Tag Archives: health

Dear Doctor

ring from the medical college of the univ of pennsylvaniaMy physical is tomorrow. I suppose most people call it an “annual physical,” but I haven’t had one in a couple of years because it’s been a while since I saw that physician. So it’s more my biennial physical, bordering on every 30 months at that.

For regular checkups regarding my hormone therapy, I drive out to Portland, Oregon, because I haven’t found a doctor in Walla Walla who knows anything about the whole gender transition thang, and this particular doctor sees more than 1,000 trans patients. Plus heck, it’s a pretty enough drive along the Columbia River, and I suppose it keeps my stamina up for long car rides. Read More…

Dragon Soccer

dragon soccer iconWe received an audience with Sarah Palin again today (read, the family practitioner who looks like Sarah Palin), and after waiting only 45 minutes, she joined us for Susanne’s latest exam. After a string of additional symptoms, like sudden, cataclysmic leg cramps, stubborn heartburn, and the mucous that accompanies late spring pollen bursts, Sarah Palin grabbed her fetal heartbeat monitor and pushed around searching for sound.

WHAM, responded the baby dragon, who I imagine had been sleeping peacefully just a scant few seconds earlier. Read More…

The Guinea Pig

Being away from Walla Walla for six months meant that some activities rolled around as soon as we returned, things like dental cleanings. I’d made the appointment on the cusp on last summer, and with the snowfall looking austere in the Blue Mountains next to town, I drove to that appointment today, right as schools all along my route were sending their students home.

In Washington, DC, attempting to get more than 20 blocks entails planning for a 35-40 minute trip. In Walla Walla, it’s more like 5 minutes, but I hadn’t counted on crossing guards. Read More…

The Slippery Slope

One must admire a city like Seattle for its principles. It still allows those awful plastic grocery bags as legal carrying devices, not yet having taken up the mantle of Earth-savingness like its nearish cousin, San Francisco. And it does continue to serve soft drinks and fizzy pop from automatic vending machines, a no-no in ‘Frisco as well these days. But the powers that be have put their  collective feet down when it comes to salting the roads when it snows, given the proximity to the Puget Sound and accompanying Entire Pacific Ocean.

If only Seattle weren’t on a series of steep hills. Read More…

Health care: the next frontier for the queer fight

I want to offer a suggestion, of sorts, that is born out of decades of research. Well, not really research so much as a lifetime of experience with front-line medical staff, the stories from my friends, and the reading I’ve done as an adult about where our health care system is weak, and who falls through the cracks in its tired structure. No way is any of this scientifically stated, and hopefully I won’t rely on generalizations to make my points, but I’m sure if I do, someone will point it out to me. So let me just jump in with my suggestion.

Health care and health insurance ought to be the next priority for the queer community. Read More…

Word to the wise

Susanne and I visited our friend in the hospital last week, thinking that she wouldn’t yet be able to talk, as her cancer surgery was in the neighborhood of her neck. I can imagine few people more garrulous than me, which she is, so it must have been difficult for her, relying only on a small white board, looking something like Tim Russert on Election Day in 2000. Only in this case, it’s to ask “When can I get out of here,” and not to suddenly realize the future of the country is “Too close to call.”

My plan was to walk in her room and announce that she could speak up if she didn’t want a visit, give her .2 seconds to chirp, and then say, “Okay, great, so I had a few stories to share with you…”

As it was, she was already sitting up and speaking, to her surgeon. I looked at the older, chubby man with a halo of white hair on his head and the smart Kenneth Cole pinstriped shirt, and realized I knew him from somewhere. But where? Quickly, my brain flicked through Walla Walla experiences like a coke addict with a Fischer-Price Viewmaster. Not the pharmacy. Not my outpatient knee surgery. Not the coffee shop. Not a winery. Not the Bi-Mart. Who was this guy?

They were finishing up their conversation about her prognosis. I stood out in the hall, too focused on placing him than eavesdropping, although the tone they shared indicated that things were better than expected. It occurred to me that I had shared something vaguely intimate with him—which was weird, of course, given the whole married to Susanne thing. I asked her if she remembered him from anywhere, and she shook her head in that way she has when she realizes, again, that I am something of a loon. I would just have to put my sudden fascination aside and think about it later.

He acknowledged us on his way out the door and I gave him one last stare, begging my synapses to at least pretend to give a crap that they were in my brain for my benefit, not theirs. My synapses, absences of material that they are, scoffed at me. Screw those uppity dendrites, they synapted at me. My dendrites, meanwhile, just shrugged as if none of this brain communication was their responsibility.

We sat down and she smiled at us, firecracker that she is. A long red scar ran the width of her neck and I had a memory I’d forgotten previously of when I’d had a very swollen underchin after falling off my bike when I was 7. So apparently something was going on upstairs in my head after all.

She looked at me and said, gravelly voiced, “I’ve been telling everyone about what you said to me 6 weeks ago. You told me I could handle anything.”

Okay, that’s how I remember it. What I had actually said, which our friend recalled as well, was that I’d said, “Mary, you could be a conjoined twin and you would handle it just fine. You could handle anything.”

“I do believe in serendipity,” she said, looking at me intensely. “You said the right words to me at the perfect moment, so thank you.”

Jeez, I was just blathering on, but I was glad she found such meaning in them. I blinked back tears.

Ever the talker, she started launching into various thoughts and opinions, and Susanne and I tried to fill in the space between her words with our own, so she wouldn’t tire herself out. But a couple of days in the CICU, and the old professor wanted to make up for lost time. She wanted to know, it seemed, everything that had happened on the face of the planet in the last 48 hours. To me, things seemed pretty stuck—health care still being bandied about in Washington, Tiger groping for some relief from his PR nightmare—

“Oh, I know! What was he thinking? Can you even believe it?”

“Well,” I said, adding my only “news” about the event to the conversation, “I read that his wife has adjusted the prenup agreement.”

“She’s a smart one,” Mary said, “good for her!”

We devolved into a conversation about reality television and the stars who populate its universe, and Mary mentioned the White House party crashers. Oh good, I thought, I can tell her my stories about their vineyard so she won’t have to talk. I told her my stories, speaking more quickly than I usually do because I was afraid she’d jump in and start chattering. Even Susanne cut me off a couple of times, lest a nanosecond of silence inspire her to start talking.

“I wonder if there isn’t a hierarchy of reality tv personalities,” I mused.

“How do you mean,” asked Mary.

I explained. At the top are the celebrities who have deigned to be the host of some reality show, probably a competition of some kind. You’ve got your reality tv stars, people who at any given moment, are the rage of some show or other. Then you have the reality tv stars of lesser-watched shows, or spin-off shows. Then there are the has beens whose moment has passed recently, and on their heels, the ones who were like, on The Real World eight years ago. Then there are the reality tv figures who weren’t ever really popular, or who were on awful, short-lived shows like The Mole. And now we see there are even the rejects from the reality television world, like the balloon boy parents or the White House party crashers. So it goes something like:

Heidi Klum (Project Runway), Padma (Top Chef)

Jeff Lewis (Flipping Out) Stacy London (What Not to Wear)

Lauri Waring (Real Housewives of Orange County)

Danielle Staub (Real Housewives of New Jersey)

John Gosselin (Jon and Kate Plus Eight)

Diane Ogden (Survivor, season 3)

Valerie Penso (Temptation Island)

Balloon Boy parents

And all of these are still above someone like Brian Bonsall, former child actor who got arrested yet again last week, although I’m not sure I can articulate why.

“I think there’s a study in there somewhere,” Mary said, and we laughed.

All throughout our discussion she kept touching the lower half of her face, presumably to see if it was still attached. It does give one the illusion that one’s head is much, much larger than it is when you can only feel it from the outside and not from within itself. I knew we’d tired her out, so we made our departure, leaving her with a copy of my memoir, since we’d heard she had exhausted her reading material. She nearly yanked it out of my hands, so I’m looking forward to her comments.

I drifted off to sleep that night and realized I’d gone to see that doctor when my hearing was getting bad, about 8 weeks ago. He’d found some ear wax stuck against my eardrum, and had sucked it out with the smallest vacuum tube I’d ever seen.

I’d call that vaguely intimate.

You get what you get and you love it

Susanne and I got some pretty bad news last night about a colleague of hers who is ill. She’d been having a sore throat for a few weeks, and went to see her doctor. Out here in Walla Walla there seem to be something like 3.8 doctors for every regular person, so perhaps she could have just passed one on the way to the actual medical center, but they don’t exactly walk around with floating neon signs over their heads proclaiming “Random Health Care Service Here, Cheap.” In fact, thinking about it, that was one of the things that still makes me mad about all that time spent watching Electric Company—I never would get to make orange letters appear over my head as I pronounced words. Such false advertising.

So the doctor sent her to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who sent her to an oncologist, who scheduled a surgery for next week. I don’t know a heck of a lot about cancer, but I do know that when a relative of mine came down with prostate cancer, the physician said it was okay to wait a few months so he could finish a project. This is not that kind of scenario.

A couple of months ago this lady and I were at a potluck dinner of Susanne’s colleagues, so for the non-faculty such as myself, it’s a little bit of navigating around insider gossip and attempting to bring the conversation away from academics to something more average, without looking like an anti-intellectual Neanderthal. Happily, she and I landed on the topic of Flipping Out, the Bravo reality show about a Califnornia designer with OCD-like perfectionism. He’s nearly impossible to work for, likes his employees to be attractive and subservient, but he has a strong ribbon of compassion that ensures his humanness. It’s also fun to watch the people around him learn how to manage him, and then one realizes that while unorthodox, these are still mutually beneficial relationships with a big dash of absurd just to round out the interpersonal interest.

It’s hard to describe, but this connoisseur of garbage television is Grandmother Incarnate. If you were to take grandmothers everywhere and exaggerate them—warbly voice, prone to high highs and grumbly lows, include the dottiness that comes with no longer giving a shit what anyone thinks of you, and throw in some excessive levels of energy, you’d have her, all in a 4-foot, 10-inch frame. This woman stands on the desks in the front of her classrooms to give lectures. And is not afraid to dance to get her point across.

She was dismayed about Jeff Lewis, who had found out, in the course of this last season, that his best friend of many years had stolen construction/design work from him and denied it, vehemently. So over dinner conversation she remarked to me, her decibel range approximating that of 20 3-year-olds who’ve just had some good measure of processed sugar:

“Oh, I just can’t believe what happened to that poor Jeff Lewis! It’s so sad!” This was pronounced a bit more flaccidly, like this:

“OOOOOOOOh, oi just can’t beLEEEVE what HAAppened to that POOOOOOR Jeffff LOOOOis! It’s SOOOOO SAD!”

We agreed that we needed to catch up later after the reunion show, which is how Bravo ekes out a few more bucks in revenue without actually having a full camera crew, as one interviewer, who seems to have been trained at the Entertainment Tonight School of Broadcasting, talks to everyone who appeared in the previous season. Or at least the ones who were contractually bound to appear.

That conversation tabled, we moved on to other discussion points, and somehow it came up that I’d once been a patient at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when I was, obviously, a child. Actually, I was 16. It was January, 1987. I was there for a neurological issue (yes, I’ve heard all the jokes), missing my junior year midterms as I spent a week recuperating. On the floor with me were two conjoined twins, later made famous on TLC, attached at the tops of their heads. One was significantly larger than the other, but they were both playing chess against each other, over by the nurses’s station, so being different sizes didn’t seem to intellectually advantage one over the other. Unless, I guess, someone was throwing a lot of games. If I had to spend every waking moment with another person I might do something like that.

Anyway, I’d had an IV for a few days to contend with, and I got sick of dragging it around every time I left the bed. One evening my Dad and I were taking a walk around the floor, shortly after the IV had come out. He asked me how I was doing. We passed the twins.

“At least I’m not attached to anything,” I said, to my own horror as I thought about the context. He patted my shoulder to suggest I wasn’t going to hell for my faux pas. “I wonder if they get along,” he said.

According to TLC, they get along great.

I’m not sure why this story came up during dinner with this older colleague, but my point about it at the time was that you know, everyone has something to contend with, and you just decide you have to handle it and get through it. I could be attached at the head to a smaller me who has to keep dealing with my twin’s annoying Reti opening on a daily basis. Or I could be in a small town, unable to sort through what to make of myself here, absent old friends and sans any kind of substantial income potential. As my niece said when she was 4, one disappointing Christmas, “You get what you get and you love it.” Young and innocent aside, she was explaining why her older sister should not covet the wood puzzle not given to her, so she wasn’t exactly free of ulterior motives. But whatever, it’s still a good line.

When the doctor gave her a diagnosis and course of treatment, she started thinking about our conversation, apparently, and has taken the “you just handle it” as a mantra. It seems that I should write a card for her, tell her something funny, since she appreciates a belly laugh and is such a tiny fireball of humor. I wish I could make cancer funny, but I’m failing. I find a lot of things funny—doctors and hospitals, for sure. Human bodies are funny; how else to explain ear wax and tongue structure? Not uh, not ear wax and tongue structure at the same time, of course. Just in general.

But there’s something about cancer that is just plain harrowing. Cells out of control, cells on a rampage with a maniacal streak toward body domination. Something as tiny as the nail on my little finger can throw any of my organs into shock enough that they stop working, abjectly relinquishing their duties to filter my blood, or let my brain know where my limbs are in space, or decide that it’s not necessary enough for me to smell the food on the plate in front of me. I hate the very idea of cancer—that my own body can decide to self-destruct. So I hate knowing that it’s so unbearably common.

I didn’t feel this way about the diseases I’ve encountered. I’ve made jokes about having all of them; the epilepsy (anyone need a milkshake?), the lazy eye I’ve attempted to repair seven times now, and so on. Perhaps when they happen to me I feel free to find the humorous stuff. When they happen to someone else I just want to go all Braveheart on them, even if Mel is an anti-semitic drunkard. I still want to get my Scottish rage out.

So I am working on something funny, something card-sized, something that she can hang her hat on, that I can pass to her with a warm meal for her after-surgery dining needs. If I’m open to what’s funny, maybe it’ll hit me. But not hit me hard.

A smiley face seals the deal

Well, the surgery went well, and by “well” I mean that it took an expected two hours or so and ended with a repaired knee joint. The outpatient center was in its own way, beyond imagination — with comfy chairs and a fancy mocha bar (lest we forget we are in the Pacific Northwest). Susanne wondered if she shouldn’t just show up there from time to time to get some work done. 

After getting prepped via a series of 12,783 questions, 73 percent of which were “which knee is it,” I drew my initials on the left leg and added a smile. The surgeon was grateful I hadn’t sketched a frown, but honestly, how could I have gone into the experience with such negativity? After knowing this doctor for five months, he said he was a Christian and asked if we would mind if he said a prayer before the surgery. This inspired the following thoughts, in no particular order, but which occurred to me in something like 2.3 seconds:

1. All his training, residency, education, and experience, and he doesn’t find that sufficient? Is the prayer for the last nth percent chance that something will go wrong?

2. If a surgeon wants to have a prayer before going into the operating theater, for Pete’s sake, LET HIM DO IT. 

3. The Catholics pray so differently — so often for penance and nearly always from a standard script. Perhaps the Hail Holy Queen would suffice?

4. Was there a measurable quantity of irony I could point to here that this doctor was praying for my knee? Or just conceptual irony?

We told him to go ahead and pray, and he asked for good healing on my joint so I could go and serve others. That was a little presumptive of him, but I don’t technically have anything against that, per se, anyway.

I watched the ceiling go by as I was wheeled into operating suite 3. Now then, I understand that good doctors like to have their tools of the trade laid out neatly and orderly, but there is something about seeing the odd single-piece, stainless steel hammer on the table to give one pause. Great pause. I have had a lumbar puncture before, which means I have had a 10-inch needle inserted into my spine. Scratch that — I’ve had FIVE spinal taps in this life. I’ve had seven strabismus surgeries on my lazy eyes, one of which was, believe it or not, intentionally interrupted so that I could sit up and have the surgeon pull on plastic sutures she’d attached to my eye muscles so that she could “fine tune” her work. Having the sensation of one’s eye being tugged against the eye socket while having no actual feeling of pain has definitely been one of the odder moments in my 38.5 years on the planet.

But these surreal experiences pale in comparison to the hammer. Surgery was hammer time? Why was such an instrument necessary, exactly?* Gratefully, I was soon woozy with the poison — erm, anesthesia. The anesthesiologist seemed to get a kick out of not even asking me to count back from 10. I was there one second and gone the next.

Waking up some hours later I had the now-familiar queasiness from having whatever hellacious concoction poured into me. It took me three hours to get it together enough to get out of bed and get into the house, where I have now planted my derriere for the next three weeks or so. First the Blizzard of 2008, now the Knee Mending of 2009 begins. I’m sure it’s because I made no specific resolutions for the year other than to be open to new experiences. I should know to be extremely specific and not allow any definitional latitude. But nooooo, I had to say, “be open to new experiences,” blah blah blah, so that shiny hammers and titanium screws could wander their way into my life and my body and here I have to count them as wins in my exploration of new freaking experiences.

Be that as it may, I am on the mend. I have discovered, vicariously through Susanne, that Tallman’s Pharmacy on Main Street is chock full of friendly employees, that Oxycontin does not work with the needs of my stomach, that purple Gatorade Fierce turns green after only 20 minutes in one’s stomach, and that I was wrong when I thought that Washington State allowed marijuana for medical use.

So many lovely new experiences, it’s a joy to have arrived in this new year. Seriously, however, I am looking forward to four months from now, when my knee is expected to make a full recovery. Full recovery I can get behind quite easily.

*Those reading this who may know the answer to this question, please be alerted that I am asking it rhetorically only. I do not need any comments with technical answers.

Right from wrong

We were talking the other night about hospital mishaps — which some of you political junkies will recall the NLM 1999 study showed happen at the rate of 90,000 a year — and we started conjecturing what could go wrong with my knee surgery, because all medical science has been working toward this moment of my ACL reconstruction. Hey, it’s not my ego, people, it’s just the way the world is.

Anyway, so many people who have had issues on one side of their body have had the wrong side addressed that now even the doctors tell you to write on your body and identify which limb or side needs repair, and which should be left alone. This sounds simple at first, but consider:

Writing “NO” could just as easily look like “ON.” On this side? Come ON over here, baby? Baby you can drive my car?

Writing “Not this one” could, if masked by a patterned hospital gown, look like the abbreviated and wholly misleading “this one.”

Writing “GO AWAY” just seems rude.

We also considered drawing a big “X” on the right (healthy) knee, and worried it would look like the final destination on a pirate map. Yes, pirating figures into my medical situation. Pirates are relevant, damn it, and not just the 21st century pirates of Somalia.

We’ve opted for the “THIS ONE” on the left left and “NO” with an underline on the right leg. The underline will help the health providers see which way is up on the wording, since bodies lying on a table don’t really imply north-south very well. We’re also crossing our fingers that our nursing staff are avid billiards players, and so will know how to interpret the underlining correctly, as they have seen their share of 6 and 9 balls. This is why it’s important to teach children the basics of pool, so that they can provide the highest level of care to their craziest customers at some point in the unforeseeable future. Trust me, if there’d been a way to bring bowling into this discussion I would have, but I got nothing.

Anyway, I’ll be back as soon as I can because as we all know from last December, I need to vent my prolific insights when I’m cooped up. Have a great weekend, folks.

Karma brownies

Back in July, I got married to a wonderful woman who makes me smile just by thinking about her. We made a ceremony together, finding readings, music, writing up our own words and also vows, and we included time for our community to speak if they wanted to. The flowers were colorful and vibrant, the participants excited, the guests supportive, and the church light-filled, if not a bit warmer than we’d have liked. It was July in DC, after all. But everything went well, on time, and we enjoyed our 15 minutes of photo opp after the event, casually walking down to the reception a block away in the heart of the embassy district in the city.

We walked into the reception venue and were cheered by our loved ones, and I thought my heart was bursting a little, so stunned was I by their affection. We made our way around the room like celebrities, which made it difficult to remember to actually take care of ourselves. But the evening was fun, until…


Dance, dance, pop

Dance, dance, pop



It’s all Michael Jackson’s fault. No sooner than the intro of Billie Jean came on was I doing a dance move I’d executed successfully since 1989. No sooner was I doing my little leg twist than I heard a short “pop” and the physical sensation of my left leg buckling under me. I was hopping on my right foot, trying to figure out why the left one had just given me its pink slip. My brand spanking new wife looked at me and saw the panic in my eyes. Our guests, some of whom were well lubricated at this point in the evening, did not notice the calamity at first. And then they saw me hopping like an overweight kangaroo and everyone stopped moving. Somehow, in the recesses of my brain, I stopped having my moment of shock and ow enough to wave at them, smile, and tell them to “keep dancing! I’m fine! Ha ha!”

Holy crap, I needed a chair, I told Susanne. One was quickly provided and I spent the next 90 minutes icing the knee, compressing the knee with an ace bandage someone had brought to me, and nursing a glass of ice water (with a twist, of course). Four ibuprofen later I looked at the clock and realized we had to get people home — the venue needed to close soon. But with all my will I still couldn’t stand. A friend who works for the National Security Agency had found me some crutches. I joked that there’s probably a van that drives around DC in case any NSA calls them, and he replied that he could neither confirm nor deny that. Dry wit, those NSA employees.

We rolled into the ER in our formal wear, still smiling and a bit incredulous that such a lovely day was closing this way. The X-rays showed that all of my bones were in place, but yup, I sure couldn’t stand on the leg. It was 5 days later when I could put any weight on it at all. The ER doctor who clearly hated that this was where his career had ended up, guessed that I’d dislocated the knee cap.

By our drive cross-country I was walking again, albeit slowly and not for very long. It wasn’t until late September that I’d found an orthopaedic doctor who ran an MRI, and we found out I’d torn my ACL and meniscus. And here we are in January, me still somewhat hobbled and homesick for some quality time in a 10-pin bowling alley.

Finally, I have a surgery date — next Friday. I’ve been waiting for donor material to be available, which is awful to think about but necessary to get me back and working. I promised the nursing staff I’d bring them caramel brownies, because you know, it’s a good thing to have the people cutting you open really like you as a person. Can’t hurt, right?

So, I’ll cross my fingers, draw a big arrow on my left leg and a red “NOT THIS ONE” on my right, and get ready for a lot of TV. Which will make it pretty much just like life as usual.

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