For me, our brief stop in Las Vegas was my own version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, only with one added element: The Reaffirmation.
We hit Vegas with a bit of a headwind luffing our sails, as the stomach scourge I’d been battling since New Mexico finally overruled my better intentions and forced me from the Strip and casinos to the confines of our hotel, and finally to the ER of the local hospital.
I woke Gabi around 1 a.m. to tell her I was finally going to get to the bottom of what was causing the daggers that had been rotating in my gut for over a week, and that I’d check in with her once I’d gotten word from the docs as to the cause and treatment. True to form, she bounced out of bed to help me out of the Stratosphere Hotel and into a cab so we could navigate the halls of the University Medical Center together.
The doorman who hailed the cab for us informed me that the Sox had indeed beaten the Yankees in the previous night’s Opening Day game – a positive sign, I felt – and he wished me luck after I gave him our destination.
Just great. Here I was, headed for the ER in a Vegas county hospital on an early Monday morning, where surely awaited a logjam of casualties from a weekend of debauchery in a city renown for all sorts of trauma and nonsense. This show ought to trump anything currently running on the Strip, I thought, minus a few anorexic topless women dancers parading around in sky-high feather hats and boas. My imagination drifted to the CSI/Las Vegas shows I’ve watched, with ERs and morgues packed with victims of stabbings, shootings, maimings and worse. I figured to spend a week waiting for attention. Maybe there would be slots in the waiting room to help pass the time.
Instead, I was spirited through a waiting room populated by two disconsolate guys waiting for their turn, right into treatment and the care of a battery of competent, caring and well intended nurses and docs who over the next 36 hours would take me on the roller coaster ride of my life.
By 10 a.m., after a CAT scan and a blast of morphine to ease the pain, they had isolated my problem in my pancreas. One well meaning doc calmly explained the possibility of pancreatic cancer and promised to accelerate care throughout the day to confirm the wretched disease (still a big IF, he said, though I only vaguely recall hearing qualifying language among his premature diagnosis).
Now, I’m no doc but I’m also no dummy, and I’ve been around long enough to know that after all these years of advancements in cancer treatment, pancreatic cancer is still one of the no-nonsense versions of the Big C that seldom leaves town without taking its victim with it.
We were shocked, to say the least, but thankfully smart enough to keep our wits about us until we knew for sure one way or another.
My well defined sense of black humor acknowledged the irony present in the situation: the mere possibility that, after 30+ years of work and waiting to embark on a journey like what Gabi and I have tackled, something like THIS should come to pass. Talk about abruptly derailing the grand plan of exiting the fast lane and opting for a slower, more meaningful life.
My fears were anything but allayed when – another two hours later – my cheerful orderly Jory wheeled me from the ER to the floor to check in for tests and resolution. As we rounded the corner of the hospital’s second floor I noticed a bank of signs above me. To the left: patient care rooms. To the right: the oncology unit. As we wheeled closer I silently lobbied for a left-hand turn, but my heart sank as we swung to the right.
Strike two, I thought, as the orderly wheeled me into a double room and began to help me settle in.
Anyway, fast forward the rest of the day past an MRI, ultrasound, a couple more blasts of morphine and a bunch of visits from docs of all flavors, and my attending physician showed up to deliver the great news: acute pancreatitis that was, as he described it “resolving.” Gotta love a doctor’s flair for understated and baffling vernacular. It’s a language of obfuscation, perhaps born of six-figure med school loans, and, I fear, a healthy dose of self-aggrandized puffery.
What does this mean? I quizzed him, relieved but cautious as hell.
“You’ll be out by tomorrow noon and on your way,” he said, pulling our spirits out of the gutters of Las Vegas and back into the glittering lights.
And what caused it?
“It is of unknown etiology,” he blandly quasi-explained, in the process adding another new word to my vocabulary.
So back to the theme of this post.
The Good: Having had a brief flirt with my first real health threat, and having reaffirmed both my health and future, I value this time out of work and on the road more than ever. I am committed to cherishing every minute with Gabi, my two daughters, and my family and friends all the more. At the risk of appearing overly dramatic, our charming experience really did remind me of life’s precious fragility, and of how instantly things can change.
Carpe diem, indeed.
The Bad: I seriously and deeply resent the doc who I feel prematurely gave me the worst news of my life and was dead wrong in the process. Oddly, however, I’m glad he did his duty to inform me of the possibilities, vague as they were, as it led me to the above revelations and recommitted me to today, tomorrow and whatever comes after that.
The Ugly: This is the one real stopper of the whole blessed experience, and it’s left me committed more than ever to authentic health care reform in These United States.
One of the docs, giving me the lay of the land in the early going of the ordeal, proudly told me I could expect expedited care, diagnosis and, if necessary, treatment, all because I had private health insurance. Good news for me, but his language and delivery clearly defined me as one of the minority “haves” who find their way into Las Vegas’ county teaching hospital and who is thus entitled to something slightly more.
It left me feeling wrong about the whole thing, not that I’m not grateful to be able to fork over the bucks that keep us on my former employer’s health insurance through the federal COBRA program. The point is this: I am simply not comfortable that I may have received something that every other poor slob who found himself in my position would have been entitled to, regardless of the presence or lack of insurance, religious choice, sexual orientation, the census in the waiting room, or who might be president.
Maybe I’m a naïve idealist, but just as I believe everyone in this country of enormous wealth and potential has a right to learn and eat, I also believe we all have a right to good, quality, available health care. I’d feel much better if I believed that the two guys I passed in the hospital waiting room got the same good care that I did, but I have some nagging doubts about their prospects.
Turns out I didn’t need much more than a thorough workup, diagnosis and pat on the back as we headed back to the Strip to celebrate with a show and by losing a few bucks to the one-armed bandits. Two days later, well on the road to full recovery, I’m resting more and partying less so we can resume our journey.
But I think I lost something much more meaningful in Vegas than some time and a few dineros: I am less confident than ever in the universality and fairness of a healthcare delivery system that simply must work a helluva lot better than it does.
Having lost a couple of days we had to cheat a bit, and we left our car behind so we could fly to San Francisco to see friends and arrive in time for this weekend’s VIA training.
The bottom line, of course, is that Gabi and I won the ultimate jackpot in Las Vegas. I’m OK, and we’re back on track, still meandering as planned.
And for that I am mindfully and deeply grateful.