‘Twas the night before Christmas

Okay, I’m just going to say it: Christmas sucked this year. It blew like an enthusiastic puffer fish doing Lamaze.

It was shaping up to be a great holiday. I was going to travel out to the coast and see my family, spend a little time shooting aerial views of Mulkiteo and maybe Everett’s harbor and marinas. Just about everything was going perfectly, including a local snowfall to lend a Currier and Ives look to the world. And then on Christmas eve it suddenly took a downhill turn. Crash, if you will.. I was in the back yard having just launched one of my drones. I was getting an aerial view of the town all covered in snow. The aircraft went up to about 20 feet and suddenly it was as if an icepick had been shoved into my back. I barely got the drone down safely, plopping it into the snow with a thwup! noise. I staggered to the aircraft and picked it up and literally fought to stay conscious as I made my way to the back door. I didn’t even unmount the camera, but set the drone on a shelf and staggered to my bed, rolling myself onto it. The pain growing worse every second.

My wife was out doing some last minute shopping and dropping and wouldn’t be home for a few hours so I was home alone. Once on the bed, any movement was so painful it took my breath away. I was literally stuck. A cough was agony, a deep breath was excruciating, and I couldn’t even get back up to fetch my pain meds. I couldn’t reach my phone just three feet away, nor my tablet which lay on the bed just out of reach. The pain was paralyzing and beyond any I’d ever experienced. It ached badly to lay there, but moving a muscle was out of the question. I was literally paralyzed with pain.

My wife was singing Christmas songs as she got out of the car and came in the house a few hours later. I heard her moving through the house and coming down the hall and I tried to call out –but taking the breath to do it hitched me up from the pain and just a whispered groan came out. She dropped some things off, I could hear bags rustling, and finally her steps came my way. “Sorry I took so long, sweetie, but I got tal… what’s going on?What’s happening?” She stepped to my bedside and touched my forehead. “You’re sweating like a pig! You look awful! What’s wrong?”

I tried to answer but I had to fight for every word. I said “hurt” and I said “pills” and the movement of my lungs hurt so badly I started screaming. That hurt worse and I screamed harder. I finally belched out two sounds: more feen. My wife ran into the bathroom and brought me my pill vial. I couldn’t take it from her and she figured that out and took out a pill for me and put it between my lips. I keep a glass of water by the bed and she lifted it for me. She tried to raise my head so I could wash the pill down but the motion hurt and caused me to scream again. The pill tumbled into the sheets. I was pleased she didn’t dig for it, but got another and this time put the pill on my tongue and poured the water carefully. I managed to swallow.

She knelt next to me and said she didn’t know what to do and kept asking me what happened. Did I fall? It was a fight for each word but I told her “no fall” and “hurt bad.”  She didn’t know how to use my smartphone; a Luddite of sorts, she hates them and the whole online milieu. With her pointing and me making noises I managed to have her get the contacts up and locate the VA hospital after hours number. It was robot answered and she was so angry she was spitting and screaming as it laconically went through about 30 seconds worth of numbers to press for different departments. I tried to tell her ‘zero’ to get the operator, because that would get her the AOD (Attendant on Duty) who could help. My wife accidentally pressed the power button on the side of my Galaxy SIII (yes, a damned stupid place for it) and had to start over. This time it failed to answer, it just rang and rang and rang.

The morphine was coming on and I found I could speak as long as I whispered. I asked for another pain tablet and she brought it. As we waited for it to kick in, she tried calling the VA again, only to have it just ring. For the hundreds of millions of dollars the VA has been spending on building additions and remodels, it is unanimous with all polled that they should have spent much of those dollars on more people, more and better equipment, and a phone system newer than state of the art for 1980. One waiting room conversation I was in asked the question “How many self-inflicted gunshot wounds had that frustrating system been witness to?” It’s a reasonable question. Part of the long and monotone message tells callers that if they feel like harming themselves or others to call the specialists at such and such a number. Then they repeat it as if a potential suicide might be ready with a pen and paper. “The first words on that damn box should be to press ONE if you feel suicidal.” commented a vet, the others of us in the room nodding assent. “Don’t make the poor soul have to remember a number and call somewhere else. All that is, is a slap in the face says up yours, go bother someone else.”

While I wanted to, I can’t just arbitrarily go to a private hospital. The VA AOD has to approve that and give a referral. Oh, I could go to the hospital, but I would have to pay for it myself as a voluntary selection of a private provider over the VA. To do that would be devastating to my financial situation which becomes more tenuous all the time, and is about to be further eroded as a cost cutting measure. There are some exceptions about going to a private hospital, and they’re highly conditional, like a verified heart attack or stroke. If the paramedics agree, you can go to a private hospital and the VA will pay for it but it’s best if it’s AOD approved. My situation was much more dubious, being pain from an unknown origin..

The second morphine helped some more and so I took another and tried to lay as still as I could. My wife sat with me and we waited, trying the VA number for an answer. We weren’t even sure if the hospital was open and receiving, given the holiday. At just after 6 am the phone answered and my wife was put through to the AOD who told her to bring me in. I tried to reach for the phone and it hurt so badly that I screamed and then my wife got a little hysterical. The AOD said to call 911 and have the paramedics load me and bring me to the VA in an ambulance. This is very unusual in my experience, but yes, they were open and waiting on me.

The ambulance ride was horrific. They were great getting me into the gurney, quick and gentle. But it still was agonizing and so was the trip. I felt every one of Spokane’s notorious potholes. The city’s roads are a bad joke. Every summer they tear the streets up and every winter people damage their vehicles driving on their damaged surfaces. War torn is a common expression for Spokane Streets.

At the hospital I went through triage and they began giving me dilaudid for relief. By the time the pain was dull enough I could somewhat function, I had 100 mg of morphine and 4 ml of dilaudid in me. I couldn’t move much in spite of the pain meds, so they had to wheel my whole bed to xray. Getting positioned for the pictures was also excruciating, but had to be done to see what was causing such severe pain. Xrays revealed that lesions in my ribs had literally torn through the intercostal nerves. There was nothing to be done about that except to do a nerve block. The procedure/surgery is not an offered service by the VA so I will have to have my oncologist arrange it. Except he’s in Afghanistan until March. The oncologist filling in was off until well after the new year. Everyone is trying to figure out how to proceed since my service connected illness has developed problematic condition. The people; the nurses, techs and doctors are all excellent and caring people, but they’re in a system that needs a lot more upgrading than the buildings the VA is spending so much money on. When my oncologist was swept away to Afghanistan, I knew I would miss him. I had no idea how much.

At the end of Christmas Day I was released home with a prescription for double the amount of morphine I’d been taking and some hydromorphone (dilaudid) besides as backup. Hopefully, this can keep me stable enough to tolerate the pain until the holiday is over and decision makers return and can find a more permanent solution to my problem. like locating a Spokane provider qualified and experienced to perform the nerve block. So much for a warm and pleasant Christmas, so much for my trip to see my children, and so much for any kind of lasting comfort until a resolution is found for my condition.

So, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. Dammit. 2014 is stacking up to be a hell of a year.