On Being Sick
And, like any other kind of privilege, it’s not something I think about much. It took getting sick in the middle of March and then staying sick for an unreasonably long time – not flat-on-my-back-in-bed sick, but exhausted-and-draggy-like-someone-let-all-the-sawdust-
out-of-me sick – to really point up to me how predicated my life is on being healthy.
I won’t trot out a laundry list. Suffice it to say that we ate badly, the dog got fat, and the house was adrift in pet hair almost instantly. I’m not talking about who does what around here and why. Just that what I expect to get done in the course of a day depends, really heavily it turns out, on my being able-bodied and having a certain amount of energy that I just… didn’t have for a while there. It was weird, and to a certain extent even scary.
The weekend before St. Patrick's Day I came down with a bad chills-and-fever-and-aches cold – I’m loathe to use the F-word, since I refuse to get an F-shot –which progressed to the hacking cough everyone was getting after their bad chills-and-fever-and-aches cold. Mine refused to fade away, though, and morphed into some form of ugly pulmonary crunk. I felt like something was squeezing my lungs with two fat invisible hands, some malevolent creature sitting heavily on my chest at night. For every morning I woke up feeling like I was actually getting better, by the time I went to bed I’d be coughing and winded. And tired. Tired every fucking moment of every fucking day. And another assumption about the eternal state of my health I’d made was that I didn’t have a doctor. I don’t like doctors, as a rule. I’m actually kind of scared of them. It’s a combination of bad childhood experiences and bad adolescent experiences and just plain neurosis, I guess, but I’d rather sit in the dentist’s chair every day for a week than sit on the table in a paper smock. I do it every so often, just enough to act like an adult, but I don’t like it.
This time I knew I was whupped. I went and found myself a doctor.
My place of employment offers a number of different health plans, from straight-up disaster insurance, health savings accounts, HMOs, private physician plans. I had picked one that lay in between the last two, a point-of-service plan, I believe it was called. Kind of like carrying only liability on my crappy old car – I wanted to be protected in case of dire emergency, but didn’t need anything too fancy for the good times. Which means, basically, that when I found myself up against the wall and needing to pick a personal care physician, I didn’t have a hell of a lot of choices. There were a few out in Queens, Brooklyn, lower Manhattan. One in the Bronx, but the south Bronx out by Yankee Stadium, and I didn’t really feel like dragging my sick self all the way out there on the bus. And one on the Upper West side who took walk-ins, a woman with a nice Jewish name. I’m big on names – that’s how I picked my dentist, Dr. Ivylynn Davis-Bell, for instance, and I love her.
The doctor’s office was on Central Park West and 65th Street – a classy address. But it was an odd little hole in the wall, slightly dingy but not dirty, with drab linoleum and heavy wood furniture. Behind the receptionist’s desk was a wall of wooden pigeonholes, like the kind you got your mail in at summer camp, crammed to the ceiling with yellowish, dog-eared records. The place was clean but seriously dowdy – nothing white, nothing gleaming.
The doctor herself was a little old lady, wearing not a lab coat or a smock but the kind of outfit your aunt would wear to tea with her best friend – a blouse, silk or rayon, and slacks. Not pants – slacks. She was tiny, slightly distracted, but she asked the correct doctor questions and took my blood pressure and looked in my ears and mouth with her doctor gadgets. The examining room was cluttered and the table had giant metal stirrups which I sat between, thinking that even if she did do OB-GYN work I would never in a million million years get a pap smear there.
“I’m going to prescribe you a Z-pack,” she said. Fortunately I’d had a friend mention that last winter, so I knew it was Zithromax – otherwise I’d have had no idea.
“I’m allergic to that,” I told her. Wasn’t she supposed to ask me that first? But no problem – instead she wrote me up a week’s worth of Avelox, which is specifically for lung and respiratory infections.
The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes. I walked out with my paper in hand and thought, Man, she looks like the kind of doctor people would hit up for bottles of Oxycontin – an easy touch with the prescription pad.
Never let it be said I don’t know how to call ‘em. I Googled her when I got home and found, among other things, a New York Times article from ten years ago reporting her arrest for selling controlled substance prescriptions to an undercover cop outside her office. Not only that, but at the time she was 76.
Soooo… OK. My new doctor is an octogenarian pusher. I guess I could have done worse.
I took the Avelox for a week and still felt crappy, so Dr. Feelgood sent me to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt for a chest x-ray. When I showed up there and presented the referral slip, the receptionist asked me if I knew why I was there. I wondered if that were some kind of trick question, if maybe I was dying of some kind of horrible wasting disease and Dr. Feelgood hadn’t wanted to tell me. “Chest x-ray,” I said. “Why?”
“Because your doctor didn’t write down what you were here for,” she said, and laughed her head off. I guess that kind of thing is funny when you work in a radiology clinic.
The x-ray came out negative, which is good, because in addition to being doctor-phobic I’m also a bit of a hypochondriac and had spent the day mentally practicing how I would react to the news that I had lung cancer. “I’ve seen a lot of this lately,” Dr. Feelgood told me, “a viral infection that turns into a bacterial infection and it lasts forever.” And then she wrote me out another prescription, this time for cough syrup with codeine. “Take a teaspoon of this four times a day,” she told me. “Don’t take it at work.”
I couldn’t quite figure out how that math was supposed to come out, so I just took it all day long and sailed through the next week. Then stopped taking it except to sleep, because it helped. A lot. And gave me the coolest, most vivid dreams. I dreamed about body-surfing an enormous tsunami, plotting a novel in a writing class in Sharpie marker on a game of Twister, having a big party where everyone I knew showed up and got enormously drunk and planted a rose arbor on my garage roof deck.
And I got better, slowly.
And now I think I’m cured. I can think straight again, take deep breaths, walk up the hill to my house without having to stop with my hands on my knees halfway up. Got off the codeine, checked back in with the usual boring dreams, and have no plans to visit Dr. Feelgood any time soon, for anything.
But man, that was a long haul.
What really went out the window? Was my creative life. Before I got sick I had this really good creative momentum going, drawing and writing and all that. And now I feel like I’m starting again from scratch, which sounds way more dramatic than I’d like and also just sounds lame. But I feel like I had my feet kicked out from under me in a strange and intangible way, and I have to clamber back up on the horse. So much for the apple-cheeked fräulein. On to the next manifestation of self-regard. And hopefully I can stay healthy for long enough to figure out what exactly that might be.