Monday, October 21, 2013

The Curse of Ms. Bliss: Unfamiliar Quotations 2

Having no doubt worried readers with the run-up to my back surgery, I feel it necessary to offer a post-surgical update.   To kill two birds, I can combine it with Part 2 of the popular feature “Unfamiliar Quotations.”    

Today’s quotation is different, though – not a useful saw or slogan, but something you should probably never say to anyone.  It was said to me, though, at the tender age of ten:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back.”    

This came from my fifth-grade teacher in Roslyn, Long Island, a Miss or Mrs. Bliss.  Middle-aged, thin and usually dressed in black, she never made much of an impression on me, but somehow I set off a deep resentment in her.  At the time I was a smart kid who did what he wanted and often didn’t pay attention in class, though I had no problems with learning.    

One day, I discovered a new way to solve an arithmetic problem, and eagerly put up my hand.  “I can do it a different way,” I piped.   

Ms. Bliss told me to shut up, and do it the way she taught. 

I don’t remember exactly what brought on her prophecy.  But I'm sure I was doing what I wanted, probably horsing around with my deskmates, when she erupted:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back!”  She said this quivering with rage, repeated it for emphasis and followed up “Then, you’ll see…”    I was too stunned to listen further.  But it had its effect.   

For the next 60 years I wondered about the curse of Ms. Bliss, and what I would see if it came to pass.  And then at 71, I found myself flat on my back.   


On Columbus Day, eight weeks after the first stabbing pains in my right hip and thigh, I was stretched out on the table in a neurosurgeon’s examining room, unable to sit or stand for more than few minutes.  I had grown a spiky beard and lay there moaning when Dr. Cohen came in.   He immediately diagnosed me as “pretty miserable.”   

The MRI showed a badly herniated lumbar disk, pressing on the nerves from my spine.   Rest, ice, heat and gentle stretching had done nothing to help, and the pain was getting worse by the day.  He proposed a micro-diskectomy, cutting away a small portion of the vertebra to clear out the herniated tissue.  Some friends had urged me to explore non-surgical options, and I had already tried acupuncture, with no relief.   Today I was desperate and this surgery seemed to make sense.  “Let’s do it,” I said.  

Clearing his schedule, the nurse found an opening three days away, but only if I could get the necessary pre-op tests with my primary care physician.   

Dr. Baskin grumbled about the hurry-up, but he squeezed me into his schedule the next day, even after the holiday weekend.   Normally brusque, this time he patted me on the back and said, “Good luck.  You’re in good hands.”    

I woke up in pain at 5 a.m. Thursday.   Debra helped me dress, led the way to the elevator, then to the street to hail a cab.   The cabbie was African, mellow at the end of a night shift.  No traffic.  I stretched out in the back as best I could and we rolled down Columbus Avenue in the pre-dawn, past familiar signs and buildings, the Natural History museum, Lincoln Center, Fordham, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, then a right on 58th and over to the entrance of Roosevelt Hospital.   

Inside the atrium a small crowd was gathering.  These were the ambulatory surgery patients, reporting at dawn for 7:30 operations.  We were blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, some with kids in tow.   I was the least ambulatory of the bunch.   There were easy chairs in the waiting area, but I couldn’t sit easily, so a Hispanic man, a sharp-looking guy in a new straw hat,  gave up his place on the one couch, making room for me to stretch out.   

At 6:00 a nurse came to escort us upstairs.  She looked Chinese, plump and jolly, and herded us like campers on an outing.  I was last in line when we reached the 5th floor ward, but she assigned me Waiting Chair Number One, closest to the door.   

Before I even tried to sit,  an orderly came up to ask if I would rather lie down.   “We want you comfortAHble,” she said with a Haitian lilt.   She wheeled a bed from across the way, adjusted the height, helped me onto it and covered me with a blanket.    

Next to come in was a senior RN, who introduced herself as Alicia.  She reminded me of Edith Bunker, chatty and friendly but serious about her business. She went through a ream of paperwork, checking my answers to all the questions about medical history, allergies etc, while someone else took my blood pressure.  Alicia had seen hundreds of these operations and assured me that I was going to feel better, very soon.  

A few minutes later I watched the ceiling fly past as my bed rolled through the corridors, pushed by a Jamaican guy.   The anesthesiologist had deep blue eyes.  She looked deep into mine, checking my consciousness before she obliterated it.  “This is your last chance to ask questions,” she said, as I saw Dr. Cohen coming toward us, dressed in casual street wear.    

I had no questions, just told Dr. Cohen I was looking forward to this, and we shook hands.  I felt his hands and they were good.   

A Filipino nurse popped into view.   You’re going on a trip, she said.  Where you wanna go on vacation?


“OK, Aruba!”  The anesthesiologist dropped the bomb in my IV. 

Next thing I knew, the surgery was done, I was back from vacation.  A medical student with a hairy chest debriefed me – told me all they’d done, and what I could expect in recovery.  Already I began to feel an ache in the lower back, and the return of normal sensation to my right hip and leg.   

After that I was wheeled to the recovery room, where a golden-skinned, dark-eyed  nurse took my vital signs, and gave me a choice of snacks.  I chose cranberry juice and graham crackers.   They tasted divine.  She brought me seconds.   

“I’m Miss McDonald,” she said primly.  She was so pretty and I was so happy that I had to flirt.   Ah, but what's your first name?  

She hesitated.  I usually don’t give it, because people can’t say it right.   

Spell it, then, I said.   


Oh, Zen-IDA, I said. 

So, you’ve traveled, she said with a smile.   Zenaide is from Panama.   

A volunteer was hovering, an elderly lady named Evelyn.  Her job was to stay in contact with loved ones and escort them to the recovery room.  She called Debra, and brought her to my bedside.   

 The last nurse we saw was a solid Hispanic woman, middle-aged, who was there to check out my “sea legs.”  She watched me intently and followed close as I got up and walked on crutches to the men’s room.  I hadn’t noticed before, but there was a bright yellow bracelet on my wrist that said FALL RISK.  My legs felt steady, though, as I made my way across the floor.  The nurse closed the door – “for privacy” -- and told me to knock when I was ready.   

I stood, I peed, I knocked firmly.  I walked back across to Debra and sat on the bed.  The nurse said “You’re good to go.”   I could leave whenever I wanted.   

I rested for a few minutes, then Debra called for a wheelchair to push me to the main lobby, where I sat while she went out to hail a cab.  Another mellow African driver took us up Amsterdam Avenue this time, past PS 87 where the kids had gone to school, past our favorite Taqueria, past V&T’s Pizza.   We took a left on 111th, stopped at our entrance, and Debra gave him a $5 tip “for a smooth ride.”  I asked for extra time to get my legs and crutches out.   

“No hurry, man.  All the time you need.”   

Home again, miraculously with two working legs under me for the first time in months.   

That night I was able to reflect on the curse of Ms. Bliss.  She was right, I did find myself flat on my back.  But what I saw was not what she envisioned.   She probably thought that in a helpless state I would see that my boyish sense of freedom was an illusion, that our lives are controlled by others, that we live not according to what we want but the dictates of family, school, employer, medical establishment, church and state. Shut up and do it their way.  

Maybe that was her life, but it was not what I saw.  My wife stayed home from work to feed and dress and bathe me.   We left our door unlocked so that neighbors could look in on me when she had to be away.  A neighbor and a stranger picked me up off the street when I passed out in pain.   My best friend helped bring me to doctor appointments.  My entire church prayed for me, plus people from other churches and other religions, plus friends of friends who I don’t even know.  Families cooked and brought meals to our door.  My children visited and called, and the ones far away got together and bought me a bed table and a Kindle.   

And on the day of my surgery, every human being I saw recognized my distress and shared it in some way, helped me to bear it.  I didn’t feel controlled, but lifted up by others.  Maybe it was because everyone could foresee themselves in the same state.  I never felt helpless.  Lifted up by people from all over the world, in the heart of the greatest city in the world, I wound up feeling on top of the world.  I was doing what I wanted, was thrilled to see it working out.  But I wasn't doing anything, it was all being done by the people I had trusted myself to.  Thus my boyish sense of freedom lives, but I understand freedom in a new way.  It's not an individual achievement, but a communal gift.  

A hundred years ago hernial disk surgery had barely been invented, and I might have spent the rest of my life flat on my back, in an opium trance if I could afford it.  Today I am walking on two feet, healing, my energy returning and my dotage receding again to the horizon.  I owe it to humanity and science, and even our half-broken health care system, in which I am blessed to be in the unbroken half.  I only ask for the strength and wisdom to return the blessing, and help set others free.  

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb.

---    L. Cohen


No comments:

Post a Comment