The English Patient

A man gets lost in the Philadelphia health system "What is this, fucking Kafka?" and lives to tell about it.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Jun. 21, 2006

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I'm writing these notes in the ER blitzed off my tits on Vicodin and synthetic heroin. Outside in the corridor some poor bastard who got crushed by a bowling ball stacking machine is screaming like a baby with Tourette's.

"Aaaaargh! Ah fuck! Ah! Jesus fuck! Oh God! Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!"

I should be experiencing compassion but instead I'm feeling disappointed. I've been brought up by American TV to expect the stabbed, the gut-shot and the Mafia-kneecapped to be fistfighting with the gangbangers, the crack addicts and the self-mutilating anorexic Goth chicks in ER waiting rooms. Instead there's just lots of very fat people feeding McDonald's to even fatter children.

Maybe we should start the story here.


This is the tale of a smartarse Brit getting lost in the Philadelphia health system. The highlights--edited for shock value--include cockroaches, urine-drenched bathrooms, a crazed geriatric chip-sucker, a frenzied attempt to masturbate into a specimen jar while the chap in the next bed watches Patton at a libido-shattering 128 decibels, and nurses hiding their name badges while my wife screams, "My husband's got cancer. Get off your arse and get him his fucking painkillers now !"

The story also features Kafkaesque data chases, a scrotal sac swollen to the size of a football, glimpses of oak-paneled $300-a-night posh-patients' rooms where protein shakes come in silver salvers, the horror of the catheter they stick down your cock (and this is legal, why?) and the nightmare foot-long scented candle of compacted fecal matter that was so hard to shift that I collapsed and had to be given oxygen the first time I tried.

Plus more love, affection and staggeringly efficient professionalism from amazing doctors and incredible nurses than you could possibly believe. And more really, really, really great free drugs than you could shake a shitty stick at.

Seriously, having experienced everything from industrial-strength stool softeners to the same anxiety and pain relief medicine they issue to medics in the Marine Corps, I have to wonder why anybody in America would ever take crappy street drugs. Join the Army and get shot. It's got to be cheaper in the long run, and it's totally legal.

Did I type that out loud? I'm sorry. It's the synthetic heroin. It's great but it does have the unfortunate side effect of turning you into an emotional Republican.

The ER doctor says he wants to drill a hole in my back, stick in a tube and suck all the blood and gunk and puss out from under my lungs. I'm like, "Yeah, like, whatever, man." So he does. And half an hour later I'm staring at a plastic bag filled with two and a quarter liters of what looks like Bloody Mary mix.

But the story doesn't really start here.

Hey, I do have a good ending, though. That bit I just wrote about the "free drugs"? Total nonsense.

Weeks later--weeks during which I nearly die, become hideously deformed and then spend entire days crying like a baby--the wife and I are in the elevator in our apartment building when she opens the bill from our bat-shit crazy American insurance company.

"How much?" I giggle.

"$51,000," she snorts.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Lars Winberg said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 01:03AM

“Steve Wells
if I thought I had a problem it's not nearly as big as yours
I did not know whether to laugh or cry
I refer you to Confined for Now
By Liz Spikol

L.W.”

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2. Will Fenton said... on Apr 5, 2009 at 01:47PM

“It's funny like Hornby, a war story like hemingway (although not at all), and a terrific piece of 1st person reorting. A shame you had to go through it though. Good luck and keep up the fight. And please, keep writing.”

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3. Outolokowski said... on Jun 25, 2009 at 09:05AM

“Goodbye, Swells, you'll be much missed.

RIP”

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4. Mark (Miwurdz) Hurst said... on Jun 25, 2009 at 02:02PM

“Cheers Swells. Thinking of all those heady poetry gigs we did in the 80's.. Rant in Peace.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jun 25, 2009 at 02:23PM

“Rest in peace”

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6. j from detroit said... on Jun 26, 2009 at 07:27PM

“RIP.”

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7. Andrew Tweedie said... on Jun 27, 2009 at 04:32AM

“So, does this make Obama's vague policy for a universal healthcare system in the US any closer or will the insurance companies ensure that the system remains degenerate? Have US medics ever heard of the Hippocratic Oath? Are US political institutions are too weak (including the White House) to protect health policy from inappropriate application of free-market values? Long live Mr Swells.”

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8. rab n qureshi said... on Jun 29, 2009 at 06:06AM

“a dear friend from school days.we argued about everything,but always stayed friends.good on you wells,sad to see you go,but we all go there one day.save some smoke for me.paki punk uk.rab”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jun 29, 2009 at 08:51PM

“Now THAT, my friends, was a fucking WRITER. Like Julie Burchill, but with slightly smaller testes, even when they were swollen. And he's dead now, so we get a concert!!!! Right? Mercury got one. I DEMAND IT! A Swells memorial concert, featuring AC/DC, Redskins, Shampoo, Belle and Thebathtian (gotta have that piss-bottle-flinging moment), Daphne and Celeste, Napalm Death and The Manics. I for one will be down the front, head shaved and wearing fake big cancery knackers as my own personal tribute to him, and anybody who won't be is a NAZI.”

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12. Brand Lee said... on Apr 11, 2010 at 01:56AM

“estes, even when they were swollen. And he's dead now, so we get a concert!!!! Right? Mercury got one. I DEMAND IT! A Swells memorial concert, featuring AC/DC, Redskins, Shampoo, Belle and Thebathtian (gotta have that piss-bottle-flinging moment), Daphne and Celeste, Napalm Death and The Manics. I for one will be down the front, head shaved and wearing fake big cancery knackers as my own personal tribute to him, and anybody who won't be is a NAZI”

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13. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2010 at 03:28PM

“Seething Wells told it true to the end. The American Way of death is big business. Painful, humiliating, undignified, prolonged in agony for profit if necessary. Chemo kills,period. Cells and people and humanity die, period. Oh yes, Oncologists get richer and richer as folks try for just a few more weeks of pain wracked "life".

I am truly sorry he suffered under the illusion he could be "saved". He was possessed of a great gift and will be missed. Unlike Margaret Thacher.
My heart goes out to his wife and family.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2010 at 03:28PM

“Seething Wells told it true to the end. The American Way of death is big business. Painful, humiliating, undignified, prolonged in agony for profit if necessary. Chemo kills,period. Cells and people and humanity die, period. Oh yes, Oncologists get richer and richer as folks try for just a few more weeks of pain wracked "life".

I am truly sorry he suffered under the illusion he could be "saved". He was possessed of a great gift and will be missed. Unlike Margaret Thacher.
My heart goes out to his wife and family.”

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“Well,it makes me feel surprise.I wonder if you may like sports,you can take
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17. red bottom shoes said... on May 27, 2011 at 02:09AM

“they can not cover the smile. I could not help laughing too. First smile, then laughed. This is my first time in the wilderness,”

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18. Anonymous said... on Sep 12, 2011 at 11:50AM

“I am truly sorry he suffered under the illusion he could be "saved". He was possessed of a great gift and will be missed. Unlike Margaret Thacher.
My heart goes out to his wife and family.”

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