By the time you read this, I will have finally put an end to the pain that has plagued me for the past two years . . . unless things didn’t go as planned. In which case, I’ll be worse off than before. No, I’m not offing myself. But I will have had knee surgery. What’s the big deal, you ask? Knee surgery is minor surgery, you scoff? Maybe. But simply getting to the surgery for me was a very big deal because healthcare isn’t health care. It’s a series of flaming hoops sets up to burn you alive . . . or at least brown your buns.
Two months ago . . .
Four days after one of my closest friends (the music director at my church) died of a sudden heart attack, I ascended a flight of stairs to deliver a handwritten note of encouragement and support to the now acting music director.
My knee chose that moment to prove that the adage no good deed goes unpunished holds even in churches on Sunday mornings, by blowing out. The pain was sharp and sure — much like the feeling you’d get if you were to unknowingly step on a push pin, Lego, or something otherwise benign until its full lethal potential is unleashed — and accompanied by an audible “pop.” But then again, it could’ve just been the sensation of something breaking free inside my knee. I can’t be too sure as I was trying to steady myself and not fall through the nearby stained-glass window.
After successfully delivering my note, I hobbled to my pew — yes, my pew — but without participating in the kneeling portion of the ritual Sunday morning church service calisthenics. You see, every pew in every Episcopal church belongs to someone or several someones. If you’ve visited one of our churches and ventured to sit in the promised land of the first seven pews, you’ve undoubtedly been given the stink eye. Episcopalians are creatures of habit, plain and simple. We claim ownership of our pews with the same sense of vigor — as if we had felled, hewn, built, polished, and upholstered said pew with our own two hands from our personal forest for use in our own church — by virtue of plopping our cheeks on any pew three times or more.
The first thing the following morning, I telephoned Bones, my orthopedist (no, that’s not his real name, but it’s certainly applicable for his profession; tall guy, has got to be like six-feet-four-inches tall and wears the coolest sneakers), to get an appointment with him post-haste because you know . . . with the whole push pin sensation liable to take place at the most inopportune moment and all. And yes, I have a dedicated orthopedist. And I’ve had dedicated orthopedists probably since shortly after my birth. Thanks to living with spondoepiphyseal dysplasia, having a good orthopedist is a very good idea. What can I say? Membership has its privileges. So you’d think getting an appointment would be no problem, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.
During my last appointment with Bones, he suspected I’d be back in to see him sooner than later, so he cautioned me, “If anything happens, come in and see me right away.” He’s a southern doctor, like my first orthopedist who recently turned ninety this year and is still out playing golf, so his slight southern drawl seemed a bit comforting.
Then reality set in and I gave Dr. Bones a side-eye that would have left a giraffe limping. Apparently, the good doctor never tried to book an appointment with his office. “And how am I supposed to do that?”
“Just tell the girls at the front I said to get you in as soon as possible.”
Flaming Hoop № 1
I left a series of messages, each one more desperate sounding than the one before. The next morning, on Tuesday, someone from the office returned my call. At the end of the day. Why? Because the women behind the phones, for the most part, love to put the screws to people who are already dealing with real pain. “Dr. Bones is going on vacation Thursday. And he’s book solid today and tomorrow. We can get you in in two weeks.”
Two weeks?! I could be dead from the pain then! I thought.
“Maybe you can swing by tomorrow to see if he can work you in.”
“Great—that sounds like a plan!”
“But . . . you need to have authorization from your primary care doctor.”
Turns out, I was out of visits authorized by my primary care physician. It was around 3:45 in the afternoon. Of course, I called the office, got put on hold three times, got lost in the queue, and my call was dropped twice. I finally got a live person, the right person at 4:10 and she told me:
“I’ll be more than happy to fax it over, but I have to get authorization from the insurance company.”
“Great. I’ll be right over.” I ended the call. No way was I going to trust them. They’d already screwed up so much that I don’t even have time to think about trying to figure out where to begin recounting that web of fiascos. And that’s a-whole-nother episode in the three-ring circus that is my life.
By 4:15 p.m., I was in my car careening through rush hour traffic to get the primary care doctor’s office for the authorization I needed. I was not about to be denied. I ran in. (Yes, with a bum knee.)
“Oh, hi! I just faxed it to them.”
“Thank you for doing that. Could I have a copy of the authorization to take with me.”
And you know as well as I do that if I hadn’t driven my butt down to that office to pick up those papers, I would’ve shown up and some hijinx would’ve taken place. But don’t think for a moment that the authorization I held in my hand like a golden ticket was anything of the sort.
Flaming Hoop № 2
It was Wednesday, the last day that Bones was in his office before leaving vacation. And I didn’t have an appointment to see him, but I did arrive at his office at the butt crack of dawn to be the first patient in his office. I walked in — there were two other patients in the waiting room; number three’s not bad, I can work with being third—and strolled up to the receptionist’s window.
This perky little miss was seated at her computer terminal engrossed in work. And I understood the likelihood was quite high that as a receptionist Missy probably had other duties to perform in addition to receiving patients, so I waited a minute or two. Keep in mind that entrance door was one of those loud and squeaky doors with hinges that’d been oiled since the day the place was built, so I’m sure she heard me when I came in. And maybe she didn’t see the tippy top of my baseball cap clad head peeking over the top of the counter.
“Hi, there,” I said politely, knowing full well that I needed a favor from the woman serving as the gatekeeper between me and Bones. “Clay Rivers. I called yesterday about seeing Bones before he leaves on vacation.”
And she spun around and snapped, “Do you have your authorization? If you don’t have it you can not see him.” A crocodile snapping would have been less intimidating.
She obviously didn’t know who she was speaking to. So I let her have it. All of it. “You’re not a very nice woman. You’re not nice at all. There’s no need for you to address me like that. Do you think I’d coming in here looking for services without the proper authorization?”
She looked like I struck her in the face with a brick. And then she got defensive. “A lot of people come in here and try . . . ”
“Well, I’m not them. Here is my authorization, please tell Bones that Clay Rivers is here to see him, as he requested.”
A millisecond passed where I’m sure she thought I was going jump over that service counter. If she had jerked me around one second more, I just might have.
“Have a seat, please.”
Ten minutes later, Little Miss Sunshine informs me, “Bones will see you in a few minutes.”
(I have to cut the long-awaited appointment with Bones short because there’s one more flaming hoop I need to walk you through.) Bones checks out my knee and because there’s no water on my knee that means no “serious” damage has been done, as in nothing’s torn. But he can’t tell for sure. He warns me that I’m definitely going to need a knee replacement [cue ominous music], but not today. So he orders up an arthrogram: an MRI in which a dye is injected into the scan area. “And I’m not sure the smallest knee they have is going to fit you.”
Just so you know, the idea of knee replacement doesn’t not thrill me in the least. Not even a little bit. I’d like very much to leave this world with all my original, factory-issued parts in tact, thank you. No upgrades, no recalls, no replacement parts. When doctors start talking about sawing off bones and stuff, that’s where I check out. What if it’s too long? Or too short? Yes, doctors have performed thousands, if not millions, of knee replacements during my lifetime, but no one’s performed on me. You can’t undo that.
And then he mentions how it may have to be a custom knee.
Oh, really? A custom made knee for a one in 100,000 type of body? Why would anyone expect me to be able to use generic body parts when the only ready-to-wear clothes that fit me are underwear, socks, and certain oversized flannel shirts (because you know, I have this thing for flannel). “And when will that happen? Three to six months from now?”
“Oh, no. If it’s really bad. You can have a new knee by Christmas.”
I’m sure was somewhere between my eyes growing as large as saucers and my head exploding.
“Well, get that guy on the phone and tell ’em to start casting the mold. I don’t want to be caught hobbling around waiting for some $6 million knee to arrive.”
Flaming Hoop № 3
The Arthrogram. They said wear loose-fitting shorts. I wore an old pair of basketball shorts. Roomy. Very roomy. And so long that they come more than halfway down my shin. I never took them in for alterations because they are the original “fat pants.” They’re that roomy.
Once I finished the paperwork, a pleasant nurse escorted to a locker room and gave me a pair of paper shorts large enough to fit any human being. I put them on and they looked ridiculous. They looked like culottes. Any shred of dignity was left inside that locker as I followed the nurse up the hall to the dye room.
I was laying on my back chitchatting with the nurse, a different nurse. She slid a bolster pillow under my leg.
“Dr. Hipster will be in a few minutes.” No, that wasn’t his name either, but you have an image of him now.
Dr. Hipster made his entrance. Red hair, pleasant, not cocky. A doctor. Cool even.
So I’m wearing my affable mask and talking with the doctor about all sorts of stuff. Where are you from originally? How long have you been here? Turns out he moved to Orlando about the same time I moved back from Los Angeles, the summer three hurricanes hit central Florida. I yammered on about any and everything to keep my mind off the needle he’s going to be jamming into my knee.
And then he describes what’s going to happen. Great.
“First I’ll numb the area, and then get the dye inside your knee sac . . . ”
If you haven’t guessed by now. I have a vivid imagination. My mind drifted off to a scene with me wailing in agony kicking the doctor in the torso, him maintaining a death grip on the syringe like a pop star holds onto a microphone, the needle breaking off in my knee while a steady stream of my blood splatters the pristine cream-colored room. Something out of “Carrie.”
“ . . . and try not to tense up, because that makes it tougher for the needle to get into the tissue.”
“I don’t see any tequila. No salt. No limes. What kind of joint are you guys running here? I thought you guys were my friends.”
They appreciated my attempt at humor.
“First there’s the lidocaine. You’re going to feel a little pin prick.” They rubbed an antiseptic or whatever they use to clean skin, then squeezed of some skin around my knee.
“That’s not so bad.”
“We haven’t done it yet.”
Of course, they haven’t. Torturers.
“Now just exhale.”
“Yeah, that was it. Just relax.”
I went to my happy place. And no I’m not telling you where it is because I don’t want to see you there crowding the space next time I need to go there. And then there was a kind of a warmth followed by numbness took over. It was like my knee felt as if it was disappearing in a counter-clockwise direction.
“And we’re still numbing it. You doing okay?”
“Mm-hm. But tequila would make this a whole lot better though.”
About a minute later . . . “All done.”
“That wasn’t so bad, doc.”
“I told you it wouldn’t be. Now we’re going to inject the dye.”
“Wait. What? That wasn’t it? There’s more?” I’m thinking. Flag on the play! Delay of game! You people took too long. I’m outta here.
No chance of that happening, not while I was wearing Shaquille O’Neal’s basketball shorts. Add to that a dead knee. I’d probably fall before I reached the door.
So Hipster doc is feeling around my cherubic right knee, wincing, studying it, I turn away.
Then I feel it.
Thick and viscous, like Ma Cratchett’s figgy pudding. Filling up whatever the hell my knee sack is/was. You guys, I felt like my skin was a surgical glove being stretched to maximum density with glue and a rupture due any second.
A few moments later . . .
“Okay, I’m done. That’s enough.”
“You’re killing me here, doc! I’m done.” At that point, I felt my body start to squirm to escape. You know how some babies try to flee the arms of their parents when they meet their first Disney character. Of course, most of you don’t. Well let me tell you, it’s the funniest dang thing in the world. Their baby faces become awash in terror and all they want to do is run.They’re all legs and arms, and screams crawling to get out of their parents’ arms. It’s a sight to behold. That was me. I probably moved half an inch.
“Okay, okay. Let me massage the dye around to make sure it gets everywhere.” And he start massaging my knee. I suppose that’s what he did. I didn’t feel a thing because of all dye I had in there. I swear to you, I thought an alien was about to emerge from my knee. Acid blood, fangs, and slime. All I needed was for Sigourney Weaver to burst into the room to rescue me.
Trust me. If someone suggests you get an arthrogram, just tell them to cut the body part off.
And there’s still the actual surgery itself. I’ll try and get that out later this week. Stay tuned. I don’t experience drama that often, but when I do, it makes up for lost time.
Love one another.