I am a hypochondriac. I have been one for ten years, ever since I was diagnosed with lymph cancer. I was 35. Up until that time I was immortal. Now, I sit here wheezing, coughing, sometimes so hard I puke. I am certain it is some exotic, deadly virus that no doctor I know could diagnose; I would be buried with medical bills for months if I consulted one of those weenies. What shreds of credit I may have left would be vaporized, and for what? For the privilege of being told I have acute bronchitis so get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids?
The last time I was in a doctor's office was a couple of months ago. I was referred to this surgeon I'll call Dr. X by another physician, Dr. Y (who is, at least, a very humane guy). I had, and still have, a benign cyst on my throat. Of course, I thought it was a tumor or a goiter — even though I don't know what a goiter is, really. The cyst became infected, abscessed: an industrial-strength pimple. It looked like I was trying to grow another head.
After waiting over an hour for Dr. X, I began mentally translating People magazine into Spanish. Sitting in a doctor's inner waiting room on that paper-covered slab is both boring and terrifying. Finally Dr. X bursts into the room like Kramer on Seinfeld. He leans against the door looking down at his white lab coat and asks me, with a certain urgency, "Do I have any blood on me?"
"Ah, no. You look fine."
"Good. I thought that patient would bleed out on me. Still hemorrhaging, you know."
Great, just great. He looks at me and can't quite place my ailment, while a yellow and purple tennis ball tries to burst out of my neck. I point to it and he nods, "Oh yes, infected. Definitely. We're going to have to lance that." He calls an assistant, a guy. I don't know if he's a male nurse, an intern, or what. He's tall and has a confused, bumbling hesitancy in his manner. Igor injects me with an anesthetic after fumbling around the veins in my neck. Dr. X has to remind him to put on his plastic gloves.
I feel nothing as X runs the scalpel across my throat and unleashes an ungodly odor. "This stuff always stinks, heh heh," X cracks while the wound drains and he wraps some gauze and tape. He's also winding this string, which he sticks into the incision. He calls it a drain. "You can take it out later today," he announces. "Make another appointment at the desk. That cyst is going to have to come out. It only becomes more difficult to remove the longer you put it off." He says this in a stern fatherly way and then exists like Kramer again. His voice echoes down the corridor, "I'll be on vacation for three weeks!"
Cut to five hours later. At home, in the shower, I remove the big Band-Aid and I'm bleeding like Anne Boleyn. I forgot whether he said I'm supposed to take out the drain or leave it in. Taking it out is the equivalent of operating on myself, and this thing is longer than I thought. With every tug, more blood rushes from the gaping hole. It looks, in the shaving mirror, like a new, nightmarish little mouth flapping its bleeding gums at me. I staunch the blood and call the doctor's office.
Dr. X is in Hawaii golfing, but Igor eventually picks up the phone. I explain the problem.
"You can't take it out?" he asks about the string/drain.
"If I do I'm going to bleed like a butchered chicken -- in fact, I'm already..."
"Okay, well, I guess, like, leave it in or something. We'll take it out when you come back in."
"My next appointment is in three weeks. I'm not leaving this dental floss shit in my neck for three weeks."
"Okay, well, take it out, I guess. And that language is, like, unnecessary."
I can't believe this. I have Butt-Head on the phone while I'm holding paper towels to my Adam's apple, dripping blood on the couch. I hang up and go back in the shower and pull the thing out. I'm operating on myself after paying Dr. X and Igor $50 with a balance due of $110. Meanwhile, I think I'm hearing "Saber Dance" from an old Ed Sullivan Show as I pull ten miles of surgical string out of my bleeding neck. So much blood pools at the bottom of the bathtub it looks like the shower scene from Psycho.
I am, of course, billed for the balance repeatedly. I call and ask what the cyst-removal procedure will cost and no one can tell me. I get Igor on the phone, and he tells me he'll have Dr. X call me as soon as he gets back from Hawaii. Three weeks go by and then six. No call, just bills. I dispute the balance. I got nothing like $160 worth of surgery from this guy, plus I lost a day's work -- arguably worth at least that much.
Meanwhile, as I sit here, I am almost convinced I have tuberculosis. For six weeks I was pretty sure it was just the flu -- though a bad one -- and then walking pneumonia or pleurisy. I'm not sure, of course, what the difference is, if there is one, but I have been walking around. Just not far. After the six blocks back and forth to Ralphs for aspirin, cough medicine, soup, and cheap scotch, I am winded and wheezing like a ruined accordion. I have also made the mistake of picking up the newspaper.
It seems the San Diego-Tijuana border is riddled with a resurgence of TB. Here's an article about some truck driver going back and forth across the border on a regimen of antibiotics he does not complete, so the TB symptoms, airborne and highly contagious, return with a vengeance. I've just been down there, breathing the air of how many latent or full-blown cases of the disease? (I also picked up a jar of 500 penicillin tablets because I get strep throat every year.)
I associate TB with thin, romantic poets and Dashiell Hammett, so in that way, it's kind of cool. I keep waiting to waste away into the frail, sensitive poet I suspect I am deep inside or the rail-skinny but hard-boiled Hammett who continued to write from a hotel room (bottle of cheap scotch next to the typewriter!) isolated from his wife and friends. But I still weigh about 600 pounds. Maybe it's not TB.
My girlfriend is getting more adamant every day about my seeing a doctor for some tests, but I keep thinking about a year ago when I thought I had hepatitis.
I had been having symptoms consistent with that liver disorder. I was convinced. It was all there in The New Age Vibration I picked up free when I bought an Andrew Weill book and some wheatgrass juice at the health-food store on Washington. I made an appointment with a guy near Mercy on Fourth Avenue.
"You have no signs of jaundice," he had said, peering at me. "Let's get a blood sample."
Well, fine. They draw a little blood, shake it up, whatever; should be a cheap test. I pay the doctor $50, come back for another appointment days later, which is another $50. He tells me I have stomach flu. "Nothing to worry about, really. It's been going around. It can hang on for a while, and you'll continue to experience some discomfort and fever." He recommends an over-the-counter anti-nausea syrup.
Then I get the bill from the lab for the blood test. I figured it would be 40 or 50 bucks. No: $450 for 30 seconds' bleeding into a test tube, which they put into one of those things they use to shake up paint cans at Ace Hardware. I'm out $550. At least I saved on the nausea glop ($4.49 at Thrifty) because I already had some in my medicine cabinet. Still do.
Dr. Y recommended that I apply for Medi-Cal. I did. After waiting downtown for more than two hours I was dismissed because I make too much money to be eligible. Rich as I am, I am still paying off medical bills from five years ago -- sometimes $10 or $20 at a time. That was from when I moved into an apartment, leaned a few feet over the kitchen sink to open a painted-shut window, and lost my grip. My left hand was launched through the glass and I could not stop the bleeding for an hour, no matter how much pressure I applied. I finally called 911 because I was getting faint. An ambulance came 20 minutes later, and by that time the bleeding had slowed. The paramedics put a Pretty Big Band-Aid on my wrist and wished me well. That housecall cost $250.
It is pointless to fill out any more applications for medical insurance. Once you check that little box that asks if you've ever had cancer, you might as well be applying for a GAP franchise in Cuba.
No, my health plan these days is to think good thoughts as much as I can. For example, what if I slip in the shower, crack my skull, and go into a coma or die? Well, either way, I won't be worrying about anything. Least of all my HMO deductible.