Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A long time ago . . .

In a galaxy far, far away, when I was in graduate school, I was crossing the lawn toward the computer center when I first felt that little spark of pain flashing across my lower abdomen. I had skipped lunch but I wasn't hungry. I went over to the science library to read the latest journals but it was no good. Something was not right behind the belt buckle, and the smart thing would be to drive home while I still felt up to it. The drive was a bit of chore now that my little pain bug had been joined by two or three friends and they were all flitting about gaily. By the time I got home and lay down on the living room sofa, they had all decided to settle down together midway between my navel and the point of my right hip. I pressed on the spot with three fingers and found it tender and sore.

"Golly gee whiz," I told myself, "isn't that supposed to be the symptom of appendicitis?" I found an old fever thermometer in the medicine cabinet and sure enough, it was 101. I never get fevers. I waited around for a couple of hours, and the fever went up to 102, so I motivated and asked my roommate to drive me to the hospital

The Emergency Room was actually a suite of small examination rooms, offices, hallways, and principally, a large waiting area filled with ranks of chairs designed for the comfort of alien life forms. These chairs were filled with dispirited people in the terminal stages of waiting, some evidently sick, others the companions of the sick, most of them Black or Hispanic although Beth Israel Hospital is located on the rich side of town. A mad woman drove a wheelchair furiously among the furniture and the abandoned medical appliances rusting in the corners.

Out in the hall was a nurse, sitting in a little island of desk and machinery. I described my symptoms for her, and she seemed impressed. She took my temperature, confirmed the reading of 102, and directed me to another official who would require certain information. The required information, as you might well guess, concerned my insurance coverage.

I then sat with the damned souls to await Godot. In my case, he came, in just a few minutes. I was called into an examination room, leaving behind the same two dozen people who had been sitting there when I first arrived. A nurse told me to take my clothes off and put on one of those hospital smocks that only covers the front half of your body. (That's the anterior, to the medical profession. In other words, your posterior is blowing in the breeze.) Then she had to take the temperature rectally. "Oh, they'll get very upset with me if I give them an oral temperature."

So, she disappeared. After about ten minutes, a doctor came in. She poked at my abdomen for a couple of minutes, then she informed me she would have to give me a rectal exam. You can’t argue with doctors. She sticks her finger up my ass and, I'm not making this up, while she's got her finger up there she asks me "Are you sexually active?"

I thought, "I guess it depends on how you interpret what's going on now," but that's not what I said. This is no occasion for levity. Then she says, "Do you have sex with women or with men?" Only when she's was satisfied with my answers does she take her finger out of my ass. As far as I can tell, my nether regions have not yielded her any information, but she nonetheless tells me I have acute appendicitis and splits. I am beginning to understand the rationale behind the notorious posteriorless hospital gown.

Ten minutes later another doctor comes in, of the male persuasion, with some sort of a junior club member hovering over his shoulder. This doctor repeats the process. He pokes my abdomen. He taps on the left side, and I report that I feel pain on the right as he does so. "There is an eponym for this," he tells junior. "It is called Rolfsig's sign." Then he just has to stick his finger up my ass. I told him the first doctor already did that. Didn't he trust her? Apparently not. Again, the scatological inquiry proves negative, but he decides that I still have acute appendicitis, and that I should be admitted that night for an appendectomy.

The nurse came back and put an intravenous line in my arm. Since that forced her to remain for a minute, I was able to sneak in a question of my own -- could I use a phone? She said sure, and pointed to one on the wall, then left in a big hurry. I found that at the full extension of the IV line, I could just reach the phone with the opposite arm. If I were an inch shorter, I would have been out of luck. I called a friend, and asked him to call my parents.

I had to lie on a gurney to be wheeled up to my room, even though I could walk just fine. The male doctor handed me some paperwork to take upstairs with me. I was inside.

Next: The Bizarre Ritual of Belly Cutting

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