like it was my last. Macabre? Perhaps, but it was something to hold on to — even if it was a view of distracted commuters, carbon monoxide poisoned trees and mini malls.
When we arrived at the hospital, they unloaded me in the parking lot and wheeled me some 10 yards to the emergency room entrance. Inside, my eyes hesitated to adjust to the dimly lit hallway. The half covered, long row of fluorescent lights overhead sputtered and blinked and barely illuminated the space with an anemic gray-green hue. Any hope I had that the hospital’s rumored reputation would be assuaged by a deceptive but comforting ambience or welcoming cadre of sweet nurses was duly crushed in those initial moments. I now waited to be greeted by a neurosurgeon with dirty hands, a utility belt loaded with dull, antiquated instruments and a bloodstained smock that read, “my other grill is an operating table”.
“Mr. Schmiesing,” he would say between puffs on a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, “A table in the morgue opened up rather unexpectedly and we’d love to get you in for your surgery now if we could. There’s a bit more light down there and I think we’ll have the anesthesiologist for most of it”
By the time I was checked in and taken to my room, my experience in the place was fast becoming an unspooling ball of confirmed negative expectations. The room I was assigned to, a six bed set up, was empty except for a grotesquely large fat man in the far corner bed by the window wheezing like a drowning carp. The lights, as with the entrance to the hospital, struggled to illuminate the space but seemed enigmatically effective at beating back any comforting spectrum of natural light that dared enter the room.
My bed, praise Allah, was by the door, far away from Death’s next fare, but aside from that fortunate spatial arrangement, its elevated side rails, made it look more like a cage than a welcoming alternative to the gurney. Over the bed, bolted to the head and foot boards, running lengthwise down the center, was a thick steel bar with a dirty metal triangle dangling from it by a steel chain. Sketchy though it was, the setup wasn’t unfamiliar to me — paraplegics at the rehab hospital used something similar to grab and hoist themselves up into a sitting position — but why it was only over my bed, a quadriplegic with no ability to use it, was a mystery to me and not altogether comforting in regard to what the staff knew about my disability.
“Are we ready to transfer to the bed?”, an orderly asked, unstrapping the belts that kept me secured to the gurney and then rolling me partly on my side while two other orderlies shoved a large plastic transfer board under my back.
“Uh, I guess we are, but –” I started to say, knowing it wasn’t a question but still wanting to let them know they should go easy with me. And before I could say anything further, they slid me onto the bed with a bounce and pulled the board out with the same disregard for my comfort as when they shoved it in.
Lying there, staring at the steel bar looming a mere 3 feet from my face, as a nurse hooked the night drainage bag to the side of the bed, covered me, and then pulled the side railings up with a jolting clang, I wanted only one thing; to call the whole thing off and get the hell out of there.
“I don’t want to do this.” I said to my mom as soon as the nurse left the room.
“I know you don’t.” My mom answered, sitting down in a chair beside me. “I know you don’t.”
And just as she was about to reach out to comfort me, there was a strange metallic cracking sound behind my head and the steel bar above me began to fall. I say began, but began isn’t quite accurate, it simply fell. And as heavy metal objects often will, it fell with great velocity and intention — coming at me so fast I didn’t even have time to close my eyes. And then Bam!, 2 inches from my face it stopped with a bed rattling explosion.
Dumbfounded and in shock, I couldn’t say a word. Somewhere in my adrenaline filled brain neurons were frantically trying to connect the dots as to what the hell just happened and were failing miserably. Was it a dream? A joke? Was I dead? I mean, if avoiding surgery was what I was after, well, death via a crushed skull was one way to go about it. So did I will it to happen? I didn’t know. Nothing was clicking.
And then I lost it — physically, emotionally, psychologically — that was it. I was done. And I began to cry. From deep within me it came, like vomit; everything, all of it — the fear, the frustration, the doubt — anything I’d pushed below the surface out of necessity, function or pride found its way back to the fore. It was at once both embarrassing and cathartic, but mostly it was just honest — a pure, visceral truth. My mom tried to comfort me, and while her touch was reassuring, what I really needed was time. Because all those neurons, just moments before, that couldn’t find their mark would sort themselves out again, my breathing would return its appropriate autonomic pace, I would be relatively baggage free from my colon to my frontal lobes, and I would once again realize I was in Pomona (or Hell), in a hospital room a mere 24 hours away from anterior and posterior cervical fusion.
That night, needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well. I laid there with my eyes open for most of it, kept awake by the gurgling breath of the carp in the corner and the fear that the bar — despite the dubious reassurances to the contrary — would once again try to bludgeon me. But more than this, I was beginning to feel like that guy in the joke who’s asked God to show him some sort of sign while all the while ignoring the lightning that’s striking the ground around him. A fact which, quite frankly, was making it difficult for me to reconcile how things couldn’t get worse… which, of course, they did.
In the morning when they began to prep me for surgery, among other things, they gave me a transfusion of several liters of blood. Being anemic* — and a quadriplegic — they felt it was the only way to keep my blood pressure up and stable while they did their little cutting/fusion thing on my neck. But as soon as that blood entered my bloodstream and started to circulate throughout my body, I began to have a reaction to it. At first, it was just a hot, itchy sensation, but soon after it became something much worse; my hands and face began to swell, hives broke out all over my body, and it was only a matter of time before my esophagus would join in the fun as well. Seeing what was happening, the nurses stopped the transfusion and quickly injected me with an epinephrine, a steroid or some sort of Benadryl derivative to prevent me from going into anaphylaxis.
“That’s strange.” One of the nurses said, detaching the connection from my arm. “I’ve never seen that happen before.”
“Really?” I thought. “What a surprise. Maybe we should consult the PVMC Ouija board to see what to do next”.
“We’ll wash the proteins and see if that works.” She continued, “That’s usually all we need to do and you should still be ready in time for your surgery “. And then left the room with the offensive sack of blood.
In the meantime, my head was spinning with disbelief and I wasn’t altogether confident about the “dirty” blood now circulating throughout my body. I may have been anaphylaxis free, but my skin was still crawling and itching in places I didn’t even think I could feel. And truth be told, the whole “washing the proteins” thing seemed to have a faint whiff of bullshit to it and felt like another way of saying, “Oops, my bad. I’ll go get the good stuff now”, which didn’t exactly boost my comfort level for another go around of transfusions.
But comfortable or not, some twenty minutes later, just as the Raid was starting to work its magic on the insects under my skin, the nurse returned with the newly “laundered” sack of blood and hooked me up for “transfusion take two: the redux”. The difference this time being, the concerned looks of everybody in the room as they waited to see what would happen next — a wait, as it turned out, which wasn’t very long, as the previous symptoms came crawling back with each pump of my heart.
Again, I was immediately detached from the offensive sack of blood, injected with whatever drug they injected me with before and found myself, once again, fat faced and itchy, surrounded by a bunch of perplexed health-care workers collectively uttering phrases such as; “this is so strange”, “I’ve never…” and “I don’t know what’s going on”.
For me, however, it was no longer strange nor perplexing. As far as I was concerned, PVMC had made its point and with impressive efficacy. There’s no doubt prejudice and reputation had something to do with it — things were colored by reputation from the beginning — but this haunted hospital stuff, with the sickly fluorescent lights, dying, wheezing fat men, tainted blood and guillotine deathbeds were beyond the pale, and I was more than ready to close the chapter on this living Stephen King novel.
In the end, it made little difference what I or anyone thought or wanted to do. The fact was, if they couldn’t give me blood then they couldn’t safely do surgery. And my neurosurgeon, who was not a member of the PVMC staff, didn’t have anything invested in forging ahead regardless. Even still, the strange circumstances and happenings — and I implore anyone to find their equal that isn’t fiction — were enough to give me pause. At the time it seemed as though there was something malevolent was at work, but looking at it now, I’m not so sure.
For starters, I didn’t have a go through an extremely risky surgery and protracted recovery. Sure, I would have to wear my halo brace for a few months more, but as miserable as those twice-weekly screw tightening sessions were — and trust me, they were miserable — there wasn’t any risk of death or paralysis (At least not for me, anyway. The doctor who tightened the screws into my skull, well, she ultimately became the source of many homicidal fantasies… but that’s another story). Also, my friends and family — particularly my mother — were spared an agonizing day of worry, pacing hospital hallways and drinking nasty hospital coffee. And lastly — and perhaps most importantly — I learned valuable lessons in both the power of reputation as a guide for selecting a hospital and how to use my intuition to recognize unconcealed signs from God. Both of which came in handy in the years to follow.
So I share with you the above experience because on the 21st of this month I will be having another go at spinal surgery. And while the circumstances this time are different — the diagnosis is syringomyelia (more on that in the next post), it’s at UCLA not PVMC and, of course, I’m older, wiser and definitely more zen than I was at 16 — that last experience, “valuable” as it was, has made surgery of any kind a difficult thing to wrap my head around. Oh sure, I’m zen, I’m even a little bit of a buddha, but I’m not exactly looking test those facts.
That said, I’m comfortable with what’s about to happen. I’ve given it a lot of thought, seen several specialists, absorbed my fair share of radiation and I’m now throwing my chips on the table. What’ll happen, will happen and at this point it’s out of my hands. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to have surgery, but the beauty in this particular situation is that I don’t have a choice — if I don’t have surgery things will progressively get worse, and if I do, well, there’s that possibility as well, but more likely I’ll arrest the situation where it’s at and even possibly improve. Also, I’m in the best shape of my life, I’ve been eating nothing but local organic food for the last 20 years (yes, it matters), I’ve got a kick ass positive attitude and I’m blessed to the hilt with kick ass positive friends and family, and the surgery is scheduled for — you guessed it — the “International Day of Peace”.
So seriously, could things be any more in line for a day on the operating table? You know, aside from the whole quadriplegic thing.
Syringomyelia: a love story.
*I was anemic at the time because I refused to eat hospital food and dropped below 100 pounds. Not a good move, perhaps, but it says something about the quality of institutional food.