I have been mulling over this post for quite some time. Not simply because it is embarrassing. If I stopped telling stories just because they were embarrassing I would have about four and a half minutes of not quite boring material. Nor is my reluctance cause by the subject matter. With a bit of finesse the subject can be presented in a manner that is only slightly offensive and mildly scatological. No, the reason I haven't gotten to it, like the reason we don't do so many things is: it's hard.
To tell this story correctly I have to once again describe the layout of the University of Michigan's Hospitals in a manner that is at the same time simple and complete, and—and this is the tricky bit—not be mind-numbingly boring at the same time. Let's face it. I've already written so much about the layout of the place that the two or three regular readers I have are probably currently clicking on a link to something vastly more interesting and exciting like the "Forty-seven Beige Walls" page. The physical description is, however, vital because part of the terror of the moment was due solely to the scale of the place coupled with a building design a good thirty years out of date.
The other problem, which is no less important, is that I have had a bloody hard time thinking of some song lyrics which would make a snappy, suggestive title for the piece.
It was my junior year at college. Things had been going along swimmingly until I noticed one morning that my urine looked exactly like whole blood. Now, even when it's happened before, and you know what's happening, peeing blood snaps your mind right off the one or two blurry concepts it was fumbling with, like which day was it and was that paper on "The Wasteland" due that morning, and bringing the thick, reddish brown liquid that was supposed to be a clear, pale yellow into sharp focus. I had started having hemorrhages in and around my kidneys when I was thirteen, and it looked like I was having another one. They usually occurred when I was under a lot of stress, and, for some inexplicable reason, in the spring, but often, like that morning, for no apparent reason at all.
There was a period around eighth or ninth grade when I often wouldn't say anything when one started. They weren't painful, and going to the hospital for three or four weeks would interfere mightily with a lot of other things I wanted to do. Then one day Dr Penner happened to mention that a young man in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or some similar place, who also had frequent kidney bleeds, had died of kidney failure. After that I was a lot more conscientious about reporting any blood in my urine.
Anyway. That morning I hitch-hiked over to Ann Arbor and got admitted to the hospital. Since I was technically an adult I was put on 8-West along with seventeen other men suffering from leukemia, psoriasis, and prostate problems. (I'm not making light of my ward-mates conditions. As painful, crippling, and just plain awful as many of our hemorrhages were, us bleeders often had the least devastating problems on the ward. We at least had a fighting chance of surviving. At that time a lot of those guys, especially the ones with leukemia, didn't.) A few of my professors decided I was going to miss too many classes and gave me withdrawals, but a couple just sent a stack of books and told me to write a paper.
Eventually the hemorrhage stopped and everything was, so to speak, clear sailing. The papers, however, were in that nebulous stage somewhere between nearly finished and just about started. Since the bleeding was over it meant it was time for the dreaded IVP. The initials 'IVP' stand for something or other, but it boils down to having a dye injected and then having your kidneys x-rayed. Now, while the dye usually caused me to have an unpleasant, metallic taste in my mouth, and sometimes caused me to feel suddenly very hot, the actual IVP was not the dreaded part of the thing. It was the preparation.
To be suitable for viewing your innards had to be almost literally squeaky clean. Apparently the slightest speck of undigested kumquat could obscure vast sections of your intestines, not to mention your kidneys, and the entire procedure would be a failure, wasting the time of a crack team of highly trained and extremely busy radiologists. To prevent this terrible waste of manpower (there were very few female radiologists at that time) you spent the previous day, and a good portion of the night, emptying yourself of everything that wasn't, and one or two things that might have been, connected.
It started a bit before dinner. The nurse brought a couple pills that would get things moving, and an enema. At first the things the pills got moving was large quantities of air, but they would soon work their way up through the other classical elements of water, earth and fire. (I can't really prove the part about fire, but trust me, eventually it burned.) The enema did what all enemas do, with the added thrill of having a twenty yard dash to the restroom. Then, as if all of this was some kind of demented, hospital aperitif, dinner was served almost immediately. However, instead of the usual meal of overdone meat, underdone potatoes, and a huge wedge of iceberg lettuce with a glob of mayonnaise; you got a 'light' meal of unidentifiable brown liquid which had been given the stage name of 'Consume,' a vague tasting jello—usually red—and tea. This is probably why you survived the night—you didn't have anything solid trying to blast its way out.
By the way, the excitement of that twenty yard dash gained exponentially as the evening wore on.
Around 7:00PM the nurse brought what seemed like approximately six gallons of Castor oil with about two tablespoons of orange juice in the glass to highlight the oil's viscous nature. (In reality I believe it was 100cc of Castor oil, but believe me, the subjective and objective truths can be light years apart.) You stirred the two together like a mad man until they pretended to mix, then you drank as much as you could until the juice and the oil separated and your gag reflex kicked in. Usually about a teaspoon.
Eventually you got it down.
Eventually you believed it would stay down.
Then you waited.
This is where that description of the Eighth Floor comes in. Like I've said before, the wards angled off the end of the main corridor like the arms of a 'Y'. Where the arms joined the stem, as it were, was a nurse's station facing down the main corridor. The arm to the right, as you faced the nurse's station, was the male ward, and just before the doors going into the ward was a door in the right hand wall to a two stall men's room. Behind you as you faced the nurse's station, about fifty yards down the main corridor where another corridor crossed, was an elevator. On one side of the elevator's alcove was the booth for the only pay phone on the floor, which meant it was the only phone patients could use. Just as the powers that be saw no need to clutter up the ward with televisions, they also felt telephones were an unneeded luxury. I think the reasoning was something like, "if you're sick enough to be in here, you're too sick to be making phone calls." Or it could be they just had an aversion to devices that started with "tele-".
Since I was twenty years old, and madly in love, I, of course, had to talk to my girlfriend. After proving to the nurse that I had indeed finished the Castor oil, and not hidden it under my pillow, I put a robe half way on—the IV prevented putting my right arm in its sleeve—took a firm grip on my IV pole and started off to the pay phone. As I made my way down the hall with my IV pole rattling along with me, I could here the nurses and ward clerk naming landmarks and distances. They were setting up an office pool for how close I would get to the toilet before...well, before someone won the bet. The furthest away was in the phone booth, and the closest was three feet from the toilet. The last thing I heard was the beginnings of an argument about whether or not in front of the chapel would count the same if I was headed toward the phone booth or the toilet.
I got through to my girlfriend, which was a trick in itself. There were only, I was told, twenty-six lines to handle the incoming calls for several thousand freshman and sophomore students, and it wasn't unusual to have to dial for an hour or so before you could get through in the evening. I had, however, taking the precaution of verifying to the school switchboard that I was actually a patient in the University of Michigan Hospitals, and had very limited time at the one and only phone booth. This had the effect of putting my calls at the head of the line, and it often took only five or ten minutes to get through. (I was just thinking of having to explain this whole concept to my grandson.)
I was feeling fine. In control. No dams about to burst, and we started talking about getting married that summer. Somewhere around deciding in a park would be nice great fissures appeared in the Grand Cooley, Boulder, and Aswan Dams. I dropped the phone (without saying good-bye, I paid for that later) and started running. Now it's hard enough for a hemophiliac with damaged knees and ankles to run when he prepared for it with proper clothing and shoes and all that. Put that same hemophiliac in hospital pajamas, an ill-fitting robe, dragging an IV pole, AND at the same time having to maintain a certain amount of, shall we say, tension in the general anal region, and this person is not going to be moving quite as swiftly as he had hoped.
The IV pole was having a hard time keeping up with me, and tilted up onto two wheels which caused the base to swing back and forth like a windshield wiper, except on the floor. Meanwhile, my left hand is groping wildly at the knot of my robe's belt, and I was cursing my fussy habit of tying a square knot.
About ten yards from the bathroom door I got the belt untied and threw my robe off onto the floor. The nurses and the ward clerk were cheering me on, either hoping I'd make it because I'd already passed their choice, or in anticipation of winning because their spot was still, as they say, in the running.
By the time I hit the door to the restroom I had my pajama bottoms unfastened and ready to drop. I made a kind of Brad Pitt style slide across the floor (hard to do when swinging an IV pole and dropping your pants) into an open stall and landed on the toilet just as a Saturn V rocket ignited somewhere in my lower abdomen. About when the second stage of that rocket began firing, a nurse who had put her money on three feet from the toilet came in to make sure she hadn't won. She said, "Damn!" threw me a clean pair of pajama bottoms and left mumbling something about increasing the amount of Castor oil. Nurses can have a really warped sense of humor.