"Spring is here. Why doesn't my heart go dancing?"
"Spring is here. Why doesn't my heart go dancing?" asked Lorenz Hart, the poet of Broadway. It seems that my heart is dancing all too erratically these days -- in the style of Buddy Rich, Joe Morello and Olatunji. Drummers of passion and their wild, unconventional meter. No more I will ever underestimate that solid 4/4 beat, a la Ringo Starr -- it is so reassuring. Little did I know I would spend much of the winter racing in my own medical Iditarod. Traipsing through the snow behind a team of huskies was one of the faraway thoughts I entertained while recently sequestered in St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco for seven days.
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"We wondered why you kept shouting, 'Mush! Mush!' in your sleep," the overnight nurse chuckled.
I could have been ordering breakfast. With non-fat milk, of course. Mush suggests pablum -- more like a literary criticism -- or gruel, the ne'er-do-well cousin to oatmeal that Charles Dickens forged as a symbol of poverty, abuse and misery.
Seven days in the hospital! Gee whiz, I went in for a simple chest X-ray. They wouldn't let me leave. If I weren't for Cow Hollow's Dr. Harvey Caplan, I would not have been convinced to get that chest X-ray. Little did I know I was tickling the dragon's tail.
Little did I know that getting sick can be a full-time job.
"This is a big deal," announced the ER doc as they stripped me of my civilian clothes. They call the condition atrial fibrillation -- a dangerous, irregular heartbeat that for months I unwisely and erroneously attributed to flu, bronchitis etc. It caused some blood clots in the heart, fluid on the lung and serious difficulty in breathing. They considered stopping my heart electrically, then resetting it, but the blood clots will have to clear up first. Meanwhile I have to hope they'll stay where they are. "You are at an elevated risk for a stroke," a grave-looking doctor averred. Later for the jumper cables.
"I got arrythmia, I got music. I got my gal. Who could ask for anything more?"
The hospital gave me a private room. And cable TV, which is a novelty for me. I watched it for hours and hours. And for hours and hours, it's "Law & Order" and "Law & Order" and more "Law & Order." After a week of relentless "Law & Order," I feel fairly confident that I'm ready to take a shot at the New York bar exam.
But, listen, I'm better now. I'm breathing, but not up to max. I am making headway on the hills again, slowly. I'm carrying the Mac around again. Even turning on the power occasionally and writing on it. I also take nine or ten pills a day and will likely do so for a long time to come. The beta-blockers tend to run me in slow motion. Plus a low-down-no-salt-no-fat-no-meat-no-cheese-no-alcohol-no-trans-fats-no-innards-no-outtards-no-marbelized-marvels-of-the-sirloin-set-no-hooves-no-snouts-no-foreskins-no-leafy-greens-no-nothing-no-nonsense diet. Some people actually choose this regimen on their own, if you can believe that. Spinach and all leafy green veggies are prohibited. No bok choy in Mudville. I even like Brussel sprouts, if you can believe that. But now I know they will kill me. I can hear my mother's voice: "Eat your Brussel sprouts. They won't kill you." They will thicken my blood, if you can believe that. That could kill me. I must avoid the nefarious, blood-curdling Vitamin K. No more early morning grazing in Alta Plaza Park for me.
"Everything that your parents said was good for you," observed Woody Allen, "turns out to be bad for you. Milk, red meat, college." Wait a minute. Did the doctor say, "No alcohol"? You sure?
My friend, Dr. Dean Ornish, recommends fish oil. Lots of it. Roll out the barrels. Even OPEC is impressed. Fish oil is more expensive than that light, sweet crude we hear so much about these days. I wonder. If you poured fish oil into your car's engine, would it automatically head to the beach? Come to think of it, some of my favorite people are sweet and crude. Tenderness means a lot to me these days. For years, Dr. Dean has asked me, "Bruce, how's your heart?" I don't think he was restricting the topic to atria and ventricles. The heart can be a palpitating yet persistent hunter.
"If I we're a pessimist," intones one doctor, "I'd say you'll be on blood thinners and beta-blockers in perpetuity. If I we're an optimist, I'd say indefinitely." He must be a comedy writer for Savonarola. Dr. Albert Lee, the heart specialist at St. Francis, brought his own brand of crepe to hang: "If you don't do what we say, it's a heart transplant or death for you." Cheery fellow. But Dr. Lee, like all the folks I met at St. Francis, is a compassionate, dedicated healer. He even came in on the weekends to check on me. He has to use tough language to get through this "patient from hell" -- as I was once described. I seem to wear denial and dismissiveness on the sleeve of my hospital gown.
Here I am, banging on the computer in the cafeteria of San Francisco General Hospital where the reviews of the kitchen are mixed but the clientele's performance remains engaging. There is a bedraggled woman going from table to table, hustling spare change. This, I imagine, has replaced what's left of MediCal. Some disaffected denizens here mutter angrily to themselves then explode into a volcanic stream of racist invective until security finally shows up and puts the kabosh on the melee of the minute. Then the participants are simply forgotten to death. John Prine comes to mind: "A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down --- and won."
Later, there's one noisy donnybrook by the first-floor elevators. I half expected a couple of game wardens to fire their tranquilizers darts at the two overheated perpetrators. All symptomatic, as the great Paddy Chayevsky wrote in The Hospital, of "the whole wounded madhouse of our times."
Back to the wizard of blood thinners to get the results of the day's copious hemo drain. Ran into a pretty young doctor at the cash register who told me that for the patient, the Coumadin Clinic (purveyors and protectors of anti-coagulants) is "lots of work and requires plenty of vigilance." Some avocation for this meandering boulevardier who tends to measure life through the length of city blocks -- not milligrams.
I have been assigned an internist at yet another clinic in the Castro. It's all part of my new epidemiological travelogue throughout San Francisco. And the ennui that goes with the excursion. To die in Provence sounds far more appealing. The doctor at the SFGH clinic maintained a less-than-sanguine tone the other day. Almost elegaic. Mournful. I managed to get there at 6:30 a.m. and oiled out in a breezy five-and-a-half hours. Yes, being sick has become a full-time job. And the hours are lousy. But the stakes are high. The night before, The Black Dog (Churchill's nickname for his life-long bouts of depression) deliriously kept up his restless and relentless pacing with his claws clattering across the hardwood floors.
Another day -- and they have become a bit blurry. I have been with yet another medical person. Mimi, the nurse practitioner (and heroine of "La Boheme"), was very nice to me. She gave me drugs. I am so easily pleased. She slid the prescription slowly and deliberately across the table to my fingertips. She wet her lips. Well, maybe she wet her lips. All right. All right. She most certainly did not wet her lips. You can see I am making such an effort to make the clinical appear lascivious. And Act One is dying.
Mimi is also trying to lower the beta-blocker intake -- gradually. I screwed up the courage to ask her about the wisdom in mixing Coumadin with Viagra. She looked it up on her Palm Pilot. The only thing I'd worry about is your low blood pressure, says she. Would Rudolfo discuss such things with Mimi? Not in Act One. No, siree. Yesterday, the SFGH doctor increased the thinners. This is the Dance of the Dosage. I do appreciate how powerful these drugs are. I'm a little afraid of them. Funny. I was never daunted by a tumbler of tequila in front of me.
I am still amazed by how good the music is here at Starbucks in the Theater District. Remarkably good taste and non-fat milk, too. (But dairy had to go, too. I've adopted the vegan life. Which inspires the rhetorical question, "Would you rather have a Bulgarian feta or a fetid Bulgarian.?" A choice that hardly leaves one inspired.)
I confess. I have had impure thoughts. No, not about Bulgarians.
Without even an effort at restraint, I leered unapologetically at the sign at the cafe on Taylor Street moments ago: "Steak & Eggs $6.95." The image brings visceral, carnal notions. But, as an entree, it's an offering as remote to me as my long-awaited invitation to a luau on Krakatoa from the Polynesian Grass Skirt Society, written in the warm, personal hand of Uma Thurman.
Ah, but let's face it: There is always Dusty Springfield singing on the house system about the son of a preacher man. There's a passion in her piety as she tumbles through the hay. I am so easily pleased. I would like to hear a radio station where the announcer reads only from the Book of Revelation. With a laugh track.
Get this: I had a dream last night (or this a.m) where I was leading a mandolin orchestra and we we're hashing out one of my songs, "Basura" (which means "garbage"), but someone kept insisting on Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight." Oddly, at an art gallery next door to this Starbucks, I just noticed the current show features photos by Pattie Boyd, the Carnaby Street gal who captivated any number of Brit rock stars and inspired (according to the sign in the window) George Harrison's "Something" and Eric's "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight." Just another coincidence, I suppose.
I notice more coincidences lately --- or maybe I'm just paying attention a little more often.
Believe it or not, I am anticipating a phone call from an elderly man who wants to guide me into the rolling hills of the California countryside for a day or two to get me out of the city, er, The City. (It's Harold, the father of my priest friend, Father William. Yes, he's the father of the Father.) This anticipated journey evokes that image of the medieval knight of the Crusades dutifully following the hooded, black-shrouded figure of Death up the coastal hills in the Ingmar Bergman film, "The Seventh Seal."
I might be back by the weekend. Maybe. I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Bergman.
Here's my crucial, breathless line, "Hey, wait for me, Harold!"
No matter. This only shows I don't have to go through this all alone. I'm in good hands. It's just a new adventure. Besides, all those great drummers who have been duty-bound to the off-beats and syncopation amid the rhythm of life remind me there is a lot of listening and playing left to do.
Meanwhile I have decided to name my first-born daughter Lorazepam.
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