“We’re off to see the Wizard
The wonderful Wizard of Oz…”
In February my wife and I got sick. Not sick sick, but, you know, we caught that dreadful cold that most people are complaining about. That cold that sits in your chest and makes you cough at night when you can't sleep, or at the theater, or during a tennis game; the cold that makes your throat hurt, especially in the morning before your first hot coffee and your voice sound like coming from the end of a ventilation duct or like you have just turned one hundred and six and have no idea you did. The worst part was that we didn’t run a fever which meant that we didn’t feel justified to call ourselves sick — which we were — and we kept going on as if nothing happened, and the cold kept on staying with us.
We were planning to visit our daughter and her family in Colorado and we didn’t want to arrive there sick, and, more importantly, we didn’t want to give our misery to them so we started medicating ourselves. We are good with the over the counter stuff, and we loaded up on Tylenol Cold, Vitamin C, and those special cough candies that look appealing and taste like the Danish bitter called Gamel Dansk. We also bought a throat spray, red and medicinal, for which I had to close my eyes, open my mouth wide, breathe in and hope not to gag. By the time we were ready to leave, we thought we were back in control.
Our daughter met us at the airport and subjected us to her first coughing spell in the car on our way to her house. “We are fighting this cold,” she said innocently. “My boyfriend, our daughter and I. We’ve had it for weeks.” “Aha,” I said with aplomb. “We’ve had it, too, and we just got over it.” For the next five days we did our best to ignore everyone’s coughing and sneezing, played with the little one and wiped her runny nose and merrily followed our planned schedule, even managing to sneak in a ski day.
The only one who didn’t display any symptoms was Sparty, the dog.
Back in Maryland, our colds took a turn for the worse. Ten days later my wife got over it. I did not.
We have a very nice neighbor who happens to be a pharmacist. “Alex,” he said. “Go see a doctor. I kid you not.” And he proceeded to tell me of all the complications to which a simple six weeks cold can lead. By the time he was done I realized I had no idea how many vulnerable body organs I had.
The next day, I went to Patient First where one doesn’t need an appointment. Indeed, after a mere ten minutes they took me in. A young nurse invited me to her station, asked a few questions about my condition and measured my height. “Five foot eight,” she said. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “I thought I was five foot ten.” Then I climbed on the scale: “228.” “Hmm,” I exclaimed one more time. She took my blood pressure: “142 over 90. Your blood pressure’s high.” “It’s always elevated at the doctor’s,” I said. “Now we’ll take a chest X-ray, and some blood.” I nodded. What choice did I have?
The X-ray was simple, but she had a hard time finding my vein. In the end, the needle prevailed. “Take your shirt off,” the nurse ordered. “The doctor will be with you right away.” Bare chested, I sat on the examination table in my cubicle and waited. Five Spider Solitaires and one Sudoku later, she finally came and rewarded my patience with a quick smile. I think we were about the same age. “On the X-ray I see two areas in your lungs that seem affected, perhaps by the cough, and I’d say it’s pneumonia,” she started. She prescribed an antibiotic and an expectorant. “In three weeks, do another X-ray.” Then she asked if I smoked. “I did,” I responded looking away, “but I quit in 1999.” “Oh, good for you. But when did you start?” I told her I started when I was a teenager, many years ago. “How many?” she wanted to know. “Thirty-five. Everybody was smoking. It was fashionable back then,” I uttered searching for her peer sympathy. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, and I wasn’t sure if that meant that she didn’t care about fashion or about how long I had smoked. Next she listened to my lungs and my abdomen. She had this long stethoscope and she did it carefully and for an extended period of time. I had to breathe deeply, exhale, turn over, cough, hold my breath. “Do you have a history of aneurysms?” she asked. “Me?” I responded with a question, suddenly feeling under suspicion and wrongfully accused. “Not that I know of.” “Well,” she said, “I think you might have an abdominal aortic aneurysm, or AAA for short. People remember that because of their cars.” “What does it mean?” I mumbled. She drew two parallel lines that symbolized the aorta, and then she drew a bubble in the middle of it. “Left untreated the bubble can burst,” she announced. “That can be very painful and deadly as well. My advice is to get a sonogram.” “Then I need an X-ray and a sonogram,” I concluded thinking about all kinds of unpleasant things. See, as a writer, I know that an aneurysm is a very convenient way to get rid of a character with a minimum of preparation. Like a bullet, it does the trick every time. In my last novel, the protagonist’s husband dies of an aneurysm in the brain two thirds into the book. “That’s my opinion,” the doctor said dryly and walked out the door.
On the short drive home I was a mess. I could feel my insides exploding and my stomach filling with blood. Here I was, a man in his sixties, two inches shorter than ever before, overweight, with elevated blood pressure, severely weakened by a protracted cold that had turned into pneumonia, and liable to be killed by AAA any time. What shall I tell my wife?
By the time I closed the garage door I had decided that honesty was my best strategy. “Well?” she asked. I related to her my entire experience and her calm demeanor was my first clue. The second was when I went to the bathroom and stepped on the scale: 221, like on most days of the week. I called my regular doctor and he agreed to see me right away. He examined me with his stethoscope and didn’t detect anything, but sent me to have a sonogram done, just in case. The results were OK. “Nothing to worry,” he assured me. “That’s the thing about medicine,” he mused. “It’s a science and then it is not. You never can tell.”
Doctors! Wizards! What would we do without them?