Part 05. Pleasant Overweight White Male
Amanda Maxey was my first female physician, an orthopedist.
On Christmas Eve 2006, I was sweeping leaves off the roof when my ladder gave way and I fell to the deck below. I missed hitting my head on the barbecue by an inch at most, so I felt lucky to have only shattered my leg and not scrambled my brains. It caused years of pain and inconvenience — including six months in a wheelchair, but it was better than living in a persistent vegetative state.
The pins Doctor Maxey inserted into my shattered leg spelled out the letter F. This is the reason my employer, the University of Florida, won the national championship in football in 2006.
I was sent to Doctor Maxey and she changed my perception of doctors. Because of growing up in a medical household, I’d always tried to be efficient during medical appointments. I remembered telling a physician once, right after I described a rash, that I was allergic to erythromycin. He bobbed his head, but was obviously off in his own world.
“Well,” he said, “we can knock this out with erythromycin.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe this lummox. “Perhaps you weren’t listening,” I said, in full asshole mode.
Doctor Maxey was different. She listened. She was compassionate. She understood how difficult it was going to be for me to be in a wheelchair and navigate my life.
We went through three and half (big toenail removal) surgeries in four years, and I always felt I was a person to her, not just a chart.
So when I moved to Massachusetts, still hobbling in a boot cast after my last leg surgery, I decided to sign on with Doctor Alisa Freed in the family practice in our little town. She attended Radcliffe and graduated from Harvard and did med school at Rutger’s.
One of the things I liked was how she busted my chops. It wasn’t quite like the abuse-with-love of male bonding, but she tried to get me to acknowledge that some of my illness might be cured with greater activity. “You know, you could exercise,” she told me once. “It wouldn’t kill you.”
My brother always said I was a hypochondriac, and looking back on my visits with Doctor Freed, I must’ve seemed like one to her.
For several years, I’d had severe pain in my forearms, my biceps, my hands and a few other places. At first, we thought it was carpal tunnel, but nothing changed after I had that surgery.
Was it Lyme disease? Nobody knew. We were in Florida then and nobody seemed to know anything about it. There was one specialist in Orlando, two hours away, but I never got around to seeing him.
Was it fibromyalgia? I thought it might be lupus. After a while, I began to think it was Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Doctor Freed was game to run tests, but she was pretty frank about what she thought was my problem. “You need to exercise more,” she said. “You’re stiff from inactivity and that’s what hurts.”
After a year, she left the practice to do a fellowship in New Zealand, but instead of getting another physician, I decided to continue with my parade of female health-care providers and started seeing Hannah Armstrong, a young nurse practitioner in the same family practice.
Again: she was a good, compassionate listener and kept me focused on my blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. She also understood another health mystery of mine.
When it was diagnosed in Florida, it was called Tsietse Syndrome. I’d feel a tightening in my chest, similar to heart-attack pain, and it would nearly incapacitate me. When it was diagnosed, years ago, they said it was a reaction to stress. Take a couple of ibuprofen and you’ll be all right.
And I usually was. But I thought: If this is just a simulation of heart-attack pain then how am I going to know when I’m having a real heart attack?
It was so bad once that during my last year in Florida, Nicole took me to the emergency room. The ER doc started talking about inserting a catheter up through my groin and into my heart.
“But it’s not a heart attack,” I told him. “It’s that Tsietse thing. Despite my girth, my heart’s in good health.”
“I never heard of this Tsietse thing,” he said, “and I’m not going to let you out of here until I’m satisfied your heart’s all right.”
He left and I pondered my fate. This catheter — was he going to run it up my flagpole all the way into my heart? And if so, how many hundreds of fucking ways would that hurt?
I saw that he set my chart down on the table beside me, and so I grabbed it and opened it to see what he’d written.
“Pleasant overweight white male ….” I don’t remember what came next. I saw that and thought, Is that what I am?
I thought for a moment, then supposed there were worse things to be.
Even though that incident was not long after I’d recovered from shattering my leg, I performed a full-blown stress test, treadmill-jogging and all, to prove to the ER doc that my heart was fine. He released me and told me to stock up on ibuprofen.
I didn’t have too many Tsietse incidents after leaving Florida — it was probably the stress of that job that caused it — but when it would flare up occasionally, I knew what to do.
Then came that morning in 2012: I was taking the kids to an appointment in the family-practice building — getting a health check on Savannah to clear her for cheerleading, picking up some forms for the boys — when I thought it might be a good idea to go ask Hannah Armstrong to check on my heart. I was having pain and just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a heart attack. I told the kids to stay put while I ran up to my doctor’s office for a few minutes.
Alas, Hannah was off that day. She would have understood, but her male colleague freaked out and said he would not let me leave the building unless it was in an ambulance.
The kids saw me carried into the ambulance and our sitter was panicking.
“It’s OK,” I said to the kids. “It’s just this thing I have.”
Savannah’s main concern was that it was her sixteenth birthday and I was supposed to take her to get her learner’s permit. Nicole was in Maine, doing one of her periodic residencies at midwifery school. Her old pal, Brandi, had moved in for a month to do sitter duties.
The EMT’s were strapping me in and hooking me up to fluids, but a couple of them were intently flirting with Brandi. Keep those priorities straight, boys, I thought.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I kept saying to the kids, standing outside the back of the ambulance. “Don’t worry. Daddy’s going to be all right.”
Sort-of all right, I guess.
After two days in the hospital, I learned it was an acute hypertensive episode. It wasn’t a heart attack; it just felt like one. Still, it could have killed me. My blood pressure was like the Hindenburg just before the explosion. Great, I thought. That’s the last thing I need: another way to die.