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I was often unable to find anything of interest on television during our recent holiday season, so I found myself watching a number of old movies, including three Thin Man flicks on the Turner Classic Movie Channel. I remembered them as marvels of sophisticated comedy based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. I had always liked William Powell, and Myrna Loy was “Woman” for me when I was growing up. To my amazement, I only managed to watch one complete film and about ten minutes of the other two before realizing that either someone had futzed around with these classics or else my idea of sophistication… not to mention comedy… had changed. Chasing around after an alcoholic drink no longer filled the bill. And the mystery seemed to solve itself when no one was watching… including William Powell.
However, the activity called up a memory from July 2004 when I was lying in the Albuquerque VA hospital recovering from the prior day’s exploratory Laparotomy, which is a fancy way of saying the surgeon ripped me open from stem to stern and yanked out 20 cms of my jujunium. The only thing I understood about the last part of that sentence was “20.” That’s simple enough, but what the hell is a jujunium? I never knew I had one, much less 20 cms of it. Was there anything left? Would they have to install some kind of pump to handle all my juju juice? But back to my suffering.
Pain-wracked and lethargic, I huddled on my bed imprisoned by raised and barred sides. A myriad of needles pierced my right arm. One was for a saline drip, another was for something that escapes me, a third held a big gadget that let them take blood samples without sticking a big hypodermic needle in me every time some vampire got hungry and needed a sip of blood. The fourth one, in my opinion, was simply to piss me off.
To fully comprehend my situation, there are a couple of things you need to know about me. First, I am needle-phobic. Point a needle at me and my skin cells become so tense a nurse must make at least two... and more often three… tries before striking the desired vein. Add to that the fact that I have an extremely low tolerance for pain. By way of example, there have been times when I equated waste elimination with the pain of childbirth. My wife tried to disabuse me of that, but she had no idea of the agony I was enduring at the time.
And finally, there’s my relationship with blood. Blood is just fine when it stays where it’s supposed to be, snug in some vein or artery and properly covered by a thick layer of epidermis. I can remember people speculating on why veins (even the word makes me queasy) appear blue when they are filled with bl… uh, that red stuff. I never cared to learn the answer. Veins can choose any color they want so long as they remain leak-proof.
Of course, when it comes right down to it, blood isn’t as bad as needles or the pain of sutures or the other stuff because while I have an unpleasant moment or two upon its appearance, that is generally followed by a more or less instantaneous nap. And even if the sight of the thick, oozing stuff doesn’t render me totally unconscious, at the very least I’m in that never-never land where I don’t really give a crap.
But enough of that. Back to the experience I was about to reveal. A day or so after my life-threatening surgery, I was lying back in my bed bored to tears, suffering quietly and heroically with my blood safely coursing through its proper channels… when suddenly, something captured my attention. My total attention. A great big bubble of air detached itself from the saline bottle and plopped into my drip-line.
That’s where the old movies kicked in. How many times have we watched a sinister film character make his (it’s almost always a he) way into some sleeping innocent’s room to inject air into the patient’s IV and then sneak out without being seen? Shortly thereafter film pandemonium breaks out. An ominous screeching of monitors. A horrified nurse screaming as if she’d never seen a hospital emergency before. Raucous Codes Blue or Red or Dead.
Anyway, as I watched this humungous blob of air lazily make its way down the line, my initial reaction was calm curiosity. That didn’t last long. I was watching Death approach. I didn't have time for calm. I sat up… which diverted me momentarily from my panic… and fumbled for the call button. Couldn’t find it. Should I yell and disturb the poor sap in the other bed? Jerk the needle out of my arm? Oh, crap no! That would hurt. So I calmed down and took matters into my own hands. I very deliberately flicked the hose to break up the bubble.
I succeeded. That ominous thing exploded into a thousand tiny fragments that wouldn’t harm a fly. I slumped back, weak but proud. I had done what the U. S. Army had taught me to do. Take decisive action. I clearly remembered from back then that every time I recovered from a swoon, I’d been able to staunch the flow of that strawberry colored stuff gushing from a splinter in the finger or a scrape on the knee.
Then I took another look at the IV. A funny thing was happening. As the cloud of tiny air pockets drifted down the line, they started to collect. Just a few at first. One joined with another to make a bigger bubble. Then others melded with that one. Good Lord! It was going to end up bigger than ever.
I closed my eyes and awaited the arrival of Fate. How long would it take to kill me after entering my bloodstream? Was this a vein or an artery. A vein. That meant it would go directly to my heart. Wouldn’t have to go through my toes and fingers before reaching the Grand Old Pump. Arm to heart. Splat! Would it hurt much? Damn those old movies, anyway. I wouldn’t have known what was coming had it not been for them.
As the re-formed pocket of air… seemingly much larger now… finally disappeared from sight, I closed my eyes and tried to compose a prayer. Better to go out that way, wasn’t it? But all I could think of was “don’t let it hurt!”
I woke up an hour or so later when the nurse came in to take a blood sample. I was tempted to let her know about eluding the tentacles of Fate, but decided Gary Cooper would have kept his escape from Death to himself. So that’s what I did.
Hope I didn’t horrify you with that absolutely true spine-tingling tale of death and danger. You probably have some of your own to relate. But I seriously doubt yours were as perilous as mine.
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See you next week.
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