The International Writers Magazine: Diagnosis Mortal
*In Memory of our NY Correspondent Dean Borok who passed away a year ago
The Hindsights of Cancer
Everybody who’s smart places at least some degree of credibility to astrology. Nancy Reagan spoke with her astrologer every day, and she was Ronald Reagan’s closest confidant, the result being that even though he was a pineapplehead he ended up being credited for being one of America’s most successful presidents.
A billion Indians and a billion Chinese believe in astrology. In India the astrologer not only tells you who you can marry, but what would be the propitious date for the ceremony. He will also advise you on the best day to start a business, sign an agreement or even the most auspicious day to die. A lot of people have willed themselves to death on a certain day because they were advised to by their astrologers.
I look at it as Charlie Chaplin being caught in the gears of a giant clock in “Modern Times”. We are all gears in an astral machine, which is the universe. Each individual gear is an expression of God’s love at a given meridian and a given time. When the big gears, which are the stellar constellations, reconfigure, all the subordinate gears down the line turn until it reaches the smallest unit, the individual.
This concept has significance for me. I am born under the astrological sign of Cancer, so I figure that there are some common trends that can be inferred to the one-twelfth of humanity that is born to my solar month.
So I became alarmed when I saw a television item about a lady who went into the hospital and had a fifty-pound (20 kg) tumor removed from her abdomen. This happened around July 1st of this year, so I knew she was born under the sign of Cancer because she had been obliged to wait until her 65th birthday before she would be eligible for treatment under the American health care system, Medicare. This poor old doll, she exactly resembled Edith Bunker in the ancient working class TV comedy “All In The Family”, how many years had she felt the tumor growing inside of her body and not able to seek medical treatment because of no insurance! It’s a heartbreaking tragedy that is repeated millions of times every day because of social myopia – people walking around with disfiguring tumors growing out of their bodies while insurance companies rake it in and Mutt Romney pays income taxes at a rate of 14%.
But it was the focal point of this story that rang alarm bells for me. I am born on July 17th. Might I also be at risk? I resolved to have a check-up immediately. Basically, I had avoided going to the doctor for a couple of years, out of carelessness.
I got an appointment for July 2 and went through the whole routine. Normal, in fact the doctor was pleased with my cardiovascular progress. Blood pressure: normal, and my resting heartbeat at 65, which is bloody decent for a sedentary city dweller! I thanked God. These physicians might think that I am crazy for thinking God every time that I am told that t certain quality is normal, but they have led sheltered lives and can’t appreciate how awful the modern world can be. I have witnessed the limits of human mortality, and it is a nasty spectacle.
The doctor told me, “We’ll call you tomorrow about your blood results.” This was the scariest part for me – the blood. Who knows what evil beasts could be bubbling inside my body lie a witches’ brew, rotting me from the inside! Diabetes! Liver disease (I have been known to take a drink before lunch)! I had read an account of Napoleon, who was afflicted by painful liver problems, probably due to decades of wine, champagne, cognac, calvados, etc., having to get out of bed after a night of excruciating pain to lead the French army across the Rhine. The liver! And I love liver, especially if it is sautéed in garlic, peppers and onions.
Or even the Big C – Cancer! Who knows what evil lurks in the bodies of men? Viruses can rest dormant in the bowels of people for decades until Fate decides to activate them, destroying the best laid plans of mice and men. I am, unfortunately, a contemplative individual, and contemplation can result in obsession. Now these medical issues were on my dinner plate. The next day, I accompanied my girlfriend, the unassailable Magpie, to the beach. When we got home there was a telephone message on the answering for me to call the doctor’s office. The next day would be July 4, so we put it out of our minds.
The next day, Independence Day, we went back to Brighton Beach, at the far end of Coney Island. It was a stunningly bright, beautiful Fourth of July, and we stayed on the beach late into the night, in anticipation of the fireworks show at 9:00PM.
The big advantage of Brighton Beach is that it is only one block from the liquor store, which we readily access. Isn’t that why the whole world wants to live in New York, the beach, the subway and unlimited food and drink? By the end of the evening we were completely blotto, I won’t tell you no lie!
Unfortunately, each blessing caries within it the seeds of its own destruction. In terms of all the alcohol consumed, I don’t have to tell you. But the subway contains its own set of hazards. What do you expect from a system that is accessible of any monstrous form of life that happens to possess a couple of bucks? You pays your money and you takes your chances!
We found ourselves crammed into a subway car packed with drunken partiers returning from the fireworks display at Coney. It was morose, a bunch of drunken pigs of every description. I was having to drag Magpie, who was shitfaced, around like Juan Valdez pulls his donkey. Finally enough drunken swine had left the train in Brooklyn so that we had been able to find seats at the end of the car, facing each other.
This should have been the end of the story: we change trains at Union Square and go home quietly, but the Gods of New York had other ideas. As the train crossed over the Manhattan Bridge, with the lights of lower Manhattan twinkling through the windows, a dude standing by the door decided to have a little puke all over the floor, practically in front of my feet. Everybody at our end of the car got up and rushed away except for me. I was sick of running away from barnyard animals making a loathsome pigsty of a public conveyance. Every time I get on the freakin subway I am degraded and soiled by having to witness bestial zoo-like behavior. Just the day before, when we were heading to the beach, a kid had puked and pissed himself on the bench directly facing us. His mother, a morbidly obese woman wearing an Islamic hijab and head scarf, calmly did her best to clean the kid up, and quietly led him off the train, leaving the rest of the passenger to confront the mess. We had to get up and move. OK, not her fault, but what gives with these people. When I was a baby, I never pissed myself and puked on the train.
The public just seems to be deteriorating to a loathsome lump of sewage. Any vile filth seems to be acceptable. People don’t seem to have any more consciousness of public hygiene. One time, when I was working as a manager at an industrial bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, I found myself at the police station to file charges against a mechanic who was caught on the security cameras stealing welding equipment to sell in order to support his drug habit. The boss had kept him on because, as an ex-con, he worked cheap. While I was waiting to be called, these women decided to change the diaper of their baby right there in the waiting area, without even having the courtesy to go into the ladies’ room. They stank up the whole police station. The reason they were there is that their man had been arrested at the cruise line terminal for trying to smuggle a firearm onto a cruise ship. The guy was bringing a loaded pistol onto luxury cruise liner!
Certain people deride me for having such a nasty style of writing. What do you expect: as the computer experts say, “GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out!” The whole world wants to move to move to New York for the champagne receptions and runway shows, but once here, you become interlocked in a world of repugnant behavior up and down the line.
Magpie ran away, leaving me alone to confront the puke. I, however, having finally found a seat, was not inclined to get up and move. As I previously pointed out, I was loaded – too loaded to freakin care. “Geez, what a pig!” I exclaimed. I wasn’t being critical, only revolted.
Out of nowhere appeared this other kid, and a very large, rough-looking dude wearing shorts and work boots, like a truck driver or brick-carrying laborer. “That’s’ my brudda”, he told me menacingly. Maybe I could have slinked away, but I didn’t freakin feel like punking out for these filthy imbeciles. I told them back, “In that case, you should have stayed and played cards home with your mother” ha-ha!
He growled at me, ”Are you gonna give us the cards?” I knew that this was going to go bad. He walked over and told his brother, who was still bent over the vomit, “This guy called you a pig”. The puker lurched over to me and regarded me menacingly, obviously trying to focus his pig eyes on me. He was a smaller version of the first guy. “Oh yeah?”
I felt my head being punched while I was still sitting on the bench. It was a clean shot that shook me pretty good. There was no place to run, since I was in the corner seat at the end of the car. Nothing to do except defend myself.
Look, I could have lammed out with the rest of the citizenry, but what kind of way is that to live, where pigs and animals rule the public conveyances and decent people are too cowed to protest, like the cowboy movies. Is This America? Is This Freedom? I stood up and started throwing punches, ignoring the puker, whom I judged to be insignificant. Unfortunately, the shot I had received while I was sitting down had left me seeing stars, and my peripheral vision on the left side was nonexistent anymore. The big dude had stepped to his right, where I couldn’t see, and he landed another clean shot to the left side of my face.
I don’t mind getting hit in the head. A man needs that every once in a while. It’s better to take a beating like a man than to go through life in dread, like a coward. Actually, it’s a liberating experience to know that you can take an ass-kicking without caving in, because life is tough and there’s no reason to make it tougher by living in constant fear of being muscled around by low-class laborers.
I stood my ground, throwing punches like I was trained to do. Never mind that I had been blindsided while I was still sitting down and couldn’t even see where the prick was. It felt good, but I knew that this couldn’t last forever. I had to locate him and get in some good shots. Push him into the doors and get in close, working the body and head. Instead, I was blindly throwing punches like a Mr. Magoo cartoon.
All pandemonium was breaking loose in the subway car. Women were screaming. As luck would have it, a guy appeared out of the crowd with a badge hanging around his neck on a chain. He was a skinny little Puerto Rican dude, hardly a match for these two bums, but he projected an air of authority. “Break it up,” he screamed. One glance at the badge and I knew that he wasn’t a city cop, but the two drunken bozos were stunned into submission.
I was standing there with my fists up. “Are you a cop?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah.” Right behind him was a Hispanic girl who ran over and started screaming code numbers into the intercom.
“You’re a cop too?” I demanded.
“Well, far out!”
They weren’t police, OK? They were normal, alert young New Yorkers who were determined to stop a mugging. I knew from the first second that the guy’s badge was bogus, but the two dudes who were mugging me were too drunk and stupid to discern the difference.
So, we’re all standing in the moving train and the two morons expecting to be handcuffed. But the guy with the cop shield was only a store detective whose job was to capture shoplifters. I got to give the guy a world of credit for sticking his neck out to prevent a mugging. He and the gang of girls were only attempting to stop the damage that was being done on me, as the moron had opened up a cut above my left eye that was bleeding. When the train pulled into the Canal Street station, the two morons, realizing that nobody was paying attention to them, discreetly got off and vanished into the Chinatown crowd.
The whole affair was deplorable. It wasn’t my finest hour. The train continued to Union Square, where the store detective and the gang of girls implored me to get off because they told me that I needed medical attention, on account of the cut above my eye. On the platform, I tried to shake the hands of the girls. They declined, telling me “You’re bleeding!” Smart girls. I gave them the thumbs up.
I was left alone with the store detective. A couple of uniformed transit cops appeared, and the store detective gave them a full report. This guy was unbelievably conscientious. He followed through like a real cop, even though none of it was any of his business. If it hadn’t been for his intervention, I could have ended up taking a beating and being robbed of an expensive video camera that I had been carrying in a beach bag. He gave the transit officers his personal information and a full description of the circumstances of the assault.
The two transit cops escorted me upstairs to a clutch of cops who were standing around with their supervisor, an African American officer in a crisp, white uniform shirt. He was an astute supervisor. He asked me, “Do you require medical attention?”
“I don’t know. What do I look like?”
He said, “You look like an ex-fighter. Did you use to box?”
“Sure,” I said. “But my reflexes are slowed down. I never stood a chance against these kids”.
“But if you were in your prime, you would have taken them both out”.
“You got it!” No point in telling him that I always been a tomato can in the ring all my life, and that I never had no prime. “Listen,” I said, “I want to avoid sitting up all night in the emergency ward. You are never going to catch those idiots. What do I look like?”
He led me to a reflective glass surface. “Look in there. How does it look to you?”
“I can’t see anything. Could you just tell me what you think?”
“OK, he opened a cut over your eye, but if you go home and put a band-aid over it, that should about cover it.”
I said, “That’s what I figured. I can’t feel anything broken.”
I shook his hand and the hands of the two officers, and went away to catch the train uptown. This is what I want to say to the reading public: living in New York, you have to learn to take a beating or resign yourself to a life of cowardice. It’s not theoretical. They beat on you emotionally, and they beat on you physically. You have to think of yourself as part of the food chain, like the fishes in the sea. Don’t just believe me; look at the example of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. One day he was the leading contender to be the president of France, and the next day he was being led though a perp walk, courtesy of the NYPD, for a little, innocent blow job he had decided to enjoy in a Times Square hotel. In any case, New York seems to be returning to its old habits.
New York can shred a person. Let’s not forget New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who had a hooker sent up to his hotel suite in Washington, and the Wall Street bankers followed the money trail leading to his forced resignation. As Frank Zappa once wrote, “Man in a suit with a bowtie neck, Try to buy a grunt with a third-party check”. It’s endless. If you have a weakness, New York will find that weakness and use it to knock you senseless. I don’t regret anything. None of my offenses have been crimes of moral turpitude, and so I am still left standing.
The next morning, I woke up with a terrific black eye. I was seeing a light show that beat the Fourth of July fireworks at Coney. I received another call from my doctor’s office. This was very bad, something having to do with my blood results. Normally, the message would be that my blood analysis had tested normal. This time they wanted me to call back and schedule a follow-up appointment.
Alarmed like hell, I called back and pleaded to be squeezed in immediately, the same day. I didn’t care to wait around all weekend and have time to contemplate what the results might be. The problem was my face. I didn’t especially feature the idea of this physician seeing the huge change in my complexion from Monday to Thursday. He might think I’m out of my mind.
I rushed around the corner to the heart clinic which, happily, happened to be located on the same block where I live. Of all the multiple advantages to living on the Upper East Side, I would now find that quick access to medical facilities was a central asset. This neighborhood is ground zero for medical services.
Alarmed? You bet! All the years I had been submitting blood samples, this was the first time I had ever experienced any kind of recall, despite the fact that I was accustomed to pushing the risk factors to their limit. Smoking? Yes. Drinking, yes. Dope smoking? Oh yeah, and how! I take the Cheech and Chong approach to preventive medicine: Smoking reefer is vastly more benign than the contemporary palliatives avail on the legal market such as Oxycodone or Prozac. Guilty as charged, your honor! Hell, in LA they tried to close down the marijuana stores and the public furor was so passionate that the city council backed down and repealed the bylaw.
I showed up for my medical appointment wearing an expensive pair of sunglasses – light enough to be worn indoors, yet dark enough to conceal my eye-jam, and was shown into an examining room. The doctor came in and directly addressed the issue. “Your blood results came back a little sub-normal”. What followed flew completely over my head. Low red blood cells, low white blood cells, low triglycerides, low good cholesterol, low bad cholesterol, blah blah blah you figure it out! I at first thought that he was going to order me to eat more liver, but no such luck. The gist of the conversation was that something inside me was eating up all these nutrients, like a tapeworm or something more malevolent, like the baby monster that nourished itself inside the guy’s body in “Alien”. “There seems to be a possibility of cancer”, he concluded.
Oh great, just what I need right now, freakin cancer! He continued, “I’m going to refer you to a hematologist for further testing”.
“Doctor, what are the chances I have cancer?”
“Based on your blood results, I would say not very much. Around 10%”
Well, that was a little bit encouraging, but even a ten percent probability is pretty high. It’s not a pretty picture to contemplate, a 10% chance of cancer. What if you were told that you stood a 10% chance of getting shot with a bullet every time you went on the street? You wouldn’t even go out of your house. Ten percent is a high level of probability. The citizens of Sarajevo endured a siege that lasted for years, with Serbian snipers and artillery raining down on them, but the rate of mortality never approached 10%. The doctor gave me a copy of my blood results to submit to the hematologist. Over the weekend I studied the blood results, but I could not arrive at any understanding of them.
I’ve been in medical trouble before. One time I developed pneumonia from overwork, and the upheaval of coughing caused me to break a blood vessel in my abdomen, which led to internal bleeding and a week of blood transfusions in the hospital. I almost died then, but I was out of consciousness. This time I was introduced to the possibility of my demise that I would be able to contemplate at my leisure. My girlfriend, Magpie, enjoys mocking me for being alarmist, but when a highly experienced medical professional tells me that I have a 10% chance of cancer, based on extremely precise blood testing, I take that bloody serious.
Look, I’m a putz. I used to be a stand-up comedian. That should tell you everything. Basically, I am in the same category of stooges as Howie Mandel and Jim Carey, who are only about one level up from primates, and that’s no joke. I’m a moron! While I was waiting for my hematologist appointment, I started crying for all the beautiful things in life that I would have to abandon when I died.
Naturally, the top of the list was Magpie. She is a pain in the culo, but she’s been my girlfriend for more than 20 years. When I began dating her she was one of the most beautiful women in Manhattan. I was young too, and we used to enjoy wonderful dates and lovely vacations. She had aged a little bit since then, but she is still stunning, like a mature Sophia Loren or Astrid Gilberto. Magpie would survive my passing away because she had a devoted extended family that would not let her perish.
There were other things that I would miss: raw oysters, Chinese food, Mexican vacations and mariachi music. I saw a mariachi concert on Internet that brought tears to my eyes, especially when the singer hit the high notes.
That’s about it – Magpie and Mexico. As for the rest of it, go fuck yourselves. Nevertheless, to contemplate your passing from this world, the only thing we have ever known, is a jagged pill to swallow. I took another drink. The worst of it would be my slow, tortuous physical disintegration, which would bring satisfaction to the people who envied and feared me, notably some of Magpie’s Nazi-oriented friends. I’m not kidding like a Woody Allen movie, where he invokes Nazis as theoretical, extinct pricks. Magpie’s friends are the actual descendants of Eastern European Nazi bastards who were allowed into this country by anti-Semitic U.S. State Department elements who were enraged by Pres. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt’s policy of admitting holocaust survivors after World War II, so their riposte was to admit real Nazis to balance the equation. This is not imagination. The U.S. is filled with the children of actual card-carrying Nazis, who continued to instill Hitlerism into their children even after they had been settled onto our shores. There are loads of these idiot Children of the Corn in this country, and they have fulfilled their promise of being a tribe of prick bastards.
These Nazi friends were terrified of me. Quite aside from my own certifiable assault record, they are having to reconcile daily reports of vengeance by the Israeli Mossad, Shin Bet, Jewish nuclear bombs, atomic submarines, what have you! It’s enough to drive a freakin Aryan Superman into despair. On top of which, God granted me good looks. I have vexed countless of Magpie’s Nazi friends. If I came down with freakin cancer, with the chemo treatments, the puking and the inevitable physical deterioration, all her bastard Nazi friends would crowd into our apartment to exult, the same as the whores of Paris invaded the residence of Nana in Emile Zola’s novel, to gloat over the ravages that small pox had inflicted on her previous celebrated beauty. In a debilitated condition, I would be subject to unlimited debasement and humiliation at the hands of actual Nazis! Geez!
Anyway, the hematologist discounted the presence of cancer in my body. He was a large, powerful Croatian guy. He told me, “Actually, your blood levels seem to have improved. I’m going to send you for ultrasound, to check the condition of your liver, kidneys and gall bladder. Also, I’ll personally check your blood under the microscope. But, basically, I don’t feel you have any abnormal characteristics.” Wow, wotta relief! I went out and bought a new hat yuk-yuk!
I had the ultrasound test done and a week later I returned to the hematologist, fully expecting to be discharged with a clean bill of health. Uh-uh. He told me, “Your ultrasound results were good. Kidneys, gall bladder normal and only a small amount of fatty tissue on your liver”. (No surprise, considering all the drinking I do)
“However”, he added dryly, “there was one thing”. Uh-oh! “On closer examination, your blood testing revealed the presence of hepatitis-C”.
“Sorry to say. You’re infected with the hepatitis-C virus”.
“And that’s conclusive?”
“Well, I know somebody who has hepatitis-C, and he’s scheduled for a liver transplant. Is that what I’m going to have to confront?”
“Sorry to say, but that’s the result”.
“But I haven’t done anything. No needles, and I have only been having sex with my girlfriend for over 20 years”.
“Sometimes hepatitis-C can lie dormant in your body for as long as 30 years before it will incubate into a full-blown condition”.
“Geez!” I exclaimed. This doctor seemed to be checking me out for my reaction to this devastating news. Being from Croatia, he must have witnessed plenty of horror in his life, and he was probably clinically interested in my reaction. Anyway, at this stage of the game, after having gotten used to the idea of cancer, I was already numbed. “So now what?”
“I’m going to send the results back to your referring physician with a recommendation that he refer you to a liver specialist”.
“God help me!”
The doctor extended his hand. “I wish you luck”, he said, withdrawing. So now it was back to the heart guy. I got a call from the office of the heart specialist. When I went in to see him, this guy was absolutely euphoric. “You don’t have cancer”, he told me triumphantly. “Hepatitis-C is definitely preferable. At least it can be treated”.
“I swear to God”, I told him, “there’s no needles and no nasty sex. The only injection I have had in the last two years was a flu shot that Urban Physicians gave me as part of a Grand Opening promotion. Urban Physicians was a commercial storefront clinic that had advertised free flu shots the previous fall to promote its new branch on East 86th Street.
The heart guy looked at me doubtfully. It was inconceivable to him that an established commercial venture like Urban Physicians would invite the public in by means of a community newspaper and then shoot them up with contaminated needles. In my mind, where the hell else could it have come from? I get an injection in November and then, six months later, I’m infected with freakin hepatitis-C, an incurable disease and one of the great scourges of humanity.
I’m no angel, OK? In fact, if you elect to level charges of immorality against me, 100% of them would be true (except homosexuality, which I have never tried). But I have been clean over 35 years, and so far as I was concerned I had dodged the bullet. When I was a kid, I took some shots of heroin and methamphetamines. That’s bad enough. In addition, I had sex with some female slags who were hardly better than a rip in a bedbug-infested mattress. Guilty! But as freakin George W. Bush allowed, “When I became a man, I put aside childish things”.
Believe me, when I was younger I used to dread the advent of some dreadful malady that would be the consequences of my own dissolute behavior, like the junkie Beaudelaire, but it never manifested itself. At some point, I just accepted that I had gotten away with it. After all, the world is full of ex-heroin junkies, like Ray Charles. Look at the writer William Burroughs. He was a lifelong junkie who had lived to age 92.
But you never know. Hepatitis-C is a mostly incurable disease against which there is no inoculation. It destroys the liver and necessitates a liver transplant. In some cases, if it is caught at an early stage, it can be controlled by means of weekly self-injections reinforced with daily doses of pills. The side effects include discoloring of the skin (jaundice), fatigue, flu-like symptoms and skin rashes, not exactly a picnic in the park. OK, I had been downgraded from cancer to hepatitis-C, but, frankly, I’d rather be in Philadelphia, to quote Reagan after he had been shot.
“I looked up hepatitis-C,” I told him. “It can lead to liver deterioration and an eventual liver transplant”.
“That’s true,” he allowed.
I said, “I’ve got a Facebook friend, a Canadian comedian named Mike McTavish. I used to know him from many years ago, when we used to do comedy shows together”.
The doctor seemed pleased at this. “You’re a stand-up comic?”
“Among other things. This guy, McTavish is infected with hepatitis-C, and he is in line for a liver transplant, if they can find a match for him”. When I knew Mike McTavish he was the last guy I would have expected to come down with a deadly blood disease. Like so many Canadians, McTavish was plain vanilla, almost like a virgin. With his rumpled appearance and innocent demeanor, I could hardly have imagined him to even be with women, much less IV drugs. In my case it was at least understandable that I would get caught up in unpardonable sin and vice. Nevertheless, his case was a cause célèbre on the Canadian Internet. McTavish, a fixture on the Canadian comedy scene for over thirty years, had thousands of fans and admirers. He was a staple of Canadian culture, and their government had even sent him overseas to entertain the troops. Now he was seriously deteriorated, with appeals for donations and organ donors appearing daily on his Facebook page.
I had felt badly for him, but now, being diagnosed with the same condition, was starting to relate to him in a way that most people would not be able to understand. Basically, there was one incident I could remember, 35 years ago, when a junkie named Ron had offered me a shot of heroin. He was clean-looking kid, always dressed in a suit and tie. I had previously advised him not to get married, and he had taken offense, but a couple of years of marriage, during which he and his bride had conceived a kid but nevertheless spent all their time arguing over the available amount of heroin in the house, convinced him that I had given him sound advice. It’s funny how things work out. We had reconciled, and now he was offering me a complimentary shot of heroin. I asked him pointedly, “Are you sure the needle is sterilized?”
“Absolutely”, he swore.
“Yeah. I swear”.
“Well, OK then”.
I took the shot and it was nice. If LSD opened up the universe to me like a Hubble space telescope, heroin compacted my mind to a tiny hard diamond out of which a flower sprang, and out of the flower germinates a wailing saxophone player. That’s why jazz is so intensely personal, heroin enthusiasts like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ray Charles deriving all their artistic inspirations from what grew inside them on journeys to the center of their soul, a flower growing out of an infinitesimal grain.
Now, thirty-five years later, I was regretting the decision. They say that the hepatitis-C virus can lay dormant in your body for decades before gestating into full-blown disease. If this freakin shot from 1978 could condemn me to a lifetime of misery and disease, then I had no-one but myself to blame. I wondered that Mike McTavish, if presented with a similar circumstance, would succumb to temptation as I had. Somehow, I could not envision this innocent Canadian dude from New Brunswick province injecting a needle into his arm. Later, reading from his Facebook page I learned that he had suffered from bipolar syndrome, I decided that he possibly could have tried IV drugs. Hell, I couldn’t even imagine him with a girl! Something about English Canadians, there’s just no decadence factor. They have sex, but they’re so wholesome and boring that the only result has to be a baby who would equally develop into another boring Canadian.
Aside from the freakin heroin shot of 1978, the only other risk factor that could expose me to blood disease was the free flu shot I had received from Urban Physicians the year before, and I told my doctor that as far as I was concerned, there had to be a direct connection. “Look, man”, I told him, “I’m going to bring a malpractice suit against that storefront operation. I have all elements: a neighborhood newspaper advertisement offering free flu shots and the card I filled at the clinic prior to receiving the shot. Right there I have got a prima facie case against Urban Physicians, and I’m sure I can find a low-end ambulance chasing piece-of-shit attorney who will take the case”.
This, he did not receive with equanimity. The last thing these doctors want to discuss is malpractice lawsuits. I’m sure that their cocktail conversations are replete with horror stories of (in their estimation) unjust malpractice cases. He became visibly nervous, telling me, “I’m sure it would be a hard case to prove”.
I said, “Yeah, but in the meantime, if the lawsuit is accepted by the court I could borrow money against it from an outfit like Golden State Lending. I already borrowed from them once, when I sued the Transit Authority for breaking my arm in a bus accident, and I paid them back in full when I won the settlement”.
“You sued the Transit Authority?”
“Yeah, and I won. You know how hard it is to beat Transit? I found a useless ambulance chasing attorney who was so incompetent that I had to take charge of the case myself. I kept track of the witness, and I had to rehearse the freakin attorney”.
Now this doctor was really getting nervous? I’m sure he never had to confront a carnivorous disease victim like myself before. He said, “You probably know more about it than I do”. He added, purposefully, “I’ve never been sued”.
This doctor is a nice guy, but the interests of his class and culture are for sure totally aligned against loose-cannon pricks like me. All I knew was that I had been totally clean for freakin decades (except for the women), and if I was going down I was going to bring down the last identifiable contributor to my misfortune, which was the freakin retail storefront medical clinic that had injected me with the previous year. Three were no other usual suspects.
He gave me yet another referral, for a liver specialist on East 76th Street, but before I was able to keep that appointment, I received a call from the office of a lady doctor who was previously my referring physician, with an office on York Ave, a block from my home. It was just coincidental that she had called me at this time, but I didn’t know that. I figured that these other doctors had kept her in the loop, so I consented to book an appointment.
My feeling is that this lady, a Russian doctor, is just trying to keep an active portfolio of patients so that she can continue to make a decent living. How I ended up being on her patient roster, I can’t remember. I think it was from a previous insurance I had. I do remember, however, that when I asked her for a prescription for Viagra, she demurred. She didn’t want anything to do with below-the-waist cases ha-ha! It’s astounding how many Upper East Side medical professionals become squeamish about anything to do about sexual issues. If so, I am the wrong patient. For me, a doctor should be able to deal with sexual issues, like a freakin sewage engineer.
I kept the appointment. Lungs – clear. Breathing – clear. In terms of my heart, she relied upon the data she had received from my cardiologist, which was stable. As far as she was concerned, it was easy money, which is what she was counting on. She asked me if I had any issues, to which I recounted the whole nasty story of the possible cancer diagnosis and the positive hepatitis-C diagnosis, which was unwelcome news to her.
In addition, I informed her of my decision to pursue a lawsuit against Urban Physicians, which I expressed in the most emphatic manner.This discussion of a malpractice lawsuit distressed her to no end. I pointed out to her a case of several thousand medical patients in New England who had just received news that they had been exposed to hepatitis-C from being injected with contaminated syringes by a junkie paramedic, who had injected himself with their painkillers and replaced the medicine with a saline solution. These contamination cases are popping up like daisies. At this writing a new scandal has erupted over thousands of people being infected with spinal meningitis because of contaminated steroid injections. I felt that I had been swept along in this tsunami of filthy medicine, and I intended to claim an indemnity.
Geez, the poor lady! All she wanted was to make a quiet living tending to garden variety ailments, and now she had a hot potato shit disturber like me on her hands! She was totally nonplussed. I asked her for a tetanus shot, and she insisted on showing me the label on the vaccine vial. When I told her that I wanted her to check my prostate, she first protested, “Don’t you have an urologist?” before being obliged to stick her finger up my bum. I don’t blame her. What if a guy tells you that he is infected with hepatitis-C and then demands you perform an act that is normally done for $50 in a Tijuana whorehouse ha-ha! Anyway, she assured me that she hadn’t detected any polyps (of course, she didn’t spend too much time down there. The procedure was very perfunctory). Basically, I was good, except for the freakin rot that was poisoning my blood and internal organs.
This was the Season of the Witch. Upstairs from our apartment lived a nasty German battleax named Gisela whose Puerto Rican boyfriend who had just been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and was given two years to live. He had had hepatitis-B when he was 18 years of age, and had beaten the disease, or so it seemed. Now he was 58 and on his way out. The pain was so terrible they had taken him off of Oxycodone and put him on Dilaudid. The dumb German broad complained to Magpie that he acted “weird”. Yeah, to a moron everything’s “weird”. I told Magpie, “What do you expect, the guy is deathly ill and on opiate medication!” Apparently, he was now living my future destiny. Look, I’m sorry, if hepatitis took 35 years to incubate, how could the guy come down with it at age 18? That means he would have had to contract it 20 years before he was born. All the more reason for me to believe that I had received my infection from something a lot more recent to the date of diagnosis, and that would have been six months prior, which was when I had received my complimentary flu shot from Urban Physicians.
It had seemed like an OK place, with doctors and technicians all immaculate in white uniforms, but you never know, eh? Now I was facing a death sentence, but first a life of suffering and humiliation. Hepatitis-C is equivalent to AIDS, it’s nasty like Anthrax, from filthy sex and dirty needles. There’s no vaccination and the cure, if you can refer to that in such optimistic terms, is about equal to the disease in terms of suffering.
There’s no cure. Some big pharmaceutical companies were testing experimental palliatives for it, but so many of the test subjects have been dying that they have abandoned research. No wonder this lady doctor didn’t want to jam her finger up my butt. I was filth, a dead man walking. The only mitigation was that I am already at a relatively advanced age, and the condition was caught at its gestational stage, where no symptoms had yet announced themselves. I started calculating the actuarial statistics in my mind. If I can live another five years, I will have used up 90% or so of my allotted life expectancy. Considering that I have enjoyed pristine, robust health throughout my entire life, and that I am still working out like a kid in the gym, that’s really not too shabby of a tradeoff. Eventually you have got to die. Anyway, I can state with perfect honesty that I am not afraid to die. One time Magpie and I were on a flight to Miami and the plane got caught in a severe wind shear. Everybody on the plane was shaking like a leaf, but I was serene, judging that I had always given my best shot in life, and there’s no shame in dying in an air crash. Magpie, however, was in no rush to shuffle off this mortal coil. I calmly told her, “Take deep breaths through your nose and exhale through your mouth”, to help ease the anxiety. That seemed to relieve her somewhat. Just when the plane was vibrating at its worst moment, I told her, “Baby, let me give you a kiss before we go down.”
“Fuck off!” she gasped.
Nevertheless, a fast death is preferable to being experimented on by a gang of doctors who will freely admit that there are still a lot of things they don’t know. Modern medicine is really only about 100 years old, but most of medical history is composed of quackery and charlatanism. I’m not saying that medicine is not effective – life expectancy is now in the seventies, as opposed to age 40 a century ago, but it is a young science.
The day arrived for my referral to the liver specialist, only a couple of weeks into this melodrama. It was still July, and the day was a scorcher. I found a lovely pair of white shoes to wear to the appointment, but only a block or so from my house one of the shoes began cutting into the back of my foot so badly that I now remembered why I had hardly ever worn them: they tear up my feet. But there was no time to go home to change. By the time I arrived at the doctor’s office, the shoe had torn the skin off the back of my foot.
The liver specialist advised me on the possible treatment options, which now included a liver biopsy, where they cut you open and slice off a piece of your liver for analysis. While we were waiting for the hematologist to fax over the blood results and ultrasound images, he asked me if I had any questions. You might as well have asked a guy standing in front of a firing squad if he had any questions! The only thing I could think of to say was, “Can I trouble you for a Band-Aid?” (for my foot).
He told me, “Judging from your test results, there are still a couple of tests I can run on you. It’s not conclusive”.
“Well, I see that he didn’t run a blood load. There’s still a chance that you might test false positive”.
“You mean I might not have the disease?”
“It’s a possibility”.
This picked me up somewhat. “Well, what do you suppose are the odds that I might be false positive?”
This amused the specialist, that I would be interested in handicapping my chances of being infected with a freakin plague like a bookie. “I would rate the probability at around fifty percent”, he said. That brightened me up a bit. In the last couple of weeks I had gone from a ten percent chance of Cancer to a certainty of having hepatitis-C, to a fifty percent chance of getting off the hook. Nevertheless, after a couple of weeks of consulting all these medical professionals, I felt as though I had been sucked into a vortex, a First Circle of Hell. It brought to mind “The Cancer Ward”, a novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had survived time in a Stalinist gulag and then contracted cancer, which landed him in a state hospital that was almost as bad.
I wasn’t nearly so bad, having enjoyed perfect health my whole life and living on the Upper East Side, which is not exactly Siberia. But walking home in the excruciating July heat with a pair of shoes that were ripping into my feet with every step after being advised on the possible need for having a piece of my liver torn out of my body, my psychological state was nowhere near normal. This was a Friday. I wouldn’t know the results of the advanced blood testing until the beginning of the following week, which left me the whole weekend to stew in the heat.
Cancer or hepatitis-C, what the hell is the difference? Either way, it’s an abomination! Again the only positive factor was my long life of good health. Everybody has to go down eventually, but to descend from running, bodybuilding, boxing and martial arts to a state of feeble invalidity was like being rich and then being reduced to sleeping in your car. Magpie kept insisting that there was nothing wrong with me, and that I had made a huge error by getting involved with doctors at all. Look, how are you going to argue with all this technology that can analyze a blood sample right down to its constituent molecular structure? I called my good friend and workout partner, David Hernandez. He was a social worker for the City of New York, and dealing exclusively with drug addicts and ex-cons, he would have some insight into hepatitis-C.
He asked me, “How do you feel?”
“David, I feel great! They caught it in the blood results. They did ultrasound on me and my liver, kidneys and gall bladder are normal. The only thing the guy told me is that I have some fatty tissue on my liver”.
“That’s from the drinking”.
“This last doctor told me that it might be a false alarm, or a false positive, they call it”.
“Don’t count on that”.
“You think I’m going to live?”
“Oh, you’ll live. Until you die. If you’re not having symptoms and your internal organs are clear, at your age you can more or less expect to live close to a normal life expectancy.”
“You know, David, I’m clean as a whistle. No IV drugs. Hell, I don’t even bother to have sex anymore. I’d rather work out in the gym. I’ve been with Magpie so long that we wore that out a long time ago. It hardly seems worth the effort”.
“Yeah, but you used to have unprotected sex with a lot of nasty women. You could have caught it from any one of them, and it could have been hibernating in your system all this time.”
“So, where do I stand?”
“The same place as before. Lose 20 lbs and get fit. Don’t worry about it. One thing, though…”
“What’s that then?”
“Don’t let them test you for HIV. If they find that, they won’t leave you alone. You become a public health issue, and they’ll force you into a whole treatment regimen. You don’t need that, particularly at your age”.
Not long after this conversation, my phone went dead, for no apparent reason. This threw Magpie and me into a bit of a tizzy, since we don’t have cell phones. We messed around with the phone, the wiring and the phone jack, to no avail. Finally, Magpie got the idea to contact the phone company by Internet. They informed her that there seemed to be a system problem requiring a repairman visit, but not until the following Friday. This did not sit well with me, as I was anticipating a call from the liver specialist, to inform me of my test results, quite aside from all our other normal New York business.
More time to contemplate my condition. No more sex or even flirting with women; weekly shots and a daily regimen of horribly corrosive pills, which have not even been proven to be terribly effective, but carrying atrocious side effects; rashes, fatigue and flu-like symptoms and debilitating lethargy that would probably inhibit my working life; yellow skin pallor and jaundice.
The days passed. I figured that if there was an emergency the liver specialist would be able to contact me by email, which never happened. Finally, Friday arrived. The phone company technician arrived right on time and immediately found the problem. The wall jack has two modem connections and while we were messing around with the wires, we had connected the phone wire into the wrong one. Duh, a whole week without telephone service, and it was all our own fault.
Five minutes after the repairman left, the phone rang. It was the liver doctor. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week,” he complained. I figured, uh-oh this is going to be bad!
“The phone was out of order and we had to wait all week for a visit from the phone company”.
“Well, I called to tell you that you tested completely clean for hepatitis-C. There’s no trace of the disease anywhere in your body”.
“For real?” I exploded.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“Oh, thank you, doctor” I exclaimed. “I thought I was gonna die!”
“Well, you were never going to die. Your condition would have been treatable in any case…”
“Yeah, with shots and pills and cutting me open for a biopsy! Who wants to live like that?” I spoke off the phone to Magpie, who was in the room: “The doctor says I’m not sick!”
She said, “That’s what I told you”.
I spoke back into the phone. “God Bless You, Doctor!” I would have blessed his family to the thousandth generation, except that would make me sound like some wailing Azerbaijani peasant lady. “There’s no life without hope and I had lost hope”, I blubbered like a dopey woman.
The doctor said, “I sent a copy of my report over to your hematologist”. I wondered if there was collegiality between these specialists, or if I was a token in a game of one-upmanship. Not that I cared very much because in this case, at least, I was being left off the hook. He told me, “I just want to see you in six months’ time, to be sure you’re still clean”.
“No problem, Doctor! I said. I hung up the phone and told Magpie, “Let’s party, baby!”
In retrospect, maybe I should have taken Magpie’s advice and never have gotten involved with all these doctors. Remember, all this started with some stoopid item I saw on TV. As the guy said in the Godfather, “just when I thought I had got free, you pulled me back in”. Nevertheless, even as all this was going on the National Institute of Health issued an advisory for everybody over 50 years of age to be tested for hepatitis-C. Apparently it’s going around. Maybe it’s the Next Big Thing for middle aged people. With all the modern precision methods for blood testing, it’s now possible to detect it at the incipient level, and what they are likely to discover it that everybody who has been sexually active for the last 50 years has probably got some trace of it in their system.
I wouldn’t consider the experience to be wasted effort. At least they determined that there’s not cancer or diabetes or some other ghastly plague inhabiting my body, so I can keep on behaving like a kid for as long as my constitution holds out. And in this day of environmental contamination and deformation inflicting much younger persons than I, that’s saying a lot.
David Hernandez has a heartfull love for humanity, but after a lifetime spent on rehabilitating junkies and gangsters he is the job. No sparkling supper party repartee for him. His parting words to me on the subject were a dour, pedantic warning: “A lot of people take a diagnosis of false positive as a sign of invulnerability, and they go right back to their old habits. Then what happens is, the second time around they really do get sick”.
||That’s not likely to happen with me. At my stage of the game, all I want to do is keep working out in the gym – no IV drugs or nasty women for me. I actually have a theory about why my blood elements kept fluctuating so wildly. Sometimes, when Magpie and I would take a vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean, we would set the room air conditioner too high and end up freezing under our blankets at night. In the morning, I would wake up feeling as though my body was fighting off a cold. This summer, the hottest on record, I could not sleep in the bedroom with Magpie and decamped to the living room to sleep on the sofa, which is almost directly beneath the air conditioner, the result being that I was alternately stifled and chilled for months at a time, causing me to constantly feel as though I were fighting off illness. For all I know, my internal thermostat could have gone haywire and produced all these problems from nothing, the same as my own stupidity caused my phone to go dead for a week.
© Dean Borok 10.16.2012 RIP
No Rhyme or Reason
More life stories
Dean Borok 12.10.15
Just because the Republicans are indulging in their Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown does not mean that the Democrats still do not have time to step on their own dicks and mess up the election.
Shootout at OK Corral
Anybody who takes the intellectual approach to American presidential politics is a non-starter. The elephants' graveyard is littered with the bones of serious policy thinker
New Jersey Roast
When I think about Thanksgiving I think about the suburbs and, more specifically, I think about New Jersey. My mother’s family is in New Jersey, and I got slammed with a pretty strong dose of that place while I was still a kid.
Any Given Friday in New York
The workplace may not be an equitable standard for evaluating people’s character. I always killed myself to do the job, but it availed me little.