The following excerpt is from author Sally Franz’s novel Scrambled Leggs: A Snarky Tale of Hospital Hooey. The author has transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder of the central nervous system, and became paralyzed within 30 minutes of first feeling her symptoms. Her novel takes a humorous look at dealing with the unexplainable—and also takes some shots at her experiences with hospital care.
“IN THE NICK OF TIME”
There are people who are simply in the right place at the right time and there are people for whom, no matter where they go, time becomes the right time. I’m in the first group; the neurologist who checked in on me was in the second. Dr. Nick Mills approached my bed after reading my chart. I liked this guy already. He was prepared; he was eager to help. He could read. He even looked at me when he talked. (And not like he was sizing me up to figure out how many payments on his Jaguar I was worth.)
Dr. Mills brought out a stainless steel tuning fork and checked my ability to feel vibrations (all Beach Boys references aside). He looked into my eyes with that red light gizmo and then…he carefully unwrapped a extremely large safety pin.
“They issue you those diaper pins in medical school?” I asked. He smiled. Then he proceeded to poke me like a baked potato getting ready for the microwave.
“Can you feel this? This? This?”
He touched my face, “And this?”
And this?” He brushed my left cheek.
“No I can’t feel that.”
He frowned. I was enjoying the game, but decided to cut him a break.“I can’t feel anything there because I had a facelift four years ago,” I said. “And it’s still numb.” I could see the beads of sweat on his forehead retract back into his skin.
“Well,” he said. “You are my first patient up here at the ski resort because I’ve just retired. I have never seen a case of this directly, but I am going to test for Acute Transverse Myelitis. It’s a one-in-a-million condition.
“Let’s get an MRI on your spine, around the area where your sensation stops, and see what we can find.” (Here is another plus mark for Dr. Nick Mills: he didn’t ask me to “hop” off the mattress to go get the MRI. You notice things like that when you are paralyzed, powerless and presumably mute and invisible!)
It was nightfall on Sunday and the orderlies, who were no doubt vying for the cover of a Hospital Hotties Calendar, came to get me. The “kids” transferred me to a wheelchair and we headed off. Suddenly they pushed open the exit doors and I was thrust into what can only be described as a Tim-Burton-meets-the-Sugar-PlumFairy experience.
For no apparent reason, the MRI machine was in a semitrailer in the farthest corner of the hospital parking lot. The staff had chopped away a covering of ice—with the thickness of Lake Superior in January—to clear the path. Snow drifts loomed on either side above us. The night air was crisp, the stars bright. I inhaled; something was different. Oh yeah: no urine-puke-alcohol-latex glove smell. I sucked in as much good air as I could. But before I could hyperventilate, the chair did a gentle glissade down the narrow path, gaining the momentum of an Olympic bobsled.
Dudes, I’ll pass on the ol’ Mel Brooks wheelchairdown-the-stairs-and-across-the-parking-lot-into-oncoming-traffic-schtick! “Somebody stop me, please!”
The MRI workers sequestered in the semi-truck opened a side door four feet above my head. With a wisp of a hand on a computerized remote they sent a flat, steel lift careening down toward street level. The orderlies caught up with me just before I was about to become roadkill (or parking lot kill, anyway). The heavy, metal, two-inch-thick platform slammed to earth, hurling ice chunks into my hair.
I was freaked out, which triggered a “private vacation to the Bahamas” (also known as a “hot flash”). Undaunted, the orderlies grabbed my chair and tipped it up and over the ledge—which, I should mention, had landed the width of a dragonfly wing’s from my toes.
Someone motioned a “thumbs up”. We ascended the four feet at the same rate that JELL-O congeals. Every wiggling, jiggling movement stung more than bare-hugging a cactus trimmed with fiberglass. And it was cold. How cold was it? Ice cream could get freezer burn.
Add “wheelchairs on icy surfaces” to the list of things never to take rides in (along with: “ski patrol with toboggans”, “car with drunk friends”, and “ferris wheels after a jumbo hot dog mit sauerkraut with a cotton candy chaser”).
It was very crowded inside the trailer. There was one boy (and I do mean boy) behind my head and one facing me. On my right was the MRI table. “Can you move from the chair onto the table, ma’am?” I was asked.
And whoa. Aftershave smelling of a musty giant redwood forest ran up my nostrils just as cornflower blue eyes framed in the black eye lashes the length of butterfly wings batted near my cheek. Mercy me, I thought. If this guy leans any closer I’ll be in the cardiac unit.
Land ‘o Goshen, you are sweeter than apricot jam on buttered cinnamon toast. Did I mention that my mouth is watering just pretending I am two decades within your age range?
“No, I can’t use my legs at all,” I told him. “I can hang on with my arms, though.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then here’s what I will do. Let me lean down to you and embrace you completely.”
And then the rest is kinda fuzzy, but it sorta went like this:
“With my hand on the small of your back, let me pull you towards my chest.
Put your head on my shoulder, I’m strong, I’m trained, I’m ready.
I’ll do all the rest.
It will be safe, ma’am. All you have to do is hang on tight.
Once I have you against my body, I am going pick you up and lay you down.
Is that all right?”
Dang, if those aren’t lyrics for a Country Western Song, I’ll eat my (4X Beaver Stetson) hat! “Is that all right?” Nah, let’s go get a guy from the Grease-o-Rama trucker bar with peanut shell breath and a Grand Canyon butt crack. He can throw me fireman’s style over his shoulder and slam me onto that cold chunk of stainless steel…or we could do it your way.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. I went for a Mona Lisa smile, desperately trying to keep my lips from snapping up like window shades into a monkey grin. He leaned toward me, smelling of musky pine, and all I could hear was the Disney princesses humming in three-part harmony: “Some Day My Prince Will Come”.
Mesmerized by the hardest six-pack since somebody left the Coors out in the snow, I was transported from my wheelchair to Nirvana and, eventually, to the MRI table.
“You’re okay, now. You’re safe and sound,” said my savior. “Okay! You can let go of my neck…now.” And quicker than you can say “let’s get married”, he disappeared.
I blinked and found myself staring into the bland face of a middle-aged nurse who was clearly counting the number of days she had to work before retirement. She droned instructions in a nasal whine. Think of Roz’s voice in “Monsters, Inc.”:
“We have to roll you into a tube. You must stay very still. Is that clear?”
If I could kick, squirm or as much as wiggle a toe hair, (i.e. not stay still), this MRI would be a moot point, would it not? In fact, it would be a mute point, since we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
That is, if anyone cared to, for a whimsical fancy, read the blankey-blankey-blankey (fill in your own blanks if are an adult or a minor who has already been corrupted) chart!
“We will be talking to you through an intercom,” the woman said. “If you feel yourself panic, just talk to us.”
Then the bed I was resting on was sucked backwards into the open tube, like the tongue of a giant, man-eating plant. “Seymour, I’m hungry!”
The first thing you realize inside one of these tubes is that you can hear the MRI folks give orders and ask if you are okay, but you can’t really hear them talk to each other. It’s like when you’re at the hairdresser and she’s cutting your hair and she says, “Oops!” and you know you’re about to get a much shorter hair cut than you had planned.
But in the MRI, I couldn’t hear bubkis. There was no banter. No “Holy moly, that’s not good,” or “We better get the doc on the phone pronto,” or “Come here. What do you figure that black spot is?” Not even a simple “I’ve done this for forty-seven years and I’ve never seen that before.” No, you’re just shot into a tube of utter silence. Until…
ZAP, ZIPPY, TING, TING, TING.
An MRI machine can only be likened to a science-fiction spaceship transporter tube—granted, probably the garbage chute. The diameter of my tube was not much bigger than I was. Not a lot of room to, say, move a pinky—if I could.
I was 110 pounds, 5’2’ and there was barely enough room to pass through, pass gas or pass out. (Yes, I do understand that I am 110 pounds only on a planet from another solar system with different gravity.) The point is, this was a solo and lonely activity and, in these days of overpopulation, not much is ever that alone.
Yet, as soon as I was shut up in there I realized how happy the isolation made me—even though I couldn’t get out and the nurse was probably lying about taking me out if I panicked. The joy of being in my tube was that there was no one to interrupt my thoughts, hard as they were to string together while on drugs. I closed my eyes and could sense the scanner moving over my whole body. ZING, TIDDLY, ZING. PAT, PAT, ZONG, PONG. Ah, silence. Alone with my thoughts.
And just what were those altruistic, lofty thoughts? How to feed the world? End wars? Bring salvation to the lost? Cure cancer? Close.
Oh boy, oh boy, I thought. The next time it passes over me, I get to become a new person! Quick, who do I want to be? (This was a little like the opening to The Jetsons, in which Jane gets to pick a new hairstyle, or in Groundhog Day, except without character evolution.)
First pass, I could play the piano and sing. Next pass, I could add numbers in my head and do crossword puzzles. BIDDY BING…Men desired me, women wanted to be me. CLICK CLACK…Suzy Cheerleader from Ridgewood High School apologized to me and asked for my key to success. (Did I mention my five bestsellers and my Grammy for my hit song?) Pong-Bang-a-Bong.
I passed on the bigger-boobs wish, just in case I happened to get stuck in the tube. ZING. No crow’s feet. My smile lines stopped above my nostrils: just baby butt smoothness everywhere. ZIPPY ZAP, TIPPY TAP. No inner thighs.
“Are you all right in there?” came a call from outside.
Leave me alone. I am experimenting with Dr. Frankenschteen. Igore, push the nurse out into the cold and slam the dadgummit door!
“I’m fine,” I whispered. “It’s all good. Bye bye.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so relaxed for their first MRI,” came the voice again. “It’s hard to be in there all alone.”
I decided not to tell her how many people I can fit into my MRI cocoon. All my new selves were having so much fun I was disappointed when the procedure was over. Once back in the blue room with the two-dimensional mountain scene, I awaited Dr. Mills.
“Just as we suspected,” Dr. Mills said, “there is a line clear across your spinal column where the immune system attacked. To protect itself, your body reacted to the attack with swelling of the myelin sheath. Then the swelling bruised and pinched the nerves in your spine. The myelin is close in DNA to a virus. This is why you can’t walk.”
So what you’re saying is that I have Rocky Stallone leading my immune cells on a mission to kill and destroy viruses. But also that he’s wearing glasses as thick as Mr. Magoo’s.
I can hear it now:
“Yo, you guys see that?”
“Whadda ya think it is, Rocky?”
“Dunno. Maybe a virus. Hard to tell from here.”
“Let’s blast it. Can we, huh? Can we, Rocky?”
“Hey, whaz da worst dat can happen?”
“Let’s clear outta here, guys.”
(I have since learned that the inflammation that ‘whacked’ my nerves could have been an inside job, a migraine of the spinal fluid. I am not sure this possibility is more comforting than the notion of a Stallone-led outside attack. It’s a bit of a toss up: surveillance cameras in the parking lot versus the employee locker room. Is it the guy wearing the ski mask, or the guy selling the ski mask? Hey! Cheer up! Maybe it’s both: let’s not rule out a sting. Pun intended.)
The night nurse arrived with two more enemas. When it rains, it pours. “What are those for?” I asked. “I can’t feel anything, so I can’t push.”
“Oh, just because,” she said, doing a Texas two-step out the door (quick, quick, slow, slow, slow).
Just because? Just because you can charge thirty-five bucks a piece and you had extras in the supply room? I don’t care if I’ve had more opiates than a Marrakech hookah salesman, “Just because” is right up there with “because I said so.”
Lady, if I could kick, I’d so tae-bo your tailbone. But you know that, don’t you? I can tell the way you keep things just out of my reach.
As predicted, the enemas did nothing. I can see the report card on this one:
Sally is barely passing GI Track 101. Her grades are slipping in Muscle Response. She is not working to her full capacity. None of her parts plays well with the other bits.
By the next morning I had enough brain cells to remember my husband would be expecting me in the church parking lot, along with the other skiers, the next day. I had erroneously trusted the first intern with whom I’d spoken to send my urgent message to my hubby. The fact that I had not heard from my spouse was, I’d assumed, because I didn’t have a working cell phone and because my room had been moved several times. (Or, possibly, I had talked to him for hours but couldn’t quite recall it.)
I borrowed a cell phone to update my husband on my crisis and to alert him to the fact that I would be a smidge delayed. I wasn’t sure how to break it to him that his other-half was now his other one-quarter-or-less.
“Sweetie,” I told him over the phone, “did you get my message that I had a small problem on the ski hill and that the hospital kept me overnight for observation?”
“Well, you’re one tough cookie.” he said. “It’s probably just a sprain.”
You know when you have sugar-coated something way past a dusting of confectioner’s sugar right over to rockcandy when people can’t pick up on your clues. It was time to fish—the “cut bait” window had closed.
“Okay,” I said. “Sit down. I am paralyzed from the waist down. I can only be moved if I have three medics with me at all times.”
“I’m on my way.”
“It will take you eight hours and they want to discharge me in four.”
“What can I do?”
“Call our doctor and see if he can admit me to our local hospital.” I didn’t think it wise to explain how dense the staff were at my present location.
As if on cue, Dr. Mills cleared his throat and entered from the hallway. “Your case is too complex for the doctors here,” he told me. “You need specific help.”
The doctors from the local staff all stood behind him, nodding. Hands folded. I suppressed a smirk. The scene looked like a kung fu movie scene in which men in robes and long braids all nod and agree with the head warlord. If they stood in any tighter of a formation I could’ve bowled them over with my bedpan.
“Okay,” I said. “How bad is it?”
Oh, not good.
“Ah, silence. Alone with my thoughts.”
As shallow as my thoughts were while I was on drugs and in the MRI tube, upon reflection I had to admit that I don’t spend much time with myself. I’m out of practice. This was a strange realization because I used to spend hours alone as a child. Whether eating wild blackberries or wading in a brook, I was often alone and experiencing the world. I loved it then, so I am going to try more of it now. I say, why not have a playdate with yourself, doing what you loved to do when you were little: fishing, skipping stones, coloring, or building stuff?