Archive for the 'doctors' Category

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

A Look Inside

My annual physical is usually uneventful. A little high blood pressure partnered with an aging prostate have been my only close, chronic companions for many years. But this year a new friend came calling.

If you’re old enough, you’ve probably done that little test that involves the toilet, a flip card with three distinct slots and some wooden sticks like the ones that remain after you down a cherry popsicle. It’s a routine exercise that looks for suspicious characters who can wreak havoc in your colon.

A call from Barbara in Dr. Halverson’s office began the adventure. “Hello Fred, it’s Barbara. We found some microscopic blood in your stool and Dr. Halverson wants you to have a colonoscopy.” Barbara makes the calls that you’d rather not receive. She does it so well that at first you think she’s inviting you to a birthday party. And then it dawns on you. This is no party. This is serious business. Oh crap, I said without thinking of the possible pun. Images and scary thoughts floated through my head at lightning speed. All were X-Rated.

I called Dr. Covington’s office. The doctor and my colon have been close friends for about twenty years. He’s peered inside of it twice during routine colonoscopies without discovering anything of concern. But this was different. You need a preliminary office visit after which we can schedule the procedure. The impersonal voice on the phone wasn’t concerned about my colon and booked me for a visit two weeks hence. I thought Two weeks. Too much time to think. Too many scenarios to ponder.

But, like time will do, two weeks passed and I presented myself to Natasha, Dr. Covington’s physician assistant who took my blood pressure and scrolled through my medical history. “Yes, you should have a colonoscopy”, Natasha announced. It was comforting to know that the medical establishment was of a common mind. The procedure was etched into Dr. Covington’s schedule and I continued to consider possible outcomes, the most probable of which would not be found in a Dr. Seuss book.

The night before the procedure is laughingly called prep time. The Medicine Shop had kindly provided all of the essentials. Two six-ounce bottles of ghastly liquid, a sixteen-ounce plastic mixing container and a set of instructions and no-no’s that I dutifully read several times. Some years ago, before cooler heads prevailed, I had the pleasure of downing a silo full of liquid intended to wash out the colon. That grueling experience would have been adopted as an Olympic event had it not been replaced by the more innocuous six-ounce bottles. On this occasion, the current, less onerous procedure proved quite effective.

In the morning, my good friend and neighbor Yoram drove me to the colonoscopy center. The parking lot was full, populated by cars whose owners had empty, squeaky clean colons. The waiting area, behind a fortified door fit for a bank, was packed with apprehensive patients and their keepers.

Looking at the rows of glum faces, I spotted my friend Alan and his wife, Margo. “They’re running about a half-hour behind schedule.” Settling in for the long haul, I made idle chit-chat with Margo while Alan waited for his call to duty. His turn came and he walked the green mile through the double doors and into the preparation area.

My turn came about thirty minutes later. Lifting myself from the chair, I followed Nurse Ratched into the prep area where I removed my clothes, dutifully slipped beneath the sheet and waited. My personal assistant, a lovely RN, arrived and poked my arm with a probe seeking the fountain of youth. Or, save that, a working vein. Failing to do that, she then focused on my hand and deftly slipped the needle into the most sensitive part of my arm and announced, like Ponce de Leon, Eureka, I have found it.

My friend Alan, having completed the expedition into his colon, lay next to me. We spoke of the grand and glorious things that had been revealed by his colonoscopy, the current state of politics in this country, and the benefits of old age…which did not take very long.

We were one hour behind schedule when I was wheeled into a room that looked like it needed redecorating. Two lovely assistants made sure I knew who I was and told me that this would be over quickly. They donned outfits complete with face masks that reminded me of the costumes worn by the nuclear reactor bad guys in the James Bond movie Doctor No. I felt a little apprehensive, as all I had on was a K-Mart bed sheet.

Dr. Covington appeared and introduced himself for the third time in twenty years. I excused his lapse of memory for faces, since he normally focuses on the opposite end of his guest’s body. He said “Here come the meds.” And the next thing I knew I was standing by my gurney putting on my shoes.

It was all over but the shouting. Friend Yoram relayed the news from Dr. Covington. No bleeding, one small polyp removed. Nothing to worry about…except the seven days’ wait for the biopsy results. I sent some text messages. All is well and the usual stuff you add to relieve the stress. We had a hazy lunch at a restaurant that I will never be able to find again.

That evening I went to bed early. Awaking around 3am, I tried to reconstruct the last fifteen hours. I vaguely recalled Yoram’s prognosis but I questioned the accuracy of my memory. Had I really heard the findings as I now recalled them or was I hallucinating? I remembered the text messages and got out of bed to check my phone. There they were…including one that reminded me of the seven days of waiting for the biopsy results. Like opening an old scab.

Is life at my age a series of medical events, each one with the potential to seriously alter hopes and dreams? Does one live life fullest between annual physicals? Does time pass too quickly, with a cloud hovering over us like Al Capps’ Joe Btfsplk?

Seven days passed and I was able to push the biopsy to the furthermost corner of my mind. Not completely forgotten, but not preeminent.

Tuesday the phone rang and I missed the call. A message had been left by an 805 number I did not recognize. I listened to the call.  Hello, this is Doctor Covington’s office… Time stopped and I reviewed the possible second sentence scenarios at warp speed. I thought the rest of the message would never find its way to my ear. But it did. The polyp was benign. See you in five years.

The clouds lifted. It was time for a song. One that celebrates life and makes us live it while we can.


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