The adage goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” But there was a sly fox in this hole and he’s an atheist. I felt fear for my life and knew that only the miracles of modern science could save me.
The final word from the oncologist was that chondrosarcoma, a ligament cancer, had swollen my ankle with a malignant tumor. It was probably the site of origin and was untreatable except by amputation. The surgeons at Stanford would operate to save my life with decent odds for success. I’d have to live without a leg and be prepared for the outside chance that cancer or the operation could kill me before I ever awoke or left the hospital. This form of cancer is completely unresponsive to chemo or radiation treatments and they can only watch it run its course if it metastasizes. They would pump me up with anti-cancer drugs before they cut in order to minimize the radical cell flow through my blood stream during their invasion of the tumor area.
I was in a recovery room coming out from under the anesthesia where florescent lights cast perpetual daylight over the sterile institutional surroundings. The staff of nurses closely attended the patients; watching our charts, and questioning us about our pain. As always, the proverbial squeakiest wheel drew their attention. The nurses and doctors, all disciples of the Marquis de Sade, couldn’t fathom why I was yelling out in sheer agony. The anesthetist just poked another hypodermic in my I.V. and I slipped off to merciful dreamland. When I awoke in Post-op again, I found it all too familiar and far worse. I felt as though they had torn my leg muscles out of my leg and were tightening them on the rack or wheel. The lyrics to Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” came to mind:
Oh I’ll be a good boy—please make me well.
I’ll promise you anything, get me out of this hell.
Screaming my throat raw (I would never sing again), I gasped and begged them to give me something.
I was afraid to list heroin on my medical history;
“I didn’t think it mattered after twenty years,” I confessed to the anesthetist whose eyes glinted with certitude as he increased my morphine to the maximum allowable dosage, finally.
The weight left my chest as I regained my breath and I cooled off. I was groggy, wanting to sleep, and I remember the anesthetist shaking his head in disbelief at my tolerance for morphine.
That afternoon the surgeon and oncologist saw me in the hospital ward.
“It looks very promising. The lab results show no signs of metastasis. We had a good margin of safety and were able to stop any spreading during the amputation. You can start physical therapy tomorrow.”
I’d been given an IV with a morphine drip through the night and so slept soundly. The following morning I was ready when the physical therapist came in to teach me to ambulate on crutches. She was pleased with my stamina and ability so she introduced me to the practice staircase. I got up a few of the steps with her aid but then she was called away to the ward leaving me at the top of the three stairs. It seems like a short trip down the stairs but I didn’t know how to make it. Should I know as a matter of mere common sense? All of my senses were dimmed due to the morphine.
I thought about Letterman Hospital, Fort Presidio, San Francisco (LAMC, we pronounced Lamb C). I was eighteen when I was on the mental ward, living a la esprit de corps with military patients. My mission was to learn to veer off the self-destructive path I was on.
I asked a sullen army lieutenant in his forties what it felt like to receive shock therapy, secretly dreading that the doctors would treat me likewise. Labeled a psychotic manicdepressive and admitted for murdering his wife, he talked to his army slippers and drawled on in a Midwestern accent about the disorientation after the treatments.
“I guess it works good because I don’t get the nightmares or fight obsessive thoughts of suicide now. The jelly they squirt under the electrodes is really cold on my skin, and the shock hurts like hell, but I blackout right away. Afterwards I was leaving the building and suddenly felt dizzy when I walked downstairs. I looked down at my feet and couldn’t tell which direction the steps were going. Up seemed like down and I couldn’t move for a few minutes.”
He took a slug off the berry Kool-Aid we all shared from the kitchenette on the ward and continued, “I feel so lonely; I don’t get any help. There’s nobody to ask which direction is down. I ask myself but I don’t even remember who I am when I get up off the table. They ask me if I know who and where I am afterwards and then tell me, but I feel like I’m walking around in a stranger.”
Rushing on morphine I found focusing difficult.
I said to myself, “We never experience pain we can’t bear: we retain the memory of the experience but not the true memory of the acute pain.”
After all, if women could trigger the pain of giving birth through recall we would all be from single child families. Truly the mind dulls the memory of an intense experience.
I managed putting the crutches on the lower step and then swung my foot down. When I reached the carpet I heard the refrain in my head of ‘I’m alive, alive!’ The nurses and other patients exuded pity from their stares as I passed by.
I’d seen my leg end in a below the knee cast, and felt it throbbing, a method it had of telling me it’s not elevated. An eerie feeling of coming full circle back to the heroin user had me searching my sense of identity. That drugged--out teenager felt unwanted and unloved so he turned to opiates. I felt that depression again but not the hopelessness. As I eased myself onto the hospital bed, I looked over at my bulletin board where my baby and our cat grinned down at me. Unconditional love filled my heart. The small snapshot of the two was my Mandela center; enfolding and concentrating a happiness that held while morphine embattled life.