Before embarking on my soon-to-end career, I took a course called “Labor in Literature and the Arts”. For that course I wrote a series of poems about work (including delivering newspapers, selling concessions at football games, driving cab, plumbing). After several years working in healthcare, I realized I had not yet written about that endeavor. I decided to do something about it.
Fast forward a dozen years. I was looking for some old photos on a seldom-used hard drive. I came across some poems about health care that I’d forgotten about. I’ll reprint some here so that you can forget about them, too.
Surgery is better than medicine. That’s why surgeons get paid more than physicians. If I give you a medication, You have to keep taking it. But if I cut something out of you, It’s gone forever. But then maybe you’ll have to take Some medication.
I used to be a plumber. I could be a vascular surgeon. It’s the same work, But it pays better. It’s usually cleaner And doesn’t smell as much, But that’s not always true.
I can use a snake to clear a clog But in your arteries we give it a different name. I can replace your pipes And if I were a surgeon I wouldn’t even have to Know how to solder.
I used to be carpenter But now I’m an orthopedic surgeon. The tools are pretty much the same But smaller and prettier. I love stainless steel and titanium. The work is still the same But I get more respect. I get paid ten times as much And no one complains about the bill – Not to me, anyway; No one wonders if I’m worth that much. No one complains about the materials cost And asks me if I could use something cheaper. No one tells me they can get a hip for less at Menard’s And asks me if I can install that one and only charge for labor.
There is a poem waiting to be written But I don’t know how to write it. I’ve been in this hospital for ten years. There are stories to tell But I still don’t know how to tell them.
You come in with a medical history written in code. CAD, DM II, CHF, ESRD on HD. The we ask you what’s wrong And make a diagnosis. Diagnosis means telling you what you just told me, but saying it in Greek and Latin. Just because I can recite your symptoms in another language I get paid in 6 figures. Well, not me But someone like me.
We still don’t know how to fix it. We can give you some drugs. They’ll make some of the symptoms better But only as long as you keep taking them. The drugs will cause some other symptoms But we have a drug for that.
We don’t use the word “drug”. That’s how you know I’m not really a doctor. If I were a doctor I would have said “Medication”. Drugs are what you take. Medications are what we give you.
In six months, I’m riding the Death Ride – 129 miles, 5 passes, 15,000 feet of climbing. Today it hurts to get in or out of bed. I can only get out of a chair if it has arms, tying my shoes is an adventure, and if I drop something on the floor it has to stay there. If I fell, I’d be there until someone came to pick me up.
Such is the wonder of the human body/mind, that such a thing can be possible – that I can hold those realities simultaneously.
Post-op Day #0: Not much pain (yet), but peeing requires standing with a urinal for several minutes to squeeze out a few drops in hopes that I don’t have to return to the hospital for a catheter or see my bladder explode. Using NSAIDS (which I normally avoid because they don’t seem to help my pain or inflammation but do cause constipation – and constipation is not something you want when your abdomen is held together by plastic mesh and Superglue) and lots of ice.
Post-op Day #1: OK, now it hurts. Not so bad if I don’t move, but any change of position requires careful thought and lots of use of my arms. While it hurts to move, the longer I stay in one position, the worse it is when I do move. Catch-22.
Post-op Day #2: I walked all the way to the corner and back, then a block in a different direction later in the day. Things are looking up. No more oxycodone.
Post-op Day #3: Scrotal edema is the new change for today. Purple may be my favorite color, but not there. My second ice pack from the hospital has started to leak. Cut my Tylenol dose in half, still lots of ice.
Post-op Day #4: Time to get dressed in real clothes to go to a funeral. First some compression shorts for the edema. Now some pants. Unfortunately, I had to loosen my pajama pants last night, so I’m not sure about getting pants on. They go on but are about 3 inches from fastening. Just my luck, I bought some new pants this fall that are too big in the waist but otherwise comfortable – how is it that waist size, measured in inches, can be 2+ inches different in pants from the same company? I think they want men who are getting old and fat to be able to pretend that isn’t so and they can still wear the same size. At any rate, I have real clothes on today, not sweats. Another small victory. I just sneezed for the first time this week. That was not a victory. Laughing hurts, but it has redeeming value that coughing lacks.
The funeral was for Carl Durocher. My brother once said, quoting a co-worker, “There are only 50 people in Madison. The rest are an illusion.” Carl was one of those 50 people. I first met him 45-50 years ago. Our paths crossed over the years but I can’t claim he was my friend. They crossed again when I was a student and he ran an organization called “Computers to Help People”. (If I’m not mistaken, it was in the same building that housed the Whole Earth Co-op [and, briefly, the Yellow Jersey Bicycle Co-op] in the 60s.) He was at the forefront on computer accessibility issues. He chaired the city’s Transit and Parking Committee. I last saw him at a choral concert conducted by my son. At his visitation I saw our US Senator, Tammy Baldwin, who used to live a few blocks away.
Post-op Day #5: My bike sits on a trainer in my daughter’s bedroom. It is mocking me. Even if I could swing my leg over the top tube, I wouldn’t be able to turn the cranks. Even if I could turn the cranks, I wouldn’t be able to clip out. The only comfortable position pre-op was on a bike, bent over the handlebar. In a painful irony, now I can’t even sit up straight to eat at a table. I have to hold the plate in my hand because I can’t reach the table, needing to recline partially at all times. The day’s goal is to get up and down stairs with a reciprocal gait all day (not leading with my left foot every time I step up).
Week 2: It has been a week since surgery. I met my goal for the stairs. I’ve met two friends for coffee. I can walk farther each day – walking is now less painful than pre-op (sometimes). I actually passed someone on a sidewalk today. Lest that go to my head, several others passed me in the next block. The idea of getting on a bike is still absurd.
One of my rules in acute care is: “If it hurts, don’t do it.” One of my rules for post-acute rehab is: “Everything in moderation, including moderation. If you don’t occasionally bump up against your limits, you don’t know what they are.” Last night I went to see Dwight Yoakam. Had I not bought the ticket months ago, I’m not sure I’d have felt ready to venture out in the world 10 days post-op, sitting in those low theatre seats with limited legroom.
I struggled through the opening act, trying to get comfortable. When Dwight launched into “Streets of Bakersfield” the pain went away. He was dressed in his usual tight jeans, denim jacket, and cowboy hat. He’s old now (nearly as old as I) but he still has his signature dance move and it still made the women scream – some of them young enough to be his children. His band was decked out in sequined suits, led by a guy whose name I can’t find, but he played keyboards, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and pedal steel guitar – sometimes more than one in the same song. His guitarist and guitar tech had a dance of their own, swapping instruments without missing a beat. The songs came in chunks of five or so at a time without pause. He covered tunes by Elvis, Jerry Jeff Walker, Merle Haggard, Chuck Berry, and others, as well as his own catalog from the past 30 years. He never was one to shy away from cover tunes.
I’m glad I went, but I’m still not ready to get on a bike.
The lake has frozen!
Lake Mendota officially froze on January 12. Since January 2000 it has frozen later than this 4 times. Prior to that (from 1852-1999) it froze later than that 3 times – once in each 50 year period. National Geographic has called Lake Mendota “the most-studied lake in the world”.
This is posting two years after the debut of the blog. At the time I only knew it would last until we reached the Atlantic Ocean on the coast-to-coast tour; but I’d paid WordPress for a year so kept writing. Now I can say it’ll stick around through the Death Ride, or as long as I have something to say and you want to read it.
Your correspondent has aged a lot in those two year – truth be told, most of that happened since an injury in May of 2019 and even more of it after the surgery to fix the damage done. I’ll be younger again in a month. In January 2018, I was doing a lot of core work including strengthening and stretching; stretching now is trying to stand up straight and sit at the table like it’s not a Seder. I can pick something up from the floor if I’m real careful. Core strength? Ha! When I cough or sneeze, I hold on to keep from splitting open.