My Medical Narrative: Part 2 of 3

In my last post, I talked about studying for exams and what it’s like to study medical humanities. As much as I enjoy reading the books on my list, it’s really easy to feel disconnected from the text when you are not suffering from the illness or trauma the author is writing about. The more books I read, the more I thought about the narrative I wish to share. The only problem was that, according to me, I didn’t have a medical narrative to share. Then I remembered that I actually did, but it didn’t hit me because, well…I really don’t like talking about it. After reading so many of these books, I wanted to try. And “try”, not as a scholar of medical humanities, versed in the theoretical applications and a specific vocabulary from my studies, but just as a guy sharing his story. This is Part 2 of 3.

(to read Part 1, click here)

This is going to sound really dumb, but I promise it’s true…

I love telling jokes. By that, I don’t mean I aspire to be a comedian. I also don’t mean I dedicate time to writing jokes in hopes of sharing them with others or on a platform. Instead, I love those fleeting moments between exchanges with others where a joke fits just right, nailing the timing and the punchline. The reason why is actually really simple- when you tell someone a joke, and they respond with a laugh, however loud or quiet or subtle or from the belly, it makes the day suck a little less, for the both of us. My favorite part is making a joke out of anything, especially the mundane and everyday. The best jokes come from stuff no one ever thinks about. Doors, pavement, trees, the sounds cars make. I even catch myself holding in a laugh while walking down the street, secretly laughing at the thing I just thought of. I just really like practicing the skill needed to do something like that, improvising, putting ideas together on the fly, making something out of nothing. You take life, and turn it into funny. It helps make the day move forward…or at least cope with it.

Growing up, I was always the kid that kept getting into accidents. I had bruises and scratches in all sorts of places. But I wasn’t clumsy or anything. On the contrary- I always loved doing things that encouraged me to find the limits of my body. I would work on running faster, being more agile, or learning how high or far I can jump off of something and land safely. When I was in middle school, I worked in my dad’s construction company, where I really tested my strength. I would carry piles of bricks, adding more with each trip. I would also carry bags of concrete mix, figuring out how to lift them easier, or how to carry more than one at a time. This ended up helping me get really fit. But I never applied it when it came to team sports. I enjoyed keeping this private sentiment to myself. It was kinda cool having this secret strength, like having a super power. One downside from this, living like I can do anything, was never thinking about my health. I treated my body like a used pickup truck, always beat up, never caring about what kind of fuel I was using, never paying attention to any warning signs. I felt indestructible. Most young boys do, but I was always so fit and kept breaking new limits all the time, that I just never grew out of it. This went on for years, and I saw no reason to change my behavior.

At the university I was at during my undergrad, someone told me that the student health center offered things like check ups, minor surgeries, and prescriptions. When I told my friend my last checkup was when I was 8 years old and that I never had health insurance, she made me make an appointment. It was a really simple exam, checking my eyes, my BMI, some blood work. I walked out, expecting to hear the most obvious news within a week. Two days later, the physician calls me to make an appointment to go over the results with him in his office. I’ve seen too many movies where a call from the doctor requesting an in-person visit means something awful. ‘What could possibly wrong with me?’, I thought. ‘I feel good, I have no signs of illness, I feel like I can do anything’. When I saw him, he told me I had really high cholesterol, and that medical intervention was needed. He also said if I don’t do something to address this, something horrible will happen. It was really hard to take this seriously. High cholesterol??!?! Is this something I need to worry about? Isn’t this a problem that only matters when you’re old? I got my prescription and left. I was laughing on my way out, not taking any of his advice seriously.

I was eating healthy until about a week after, then went on with life, brushing off his advice like dust off of my shoulders. It was until the gravity of his warning hit me in the chest. Literally. One Saturday, about two weeks after my appointment, a sharp pain punctured my chest, making me collapse on my living room floor. It felt like being stabbed in the heart with an ice pick; a massive blunt force hitting a bullseye on my sternum. I couldn’t say coherent sentences for the rest of the day. I had no idea what that was. Maybe it was my heart telling me I need to slow down, or some spirit grabbing my attention, or maybe a heart attack. I made another appointment with my physician and told him what happened. We did more bloodwork, along with an EKG reading. Till this day, I don’t what happen since the tests couldn’t tell me what that incident was. But two things came out of that: I knew I could no longer afford to ignore my health, and if that just happened, what’s in store for me in the future? I’m lying on the examination table, with sensors attached to my chest, feeling my sense of humor evaporate.

I know what you’re thinking, Readers of this post: if your cholesterol is high, why don’t you just eat more oatmeal and do some cardio? (I know you’re thinking that because I’m also thinking that) This was beyond lowering my cholesterol a couple of points. I had to meet with a series of specialists to figure out how to get better, and how to prevent what happened from happening again. I saw my physician, a dietician, a health fitness expert, and a shrink. This event was like my own personal rupture, where this cataclysmic event was the result of years of neglect, only to reveal to what has been festering underneath the surface. The good news was, thanks to being physically active and being (relatively) young, undoing some of the damage was not an impossibility. I followed everyone’s advice, including a drastic change to my diet, new medication, a workout routine, a lot of water, all while managing the emotional toll of seeing your own mortality. I tried to find ways of joking about it, but trauma and comedy don’t pair as well as tragedy and time. One way I managed was posting on Facebook every time I did something against the recommendations of my team, like eating foods that are bad for me or staying out way too late, with the hashtag #itsfunnybecauseimdying. Treating this as a joke was an indirect way of looking at my behavior objectively, like I’m studying it to see how far this joke can go. After a few posts, several friends had to step in and tell me that these online jokes were freaking them out, and that I needed to stop. How do you joke about something like this? Navigating life was completely altered. Every time I touched food, a tingle ran down my chest cavity, reminding me that I have to care about what went inside my body. Some days, during the most routine activities, the trauma of this event made me ask myself, ‘Am I going to see 50?’ I never looked at food, or my health, the same again.

I did everything these specialists told me, following their advice as closely as possible. And then…I got better. After a year of intensive therapy and a strict physical regiment, I dramatically lowered my cholesterol, to the point where I no longer needed medication. I had a clean bill of health. My physician was so happy, he invited me to speak about my progress to other students struggling to follow medical advice. I felt like I had my life back, back when I was doing physically demanding work and dodging cars on the street for fun. The byproduct to all of this was that living healthy actually felt good. I loved feeling like I had a body running on clean energy, motivated to continue getting into shape. I was no longer driving a old, beaten up pick up truck. It was more like a brand new sports car that I only raced on the weekends.

I would love to write “…and I lived happily ever after” at this point, but health doesn’t work that way. All of this happened about ten years ago. Within that time, I finished my BA and MA, started working a lot more, including a lot of work as a part-time instructor, making me chase after trains and grab whatever food I could while having a really hectic schedule, all while not being able to afford health insurance. Life-on-the-go does things to your health in ways no one wishes, like prioritize time over health, and rationalize more and more reasons to not exercise. The years between finishing my MA and getting accepted into my program at OSU are marked my missed opportunities, trying to make ends meet, finding all kinds of ways to make extra scratch, and three PhD application cycles. I was back to driving my old pick-up, and not by choice. When I got accepted to OSU, I found out my program gave us health insurance, and I took full advantage of that. I got a check up, my eyes looked at, and signed up for the student rec center to start working out after classes. (Fun fact: when I got my eyes checked, I found out I have 20/15 vision. Kinda cool) The not-so-good news was that my cholesterol was back up. But this time, I knew what to do, and I was really good at taking medical advice. I got a new prescription, and I was conscious about the food I was consuming. I cut out fast food, drank a lot of tea, and got a workout routine that involved a lot of running and yoga. It felt good to take these steps, and I was happy, a feeling health care offices don’t often dispense.

Then…(ugh) COVID-19 hit. When this hit Columbus, I tried really hard to avoid it because I wasn’t sure if my medical history made me more vulnerable to the effects of infection. Me and my friends did a pretty awesome job not getting infected, making it easier to be social. I also worked out at home, doing a lot of YouTube workouts and jogging around my block. One January morning, I had really bad chest pains. With the history I have, I couldn’t afford to assume it was heartburn or something. I made another appointment, but this one did not go so well. I had more blood tests and another EKG done. In my physician’s words, my test results “looked funky”. I had no idea what that meant, but what it meant for him was that more tests were needed. The physician recommended a stress test, along with a chest x-ray. I had no idea what any of these things were, and (cards on the table) I was nervous. What will these tests say? How will these tests results affect my future? What does my heart look like? I was spending so much time reading works from writers who needed someone with a good heart to listen. Maybe my heart was starting to feel strained. Now I’m the one sitting on the office table. My knowledge of medical humanities won’t help my test results.

I went to the hospital for these tests. It was a cold, early January morning, with snow on the ground, not ready to melt away. The sun was annoyingly bright and the air was freezing cold. I hate that combination. After walking in to the hospital, a receptionist took me to the check-in office to verify my appointment and info. When she asked about my emergency contact, I told her it was my sister. She asked, “How do you pronounce her name?” I told her, and she said she’s never heard of that. Then she asked me where I’m from. I said, “Southern California…”. She pressed further, asking, “No, like, where are ‘from from’? Where did that name come from”. Every Person-of-Color knows what this means. I’m sitting in the office, thinking to myself, ‘Oh- this is what a microaggression feels like’. Honestly: didn’t love it. My chest x-ray was first, where you lie down while you pass through a big metal whirring donut. I can’t feel anything, but it’s hard not to imagine shots of x-rays penetrating my body like small arrows from a million different directions. Next was my stress test, which was a test where you run on a treadmill while hooked up to an EKG machine. I actually enjoyed this part, feeling like I can jog while it’s a little over twenty degrees outside. The worst part were the chest sensors. The nurse placed adhesive sensors and cables all over my chest as the doctors collected test results in real time. I felt like a goddamn cyborg taking them off. Once that was over, I went to the cafeteria to wait to hear from my new doctor. I’m looking at all the food inside, and my hands start to tremble as I contemplate what I can or can’t put into my body, down to the calorie. I have some eggs and orange juice. The doctor calls me in. He gave me news that was part reassuring/part dumbfounding. My tests results looked great, as if there was nothing wrong with me. Even my vitals looked good. He said I’m going to have to be referred to a cardiologist because it’s as if a link between my previous test results and today’s tests does not exist. There was a strange ambivalence to this news. My heart looks good (yay!!) but I still need more tests. When I left the hospital, I took a picture of my view as I left. The contrast between the snow and sun stood out to me. The promise of a new day overlooking the stubborn snow. I got home and went back to sleep, in hopes of getting a reset on this day.

Snow, in contrast to sunrise

The physician scheduled me to see a cardiologist in the later months. My appointment ended up being scheduled months ahead, past the publication date of this post. It’s pretty apt for this part of the narrative since health doesn’t really have a conclusion. I have no idea what this cardiologist will say, but whatever it is, I will take that advice and move forward, listening and learning while living with this as I progress in my career, my academic program, my life. I will do what is needed to manage my new state of health, no matter what it is, in hopes that I get to enjoy days of feeling healthy and sound, however that shapes up in the future. A good day is spending the day reading in the library, studying for exams, then going to the gym after, squeezing in a workout and some jogging. I walk home, feeling good, breathing in a refreshed sense of self, exhaling the fear I had about not making it to the age of 50. I feel good on those nights, and I feel good the morning after. For breakfast, I get a bagel with tomatoes and cucumber, and some salmon. Salmon has omega-3 fatty acids. I have no idea what that means, but I know it’s good for me.

A year ago, almost to the day, I was in a really dumb bike accident. I was crossing an intersection and tried to turn into the sidewalk, but the cross slope was not in line with the crosswalk, requiring me to make a really sharp swerve. I ended up swerving so hard, the bike’s front wheel didn’t give way, making me hit the pavement, face first with no helmet. It took me a second to realize what happened, using my selfie camera to look at the damage. (I thought about sharing some pictures here, but the images are really, REALLY graphic) The accident wasn’t far from the Wexner Hospital at OSU, so I walked my bike over, in hopes of reaching the emergency room. As I walked down, a young woman in scrubs was walking towards me. Once we were within thirty feet of each other, I noticed her face flinching and trying to figure out what happened. At ten feet away, I asked her to stop and if she knew where the hospital was. She asked me what had happened and if she could walk me over to the ER. As we walk over, she’s looking for signs of a concussion. When I told about a pain in my left arm, we both looked at it and assumed that my wrist was broken. I wanted to get help as quickly as possible, but walking to the hospital was going to take some time. I started to ask her about her studies, and as we walked, I kept making jokes about grad school and life at OSU. Hearing her laugh helped ground me, making the immediacy of the situation less glaring. With every laugh, I started to wonder if this person was my guardian angel. We get to the emergency room and I get checked in. When I finally see the medical  assistants and attendees, I describe what happened with self-deprecating humor. Everyone is laughing all around me. I kept making jokes as I get bandaged up and while getting a CT scan. There are laughs all over the hospital, like a trail following me as I leave. I make it home, and a part of me wishes to pity myself for being so foolish, but everyone was laughing so much, it didn’t even phase me. Two days later, I get a phone call from the hospital to schedule a follow-up. As the person on the phone is talking, I could tell it’s a young guy. I started joking with him, as well. As he laughs, he’s reminded of his roommate, then he starts sobbing. His roommate recently contracted COVID and ended up moving back home. This was significant for him because they were both freshman at the university and he was his only friend at OSU. I told him that I knew what that was like and assure him that they won’t lose touch. Through that moment, and after several jokes, we were connected during a time of social distancing. I keep laughing at how dumb this accident was. It was nice that more people were laughing along with me. You take life and turn it into funny. Some days, I don’t have to try so hard.

One thought on “My Medical Narrative: Part 2 of 3

  1. Pingback: I PASSED MY EXAMS!!! (Part 3 of 3) | Seeking Infinite Jest: My Road to the PhD

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