Al had some bad days last week. He called Thursday morning and asked me to come up. That he asked me, rather than demanding my presence, was an indication that something was amiss. At his door, I was greeted by a nervous wreck. Al complained of a fibrillating heart and an excruciatingly painful right leg, the leg that was injured during a Viet Cong attack in May 1965.
It took several minutes and all my persuasive powers to convince Al to sit down. My soothing words, however, were unable to coax more than a moment or two of relaxation from him. His complaints came in angry bursts, as if from a machine gun.
“I got out of bed this morning and the whole room was spinning. And my damn heart, it was fibrillating all over the place. It still is, and I can’t breathe for shit.”
Then he moved on to the leg. “The pain starts up here,” he said, clutching his right buttock, “and it goes all the way down my leg. All the way to my ankle.”
And he heaped scorn upon the medical profession. “Those damn doctors; they don’t know a goddamn thing. And they don’t listen. I tell them my leg hurts like hell. What do they do? They take X-rays and tell me everything looks fine. Damn it, you can’t see pain. It’s a nerve. It has to be.”
Moving rapidly from one complaint to the next and back again, Al’s fulminations went on and on until James knocked on the door. Al yelled, “Come in.” James did and asked, “You doing OK?” That was enough to get Al started again, this time concentrating on to his gastro-intestinal woes.
“Hell, all I have to do is look at food and I get gas. I try not to eat too much, but you should hear me after dinner. I go down the hall going bleeck, bleeck, bleeeeeeeck, bleeeeeeeeeck, bleeck, bleeeeeeeeck. And it’s bleeck, bleeck, bleeck all the way up the stairs.”
That, by the way, is the absolute truth. When walking with Al after dinner, the wise person stays in front of him.
To illustrate another point, Al cupped his hands above his right hip, moved them up to just below his rib cage, then across to the left side and down. “It takes two-and-a-half days for my food to move from here to here.” Al said. “I’ve studied my body, and I know how it works.
“I had a movement the other night. I was damn lucky to make it here in time. I pulled down my pants has fast as I could and sat down. Then I sat for about ten minutes. I couldn’t tell if I’d passed anything or not. I looked down and the damn commode was full. There was one eight inches, one six inches and two about two inches. I didn’t touch them, but I got a tape measure and eyeballed them. Eighteen inches; can you imagine that? How long is the colon? Mine had to be empty.”
James had never heard the tales of Al’s bowel movements and convulsed with laughter. It was contagious; Al got to laughing so hard he could barely finish the story. As Al laughed, the worry faded from his face. The conversation took a turn to the normal, and James excused himself a few minutes later. Al and I talked a while longer, until he said, “Tom, I’m all right now. You’ve got better things to do. Get the hell out of here.”
At dinner that night, Al said he’d talked to Penelope. She told him she would talk to Debbie, the nurse in the personal care section, on Tuesday – Penelope was taking a long weekend – about finding a doctor who could effectively treat Al’s painful leg.
Saturday, as I was assembling a sandwich, the phone rang. “Tom, Al here. Can you get up here right away?” I could, and I did. The old lieutenant colonel was much less excited than he had been on Thursday; much less excited than he had been earlier Saturday morning, for that matter.
“I called down to the desk about nine-fifteen and told whoever answered what Penelope and I talked about the other day. I said I wanted them to send Debbie up to see me. What did they do? They sent the little pill girl. I was so mad, I told her to get the hell out of my room.”
He went on to complain about his leg and doctors, especially those who looked at X-rays and told him was nothing wrong. Then he called the Hughston Clinic to speak with the doctor he’d seen there not long ago. The clinic is closed on Saturdays, and the recorded message said “if this is an emergency, call 911.” Al considered that option, but decided if he went to the emergency room again, all they would do is take X-rays again.
There were live people at St. Francis Hospital when Al called. The doctor he requested to speak with was the emergency room doctor who treated Al when he went to the ER a few weeks ago. The person at the other end told Al the doctor wasn’t available and Al needed to see his own doctor. Al thanked the man for his help, put the phone down and said, “I guess I’ll have to wait until Penelope gets back.” And he has, very patiently.