Looking for dignity in the fight against cancer.
Who Goes First?
I used to have a small penis jutting out from just above my belly button. Right now there’s a cute little vagina. The tiny cock drained the blood and puss out of the infected 6-inch wound the surgeon made when he hacked open my upper abdomen and cut out about a yard of cancered intestine.
Now, with the plastic cock removed, I have to pack the wound three times a day with a gauze string, the tail of which dangles from the gash, looking for all the world like a weirdly misplaced tampon.
On Sat., Feb. 7, I enter the emergency room shivering savagely and positively glowing with a temperature of 106.
I’m called into triage the minute I complete registration. This visibly pisses some people off. One chap makes a show of standing about 4 feet away, arms folded, staring hard as he mutters “motherfucker.” He eventually walks off in disgust.
My wife has chosen a seat in the waiting room four chairs away from the pissed-off guy. I join her. Pissed-off guy leans back, stretches out his arms, cocks his finger and points at me, nudging and whispering to his friend. His friend sits hunched over, hood covering his face. He looks fucked-up.
This is my third visit to the ER in two weeks. Last time was chaos. Every seat full, ambulances turned away. People shouting. Groans of pain and frustration. This time the security guards are visibly twitchy.
“Where you from?” asks a white security guard, running my painkiller and book-packed backpack through the metal detector.
“England,” I say.
“So do you have blacks in England?” he asks.
Two and a half hours later a woman in scrubs attempts to calm things down. She explains that patients are being seen on a strictly observed needs-first basis.
A man a few seats away leaps to his feet.
“Bullshit!” he yells. “Some people go straight into treatment,” he says. “Others wait for hours.”
The woman in scrubs avoids eye contact, rapidly restates her case and gets the hell out.
A couple of weeks later, on the hospital’s website, I stumble across an article about a recent report that states: “Sick or injured African-American patients wait about an hour longer than patients of other races before being transferred to an inpatient hospital bed following emergency room visits.” What a surprise.
Back in the ER my brain has turned to mush after explaining my symptoms (it feels like weasels are gnawing my entrails) and my medications and my allergies and my ridiculously complicated recent medical history to what feels like the 30th fucking white-coated wazzock in a row. Don’t you bastards read each other’s notes? Isn’t this on a computer somewhere? I’m tempted to just make stuff up.
The first two times I go to the ER they send me home, clutching prescriptions. On Feb. 7, the day of the fever, they keep me in the hospital. Last time this happened I didn’t go home for weeks, and when I did it was as depressed, hollow-eyed, bearded, emaciated and swollen-bollocked human wreckage.
This is all starting to feel horribly familiar.
Mistakes are made
It’s Tuesday morning, Feb. 10, and I have been X-rayed, CT scanned and blood tested to hell and back. There’s a happy little sunbeam at the end of my bed. A baby doctor. A child with a white coat and a stethoscope. She says that the CT scan shows that the cancer is dead. And it also shows some air.
A man gets lost in the Philadelphia health system "What is this, fucking Kafka?" and lives to tell about it. By Steven Wells firstname.lastname@example.org Illustrations by Jim Campbell --> I'm writing...
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.