A look back at the beginning

Taking a look back at the beginning of this site, and how and why it happened.

This entire website started in September 2017 and it was originally all meant to be marketing for a book I’d written about an experience I’d recently lived through.

The brief chronology of events was that I’d wound up in the hospital in August 2016, completely turned my life around before going to a winter retreat in February 2017, which gave me the impetus to write the book.

I completed a draft fairly quickly, but then in September 2017, after going to the Labor Day version of the camp I’d gone to in winter, I came back to find out that the company I’d worked for for a decade was falling apart. I was laid off from full-time but hired on a freelance basis through March. At that point, I had a lot of money in the bank, so I wasn’t too worried — yet.

I decided to see if I could make the jump to freelance writer. It just so happened that two good friends of mine, Hank & Sharyn Yuloff, who are marketing gurus, were about to run a weekend marketing bootcamp and asked me if I wanted to help out running the weekend.

This basically involved sitting at the back of the room, checking people in as they arrived, made sure everyone had the supplies they needed, handing out and collecting necessary paperwork, and occasionally taking photos during the seminar. It also meant that I was attending the seminar and getting paid to learn, and it helped.

I registered this domain and site during that first meeting day, and the rest is history.

That was, surprisingly, only just over four years ago, but so much has happened between now and then that it’s like it was another universe. I made a go at freelancing and picked up a few assignments, but not enough. I applied on all the online job boards and got exactly zero replies. I applied for and got unemployment, and at least my previous job had paid me enough that I got the weekly maximum.

Savings slowly dwindled until I had to reverse my usual standard. Previously, all my paychecks went via direct deposit into my savings account, and every pay day (meaning every other week) would figure out what bills and expenses were due in that period, then transfer from savings to checking. It was like the money I didn’t transfer didn’t exist, which is how I built my savings up so much.

But it got to the point where my savings were basically empty — well, I kept the minimum $1,500 in there, that was it. But for far too long, all money coming in went right to checking and I had to juggle creatively.

I finally got a day job — Hank and Sharyn — which I’ve written about here. This was my year-and-a-half adventure in the world of Medicare Insurance. I started in August, 2019. In fact, my start date was August 26, 2019, which was three years to the day that my hospital adventure began.

Oddly enough, my last day there was February 26, 2021.

Of course, while this job kept me afloat and I was doing improv by this time, everything went south when COVID showed up in early March 2020. I wound up going on unemployment again for a while, then working remotely a couple of months until we started back up in the office before I gave notice so I could begin a fully remote freelance writing job.

And it wasn’t until I looked at where I was back in February 2017 — six months out of the hospital — that I realized how much everything that happened between then and now, almost five years later, has done to detail all that.

So I figured that it was a good time to go back to where this blog started and revisit Chapter One of The Guide to Do-It-Yourself Miracles. Because, apparently, my own advice didn’t stick.

* * *

Chapter One

“All right. I’m admitting you to the hospital via the emergency room.”

These are not exactly the words I was expecting to hear late on a Friday morning in summer. It was August 26, 2016, to be precise. It was the day before my boss’ birthday, and I was supposed to go into the office that afternoon to record a group video message to him. And, besides…

“Can I go make arrangements for my dog first at least?” I asked.

The doctor, who was an Indian woman currently giving me the stern look worthy of a disapproving Indira Gandhi, shook her head. “Would you like to die?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well, that was not good news.

I tried bargaining, but she was firm. She couldn’t exactly detain me against my will, but she urged my compliance in the strictest of terms. I tried to tell her why it was important that I go into the office briefly and arrange for someone to look after my dog. She was having none of it.

“Will anyone die if you don’t go to work?” she demanded.

“No…”

“Do you have friends you can call to go take care of your dog?”

“I… yes.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have even been a question, but even up to that point I was trying to deny the obvious. I was dying. I probably even should have been dead. But, like too many stubborn men, I had put off paying attention to the warning signs for way too long. And, like too many men, it wasn’t until whatever was going wrong with me affected my junk that I finally paid attention.

See, by this point, I had been rapidly gaining weight — nearly 45 pounds since the beginning of the year. I knew this and still know it now because I’d been tracking my weight since September of 2013, in an effort to lose some. In that first entry, from September 13, 2013, I logged a morning weight of 227.8 lbs. Even at 6’2”, that’s a BMI decidedly in the obese range already, and although I’d been taking steps to lose weight and tracking things diligently, my body decided at the beginning of 2016 to give me a hearty, “Screw you and your diet efforts!”

Hell, I’d stopped eating red meat entirely the October before. Wasn’t I supposed to start shrinking because of that? I was only eating poultry. I was doing fast days. Hell, there were weeks when I only had energy bars for lunch, and still I was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By late August, I’d actually been sleeping sitting upright in my office chair rolled into my bedroom for a few months, wrapped in a comforter, because I could not breathe when I lay down. I could barely walk — not only because my legs were so swollen, but because almost any effort sent me gasping for air. The dog suffered because of it. We used to go up and down the neighborhood and around several blocks. Now, I’d sneak her outside and ten feet away to do her business, then right back in.

Now you’d think that a rational person would have taken any one of those things as a sign and gone right to the doctor, but I had two strikes against me in that regard. First was that whole natural male stubbornness.

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

Second was a bit more personal, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I suffered a severe case of what is technically called iatrophobia — fear of doctors — although, in my case, it wasn’t so much a phobia as it was a deep-seated mistrust, and it went straight back to a series of events that affected me deeply in my teenage years.

I won’t go too much into it here (out of respect) except to say that my mother fell victim to a mystery illness. In retrospect, it may have been lupus, or not. But the very short version of a too long story is that she died when I was way too young after a series of doctors seemed to basically scratch their heads and try a ton of medications. Ultimately, I think their ill-informed attempts to treat her symptoms rather than find the cause are what killed her. She’d been injected with steroids, given pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, poked and prodded and, mostly, ignored.

I specifically remember her complaining to me once that she had told her (exclusively male) doctors many times that her symptoms got worse whenever it was her time of the month. She told me this not very long after I’d learned what “time of the month” was in Sex Ed in the first place, by the way. But her male doctors just told her, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Yeah, I can hear the record-scratch for a modern audience on that absolute mind-boggler of a sexist statement, but nobody would have caught onto that in the late 80s. Of course hormones have an effect on medicine and how you’re feeling and everything else. Incidentally, to this day, most medicines are only tested and normalized based on men.

See, women get excluded from clinical trials because of the idea that they might one day get pregnant, so there’s no data whatsoever on the effect a lot of meds might have on women. Lather, rinse, repeat the vicious circle.

Sigh.

Anyway… I lost my mom and my dad lost his best friend and partner, and so I really never went to doctors. I can count on less than one hand the times that I ever did as an adult, whether I had health insurance or not — and too many of those times were bad experiences.

Prior to this visit, in fact, I had a nightmare adventure visiting an urgent care center that shall remain nameless (except: Not Kaiser) because of a sore finger, where I was utterly misdiagnosed with gout, and then they lost my blood samples after I left. Oh yeah — in order to get to that urgent care, I had to convince the insurance company, which had misplaced my primary care hospital nearly forty miles from home, that I in fact did not live in Huntington Beach, but in North Hollywood.

Good thing for me that I had mostly been healthy enough to feel immortal, right?

So this is why your humble narrator slept sitting up for a few months and tried to deny that he was in real trouble, and didn’t seek medical care until, as mentioned above, things started to affect his favorite things — which were those bits between his legs.

* * *

Oh, balls

If you’re an average male, your scrotum is about the size of a plum, depending on the weather. If you’re gifted, maybe a lemon, and if you’re a freak, a baseball. If you get up to stuff like pumping or inflating… well, you shouldn’t, but even then, that was nothing on what happened to me.

Imagine a nice, big cantaloupe. Now try to hold one of those between your thighs and walk. Also, try to imagine that this surprise set of elephant nuts is trying to strangle your penis. No — it’s trying to make your penis disappear, which makes it really awkward when it’s time to pee.

That was me on the Saturday night before I wound up in the hospital, when I insisted on driving all the way over to the West Side to see a friend’s staged reading of their musical in progress. How or why I did it, I have no idea — but fortunately the friends of mine in attendance who saw me and to whom I confided the truth had some advice for me.

“You should be in the goddamn hospital right now.”

Yeah, I guess I should have been. So the following morning I went to urgent care where, ironically, I met my primary care physician for the first time because he happened to be on rounds. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. But, as I said in the intro, I’m sure that his first impression was not a good one: “I hope this fat sack doesn’t expect me to pull a miracle out of my ass when he hasn’t bothered to even show up despite being insured.”

Honestly, I totally deserved it if that is what he thought.

Of course, what really happened was that he ran a couple of tests — as it turned out, for an infection and an STI — prescribed some antibiotics, and sent me on my way. Probably standard procedure, but possibly also a different kind of test of me. I’d pretty much confessed my iatrophobia to him on first sight, and he didn’t seem impressed by that.

But a funny thing happened on my part when Dr. Williams came into that room. My fear of doctors vanished. He was a nice guy. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with me but, at the same time, was not at all judgmental. He listened. He explained. Nothing scary or nasty happened. He was clearly there to help, and there was a course of action. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

So I filled the prescription, headed home, and hoped for the best.

By Wednesday, my scrotum had gotten even bigger — what’s next up from a cantaloupe? And I wasn’t breathing better, and wasn’t feeling better, so I called Dr. Williams. He scheduled an echocardiogram for Friday morning, so that’s where I went. And it was after that test that the cardiologist gave me the life-changing news.

“You’re going to hospital now, or you’re going to die.”

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

If this were a one-person show instead of a book, this is the point when the sound of a heartbeat would fill the theater and the lights would go to black, then the heartbeat would gradually get slower and more labored as slides projected in the darkness with a voiceover.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive is exactly what it sounds like: traffic gets backed up, so your blood cells can’t get to where they need to go. Symptoms include fatigue, diminished ability to move around, shortness of breath, and swelling.

Guess which of those symptoms I had. Yeah, it’d be all of them.

In my case, my doctors told me that my heart function was at 15%. In a normal person, it’s expected to be 55% or above. So, while 15% isn’t as bad as it could be against a hundred, it’s still pretty bad. This percentage represents the ejection fraction — that, is the amount of blood that the left ventricle actually manages to squirt upward per beat. In a sense, this is your heart’s money shot, and the higher the better.

On top of this, I also apparently had a bit of mitral valve backwash. That is, blood that was trying to make it up and out that left ventricle was pouring back down instead. End result: Fluid gathering, first in my legs, then in my ass, finally, washing up into my torso and back down into my scrotum.

In retrospect, I think that the doctor who had admitted me was right. I probably would not have lived more than another week if I hadn’t gone into the hospital right that moment. As it was, I spent about the next ten hours in the emergency room, in a private room on a gurney, hooked up to a Furosemide IV.

Furosemide is a powerful diuretic. A diuretic makes you urinate — and that I did, about every fifteen minutes for most of that weekend. Now, since they were monitoring fluid in and fluid out, I had to use a plastic urinal, and I couldn’t count how many times I filled one of those things over the next three days. All I do know is that I walked out of that hospital 45 lbs lighter than I’d been when I walked in.

* * *

In hospital

As a patient, I’d only been in a hospital one other time in my life — the first sixteen days after I was born two months premature, so I don’t remember any of it. I was a frequent hospital visitor as both of my parents were dying, though, so I did not have great associations with the places.

Ironically, my original ambition had been to be a doctor, although I just didn’t have the math aptitude to pursue a scientific profession. I also volunteered in a hospital in high school and then worked in two during and just after college, and these experiences did not help enamor me of the location, either.

Hospitals are full of sick people and they never really quiet down. I had learned that one firsthand working as a security guard while I was in college, when first the swing guy didn’t show up and then the night shift guy didn’t show up, so I worked a twenty-four hour shift. Hey, it was a small hospital.

Did I mention that the fine people I worked for at the time screwed me out of the ridiculous overtime on that one, by the way? Although in retrospect I could have screwed them back fifteen ways from Sunday in a lawsuit. But I didn’t. (I didn’t work for the hospital, by the way — it was a contractor that staffed multiple hospitals, and the people who ran the company were dicks, in the modern and film noir meanings of the word.)

But I do digress…

I found the entire hospital experience that summer to be surprisingly… pleasant, actually. And yes, that was a surprise to me. I actually had two IV lines in me — one in my left hand and the other in my right arm — and the biggest surprise there was that they didn’t bother me at all.

I had always wondered how people could put up with having needles in them for a long period of time, and now I know. Part of the reason, of course, is that an IV isn’t a needle in your arm, it’s a cannula, which is a very thin and flexible tube that’s actually inserted via a hypodermic needle. I didn’t realize this until they finally pulled it out and bent it.

In a lot of ways, being in a private hospital room is a lot like being in a very fancy, although very boring, hotel. There’s also a magnificent staff available 24/7 to wait on you, and a parade of doctors. When they need to do tests or take X-rays, one of the wonderful nurses will give you a ride, either flat on a gurney or in a wheelchair. There’s even cable and WiFi!

One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in medicine from my days working in hospitals is how much everything has become geared toward modesty, which is a sad side-effect of America’s returning puritanism and sexual repression that began in the ‘90s. Even when my doctor was examining my scrotum out of necessity — cantaloupe, remember? — I still had on my underwear and a gown, and he only uncovered what he actually needed to see. This was also true when they did an ultrasound on the same place in the hospital — the tech was basically groping around under a towel.

Now, I’m not a particularly shy person, so these kinds of concessions don’t really mean a lot to me, but if you’re the kind of person who avoids medical care because of modesty, it looks like that issue has been minimized if not all but eliminated. Of course, I never had to have a catheter, so there wasn’t any reason for doctors or nurses to poke around down there in the first place. In fact, they told me to keep my underwear on when I changed into the hospital gown.

That part wasn’t so pleasant after three days straight, by the way.

* * *

Not that bad, really

The hardest part of the experience was that first day, really, and mainly because I spent about ten hours in the emergency room before they took me up to the hospital proper. By the time I got up there, the kitchen had closed and I hadn’t eaten anything before the test, so by that point it had been well over twenty-four hours since I’d had food. “Dinner” on the first night consisted of graham crackers and juice, although I was limited during my stay to a maximum of 1.2 liters of fluid per day — which ain’t a lot.

The food for the rest of the weekend really made up for all of it, though.

This is something I thought that I would never say or write, but I actually have fond memories of that weekend in the hospital. Maybe it was being the center of attention — a little bit — but it was also an enormous sense of relief. My health had been going downhill since at least the previous Thanksgiving by that point. Now, suddenly, people were doing something about it and I was feeling better.

One of the most memorable encounters of the weekend happened on Saturday, though, when I first met my cardiologist, Dr. Manela. Keep in mind that this was a Saturday, and the doctor walked into the room wearing a kippah. If you’re a goy, you might know that as a yarmulke, but the key point is that despite the doctor being very Jewish, he’s dropping in on me on the Sabbath, and those two little details really gave me confidence. Long story, which I’ll probably tell elsewhere, but while I’m technically Catholic while raised as a very secular Protestant who ended up a total atheist, I’m also very, very Jewish culturally because all of my closest friends growing up were — so I tend to trust Jews more than I trust any other religious group, because they truly are concerned with life. That, plus they don’t try to convert people, which is a big bonus.

That was exactly the reason that such an observant Jew was able to work on the Sabbath and meet with me, by the way. See, there’s this great little bit in their rules that says, “If what you’re doing will save a life, then you go and work your ass off, and don’t even pay no never mind to whether it’s the Sabbath, or whether it’s kosher.”

Who’d a thunk it — a religion that uses logic. Wow.

The news that Dr. Manela came to give me was this: “Hi. Your heart failed.” And he was then truly shocked by my lack of shock. In fact, he even pointed it out, telling me that most of the time that he told people this, they freaked the hell out. My response to him was that I tended to react that way to bad news, because the only logical response was to say, “Okay, that’s a thing. Now what do I do to fix it?”

I think he appreciated that answer — a little bit then, but a hell of a lot more as time went on, more on which later.

Saturday was also the day that I met one of my weekend nurses who, more than anyone, was really responsible for making my stay a fantastic experience. He was nice, he was caring, he was funny, and he really took his time to explain to me what was going on, and to just sit down and talk. I don’t even remember whether I told him about my whole iatrophobia thing, but I definitely told him about the circumstances (read: swollen nutsack) that brought me there in the first place, and on Sunday he asked me, “Uh… can I see it?”

Keep in mind that he’s straight (sorry, boys), and his interest was strictly professional, but it was actually really endearing. I mean, honestly, in America, elephantiasis is probably not something he’d see every day, or any day, and, while that was not the cause of my produce department sized funbag, it was still an interesting end result, at least.

Like I said, I’m not shy, but this led to one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. Yeah, we’re talking about my balls, there they are somewhere inside of all that, and how’s your wife again? Definitely a bonding moment.

* * *

About my dog

Now, the observant and animal-lovers among you are probably still wondering one thing. “What about your dog?”

Thanks for asking.

Her name is Sheeba and when I went into the hospital she was eleven years old. While she kind of acts very independent, she’s actually a lot more clingy than she pretends to be, especially to me and especially after her older sister, Shadow, passed away in September 2014. She doesn’t exactly have separation anxiety, but she doesn’t do well on her own.

That’s a kind of interesting side-effect of my day job, which I haven’t mentioned yet. For the last decade, I’d worked for the Dog Whisperer, also known as Cesar Millan, and it was a dog-friendly office. So Sheeba and Shadow always got to go to work with me, and Sheeba especially did so after Shadow was gone — practically every day. But the downside of that one was that when I had to leave her at home alone because I was kind of busy trying not to die, it was not good for her.

I did manage to contact one old friend who knew her from about a decade ago, then give her my keys to go drop in for feeding and walking. The problem was that Sheeba didn’t remember her, so fled and hid behind the bed. So switch-up to a friend Sheeba had dealt with more recently, and he managed to actually get in there and walk her and feed her.

Still, when I came home on Monday, it wasn’t pretty. Sheeba practically exploded when I finally came back, she had blown her coat all over the place, and had torn down and chewed up the metal blinds in my bedroom. My absence was clearly a traumatic experience for her, and if there was a downside to my hospital experience, this was it.

I suppose, though, it was better to come back to her three days later than to have never come back at all.

* * *

You gotta have heart…

Your heart is a muscular organ. It’s neither your largest nor your smallest. Those honors belong to your gluteus maximi (in your butt) and the stapedius (in your ear) respectively. However, it’s certainly the most important. You could live without your largest and smallest muscles, although you probably couldn’t walk or hear. Without your heart (or a mechanical replacement) you die.

The heart’s job, which begins about six weeks after conception and ends about eight minutes or so before your death (in most cases), is to move your blood around your body. Your blood has several jobs. One is to bring oxygen to your cells and take carbon dioxide away. Others are to fight infection and close up wounds. It’s also the medium in which nutrients and hormones get around, being distributed from the source organs in your digestive and endocrine systems.

If you have an average resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, then it will beat 31,557,600 times per year, more or less. Live to the age of three score and ten years mentioned in Psalm 90:10, and it will beat over 2.2 billion times. (Ooh… the atheist just quoted the Bible. Yeah, I’m allowed to do that. It’s a pretty important literary source.)

Ironically, the only other muscles in your body that work as hard or harder are the two diminutive muscles in your inner ear, but only because they are constantly responding to everything that you hear. By the way, some humans still have muscles in their outer ear that allow them to actually move them. I happen to be one of those rare humans who does, and I can wiggle my ears like nobody’s business. That has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun to brag about and it’s always amused my dogs.

But I do digress…

The average human heart is the size of its human’s fist, and it weighs about 11 ounces. This is far less than the human brain (3 pounds), lungs (1.9 pounds) and liver (3.5 pounds). This is also far, far less than the weight of your skin, which is your biggest organ, clocking in at a probably surprising but impressive 16% of your weight. In my case, that’s 27 pounds now. It used to be 44. Also surprisingly: despite my rapid weight loss, I did not wind up with any extra dangly skin bits.

But the point of all these facts and figures is this: This not particularly large organ that weighs just less than a can of soup and which hides behind your sternum (the bit that connects your ribs) and between your lungs (the left one of which is smaller to accommodate it) starts working before you’re born and cannot rest for a second until you die. When it’s doing its job right, you hardly notice it. But when it isn’t…

Oh yeah. You’ll notice then. The only question is whether you’ll pay attention to what your heart is telling you and live or, like me, ignore the obvious and nearly die.

I’m really fond of the “live” option, personally.

* * *

Fear

There was only thing that had kept me out of that hospital room and out of my doctor’s office: Stupid, useless fear. There’s a famous line in Frank Herbert’s Dune that is a recurring motif because it’s the mantra of a religious order and it begins like this: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’d update that in my case to say that Fear Is the Killer. It kills ambition, it kills progress, and it can kill people. It can prevent us from achieving what is possible and from learning who we are. It stops us from moving forward and locks us in a safe, little box that might as well be a coffin. Fear is the mother of prejudice and the father of hate; the creator of division and the birthplace of ignorance.

The opposite of Fear is Love, and Love is the mother of Hope, Harmony, and Humanity.

Once I got over my fear, amazing things took place, way beyond mere physical healing. See, a funny thing happens when you face one fear and nothing bad happens. You start to face more of them, one after the other, until you’re killing fears left and right.

The incredible doctors and nurses of Kaiser Permanente helped put my heart back together, but then I took that ball and ran with it because I’d been given the greatest thing in the world: A second chance at life.

I think that I’ve lived more in those days since I got out of the hospital than I had in the entire time leading up to them. It’s a great feeling, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it for yourself, but the journey out is a story best begun with the journey in.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #13

This brings us to the last of the short stories before the novella that brings everything together and to a close. Our narrator this time is Matt Clement, husband of Rebekah Clement, who we met back in chapter 6. Here, we essentially see his story of Rebekah and her assistant Tycho coming to find Matt post-quake in a hospital in Riverside, only this time from his point of view. If you want to catch up from the beginning before we dive into the finale next week, you can do so here, or you can read the previous chapter here.

NO CLEMENCY

It took forever after the fact to remember all the details of that day. It was like a chunk of time went missing What I did remember was our morning meeting, and that I’d forgotten to tell my wife that we were coptering out to Riverside for a day of meetings with our counterparts in that county. I contemplated texting her a reminder, but then figured that we’d all be home long before the end of the work day, so maybe at lunch I could send a “Guess where I am” photo.

I remember heading up to the helipad and the chopper, which the county had borrowed from the California Air National Guard, and it was a nice one — big enough to seat all 24 of us. “Just like the governor rides around in,” the pilot announced as we came up the stairs. It was one of those two rotor jobs, and the inside looked more like a private jet.

Oh, wait. Come to think of it, this helicopter did have a turbo jet in the back, so once we’d lifted into the air, we took off fast, and some of the younger folk on the team whooped and hollered at the acceleration. I know we had some meetings in the morning, although I have no idea what they were about, and then we wound up at a really nice restaurant where I think I ordered… no, I don’t remember anything still except the Thai iced tea, and then everything started to shift, there was shouting, people running and ducking, then I was flat on my back, staring at bright lights and screaming in pain for a moment before I felt someone grab my arm — which hurt — and look into my eyes. They were just eyes, between a paper mask and a cap over their hair and I remember the maroon of their scrubs, and then just drifting.

Drifting in and out, feeling like I’m floating all over the place, sometimes seeing disjointed things, hearing words that don’t register as any language, and then I hear my name whispered and I open my eyes. I’m kind of surprised to see the face of my wife’s assistant, Tycho, looking at me hopefully, and I can’t help but break out in the biggest grin. She’s sent him to help, and I can’t even begin to describe how happy that makes me.

And then I feel pressure on my chest and it’s like someone has planted an axe in me, but I’m too drugged out to make much noise. It’s Rebekah, my wife. I know she’s not trying to hurt me as she kneels to put her arm around me, but it fucking does. Pardon my French.

I try to move my arms to push her away, but they barely budge. That’s when one of my nurses, Herrick, comes over and saves the day, escorting her away. He was one of the first people I remember meeting here, and at least his name and face have stuck in my Swiss cheese mind for now.

As Herrick is talking to Rebekah, Tycho looks down at me, and it’s obvious that he’s been crying his eyes out. The look he gives me in that moment makes it more than obvious that he’s been crying for me, not her, We make eye contact and I sort of give a half-hearted attempt at a nod, which is more like turning my head slightly to him, which sends blazing razor of pain down my neck and into my upper back. All I can do is grunt.

I really am still drugged out of my mind, so all I can manage is to raise an index finger to point at Tycho, but I don’t think he notices.

Then Herrick is escorting them both out of the room before returning with an orderly. He had explained earlier that I wasn’t in an actual hospital bed yet. I was in a transport bed. That’s because transferring me from one to the other to move me around was too risky. “You have too many broken bones,” he explained. “Well… broken is an understatement, I suppose. But picking you up and sliding you over is absolutely out of the question.”

“Great,” I thought. But it was fun being rolled down hospital hallways under the overhead OLED panels, which swept by. It really felt like the VIP treatment, although this trip was a particularly long one, down several hallways in different wings, then to a large, staff only elevator, and down, down, down. It felt like we were in a sub-basement.

A thought came to mind during all this that hadn’t hit me before. How was this hospital still intact and functioning after such a huge earthquake? I hadn’t heard anything about the magnitude or epicenter, but it must have been a monster.

They eventually rolled me into a cool, dim room and a white-coated tech leaned over me and smiled. “Mr. Clement,” she said. “We’re just going to do a scan and figure out our priorities on fixing things up for you.”

In my mind, I thought that this meant MRI, and became suddenly terrified at the realization that I was pretty sure there was metal in this bed. I’d heard stories about bad things happening when metal got too close to one of these machines. I’d also never had an MRI, I’d only ever seen them on old doctor shows on TV from the ‘00s and ‘10s. To me, it looked like being shoved into a giant pencil sharpener.

I try to protest, indicating the bed I’m on as best I can, but Herrick is there, and he shushes me. “It’s okay, Matt,” he says. “First of all, every bit of metal on this thing is titanium, which wouldn’t react to a magnet anyway. Second, this isn’t an MRI. It’s HPMRV.”

“What?”

“Hyperpolarized Magnetic Resonance Visualization.”

“It still has ‘magnet’ in it.”

“Yes,” Herrick smiled. “And that magnet is the Earth.”

As we spoke, the tech was preparing to attach an IV bag to the line that was in my left arm when I’d woken up. The other one was on the back of my right hand. I was very surprised to realize that they didn’t bother me like I’d always thought an IV would. Then again — heavy painkillers, apparently.

She checks my chart on her tablet then checks the bag, does a calculation, and nods.

“No worries,” she tells me. “This is just a solution that will hyperpolarize any hydrogen atoms in your body that it gets to, and that’s what allows us to ‘see’ the images when we pulse radio waves through you. The technology has gotten a lot smaller, cheaper, and better in the last few years.”

“Where’s the machine?” I ask.

“We’re standing in it,” she replies. The detectors are in the walls, floor, and ceiling, so we’re going to get a real-time, 3D view of you once we start the process.”

She looks at her tablet, then steps aside with Herrick, although I can still hear them. “That drip will take about thirty minutes to finish, and then we give it another twenty to completely perfuse. You know the rest from there.”

“Thanks,” Herrick replies, and I hear the tech leave the room.

“Is this thing really safe?” I ask him.

“Oh, yeah,” he explains. “A lot safer than the old ones, but same idea. Basically, we get nearly all of the hydrogen atoms in your body to all start spinning the same way, and then pop that radio wave through them and they plop back to however they were before. That’s how we get the picture. Apparently, the old machines only saw like one out of 200,000 water molecules. This one can see something like 75% of the hydrogen atoms. It’s like going from a silent movie in black and white to 16K.”

“Now what?”

Herrick pulled a stool over to sit where I could see him, sat, and smiled. “It’ll take about fifty minutes for the drip to do its thing, and I’m monitoring to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions. So you’re stuck with me.”

“Okay. Hey — how come this place is in such great shape right after that earthquake?”

“Right after?” he looks at me. “The quake was almost a week ago. Last Tuesday. This is Monday, the 23rd.”

“Damn. Still… I don’t see any major damage.”

“We kind of learned about the importance of hospitals during that little adventure about a decade ago, remember?” he sighed. “By the way, I know we’ve got some work to do on your face, but from the outside, the damage doesn’t look that bad. I mean, you can talk, right?”

“My face is my second prettiest feature,” I joke with him. “But we’re really safe from big aftershocks here?”

“It was designed by a Japanese company, and they know their quakes,” Herrick explains. “Plus everything in it and around it was designed to be pretty immune to the shaking up to an 8. We’re also completely self-sustaining if we get knocked off of the grid in all areas — power, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications — and we have enough of everything on hand to support a full staff and every bed occupied for three weeks, with a possible supply chain from the Nevada National Guard via convoy or helicopter if necessary.”

“Wow,” I mutter. “Can’t wait to see this bill.”

“Lucky thing we all have MediCal now, isn’t it?” he laughs. Then, “Now it’s your turn. Since we’ve got almost an hour, I like to get to know my patients better. Especially the ones who might be around for a while. So… tell me your story.”

“What’s to tell? I was born in 1990, so I’m a total Millennial, fourth of six kids, three older sisters, two younger brothers. We all grew up in Scranton, which got really interesting when I was 15, since that old TV show The Office made us all famous. Remember it?”

“Oh yeah,” Herrick says. “I’m only seven years younger than you, and we had all the American TV when I was growing up in Cebu.” I think he notices my look and adds, “That’s in the Philippines. About a million people. I jumped a couple of grades, finished nursing school ten years ago, and came here in ’21 after… well, you know. Things settled down. But enough about me. Go on.”

“Yeah, so, I finished high school. Go Scranton Knights! Swim team, Poli Sci club, and band geek. AP in U.S. History, Government and Politics, and Environmental Science. I came out here to go to college at UCLA for a lot of reasons, but a big one was that my grandma — my mom’s mom — lived in Santa Monica and had a guest house. My mom had moved back east after she got her Masters because she couldn’t afford L.A. Oh. That’s why I was born there. She wound up with a nice teaching gig, although she taught at West Scranton High, our rivals. Their mascot was The Invader.”

“Did they not let you go to the school where she taught?” he asked.

“Actually, we lived in the zone for that, but she got a waiver from the district and explained to me, ‘Dear, Scranton High is the much better school. Trust me.’” He laughed and I started to, but then it felt like my ribs were doing arpeggios on my lungs so I stopped myself.

“Anyway, because of all the AP credit, I actually started college two quarters ahead, so I majored in Urban Planning, minored in Poli Sci, and graduated at the end of 2011 instead of spring of 2012. Well, got my degree. I still walked with everyone else the next year. And then I applied to work for the City and the County of Los Angeles.”

“And you’ve been there ever since?”

“Actually, not quite. See, they both work on an exam system. You pick a job you’re interested in and then take a test for it, which they only give every couple of months. The tests are scored, and then you don’t hear anything else until you come up for an open position that you qualified for by taking that test. And, to keep it fair, the only criteria they use are the test scores, ranked from highest to “no thanks,” and nothing else. Well, that, and which positions that test qualifies for.”

“Ooh. Harsh.”

“Yeah, not really. I guess it’s fair. I mean, come on. It’s Civil Service. It’s the one job it’s virtually impossible to get fired from outside of doing something criminal. No, strike that. Something criminal that actually costs your employer real money in a lawsuit. Otherwise, you pretty much just get transferred elsewhere to bury the scandal. You know. Like the Catholic Church used to do until they had to sell off so much shit to finally pay up about five years ago.”

“Ooh. Cynical much?” he asks, but with a joking tone.

“Totally,” I reply. “Hey, you can’t get within a hundred yards of a government job without becoming completely jaded.”

“Ah. So, how long did it take you to finally get the job that ruined you?”

“Three and a half years, but it only took three weeks to find out that I sucked as a waiter. Luckily, a friend of mine hooked me up with… well, I don’t even want to mention it, but it more than paid the bills in the gap.”

“OMG,” Herrick said. “You did porn?”

“Not quite,” I replied, laughing. “Okay, I did do some nude modeling and a couple of solo wank videos, but I actually wound up working as a dancer and stripper in a club in WeHo. One of my college buds hooked me up with all of the above.”

“Really?” Herrick replied.

“Really,” I went on. “Apparently, ‘hot nerd’ is a very popular type, so I’d take the stage with the glasses on and the hair slicked back, pocket protector and white dress shirt, sometimes a bowtie, and always the flood pants and white socks with dress shoes, and the audience would go nuts once the shirt came off. Once I got down to the G-string, the last thing to go would be the glasses, and I swear that was when the place really started to rumble. And I made so damn much in tips doing it that it was ridiculous. I mean, on a good night, I’d earn enough to cover utilities, internet, groceries for a month, and two trips to the movies a week for Granny Sims and I. And even though I insisted, she never let me pay rent. ‘Honey, I own this place free and clear, so paying the bills is more than enough. But you just being here with me is enough without you paying the bills.’”

“That’s so sweet,” Herrick gushed.

“Yeah, although the best part was when she’d add, ‘And you really don’t need to pay a damn cent, because I go down to Morongo once a month and clean up at Black Jack.’”

“Damn. Your granny is a playa. Literally!”

“Yeah, but at least she never loses when she goes to the casinos… shit. Never lost.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be, she lived a long time. But, seriously. I remember many a Friday night when I’d be coming home at about 2:30 and would run into her pulling into the driveway, and she would pull a huge wad of cash out of her purse, wave it at me, and say, ‘You are grilling us some damn fine steaks tomorrow, Mattie!’”

“Wow. Now you’re making me wonder why you ever accepted the county job in the first place.”

“Well, it was twofold. First, a lot less strenuous, and a guaranteed income with benefits. Stripping had no benefits because we never worked anywhere near 40 hours a week. Second, by the time the county finally called me in, I was 24, and in the world of gay strip clubs, that’s just past the sell-by date.”

“Really?” Herrick asked, incredulous.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, I know guys who are close to my age now who still pass off being a twink, but I had the disadvantage of having jet-black hair.”

“How is that a bad thing?”

“The first gray ones stick out like compound fractures,” I say.

“Ooh… I don’t know whether to applaud that reference or smack you and say ‘Too soon.’”

“But I don’t have any compounds, right?” I ask.

“You don’t now,” he says. “But you probably don’t want to know what it was like when they brought you in.”

“What was it like?” I ask.

“Um… let’s just say… you are one tough motherfucker.”

“Uh… thanks?” I reply.

“Okay, so… you start working for the county and, I assume, give up your stripping career, so… now what?”

“Now, I wind up working for the Inter County Development Planning Commission, or ICDPC as we call it, and it is all kinds of awesome. First of all, the offices are in Van Nuys, and so eventually, it’s a City Bike hop to the station and then a ride up the Q Line to get there from Santa Monica every day, so a short and easy commute. Next, I’m working with an amazing team, and our goal is to basically make sure that plans for developing and improving L.A. County mesh in the most optimal ways with our surrounding counties, as well as work with the incorporated cities within the county. You know — Malibu, Culver City, WeHo, Burbank, Glendale, NoHo, Westwood, and so on.”

“Of course, since we’re a planning commission, we are forward-looking, so although I start in 2014, I’m on Team 2034, so everything I’ve been working on isn’t even going to start happening for another five years from now.”

“What about five years from when you started?” he asks me.

“Essential employment, and trust me, we all worked from home for months. And people died or decided to return to medicine — we did have a lot of doctors — or get out of government work all together, so, I move up the hierarchy.

“Then, one day in late summer ‘22, after it’s finally calmed down, we’re at a week-long multi-department team-building sleep-away camp up in Angeles National Forest that’s being facilitated by some improv theater based in the soon-to-be incorporated city of NoHo of all things, and it’s just amazing. They keep the campers segregated by gender in two different buildings, except that they allow married couples to stay together in a third building, and while they seem to match co-workers as roommates, the working groups are, apparently, matched up the opposite. I don’t know anyone in my group and, as I ask around later, this seems to be the thing.

“Yeah, definitely planned. But not a bad thing. And in the group I’m in, I notice this woman. Probably a little younger than me, and shorter. Well, hell, okay, most everyone is shorter than me, although she’s tall for a woman. A blaze of long, curly red hair tumbles from her head, and she’s got that catnip combo of porcelain skin, triangular face, and jade green eyes, and I just stare. And when we get to our first split-off exercise, we wind up paired together, and it’s this weird thing where one person is an actor who is going to play the other person, so they are interviewing for information for the role, but they are asking as the other person in first person while that person is answering in third… shit. Does that make any sense?”

“No,” Herrick replies.

“Okay, cool. It didn’t to me when it was explained either, but when we did it, it worked. So, let’s say that I’m the actor who is playing you. I might say, ‘So, where was I born?’ and you would reply with factual information about yourself, but in second person. ‘You were born in Cebu in the Phillipines…’ and so on.”

“Damn!” Herrick exclaimed. “That is a total mindfuck.”

“Isn’t it?” I said. “But, at the same time, once you get the rhythm, it really gets you telling all the nasty truth about yourself to a stranger without any insecurity, and the second half had us reversing the roles, and by the end of it we had just bonded, and by the end of the first day, we started hanging out together all the time. And, I’m going to be totally honest here, even though it broke all the camp rules, on the fourth day, we snuck into the woods after ‘lights out,’ found a secluded spot, and… well, you fill in the blanks.”

“Oh, you naughty dog, you,” Herrick said, laughing and clapping.

“I mean, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, been there, done that. Go on.”

“Okay, so… we definitely exchanged info, were relieved to find out that we worked for two different divisions, but within easy access, and started dating not long after.”

“And what were the divisions?”

“Told you mine,” I explained. “She’s with the Ecumenical Council, meaning coordinating all of the religious groups, especially during a crisis, like now.”

“Oh. So you’re both religious, then?”

I just laughed. “Oh, fuck no,” I said. “We are both total atheists. She’s only on that council because she majored in Religious Studies. But, beyond the government thing, we wound up having so damn much in common that we eventually married, and here we are.”

“And… anything else?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “And you?”

“Well, I’m also married,” he says.

“Great. Kids?”

“No,” he answers. “You?”

“No.”

“Necessity or need?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Didn’t want or couldn’t have?”

“Ah,” I say. “Didn’t want.”

“Us, couldn’t have.”

“Oh, that is so sad. Why not?” I ask.

“Because I’m gay as hell and only married her for citizenship, since we still weren’t sure whether the H1-B visa thing would get restored, but we both knew that going in. And… you?”

And that’s when the tech returns and announces time, and I can’t tell you how goddamn relieved I am in that moment. Herrick smiles at me and exits, the tech places the transit bed precisely, then tells me, “Okay. I have to exit the room, but you’re going to hear some strange sounds for about the next twelve minutes. Relax. Those are just the radio signals being sent through you in various directions. And it’s just radio. Nothing radioactive or dangerous or anything else. Understand?”

“Yes,” I mumble, turning my hand to raise a thumb, but I don’t think she sees it.

“Great,” she says. “Then, away we go…”

She leaves the room and I’m left all alone to listen to nothing but the hissing silence in my ears (probably tinnitus) and the occasional “whump” that seems to come from my sides, above, or below. And then I realize I’m left alone with myself, and most thankful of all for the question Herrick never tried to make me answer. But before I can decide whether to complain about him over that, the whumping stops, the tech is back, all smiles, and the orderly is wheeling me out and back up to my room.

It seems like forever before I get back to 602, although almost immediately I feel the prick of another painkiller injection and don’t have the energy to slap the fucking nurse who did it without asking, and then a new doctor appears bedside, with his tablet.

“Mr. Clement?” he says.

“Call me Matt,” I insist.

“Okay, Matt. I’m Dr. Polvo, but you can call me Jaime. I’m here to show you what we saw in the latest scan.”

“My guts, I guess?”

“Yes, and those are fine, but… well, honestly… your legs took it really badly. I think they were hit full force when the roof of that restaurant fell. Six inches higher, and we would have lost you to a tamponade. Don’t ask. Anyway… there’s no easy way to say this, I’m sorry, but… every bone in your body below the middle of your femurs — er, thigh bones — is pretty much, well, shattered. We may not need to amputate, but it would take implantable prosthesis that aren’t quite developed yet. So a few years in a wheelchair, maybe. At the least.”

“Fuck…”

“But, hang on, because I do have good news. You don’t have any major organ damage, so from the colon up, you’re good. You did suffer some stress fractures in your spine and have eight broken ribs, there was a compound fracture to your left radius, and a minor dislocation in your C4 vertebrae. And we are going to have to fix your jaw and replace about six teeth on the left side of your face, although the bruising trauma to your left orbit should heal on its own.”

“Thanks, doc,” I reply, “But what do most of those words mean?”

“You’re going to live,” he says, and then he breezes out. And I wonder… Okay, what does living like this mean, really?

I’ve been pretty much told that, short of a medical miracle or major tech development, I’m probably not going to walk again. On the upside, I haven’t been told, “Your dick don’t work,” but, on the other hand, since that pile-driver needs some hips and legs behind it, I’m probably stuck with hand and blow-jobs from here on out. That, or just jerking off, because it sounds like my face is kind of fucked up, too, despite what Herrick said, and now I’m understanding the logic of there being no mirrors in this place.

But after Dr. Bad News, I can’t find Herrick because, apparently, his shift ended, and now I’m with Maryam who, while she’s nice, hasn’t heard any of the story of my life I’d told while waiting to be perfused enough to be scanned.

Oh, well.

And then… Rebekah comes in, but she’s very careful not to touch me, since I guess she’s been warned: “Broken China.” Instead, she says, “Oh, babe, they just told me. And I am so going to be here for you for as long as you need.”

And god, I’m kicking myself now because I’m back to the big lonely room, and Herrick really revealed a lot of himself, and I had been about to, but… the trouble was that I couldn’t say anything now, because Rebekah had made it so goddamn clear. But, in my head, and as soon as Herrick came back and moved her out… I couldn’t scream it loudly enough, despite my shattered legs…

I only married Rebekah out of convenience, and because of what my parents would have thought. Yeah, I know that it was the 21st Century, but they had voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named, to their great detriment. And my ever-lasting shame. But I’d told her ages ago about the bisexual cover-up deal we’d agree to, and it was fine right up until the day I joined her in Grand Park for some Summer Fun festival and I met her assistant, Tycho. And I fell head over heels for that hot little fucker and, truth be told, I got the feeling that he was giving me the eye, too…

Image source, JMarchn, “X-ray of lumbar hyperlordosis.” Used unchanged via creative commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.

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