“Making a World”



I had quite a scare on Monday that I wanted to share with you because it gave me an insight into how the other half lives, a half, as it turns out, that is often charged with helping the rest of us to continue living. We were in a theater watching a movie, and about an hour into it I started feeling very weird. My breathing was a bit irregular, and I started twitching around in my chair to some extent. Christine said later that she thought I hated the movie and was expressing my disgust with it. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes, I just kept feeling worse, and I finally said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m going down to the lobby. You can stay and finish the movie.” She immediately said we would go together, and we did.


I first went to the bathroom to wash my face, thinking I might feel better. It didn’t help, and I then sat on a bench for a few minutes, feeling worse by the minute. About this time a man sat down beside me and asked if he could feel my pulse. I consented, and I could tell at once that he seemed to know what he was doing. He left a moment later. Afterwards when we were comparing notes, Christine said that he mouthed to her (so he wouldn’t upset me further), “Get him checked out.” Christine said that she would and the lady that was with this guy told Christine that he was a heart doctor!


Christine wanted to call 911, but I preferred going directly to urgent care at UCSD, so we started to drive there. Christine had already learned that there were closer urgent care units, as she’d asked some questions while I was sitting in the theater lobby and did a quick Google search with her smart phone. After a few minutes of my feeling consistently worse she said, “It will take a good 25 minutes to get there. They said there was a much closer one on Balboa Ave. Do you want to go there?” I said yes, and she said later that her immediate thought was to panic because I never give in on that sort of thing. But then she said to herself, “Keep your head in the game. Don’t lose it.” She never said a word to me. She just made a legal U-turn at the next intersection, and a few minutes later we were at some urgent care unit in a shopping center.


She drove close and had me get out while she parked the car. I went into the urgent care unit and immediately sat down on a chair. The lady behind the counter came out right away and asked me what the problem was. I told her I just felt weird; I had no other description for it, just felt weird. She immediately got the doctor who asked the same question and got the same response. That doctor didn’t hesitate a second. She immediately walked me back into their treatment room. Just as we stood up to go there, Christine came, and I gave her my wallet with my medical cards so those people could get paid.


The doctor sat me on a chair, asked a few questions, and then took me into a treatment room. The next thing I know she had me put a pill of some sort under my tongue and told me to chew up this aspirin and swallow it with water. I don’t know what the other pill was, but I was thinking nitroglycerin and getting even more scared because that stuff’s for heart attacks. They put an oxygen tube on me and then put a thing on the back of my hand so they can open a vein and begin putting in glucose. Then there was a brief lull. I had my eyes closed, and all I could think was, “Jesus, is this it? Christine and I were just discussing our plans for the rest of the year and how good things were going for us now. God damn it, I am NOT going to die!” But I had tears in my eyes and was scared senseless by then.


A few minutes later the paramedics arrived, and they took me into the ambulance and took me to the UCSD Medical Center emergency room. I threw up for a few minutes in the ambulance, but after that I started feeling better. I looked around me a little at this crew of people who were taking care of me, four males. They were all much younger, of course, and the one nearest me was a Mexican-American who appeared to be about 25 years old. When we got to UCSD I felt even better because I have been a patient there ever since I went on Medicare and have always been very impressed with the quality of care I get there. I was with the experts now, but I also was getting a strong feeling for how this was going to come out.


There was a wait of a few minutes while they did whatever kind of admittance work they had to do. Meanwhile that crew was still around me, and the Mexican-American (I never did get any names) was still the nearest to me. I got to thinking because I’ve read about their ridiculously low pay before. I said to him, “You don’t have to answer this, but how much do they pay you for this job?” He said he didn’t think he was supposed to give out that kind of information, and I immediately let him off the hook.


I went on to say that I now had a very strong feeling that this entire incident was going to end up being just a tempest in a teapot, nothing at all, really. But for the length of time that they were in the first urgent care room and later when we were in the ambulance, I was entirely in their hands. They were constantly radioing in for guidance, but they were the ones on the scene who had to be savvy enough to know what the symptoms were and to ask the right questions of those aiding them by phone, because you won’t get the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. These guys were professional and caring and considerably more than just competent. They really knew their jobs, and it showed, but if things go wrong, those guys can get sued. And they’re doing all this for a subsistence wage, most of them.


I said more in that vein. There was also an Asian-American and a burly white guy who was the head of the unit. I don’t remember anything at all about the fourth man. The supervisor finally told the Mexican-American that he could divulge his salary if he wanted to. The more I talked about that situation, the more those guys came to trust me. I told them that I also write and have two blog sites and that I wanted to write something on that very issue. The Mexican-American finally told me that he is paid $12.50 an hour. And the Asian-American told me that he works four jobs! Anyway, I told those guys how they could contact me on Facebook if they wanted to, and the supervisor finally took my email and carefully read it back to me. He said that he would wait a few days and then write to me so I can follow up with a blog on this issue.


The rest of what happened was a long series of tests and so forth, which is routine for suspected heart attack patients. Everything kept coming back negative, so I kept feeling better and better about where all of this was going. They took blood and checked it and told me then that they would keep me at least six hours so they could check it again and make sure that none of the indicators of heart problems had cropped up in the meantime. They were originally going to release me at 10:30 p.m. or so, but they told me that the absolutely prudent thing to do was to stay the night and get a stress test which they said would happen first thing in the morning. It ended up not happening until 1:30 p.m., and I finally checked out about 5:30 p.m. or so. But everything came out fine. The final report was chest pains for no reason that could be discerned, which is not an unusual diagnosis.


In thinking through what preceded this attack—and knowing that I do suffer from occasional acid reflux—it is clear to me what happened. We celebrated the hell out of Valentine’s Day, and I drank more than I really should have. Then Monday we had a very late breakfast as I installed a shelf in the entertainment center in the bedroom for a DVR we’ll be getting soon. We had purchased a box of fancy assorted chocolates for Valentine’s Day, and I ate about three of them to tide me over. They’re very rich, and I haven’t had them for decades, as I’m not big on that kind of candy. We ate out about noon before going to the movies. Breakfast was huge, and Christine piled some of hers on my plate.


That incident in the movie theater started somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours after I’d consumed all that food on top of the previous day’s alcohol. When I have had nocturnal acid reflux attacks they have come about the two hour mark after I go to sleep. The other thing is that I know from some earlier panicky attacks what actually happened. I had trouble breathing, panicked, and things just escalated from there. The more I panicked, the worse my breathing got, and the worse my breathing got, the more I panicked.


The medical people were right to do what they did because it’s a door that swings both ways. Sometimes acid reflux looks like a heart attack. Sometimes heart attacks look like acid reflux. So if you have reason to believe a heart attack may be involved, you go through all of the steps, and do them quickly, because time may well be of the essence.


I really felt bad when Christine was finally able to get back to see me in the emergency room at UCSD. The last she’d seen of me was when they put me on the ambulance, and I knew she’d be scared stiff. The nurse who was treating me at the time was this nice Filipina lady. I told her that Christine would be sitting in the waiting room and said, “She won’t want to make any fuss. She’s Mexican-American. You know what I’m talking about.” She got this big warm smile and said, “I know exactly. I’ll go get her.” A few minutes later Christine came into the room, her eyes brimming with tears. But being married so many years, we know each other well, and she could see at once that I was much better. I told her what I thought, that it would end up being nothing, and she began to relax.


So. That was my adventure. I don’t know if those paramedic people will contact me, but if they do, I will most definitely keep my promise.


The one virtue of spending the night in an ER ward with the occasional drunk or screaming person overdosed on PCP sprinkled among the desperately ill and those just desperate for medical care of any sort is decidedly mixed. The bad news is that you can expect to sleep in segments rarely exceeding twenty minutes at a time before you’re awoken by someone on God knows what screaming the F word. The good news is you get a chance to do some soul searching, regret a few of your poor choices, ponder the poor choices of the medical system itself. It is very clear to me that my own poor diet choices played a significant factor in what happened, and going forward I mean to deal with that. But the other thing that happened was that I came face-to-face with a problem I have long known existed but have not addressed heretofore because it really didn’t seem to involve me. I’m talking about the ridiculously low pay of that crew that held my life in its hands for that precious half hour or forty-five minutes.


It turned out fine, no problem at all, really, but the flip side could just as easily have been the case. Suppose it really had been a heart attack? What then? How well are those people trained? How much attention will they give to the job at hand? Well, as I say, I was very impressed with their skills and have every confidence that had it been a worst case scenario that I could not have asked for a better crew. Now granted, mine is the testimony of a panicked old man in the back of an ambulance praying to God he doesn’t die, but suppose I’m right. Suppose this crew—and the many others like them—is really as professional as I said they are. And, really now, isn’t that the gamble we take when we place a loved one in that ambulance and follow it to the hospital? That they know what the hell they’re doing? If it one day happens to you or your loved ones, and you come away from the experience equally thankful for the services rendered by one of these under-paid emergency crews, then ask yourself this: Where is the right in that sort of thing? How can we justify that?


Some of my capitalist friends (I do actually have some), when confronted with this sort of thing, are fond of saying, “Hey, I’m not responsible for that guy’s poor career choices.” It’s the kind of line they like to use because it gets them off the hook with a laugh. But the question still remains: where is the right in that sort of thing? Why have we so meekly watched the surrender of this country to soulless plutocrats who just cannot bear the thought of working people actually getting an equitable slice of the pie? What kind of brave new world* are we making for ourselves these days?




*If you’ve not yet read Aldous Huxley’s cautionary novel, you should.