Though I’ve been wanting to try out the camera on my new phone in a variety of settings, photography testing wasn’t among my original plans for Wednesday night. My beloved wife Anne agreed to this unusual photo-op while we were waiting calmly for the physicians on duty to determine the cause of the chest pains she’d been having all day.
Make no mistake: that pretty smile belied some pretty frazzled nerves.
This past year our mid-40s bodies have been betraying us more than ever — finding any old excuse to ache and distract us, developing new temporary conditions that drive us into fits of online medical research paranoia. I’ve liked some parts of aging process, such as the slight accumulation of wisdom and the onset of the early wrinkles that make you look authoritative and respectable, before the dreaded, advanced wrinkle onslaught that attracts noisy lawn-ruining kids and door-to-door salesmen. But the part where physical malfunctions are part of every ordinary week, we’re not liking so much.
After we both got home from work, Anne told me about her chest pains and asked if I’d drive her to the nearest emergency room to see whether or not we had any reason to panic. She wasn’t visibly frightened or breaking down, but we’ll be going on vacation soon, and we agreed it would be better to head off any oncoming conditions ahead of time rather than risk needing a hospital in some strange town far from home. She could’ve done it herself, but emergency rooms are one of the worst places to spend time alone. If you’re not depressing yourself by dwelling on your own dwindling mortality, you’re stressing yourself staying on guard in case one of the other patients or guests turns out to be contagious, criminal, or creepy.
I’ll admit I hesitated for a moment. I can be selfish. I can stop myself in my tracks with subtle forms of denial. I can lapse into deep thought and wonder to myself if a given ache or pain can be solved with a simple round of OTC pills, or if we can just rub dirt on the afflicted area and walk it off. The creative problem-solver in me wants a turn at evaluating the issue at hand and exhausting all possible options, including the really ludicrous ones, before turning it over to the educated professionals.
And in that moment of hesitation, I flashed back to an old episode of Little House on the Prairie in which that wicked Mrs. Oleson begins having chest pains and raises a ruckus because she’s certain she’s having a heart attack and is practically at death’s door. She visits good ol’ level-headed Doc Baker, who does a full nineteenth-century workup before he has to deliver the tragic news: she just had a bad case of gas. Mrs. Oleson freaks out on him and storms away in outraged embarrassment. Cue nineteenth-century sad trombone.
I decided to shelve that flashback and took my wife to the nearest E.R. Assuming they’re not an escalated hypochondriac, when the person you love thiiis much [imagine hands held apart the length of a marlin] asks you if you’ll take them to the hospital, the correct answer is yes. It’s always yes.
We arrived shortly after 6 p.m. Based on my past E.R. experiences, even if it were something benign, I figured we’d be there till at least 1 a.m., or maybe even next Tuesday. If it were something graver, then…well, we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. The first half-hour flew quickly as they signed her in, took her info, gave her a quick EKG, and sent her back to the waiting room until it was her turn for a room. I never thought I’d type the words “a quick EKG” in my lifetime. Such are the wonders of 21st-century medical science, much as I’d prefer to avoid them.
The longer we were there, the more glad I was that we came. The older we get, the more likely we’ll be getting to know our regular doctors or our local health care facilities. We’re not getting any younger, any more muscular, or any more super-powered. Naturally we’ll judge each illness on a case-by-case basis, but we’ll have to learn to navigate the proper responses that lie between the two worst extremes — either ignoring all future chest pains until one of us is nastily surprised by what Fred G. Sanford would call “the Big One”, or taking all future chest pains so seriously that we’re pestering doctors weekly and running up a tab like Norm Peterson at Cheers but with bioscans instead of beer.
The last time one of us had a bothersome health issue that proved to be overrated, I was so annoyed about it that I began writing a song about our golden-years decline, to the tune of “Everything is AWESOME!!!” from The LEGO Movie:
Everything is cancer!
Everything can kill when you’re past 35!
Everything is fatal
And you’ll fear being alive!
Everything is lethal!
Everything that hurts is a terminal sign!
Everything’s a tumor
Because nothing feels benign!
Everything’s a slayer!
Every ache is death and it ruins your day!
Everything will get you
And here comes your Judgment Day!
Someday maybe I’ll go back and cover the Lonely Island parts. Heck, if I’d thought of it, I could’ve worked on it that night.
To be fair, and to praise the Lord for all favors great and small, Anne and I were at the hospital for four relatively scant hours. After the EKG came the room admittance, the testing, the X-ray, and the running-gag hilarity of watching a team of nurses struggle to locate a vein in her arm. She subconsciously hates needles for reasons neither of us grasp, but her body has developed its own camouflage defense in the form of itty-bitty arm veins that evade all normal forms of detection and make it next to impossible to pin one down. In this case one nurse went to the trouble of dragging in an ultrasound cart from another room and probing her arm with it. It seemed like overkill, but it worked where all other standard procedures had apparently failed them. As a side benefit, the ultrasound also confirmed there was no baby in her arm.
There was the blood testing, the questions from the doctor, the waiting, the more waiting, the special disgusting gastrointestinal cocktail laced with lidocaine that they surmised would help, the still more waiting, the discussion of the final diagnosis and recommended treatment, the waiting-on-top-of-waiting, and at long last sweet release.
We might’ve finished even sooner, but a few minutes after the initial EKG, all services had ground to a halt for about an hour while the police were called in to deal with a fellow patient who, if we overheard correctly, had had an anxiety attack and assaulted a doctor. Thankfully no action scenes spilled out from the exam rooms into the lobby, though at one point while the doors were open I did spot one undertall gentleman sporting a pair of zip ties around his wrists. Presumably he was escorted out a rear exit and away from us disturbed looky-loos. So I’d count that as our evening’s most alarming setback.
As for that final diagnosis: no heart attack, stroke, or COPD. The source of the pain was a mild, benign inflammation of tissue somewhere between parts in the rib/lung area. The doctor gave us the seven-syllable term for it, but I failed to memorize it. Regardless of label, it’s the sort of pain whose best treatment is letting it fade with time. On a note that may or may not have been related, she also had a spot of mild, manageable acid reflux. The doctor wrote her a prescription for some next-level antacid and sent us on our way to enjoy the remaining few minutes of our night. Happy ending, all told.
In hindsight I think Anne regrets the expenditure and the time loss more than I do. I’m glad it wasn’t something more serious, and I’m grateful that we were able to come home with a bit more peace of mind than we’d had four hours earlier. If she starts jumping at every little discomfort, then we’ll talk and maybe then there’ll come an impatient reckoning. Ultimately, though, I’m willing to undergo whatever it takes to see to the care and well-being of my cute little Mrs. Oleson.