Last Friday I was wrapping up my last day as the editor on Shootout. Five years, and 180 episodes, and I’d never missed a single one. They had hidden a cake with GOOD LUCK, BILL! for my surprise going-away party.
Just before noon I felt a little . . . something. Five minutes later it felt like someone had punched me in the left kidney — hard. I went back to the edit bay to lie down for a moment. Things got a little better, then worse, then much worse. And then someone said they were going to drive me to the hospital.
The Hospital. No health insurance. Why? A preexisting surgery made me tough to insure, but the fact is, I had gotten away with it yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. So I was trusting to luck for a while. And I had been lucky — for a while.
Next thing I know I’m bent over in the hallway, waiting for the car to come around — hands on my knees like I’d run a marathon. And then — BAM! I’m kneeling in front of the couch, arms wrapped around the cushion, making sounds like frying grease . . . little pops and grunts and hisses. Ten minutes in and I was beneath language already.
The only thing I remember about the drive to the hospital was that it was slow. I scratched my name on some forms, left my clothes on the bathroom floor after getting undressed, and didn’t give one sweet damn about any of that gown nonsense. I staggered out just holding the thing on. Because by now, my friends, my world was just a white-hot blinding light — all around me, the entire room was just bathed in that wall of pain and the only thing I cared about was getting that shot.
Little problem, here, however: They didn’t actually keep the pain medicine in the same place as the actual people having the actual pain. No, that had to be signed out of the pharmacy. The nurse made a call, a guy said he’d bring it down “as soon as he could” and that meant about another 25 minutes before Nurse Kessie — bless her — decided it was taking too long and went up to get it herself.
It took me about an hour to get the first shot of Demerol . . . which did absolutely nothing. It took another hour for me to discover it wasn’t working, tough it out for a while so I didn’t look like a complete baby, then ask for another shot, get it delivered, and injected.
See, on one level, I felt I somehow owed to my ancestors not to wail and scream and beg for something that they had no hope of obtaining. It offended me to have to ask for a second shot. I felt like I was weaseling out of a debt I had owed for a long time and had just now been called to make a downpayment on.
But the fact is, after two hours of this I was screaming and cursing and calling out to God and Jesus and whoever else would listen. And all that second Demerol shot did was take that bright light down from filling the room to being a single, white-hot spot the size of my fist moving down and to the right at the speed of L.A. traffic. So after three hours of this, I was reduced to simply mewling, and at about 3:30 P.M., the doctor went away for 15 minutes and when he came back he gave me a shot of Dilaudid, which is the name I will give to my first child, male or female.
I’d been in serious pain only once before, about 20 years ago, when I cracked a molar that lit into the nerve that runs through your jaw. That put me on the floor, too — right quick. That was a toothache I felt in my hip. And the thing I remember about that time and on Friday too, was a sense that when you are in that universe of pain for three or four hours there simply is no other side to it. You can’t remember, and you can’t imagine, what it would feel like not to hurt.
So imagine my delight, ten minutes later, to see the hallway door melt away as room was filled with unicorns! Little cartoon unicorns, each with a silky mane of bright blue or green or pink . . . and when they giggled — which was continuously — they would lift up their little tails and rainbows would emerge. And in that one wonderful moment as my eyes rolled back and the white-hot light faded away and vanished — in that blissful instant I suddenly understood with perfect clarity the whole Hope and Change thing. I had gone from the horrible, nasty, mean Republican America to the other America. And it’s a much better place, it really is.
It had been almost fours hours since they called for the renal ultrasound guy to try to find this jagged little bastard. It would be another hour before he finally arrived, but the fact is once the Dilaudid got going I didn’t much care if the guy didn’t come till after Christmas. I could have waited right there for ever. When he finally did come, he was an Iranian ex-pat — very serious, but very competent at reading what looks like shadows cast on the bottom of a murky fish tank. No stone. Gone. It disappeared unnoticed down the catheter, which I will spare you the description of, other than to say it was a pre-war Bulgarian design, and was the diameter of a common garden hose.
Also, I’m not pregnant.
Anyway, that’s the story. Here’s the moral, or two, or three.
Do you want to know what my honest-to-God first thought was when the pain got manageable enough to be able to hold a thought? I tell you: I thought of John McCain. And I’ll tell you what hit me the hardest: not his pain lasted for five years when mine lasted for four hours. But to add to that raw fear, lying in filth and knowing that those footsteps in the hall would bring not relief but more pain . . . my God! When I think about those men on those fields from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, lying there for hours, awaiting rescue and relief that often simply never came . . . I end up — and I don’t expect any of you to actually believe this — I end up grateful for those few hours.
Here was my second thought: I would like to kiss the hand of those evil, greedy, horrible KKKorporations that made and tested Demerol and Dilaudid and the ultrasound sensor and clean needles and sterile IV bags and all the rest of it. I know they’re the villains of courtroom novels and Michael Moore movies and thus are wicked, greedy, soulless Nazis — but if I met a single one of them I would kiss their hands and feet in gratitude. And it did not elude me, when that blinding light finally went out and I felt good again, that my Moral Superiors who protest and vilify these companies at every turn have not — in point of fact — ever done a single thing to relieve my pain or anyone else’s. Nor could any of those murdering, Seventh-century barbarians we are fighting do so much as carve a block of wood to look like that ultrasound sensor. No, pain has been here forever, and when you strip all the plasma TV’s and jet travel and iPhones away you are left with the brass tacks: It takes civilization to remove pain, and Western Civilization to actually fix what’s causing it, more often than not. And that is another thing I try never to forget. And I had a final thought . . .
I’ll not only admit I don’t know anything about this financial mess . . . I’ll swear to it. All I hear is some people muttering that a few nights ago, the Angel of Death passed over the land and would have slain us all if a few priests had not, at the last minute, run out and splashed red ink around the doorways of our homes.
My dad suffered from kidney stones his whole life. When I was very young, in the mid-sixties, he would be gone for ten days and return with a scar that ran from near his navel, around almost to his spine: a nine-inch incision, a quarter-inch wide, and with little white dots marking where he had been sewn up with football laces, apparently. It was like he had been operated on with an axe. He suffered horribly. And yet, the only time I ever saw that man cry was when he talked about the Depression, and how it felt to watch your neighbors eat out of garbage cans.
I don’t want that experience. Just about any remedy, no matter how horrible, would be better than that. But I have re-negotiated my new job to include health insurance. Why today and not three years ago? Because I just came through a world of hurt. I don’t ever want to go through that again.
And this is my concern about the $700 billion kidney stone the economy is trying to pass. It seems to me that if we are going to change behaviors then the people who got us into this mess need to feel a little pain. If the hospital was handing out free Dilaudid every day my first question would be “what time do you guys open?” I’d pass 50 kidney stones a day if I could get to play with the unicorns instead of suffering for it.
Every decision we make is based on a risk/reward calculation. If we take away the consequences of risky behavior, we will see more of it. And if there’s a money-back guarantee for greedy and stupid decisions, we’re in real trouble, because there is only so much money in the bank but supplies of greed and stupidity are endless.
So how do we inflict some badly-needed pain on people who need to feel it, without hurting the rest of the good and honest folks who pay their bills responsibility? Well, there are three simple rules that we must follow. Unfortunately, no one knows what those three rules are. So here we are. I’m as flummoxed as the rest of you.
I will say this, though: half way through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had a plan to buy the slaves. He would give the south a chance to end the war early by compensating them — with Northern cash — for the market value of the slaves that they held. It was a monstrous sum, but he thought it was necessary. So he wrote: “Certainly it is not so easy to pay something as to pay nothing; but it is easier to pay a large sum than it is to pay a larger one. And it is easier to pay any sum when we are able, than it is to pay before we are able.”
My own irresponsibility got me looking at 50 years of age without health insurance. I’m going to owe that hospital about two grand for this adventure. If you think I won’t miss that two grand, then you have over-estimated the financial value of internet punditry. But it’s my obligation; it’s my debt. I owe it and I’ll pay it, and I’ll try to remain focused on the fact that it could have been much, much worse. It was only that pain that got me to change my ways.
Is that too much to ask of this mess? That from whatever pain we have to endure, we can perhaps learn enough from it so that we don’t go through this again?
– Bill Whittle lives and works in Los Angeles.