09 June 2007

They say it's your birthday . . .

I really don’t remember the ride to the hospital. In fact the whole episode might easily have become one of those sharp but separate scenes that make up, as if from a previous life, the memories of my early youth; but it’s where my life takes on a certain continuity of thought and memory that gives it structure, or more to the point, it’s where I begin. I consider it my birth.

It start’s as my mother and I are walking through the lobby from my dentist’s office to my doctor’s office. Dr. Phillips, the dentist, had decided a tooth I had somehow cracked had to come out, but I have hemophilia and that tends to complicate things a little. I had already waited for over an hour while the two doctors discussed the various options, and this little trip over to Dr. Coltin’s side of the building seemed like just one more way to delay things. I had a feeling they were building up their courage like when I would stand on the edge of the diving platform trying to get my legs to jump. I wished Dad was there to tell them to do it or come down, one or the other.

It was around two in the afternoon and the Venetian blinds were throwing dark and bright stripes across the carpet. Leaving the lobby we went down a hallway to one of the examining rooms. The room smelled like the hall: a combination of alcohol and floor wax with just a dash of vitamin. It wasn’t an added on smell like perfume, and as I got up on the table I wondered how you nailed a smell into a wall.

Dr. Coltin came in and, while he was talking to my mother, took off his long, white coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He continued talking while he prepared an injection, and, as always, his voice was soft, confident, and confidential. I liked listening to his voice. It reminded me of Dad using sandpaper very carefully on an old chair.

He made jokes about having teeth pulled and asked me who my teacher was that year. His voice was so much like a background noise that it was hard for me to follow him, and I didn’t hear some of his questions. I guess he thought I was scared because he stopped what he was
doing and came over to stand next to me. “Now, don’t worry, Jim, this won’t take long, and you won’t feel a thing when Dr. Phillips pulls that tooth.”

I said I knew, and he said I was a brave young man and went back to his syringes. I had had the medicine he was preparing once before and I knew that I didn’t have to worry about the shot, but I also knew that when a doctor told you something wouldn’t hurt he meant it wouldn’t hurt as much if you didn’t fuss. For a second or two I wondered what it would feel like when the tooth was pulled; and then I watched two squirrels arguing outside the window while I waited for the shot.

Mom said something about my grandfather and how he would bleed for three weeks or more when he had a tooth pulled. The doctor would move into their house and Grandpa would sit in a kitchen chair with newspapers over him. Every once in a while the doctor would take blood from Mom or one of her brothers or sisters and inject it right in the empty socket; and sometimes they would put a plug of chewing tobacco in it. Dr. Coltin listened to her as he put a tourniquet around my arm and patted the inside of my elbow.

“Well, let’s hope this new Anti-Hemophiliac Globulin will be a little more effective. I’ll give Jim a dose now, we’ll wait a few minutes to give it time to be distributed, and then Dr. Phillips can pull the tooth. After that we’ll keep Jim in Dr. Phillips’s office for an hour or so to make sure—a little stick now—to make sure he’s not going to hemorrhage. If he does we can give him another dose of AHG. There! That should take care of things. Don’t worry, Jimbo, we’ll have you home before your brother gets home from school.”

I looked up at Mom and she looked concerned, but she didn’t have that look she got when things were really bad so I decided I didn’t have to worry yet. I looked at Dr. Coltin and watched while he changed syringes and blood came out of the needle. Mom and the doctor talked about something else while he finished up, and finally he was pressing a cotton ball over the hole in my arm.

“Now, Mrs. Fowler, if you would just press on this while I get some tape.”

“Like this?”

“That’s fine.” He put the tape on, and I sat up on the edge of the table. “Okay, young man, let’s go see Dr. Phillips.”

We went back to Dr. Phillips’s side of the building, and I sat in the chair watching the drill hover over me while the two doctors and my mother whispered in the corner. They were arguing about giving me a shot of Novocain. Dr. Phillips was afraid I’d bleed even more from the holes the needle made, and Dr. Coltin felt the AHG would prevent any extra bleeding. Mom was torn between making the whole thing as painless as possible, and making more places to bleed; but, in general, she felt the needle holes would be minor compared to the one the tooth would leave. I was too young to say anything that would effect the outcome, but I wished they would get it over with. I don’t remember who won.

The tooth was pulled at 2:30. That evening at 7:30 there was another conference in the corner. This time Dad was there, and I remember starting to be afraid. Dad worked as a handyman around town during the day and then worked the night shift at the Products. Except for holidays and when he was laid off he always slept from just after supper until ten. If he was skipping his sleep time things must not have been going as well as Dr Coltin had promised. The whispers were too soft for me to hear any words, but there was a tenseness that hadn’t been there before.

Dr. Coltin had just given me a third shot of AHG, his last dose, about an hour before, but it hadn’t seemed to do much. I spent my time biting down on pieces of some bad tasting gauze that was supposed to help stop the bleeding, and spitting blood into the basin next to the chair. I wondered if they should try putting some chewing tobacco in it, and I remember being glad the basin had a drain.

They made their decision and everybody left. I was beginning to think I was going to spend the night in the dentist’s chair when Mom came back in.

“Your dad’s gone to get gas in the car and make sure Frank can stay overnight at Uncle Fred’s. When he gets back we’re going to take you to a hospital in Ann Arbor where they can stop your bleeding.”

“What about dinner?” The words came out soggy from around the cotton.

“You can’t be hungry.”

I said I was.

“Well, if you can think of something you can eat we’ll pick it up on the way.”

I was still trying to think of something that would taste good with blood, and wouldn’t required any chewing when Dr. Coltin came in and handed Mom an envelope.

“You’re to go straight to the University Hospital emergency room. Drive into Ann Arbor on Main Street. When you get to Ann Street turn right and just go straight. You can’t miss it. I’ll call ahead and tell them your on your way, and this will explain what’s happened so far.”

“Is there anything else we’ll need? Something from Dr. Phillips?”

“He’s included a note with mine, and our home phone numbers are there in case they have any questions.” He left the room and Mom began fussing around getting ready to leave. I remember she borrowed a funny shaped bowl for me to spit in on the way.

Like I said before, I really don’t remember the ride to the hospital. All that I have now is a few images of dark streets and buildings that were much larger than any of the ones in the little town we lived in. The time we must have spent in the emergency room has also faded away. I do remember riding on a stretcher through long dark halls with the sound of Mom’s shoes on the granite floors echoing in the silence. I hoped Mom and Dad would call Dr. Coltin when they got home and tell him he was wrong. I wasn’t home by bedtime.

After riding in an elevator we went through some doors and I guessed this was the hallway that had the kids’ rooms. On either side were rooms with four or five cribs in them. At least they looked like cribs. Some of them were and some were regular beds with side rails. You could see into the rooms because the walls were glass from about the level of the stretcher up to the ceiling. All the kids I saw were sleeping, but I could hear someone crying and every few seconds someone shouted for a nurse. The dim lighting made the glass reflect like see through mirrors, and made it hard to tell what was really in the rooms. As we went along I watched myself roll by the beds on my stretcher, and then we came to the one that still had its lights on. There was only one bed in the room, and it was a real bed not a crib.

“Oh, my God.”

That was Dad talking and he said it flat and tight, the way he talked the time I accidentally kicked him in the stomach when I was swinging. He had seen her too.

In the bed was a girl and she had been burned. Except for a couple places about the size of my dad’s hand she looked like a hot-dog you’ve cooked until it’s hard and black and has cracked open to show red in places. Her face wasn’t burned, but that only made it worse, because where you wanted to see contortions there was nothing. I guess the pain had passed the point where screaming was even possible.

Later Mom and Dad left and I was alone listening to the night sounds of the hospital. I was vaguely angry because the side rails made the bed seem like a crib; and still hungry, but the doctors said I couldn’t eat until my mouth stopped bleeding. Someone was still crying, and someone was still yelling for a nurse. Its rhythm reminded me of the foghorns they sometimes had in television shows and was to become one of the constants of my life. In later years the crying would sometimes be replaced with swearing or snoring, but the wave like pattern remained.

Across the hall was the burned girl’s room. The nurses went into her room a lot to take her pulse and do things with the tubes taped to her arms. Eventually I went to sleep.

Some time later I woke up. I don’t know if it was the strangeness of the place or if a noise woke me or I simply had to go to the bathroom. They had taped my arm to a board so I couldn’t bend it and break the needle, and I was surprised by how hard it was to move around because of it. My mouth had bled while I was asleep and the right side of my face was stuck to the pillow. My blood might not clot, but it is still a liquid and will evaporate. The drying blood then forms a very tenacious glue, and for the next several years, as I lost my baby teeth, I was to wake up many times with my face dried fast to my pillow.

This, however, was my first experience. Before I could finally sit up I had to pull the pillow off with my left hand while using the armboard on my right arm as a lever to push myself up. After several attempts I finally succeeded.

Once I was sitting up it felt like someone had smeared pudding all over the right side of my head. For a while I sat there looking out the window at the street in front of the hospital. It was the first time I remember being awake that late at night and the world looked calm and cool. A police car drove slowly down the street below, and after a while a man walked up the street and turned the corner. I tried to imagine what it was like to be out there when the rest of the world was sleeping. Across the street an old observatory had opened its dome, and the telescope pointed up into the night like a giant cannon. I wondered if it was a secret weapon to protect us from the Reds. As I sat there I could feel the blood drying on my face.

One of the nurses noticed I was sitting up and came in to see if I was all right. When I turned to face her I heard her gasp and then she got very businesslike and started cleaning me up. A lady in a yellow dress came in to help her (later on I found out that the yellow dress meant she was a nurse’s aide), and they talked about how my blood wasn’t supposed to clot, and the nurse saying she didn’t think it had. It had just dried up. It took them almost an hour to wash me and change the sheets and find me a pillow that had a rubber cover under the pillowcase.

Just when I was beginning to get real sleepy again one of the other nurses ran out of the girl’s room, made a phone call, and ran back. A little bit later a bunch of doctors ran in and did a lot of things that I couldn’t figure out. When they left the girl looked the same as she did before except for her face. Now it was relaxed.

Just before I finally went to sleep some men took a stretcher into her room. I don’t know why, but when they brought her out I waved good-bye. She couldn’t see me though because now she was all covered up. Even her face.

Eventually my mouth stopped bleeding and I could eat, and a few days later they said I could go home. I remember being a little proud, in a strange kind of way, because I had beat Grandpa’s three weeks by several days. Like I said, for me that’s where everything starts. I was seven.

However long the night Weary with the journey I sleep through it all.

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