By Tom Froehlich • January 29, 2015
The pizza box lying next to me was translucent with pepperoni grease. “It must be heartburn,” I thought. “It has to be heartburn. Well, it’s either that or a heart attack and I refuse to have a heart attack at one o’ clock in the morning!” Besides, it was my birthday as of an hour ago and you just don’t have heart attacks on your birthday.
For three hours I laid in bed insisting what it was or was not. Certain that if it was a heart attack I would in fact be dead by now. That’s the way they work, right? Excessive chest pain. Terror. Death. I had covered the first two a couple of hours ago and death hadn’t come yet so I figured I must be cool on the heart attack deal. Then again, who knows?
Just the day before I had prayed to my higher power to get me to a doctor for a check up. I asked my higher power to either help me find the balls to make a doctor’s appointment and if he didn’t see that happening, to get me to a doctor any way he could. You see, I am terrified of the medical profession. I was six months into a sobriety program and I knew I needed to get checked out after decades of drinking and smoking. I was the kind of guy who was reluctant to check the donor box on his driver’s license for fear the DMV would just point and laugh. However, I knew the odds of me seeing a doctor for a physical, voluntarily, were about as good as Charles Manson voluntarily taking a lethal injection. Just the thought of entering a doctor’s office jacked my BLOOD PRESSURE up into grande mal seizure territory. Evidently my prayers were being answered because here I was surreptitiously glancing at the phone each time pain knifed through my chest.
After what seemed to be the eight thousandth burning, knife-like sensation twisting just below my sternum I grabbed the phone. I had looked up the phone number earlier in my denial, just in case I was in fact having a heart attack and needed to call just moments before becoming unconscious as the result of some explosive coronary embolism. It’s funny how death really held no fear at this point. I figured if I end up dead I’m not going to know about it anyway, right? Even if there is an afterlife and I do realize I’m a goner, the after life by most counts of those who have returned from it is supposed to be pretty awesome. Bright warm, welcoming light, surrounded by those you love who have already past on. You have access to the knowledge of the universe are at total and complete peace and most likely thin and eternally young. Almost makes you want to not make the call, right?
“Hello, Santa Monica Hospital switchboard, Christina speaking. How can I help you”?
“Hi Christina, I’m not sure what your position entails beyond answering the phone, but I think I may be having a heart attack and am wondering if you could shed any light on that.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound good sir, but I am not qualified to help you. Let me connect you with emergency.”
“Before you do, I want you to know I have no insurance. Will you still take me or leave me dying on the sidewalk in the pink glow of the neon emergency sign?”
“Oh no sir. Don’t worry, we accept everyone. Let me transfer you.”
I hear a click and the phone rings. And rings. And CONTINUES to ring. As I wait for someone to answer I just keep thinking, “Well, if I’ve made it this far maybe it isn’t a heart attack and I should just hang up.” But as I push aside my diagnosis of heart attack I realize this still hurts like a son of a bitch and I had better get it looked at. I’m not sure how many times the phone rang as I may have blacked out momentarily from the pain, but I finally decided to hang up and give Christina a ring back.
“Hello, Santa Monica Hospital switchboard, Christina speaking. How can I help you”?
“Hey Christina, it’s me again. I’m not dead yet, so maybe I’m not having a heart attack, which is good, because no one is answering.”
“Well, it’s Saturday night and Halloween, they may just be busy. Why don’t we try again?”
I’m possibly having a heart attack and they are too busy to answer the phone in the emergency room? Somehow I am more amazed by this than fearful. That white light seems to keep getting brighter. And yes. I was born on Halloween. Save the jokes. I’ve heard them all.
After several rings I hear, “Hello, emergency.”
“Hi, I may or may not be having a heart attack and I don’t really want to waste your time if I’m not, so is there someone I could talk about the symptoms with and confirm whether or not that’s the problem?”
“Well sir, I am not allowed to diagnose you over the phone, but what exactly are your symptoms?”
“Well, I kind of have this searing hot knife-like pain just below my rib cage.”
“Again sir, I am not allowed to diagnose you over the phone, but that doesn’t sound good and I suggest you come in and let us check you out. I mean frankly, anyone who suspects they are having a heart attack should probably be here already.”
“Damn…” is all I say and turn off the phone. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting her to say, “Oh we get these kinds of calls all of the time. Searing knife-like pains are nothing unusual. Take two aspirin and call us in the morning. That is if you’re not already sucked into that white light and universal knowledge thing.”
Now I have to decide how to get to the hospital. Not only do I have no insurance, but I also have no car, having totaled it the year before. I could take a cab, but I could be dead by the time that arrives or have changed my mind no less than a thousand times. My roommate is out of town. I do have keys to her car and could drive myself. Now, of course I consider that I will be driving six miles through the city in extreme pain with the possibility of a major organ exploding out of my chest, but I say to myself, “I think I can make it.” That’s right. I “think” I can make it! Those are words chosen by an NBA star attempting a difficult free throw or someone in a decathlon, struggling the last ten feet to the finish line. Those are not or rather should not be the words of someone driving himself to the emergency ward. Yet, I pull on shorts and a t-shirt, slip into some flip-flops and am out the door, keys in hand. As I pull out of the parking garage it seems as if the pain has subsided a bit and I actually consider turning back. Then I consider the possibility that if I did die my roommate’s cat may make a meal of me before her return. My roommate has enough phobias and the last thing she needs is to my snacked on corpse, a half eaten alternative to kibble.
A mile from the hospital the knife in my chest feels like it’s filleting a tuna and my thought is no longer, “I think I can make it,” but “Jesus Christ! I hope I make it, this hurts like a mother fucker!”
Pulling into a parking space I see signs warning that cars parked over twenty minutes may be towed. I worry about that momentarily, but then figure if I am dead who gives a shit if the car is towed? Yet I do take the time to wonder who has an emergency that takes twenty minutes or less?
I step toward the entrance, the glass doors slide open and I see two security guards. They look at me blankly and ask, “Can we help you?” I think, “Well Christ, yes! This is the emergency ward isn’t it?! Who in the hell doesn’t need help in the emergency ward? Do you fully understand the meaning of the word ‘emergency’?”
Instead I calmly and politely say, “Yes I think I may be having a hear attack.”
“That lady there should be able to help you when she is finished,” one of the guards says pointing to a woman filling out forms with another patient. The lady motions for me to sit in the waiting area, while she finishes. Again, I wonder if anyone here fully understands the definition of the word “emergency”.
After what feels like a thousand knife stabs later she asks, “Now, how may I help you?” I’m pretty sure when I mentioned my possible heart attack to the helpful SECURITY guards moments earlier, I vocalized it at a volume she could hear fully. Followed by something that could possibly be described as a high-pitched girl scream. Yet somehow this doesn’t really seem relevant to her.
She pulled out a form and asked, “Have you ever been here before?”
“We just need to fill out some paperwork and get you admitted.”
“You’re kidding, right?! You did hear me say I may be having a heart attack didn’t you?”
“Yes sir, but we just need to fill out some paperwork before we can get you admitted.”
“You are aware I could be dead before we are finished aren’t you?”
Fifteen minutes later I am laying on a gurney wearing one of those open backed hospital gowns with my, less than firm fifty-year-old, ass hanging out. Sure, we’ve all been through it, but you aren’t 6’3”, weighing in at 230 pounds. I am. And trust me. One size does not fit all. The nurse takes blood and pokes and probes.
“So I understand you are having some pain,” the nurse says as if I came in with a paper cut.
“Some pain?!” I croak, “I think I’m having a heart attack!”
“Well, we’re testing your blood for that right now.”
“How long will that take?” I ask.
“We put a rush on it. Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“Sister, I don’t think I’ll make it that long. Can you give me something for the pain?”
Moments later this angel of mercy returned with a syringe and pumped me full of morphine. Trust me. With that stuff running through your veins you don’t give a shit if you die, white light or not.
Fifteen minutes later the nurse returned with a folder in hand. “Well, all of your tests came back fine.”
“No shit?” I ask with shock and relief. “What did you test for?”
“Your body sends chemicals into the blood stream indicating where the trauma may be. You liver and kidneys look fine and there is no sign of cancer or a heart attack,” she said. “We still need to figure out where that pain is coming from, but so far everything looks fine.” Since you are uninsured and this isn’t an emergency situation we won’t be treating you here. You’ll need to go to county for that. The doctor will be in to see you.
Angel of mercy left and moments later a doctor walked in picking up my chart. “Hi, my name is Chuck.”
All I can think is, “There are doctors named Chuck? Not even “Dr.” Chuck? We’re not on the third tee for God’s sake, I’m laying here with what feels like a filet knife in my chest and my ass hanging out!”
“Well, it looks like all your tests are good which is a little odd because that pain had to have come from somewhere. We can’t fix you here, but let’s figure out what it is so you can make an appointment at the county hospital.”
Through doing a preliminary ultrasound Chuck determined the guilty organ was my gall bladder. “I want to get our ultrasound specialist in here, but it looks like your gall bladder is the problem. Not sure what kind of shape it’s in, but we won’t be taking it out here. Against the rules. No insurance,” looking at my chart he added with a wink, “even if it is your birthday.”
Twenty minutes later the ultrasound expert covered my torso in cool gel and slid her wand around. “Wow! Those are SOME gall stones you have there.” That’s exactly what you don’t want to hear from an ultrasound expert. You have to figure she has seen a gallstone or two in her day. Looks like you’ll have to get that taken care of, but I understand you’ll be scheduling with county. We only take care of emergencies here when you are uninsured. They do a nice job though.
“Wow! Those are SOME gall stones you have there!”, Dr. Chuck said looking at the ultrasound. Again, something you don’t really want to hear from an expert in that area. “Size of marbles! It’s really odd this didn’t show up in your tests. Somehow your body was protecting itself from knowledge of the trauma. That’s amazing.” I think he saw the fear in my eyes, because he said, “If you had insurance we could just pop it out right now, but like I said, it’s against the rules. And in addition to that, nothing showed up on your tests. Don’t worry Tom. County will take care of it. Make an appointment as soon as you can. It’ll take maybe six months for you to get looked at and then a few more to get the surgery scheduled. Just stay away from greasy food and hopefully you won’t have another attack. No guarantees though. I know this hurts like hell. I had five or six attacks before I finally had mine removed. I don’t like doctors either!” he laughed.
Chuck evidently hadn’t caught on to the fact that it had taken this kind of extreme pain to get me this far and we had better ride that opportunity out until the God damn wheels fall off. The odds of me making that appointment at county and getting the surgery scheduled before I had another attack were remote at best. Kind of like the Charles Manson thing again.
“You sure you cant just pop it out?” I asked using his terminology, my eyes colored with desperation.
“Sorry bud, I would if I could. It’s against hospital rules and I would lose my job if I did. Don’t worry. County will take good care of you. Let me just run these up to radiology and the nurse will come in to finish up your paperwork and you can get dressed and go home.”
I laid on the gurney devastated. Devastated that after three hours in the emergency room I would be leaving with the possibility of another attack. I knew that even if I actually made the appointment that I would be in a state of complete hypochodriacal anxiety until my faulty gall bladder was finally “popped out”. Marble sized gallstones and all. These are the times you want to be brave, but instead just feel afraid and alone.
We are taught in AA to rely on a higher power. I figured if there was ever a time to pray, it was now. So I did. “Okay, higher power. I think we both know where we are at on this one. I’m not sure how you’re going to pull it off, but when I leave this hospital I want that gall bladder out of my body. Please make it happen and please don’t make it any more painful than it has already been. I don’t need it bursting and spreading toxins throughout my entire body or anything like that. The hospital staff has already made it clear that with no insurance they can’t touch it. I think you and I both know that the odds of me taking care of this in a timely fashion are remote. I make no excuses. It’s just who I am. I can’t see where putting me through six months of extreme anxiety waiting for another attack is going to do anyone any good. If you have designed a plan greater than I can fully understand at this moment, which requires us to drag this out and go the county hospital route, I’m cool with that. If not, let’s get this done okay? That’s all I’ve got. Now it’s up to you. ‘Please take away my difficulties that they may bare witness to those I may help of they power, they love and thy way of life. Thy will be done.’ (AA 3rd Step Prayer). And although it really seems a bit pointless to mention that I feel alone, vulnerable and scared shitless right now, because as a higher power you should pretty much be privy to that info, I am. Feeling alone, vulnerable and scared shitless that is.
I ended my prayer and heard the nurse enter the room. “Well, Tom…” she began and then the Dr. Chuck rushed in.
“Thank God Tom, you’re still here. We are admitting you.”
“The radiologists saw something on your ultrasound and are concerned so we’re going to take out that gall bladder for you after all.”
“Yup,” he said, flipping through my chart.
Chucked turned and left the room. I looked up to the heavens and said, “And thank you.”
I’m not sure what exactly happened that night. I’m not sure if something happened to the ultrasound films on the way to radiology or if the radiologists possibly saw something that Dr. Chuck hadn’t. What I am sure of is that something miraculous happened. Cynics may say that Dr. Chuck was just doing me a favor because it was my birthday. Somehow I don’t think there are many surgeons out there willing to lose a six-figure income just to pop out some stranger’s gall bladder on his birthday. Yet if that is in fact what happened, that alone is a miracle! All I know is I left the hospital forty-eight hours later minus one gall bladder. I believe my prayer was answered. Miracles happen. Sometimes we just have to believe.
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