On May 29, 2011, I was fifty-four and a half years old. And I was seriously irritated at the GOP in Congress. You see, they had announced that they were going to take away Medicare from those then under 55 years old. And that meant me. I spouted off about it to anyone who would listen.
They’re gonna take Medicare from ME! I’m 54-1/2! That’s where they’re gonna start!
After the first 528 times I mentioned this fact to each and every person I could corner, I still felt unsated. I wanted to tell more people of my irritation. Whether or not I knew them.
And so I heard a voice inside my head (something I rarely admit to):
Go forth, it said, and start a blog.
Oh and give it a stupid name to keep yourself humble.
And so I did. Both of those things. FiftyFourAndAHalf was born with this post.
Blogging has been a completely different experience than I expected.
My original plan was to do a political/humor blog. But in spite of a never-ending source of fodder, I found that I wanted to write about other things, too. That part didn’t really surprise me.
What surprised me was that blogging, and Word Press, became a place where I met new friends, discussed topics important to me. Where I laughed and cried along with folks I will probably never meet.
Thanks, everybody. And while I’ve been writing less than usual and reading less than usual, I love the special place that is the ‘sphere. So, yeah, thanks for being out there, for reading, and for giving me stuff to read too.
It promised to be a glorious day, and magically, I woke up early. I snuck out of bed without waking John, grabbed some clothes and went quietly to the living room. I opened the shutters and looked out to see the slightest bits of pink light starting to color the sky outside. Dawn was just breaking, and it looked to be a beautiful start.
“Wanna take a walk?” I asked Cooper, my year-and-a-half old Springer Spaniel.
Cooper wagged his tail, and headed towards the door. We grabbed his leash, my red jacket, and headed out into the morning.
And the morning was glorious. A November morning. Indian Summer, if there can be Indian Summer in Switzerland where there never were too many Indians.
We lived in the midst of dog and dog-lovers’ heaven. Our tiny house was located on the outskirts of a small village 20 minutes outside of Geneva, Switzerland in farm country. Our chalet looked just like a cuckoo-clock, and it stood as the last clock on a rural lane in what looked like a display of seven cuckoo-clock houses. Across the dirt road from the clocks were farm fields. The fields crossed the road to the left of our house and went on and on. Wheat, corn, hay, sunflowers, rape seed. The fields sloped gently down and gave way to vineyards and apple orchards until the hills gently ended at the town of Nyon and Lake Geneva. The Alps, with Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, rose above the Lake and the other mountains, as if placing its arms around the gang of mountains it hung out with.
Not a bad view* (I’m pretty sure this is one of my pictures.)
It was about 5:30 when Cooper and I headed out. We crossed the busy road that ran to the left of our house, and I let him off the leash. It was getting lighter, and I walked and watched my dog run, both of us smiling. He’d run a bit, then come back to check on me and run off once again.
Springer Spaniels are expressive dogs – their sad looks can melt your heart. But when they run, they embody joy. Pure and simple joy. And on that morning, Cooper ran with abandon through harvested corn fields that we passed first. His ears flapped and happiness spread across his face as he ran and jumped over cornstalks and literally ran circles around me in his delight.
We continued on the straight farm road that paralleled the Lake, passed fallow fields to where the road turned at a right angle and led us downhill towards the lake. By now, it was lighter — I could just start to make out Nyon Castle in the distance, although it was so far away that if you didn’t know it was there, you really couldn’t see it. The road crossed another farm road, and so we turned to the right again to continue on our normal loop that would lead us home, after a walk of about 2-1/2 miles. It was full morning, now; the sun glistened on Lake Geneva, the snow topped peaks and me and Cooper.
Up ahead on the left and right were fields of grass that would soon be harvested for hay. Cooper ran ahead and disappeared into the tall grass. I watched as the grass parted, showing me just where he was and how far he’d run.
But then I noticed a second line where the grass was parting for somebody else. Or something else. Whatever it was, it was heading straight towards Cooper.
Possibly the best way to describe Cooper would be as a fur-covered marshmallow. Everything inside — good and sugary. As a soft, squishy, completely sweet thing, Cooper didn’t understand aggression. Somehow it all worked out though – aggressive dogs never attacked or bothered him. Cooper wanted to play, and his playfulness was infectious. Even the most aggressive dogs found him endearingly stupid; and they always played with the sweet dope.
Still, when frightened, Cooper became a complete coward. If something frightened him, well, Cooper would run to me and hide behind my legs. Or behind John’s legs or later, behind Jacob’s. An all-inclusive coward, he’d hide behind us one and all.
So when the two paths in the grass converged, I wasn’t surprised at all to see Cooper come springing out, his face the picture of delight. He had a new friend, and was running towards me to share the good news.
There are some friends you just shouldn’t introduce to your mother. This was one.
Cooper had met a wild boar. An enormous, wild f’ing boar.
She came out of the grass, and stopped in the middle of the road and stood there, all 250 pounds of her. She strutted her impressive bulk and looked from side to side.
I stood there, frozen, my mouth agape. I watched her breathe, knowing that I was unlikely to remember this meeting fondly.
I could see the sun touch the edges of her coarse, bristled fur where it was lighter than the part that came out of her back or side or anywhere else on her 250 pounds or so of solid flesh.
I could hear her breathing from about 75 feet away, as I backed up slowly. She breathed in and out, sometimes through her snout, and sometimes in wet breaths through her lips, which flapped occasionally. She breathed loudly.
I could smell her. She needed a bath. Or a run through a field of lavender, preferably in France.
We had been warned about wild boar, but in spite of long twice daily walks through the fields, we had never seen hide nor hair nor bristle; we didn’t worry. Cooper was delighted with his new friend. And he rushed over towards me to tell me so. I wasn’t so easily smitten.
Wild boars do not like dogs, they are known to attack and kill them. They aren’t fond of people, either. And rumor has it they aren’t terribly playful. And I wasn’t anxious to turn my lovely morning walk into a learning experience, either.
I looked over in the direction of the house and suddenly realized something extremely important:
It’s a long crawl home.
“Cooper, Come!” I shouted, stupidly, automatically.
In fact, I was not sure I really wanted him to come to me. Would I take on a wild boar to save my dog? Not if I thought about it logically. But then logic really has very little room in the brain of a dog-lover. Of course I would have taken on a wild boar to save my younger, dumb son. And of course, I would have lost. Especially since, in looking about, I realized that we were in the middle of a farm field and there wasn’t so much as a protective twig in sight. Damn the compulsively tidy Swiss.
I did not want to be wild boared.
Cooper, oblivious to the danger he was dancing around, he kept going up to the boar, prancing in front of her, running in circles around her, begging her to chase him, just like his doggy pals did.
“Come on, play!” he was obviously saying.
“Go away,” she was clearly thinking as she aimed a cold, bored glare at him.
I was pretty sure that if she chased him, it wouldn’t be to play. And then naturally, Cooper would panic, not know what to do. Oh who am I kidding – Cooper’s first and only though would be “MOM!” and he would run and hide behind me. And the boar would kill me, an innocent bystander.
I looked at my red jacket, glad I had worn that one so that they could find my crumpled, maimed, boar-ed body more easily.
“Dammit, Cooper, Come! Now!” I said more softly, trying to get him to leave her alone.
Nobody ever listens to me.
Cooper ran away from the boar towards me at last, but then he turned and ran back to her, again, circled around wagging his tail furiously, still trying to get her to play.
But suddenly, the situation changed. “Cooper, Come. Now!” I screamed it this time.
Because the boar had turned her head. She was now looking at me.
Naturally, Cooper ran around her again and fortunately she forgot about me in her irritation at the stupid dog. The boar, who seemed to have finally caught her breath, looked at Cooper like he was her pesky little brother. She shook her head once more, dismissive of the pest, and continued on her way uphill through the grass field. The grass separated as she pushed her way through.
Cooper came back to me, defeated, deflated, rejected. He looked sad in that tearful, long-eared way only a Springer spaniel can have. My boy’s feelings had been hurt. I was glad it had only been his feelings.
* * *
Cooper loved those fields, where he could cavort in relative safety, where he could run free, with his ears flapping. Doggy Heaven. Of course, it really didn’t matter where he was, Cooper was happy wherever he was, as long as John, Jacob and I were there with him.
Today, that’s where Cooper is — in doggy heaven. I am sure that he is back in the fields near Gingins, Switzerland. Running with unrestrained joy, looking out over Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc and the Alps. He’ll have his young dog body back, with no aches, pains or problems.
I hope he doesn’t run into any wild boars, though. Because it’ll be a while before John, Jacob or I will join him. For a while, there’ll be nobody for Coops to hide behind.
Judy was shocked when I came back through the swinging doors from the Blue Colony Diner’s bathroom laughing uncontrollably and sat back down at our booth.
“Ummm, Lease? Weren’t you crying when you went back to the bathroom?”
I nodded, unable to speak or even breathe. Unable to stop laughing long enough to explain.
My sister was clearly afraid that I had gone over the edge. And of course she had good reason to worry. You see, I had met her at the Diner hours earlier than planned, straight from a pre-surgical appointment with my doctor – my surgeon — in Baltimore.
He had, well, upset me. I cried for the three hours it took me to drive the normal four-plus hour trip.
At the Diner, I told Judy that the surgery I was facing with abject terror in just over a month was going to be two operations, instead of the one I knew about. Nobody, not one person among all the medical folks I met with, in all the months we’d been discussing my options, had thought to mention that, ummm, minordetail.
I was terrified.
I was pissed.
I was wallowing in self-pity.
So of course I was rather emotional as Judy and I sat in that booth at the Diner. There, over tears and coffee, I explained the two procedures. And then, because the reason for the surgery was bowel disease, naturally, I had to go.
The Blue Colony Diner’s bathroom is small with two stalls. I had gone into the stall next to the wall with the window at the top, made myself comfortable on the pot, and got down to business, when it happened.
I heard a bang above me and looked up to see a ladder appear, neatly centered in the window. And then I saw a large, work-gloved-hand on the lowest visible rung. And then a second gloved hand appeared. And then the first one moved up a rung. The top of a painter’s cap popped into view.
Shit!!! Someone was coming and I was in no position for visitors.
I was also in no position to leave quickly because, well, I was having bowel problems. There was nowhere to hide — by then, somebody was in the next stall. All I could do was sit there, waiting, watching and laughing. The fact that the man climbing the ladder would soon look down at me shaking with laughter only made it worse. I couldn’t stop pooping, I couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t finish up and leave. I couldn’t do anything but wait for the inevitable while watching one hand after another go up the ladder rungs.
Back at the table, I was eventually able to tell Judy what had happened, wiping my tears away.
“This could only happen to me,” I said. Then I sighed and looked at my sister. “Shit. I guess I have to have the god damn operations. Both of them.”
“Yeah,” said Judy taking my hand, “I guess you have to.”
Laughing at the bizarre appearance of a man in the window of the bathroom had let me laugh instead of cry. It helped me calm down and accept the inevitable. Let me come to terms with what I knew I had to do. That yeah, it was two operations. And yeah, I had to have them or continue to be sick. Really sick. The “sighting” let me release my anger and most of my self-pity. The terror hung around a while longer.
“You know,” I said to Judy as we left, “I don’t know what I’d do if I had a disease that wasn’t funny. Imagine how hard it is,” I said, “to have heart disease!”
I couldn’t have been more right. Being able to laugh at my poop problem made it stink a little bit less for me and for the folks who went through it with me. My family, friends, and co-workers. Not so much my doctors. Frankly, they just didn’t get the humor or my need for it.
So when I read an article in the New York Times about an oncologist who jokes around with his patients, I was delighted. I wanted to cheer. I wanted to shout “It’s about time one of you guys figured this out!” I wanted to pat the author on the back.
I also wanted to say “DUH!”
You know that I am a fake medical professional. I am, however, an actual expertpatient. I’ve been going to one specialist after another for 40 years; I’ve had loads of practice. Still, I swear I can count on one hand the chuckles I’ve had with doctors in a professional setting. Seriously! And that doesn’t make facing your illness (and your own mortality) any easier.
Most doctors — especially specialists — seem like they are preparing you for the afterlife rather than helping you be healthy in this one. Funeral directors act less like funeral directors than do most doctors. Yup, the Docs are often about as comforting as Charon, rowing you across to Hades.
You really need to take this seriously, missy.
Take my doctors (yup, I’m tempted to add “please”). They are wonderful doctors, but it’s been hard to find one with a personality until fairly recently.
Dr. C., the gastroenterologist I was seeing when I was really sick in the 1980s, was a terrific doctor. He took great care of me. He was knowledgeable about the latest treatments and it was he who recommended me for what was then a new, fairly radical surgical procedure that gave me my life back. I will always be deeply thankful to him.
But he had no sense of humor at all. He would look at me with deadly seriousness throughout my office visits and procedures. I was always joking with him; that’s how I act with everybody. He didn’t seem to get it though. He didn’t seem to understand that I am funny and that that’s how funny people act. Or that I might be afraid. Or perhaps nervous. Or that I felt completely alone. Did I mention that I was terrified?
Early on in my treatment, Dr. C. once actually said to me, “Elyse, I don’t think you are taking your disease seriously enough.”
“Is there something you’ve told me to do that I’m not doing?” I asked. “Am I ignoring any of your advice? Any instructions? Any helpful hints?”
“Well, no. But you are treating your illness too lightly. You joke about it all the time. You have a serious illness, Elyse. You need to take it seriously. You need to act serious.”
“Oh, you mean it’s not normal to poop every time you take a breath?” I asked.
He gave me a stern look.
“Dr. C., the only way I can deal with this disease is with humor. The only way. Besides, poop is funny. Not so funny that I want to do it quite so often, but still. It’s funny.”
From then on for the two years he took care of me, I was on a mission to make him laugh. It made those serious sessions more bearable. And when I finally succeeded? Oh it was sweet!
[Dr. C was trying to untie one of those crummy ties on my paper gown so he could examine me. Instead, he knotted it and couldn’t get it open.
As he fumbled with it, I deadpanned “Good thing you’re not a surgeon.”
His eyes widened and then it happened. He laughed. ]
Gastroenterologists are a particularly somber bunch, and that, well, that I just don’t get. How can that be? I mean, they have their hands and their noses in people’s butts all day, every day. You would think they’d need a good laugh.
[Only once did one crack a joke. He finished my rectal exam, and taking off his rubber glove, said: “My children don’t understand why I enjoy doing that.” I could have kissed him, but he smelled like poop, so I didn’t.]
Now back to the article. It’s called “Poking Fun at My Patients.” Dr. Mikkael Sekeres wrote about how he jokes around with his cancer patients, just as if they might need a chuckle. Just as if they are normal folks. As if they might just need the reassurance of normal personal interaction.
Seriously. It may be a medical milestone. I’m pretty sure that this realization will come as a shock to many doctors. It’s really too bad they already awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine this year.
Dr. Sekeres has normal joking interaction with patients. Give and take, a little bit silly. And it makes them more relaxed, more comfortable. It helps them to feel that they are people to him, not just a disease in some sort of organic frame.
Here is more of what Dr. Sekeres wrote:
Certain aspects of medical school, like learning the basics of normal and abnormal organ function, or rotating onto specialty services as mini-apprenticeships to recognize disease and treat it, haven’t changed much in 100 years of medical education.
What has changed is the emphasis on communicating with patients, which includes understanding how social and cultural factors and life circumstances can influence everything from disease occurrence to medication compliance. This is a good thing.
I need to have insight into their lives outside my stark exam room to appreciate how their environments will affect the care plans we develop.
We also learn how patients react to illness, and how a diagnosis like cancer can dramatically alter a family’s landscape, or how a person defines herself.
Serious illness can be physically and financially devastating. It can also be incredibly isolating because you sometimes feel like the only person with such bad luck, or like you might have done something differently that would have prevented the disease, or that your life sucks and then you’re gonna die. And it’s gonna happen to you sooner rather than later. Often it’s all of the above in some random pattern you never quite figure out. It can engulf you.
The emotional burden of illness, though, can be eased a bit if more doctors act like Dr. Sekeres. Being treated with a smile and a little bit of humor, well, it can make all the difference.
So next time you go to your doctor, especially a specialist you’re scared to see, tell him/her something from me and Dr. Sekeres:
Hey Doc? Lighten UP!
* * *
Oops. I apparently didn’t make it clear that this adventure, and those surgeries, happened 30 years ago. I survived.
Medical care in today’s America is really no more than a Ponzi scheme. Just ask Rick Perry.
In my case, it seems that whenever I go to the doctor, I end up going to doctorS. Plural. Somehow, radiologists are always involved. What did folks do before they split the atom? I think all these tests is a Russian (Iranian?) plot to get Americans to wipe themselves out with radioactive dyes so that they — The Russian/Iranians — can take over our country and get up there on the CT Scan machine themselves. They are seriously cool machines. I want one for my living room.
Oops. I digressed again. So back to our hero in the U.S. medical system.
Me, I have a chronic condition that has a nasty habit of wandering around the temple that is my body. (I am quite sure it is a temple, because it keeps expanding.) So I do know the medical system, ummm, intimately.
No, no, no, the illness is not such a big deal. More than anything it is annoying. And gross. And time-consuming. Because when I go to one doctor, she sends me to another, who invariably says, “well you know, you really should see … and along the way there will be tests.” Needles will be stuck into veins, dyes will be injected, and incredibly disgusting potions will be consumed. The doctors don’t feel a thing, though. It hardly seems fair.
But I have something over most patients: Doctors are terrified of me:
I work in drug products litigation
I am married to a lawyer
I do my homework;
I ask questions that I have thought about in advance;
I write down their answers;
I do not let them leave the room until I am satisfied;
I call them with all those questions I forgot to ask the first time around;
When they don’t call me back, I threaten to haunt them after I am dead.
That last one is REALLY effective.
Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a new specialist. So, I am taking bets here: