Category Archives: Life

On Playing God

Picture of a sign indicating two directions: one is More Difficult, the other Less Difficult.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

People make choices every day—lots of them, in fact. Pizza Hut, Subway, or that new Thai place? The solid blue shirt or the plaid? Some are so simple they don’t require much thought; others will haunt you for the rest of your life.

I adopted an adorable 8 month-old cocker spaniel named Sugarbear in 2008. I already had a 14-year-old cocker named Murphy that was in failing health and I knew he wouldn’t be with me much longer. Sugarbear was an adorable, loving, and somewhat mischievous companion who left a trail of shredded magazines, CDs, a treadmill, and a living room couch in his wake. I loved him dearly and he loved to be with me. A month after adopting him my other cocker died, and five months afterward I rescued a shepherd-collie mix named Rusty from a friend who’d lost some of his good sense. Both Rusty and Sugarbear were pups, and I thought I’d have many good years with them.

One evening when Sugarbear was just over four years old, he and Rusty were chewing on rawhide flips. Rusty decided he wanted Sugarbear’s as well. The scuffle only lasted a few seconds and was over; there was a loud burst of growling and snapping before silence fell again. I scolded Rusty and called Sugarbear over to me. I noticed a drop of blood on his foot. A closer look revealed a tear in Sugarbear’s lower lip. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper and my styptic pencil and tried to stanch the bleeding. I was eventually successful and took him to the vet the next morning. By then his lip had become swollen and the vet determined it was infected. Sugarbear received a shot of antibiotics and I was given some pills to take along. For some reason that particular event stuck in my head as the marker for what was to come.

I soon noticed that Sugarbear would occasionally bump into me when I walked on his right side. At first I didn’t think much about it. His eyesight quickly grew worse and he was diagnosed with SARDS, or Sudden Acquired Retinal Death Syndrome. His pupils dilated and he didn’t respond to visual stimulation. The disease has been suspected of being related to Cushing ’s disease but that exact relationship is uncertain. He also had problems with constant ear infections, and ear canal ablation surgery was recommended. The goal was to eliminate the long, golf club-shaped ear canal by reshaping the flesh to provide a shorter, more direct opening to the inner ear. That would provide better airflow and help prevent further infections. I waited a bit to give topical medications a better chance at working, but was told that waiting too long might allow the ear tissue to harden, or calcify. I approved the operation but in the following months he continued having problems. X-rays determined there was some calcification in the ear tissue and his ears hadn’t healed right. The ear tissue swelled, pushing his normally floppy ears out a little from the sides of his head. One ear canal swelled shut while the other remained open but smaller than normal. Powerful, expensive antibiotics were administered over a period of months, although I was told there was minimal blood flow in that part of the head so they wouldn’t help much. His ears seemed to get better though and the swelling went down. He had occasions where his eyes scanned rapidly back and forth, out of control, and it caused him to walk unsteadily. These events came and went.

I was advised after seeing another specialist that the next thing to try was a complete removal of both ear canals. The infected tissue would be cut away and the remaining area carefully cleaned to remove any lingering infection. The area would be closed over with skin and there would be no openings to Sugarbear’s inner ears although they’d be intact. I was told that, in most cases, dogs undergoing surgery could still hear as well if as someone were holding their hands over a normal dog’s ears. There were risks—major facial nerves traveled through each surgery site which could result in facial paralysis if they were nicked or damaged. If any diseased tissue was missed the infection could reoccur and result in more surgery. He had a pronounced heart murmur, which meant he could die on the operating table if his heart couldn’t take the strain. The surgery also cost $4000, which was $3500 more than I had. I left the office feeling trapped–there seemed to be no good options for my pup. After talking with my regular vet, a person I’d worked with for over fifteen years, I decided to keep him comfortable. I’d been told on previous occasions that if a sick pet lost its appetite and drank less, became lethargic, and lost interest in everyday activities or personal attention that it was time to consider putting them to sleep. Those would be my guideposts, along with vet’s determination of his overall condition. In the meanwhile I turned to my Christian faith for help. I believe in miracles and thought I might be able to get special help for Sugarbear since the doctors hadn’t given me much hope. That didn’t mean I stopped seeing the doctors—I prayed in addition to following doctor’s orders.

After a period of months I’d noticed some loss of fur around his lower lip and a skin irritation that seemed to be spreading. Antibiotics were again called for, as well as an appointment with a dermatologist. After a nearly six week wait for an appointment, during which time the condition worsened, he was diagnosed with a food allergy and a case of demodex. The demodex had no doubt been caused by antibiotics nuking his immune system. His thyroid levels were also way off. Sugarbear’s food was changed to a limited ingredient formula and he was prescribed two medications for the demodex and thyroid issues. It took almost seven months of monitoring and rechecking blood values to determine that the demodex was mostly under control and his thyroid levels were normal. His skin irritation stabilized and there was some scarring under his chin, but some hair had also started to grow back. After the demodex infection his ear tissue swelled out again, more so than before. He was also losing weight. Diagnostic x-rays showed some heart enlargement, although congestive heart failure didn’t seem evident—yet. There was no fluid accumulation in his lungs. The weight loss was attributed to a loss of muscle mass from heart disease.

During this time we had a daily ritual. When bedtime came I’d put him on my bed and flip him on his back at the outset. He’d lie there belly-up with his legs splayed to the wind. First I’d clean any goop from around his eyes, apply eyedrops, and cleanse his outer ears. Next I tended to his mouth and chin, carefully cleansing the area and removing any debris. By the time I wiped his pubic area (which had become leathery-looking due to the demodex and thyroid issues) and his butt (which had developed several small lesions) Sugarbear was usually snoring and deeply asleep. I’d lie down with him and go to sleep as well. Any time he stirred I knew it, and usually got up at least once to help him outside so he could urinate. Despite all his health issues he never lost his appetite, he drank well, and loved to keep me company. If I was working in the kitchen he’d lie on my feet; on the couch he’d lie beside me and occasionally turn to lick me enthusiastically on the leg before settling in again. He was a pup that was fully alive and, although blind, tuned in to his surroundings.

On Sunday, June 1st, I’d stepped out for a while. When I came back Sugarbear was wandering frantically in circles around my kitchen and bumping his head into the furniture. His head was held low, his mouth open, and his eyes were scanning like mad. As soon as I touched him he stopped moving around, and I carried him to the living room couch. We sat for fifteen minutes or so and he seemed better. I sent my vet an email with the details and asked if separation anxiety might be to blame. This question might have seemed dumb, but I’d caught him crying loudly on several occasions when I’d return from stepping out. When he knew I was back he’d stop, so I thought he might be getting himself worked up at my absence. Her reply wasn’t what I’d hoped—she thought the ear infection might be spreading into his brain. She wondered if he was in pain and suggested a pain medication. I had some from a previous treatment regimen and gave him a dose. I also determined I’d take him for a vet visit the next morning.

Monday morning he seemed fine when I was shaving and getting ready to take a shower. Suddenly he jumped up, all his legs locked straight, body trembling, mouth open again. He was whining a bit. And when I saw him my insides clenched up—I knew it was time. Sugarbear’s body was betraying him and the vet’s suspicions were most likely correct. I threw some clothes on, abandoning the idea of a shower, picked up Sugarbear’s rigid body, and loaded him into the cab of my truck. I’d called to let them know I was on my way. Fortunately they were only two minutes away, and I carried him straight into an exam room when I arrived. The vet did a preliminary exam and said she felt it was time. He’d most likely been having micro-seizures for a while and was now suffering from a full-blown seizure. After two injections Sugarbear’s struggle was over. He died in my arms while I blubbered like a baby. I had told him over and over in the months prior that I’d fight with him as long as he wanted to fight, and when he got too tired we’d call it a day. The little guy never gave up; his body forced him to abandon the battle. It was my job as a responsible guardian to end things before he died painfully.

I went back out to the lobby, still in shock, and ran into one of the male vets in the practice. He looked at me with a grimace and said, “Sorry to hear about Sugarbear. I know it’s rough.” I thanked him, and then he said something else while looking away from me. “You sure waited a long time.”

The implication of what he’d said didn’t sink in until after I left the office. Several days later when I returned to pick up Sugarbear’s ashes, there was a weird vibe in the reception area. One of the vet techs wouldn’t even look at me. Of the other two one seemed normal and the last one was reserved. Perhaps I was being hypersensitive, or maybe I was reading something that wasn’t there. But two weeks later I still have the feeling that I had been condemned in the eyes of some people there as a monster who kept my dog alive far longer that he should have been, for my own selfish purposes.

They can never know what the two of us went through together, and will most likely never know that my vet and I had charted out a baseline for what constituted a minimum quality of life. I struggled daily with my choice as well as whether or not it was yet time. I didn’t want my best friend to suffer unnecessarily, but we loved each other and I didn’t want to sever that bond a second sooner than I had to.

A lot of readers will make snap judgments about whether or not I did the right thing. Sugarbear had so many strikes against him that his premature death was almost assured. If I had a do-over I might put him to sleep a week earlier than I did, but not much more than that. I’m sure that would still make me a monster to some people.

If there was anything to be learned from the ordeal, it was this: don’t judge others. Even if you know the facts you can’t prescribe what someone else should do in a given situation. Be kind–you’ll have your own difficult choices to deal with someday.

 

The photo for this post, “IMG_1362” is copyright (c) 2012 by Sasquatch I and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

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Bubble Wrap for Everybody!

“Bubble wrap” by andrewmalone on flickr– CC: A

“Bubble wrap” by andrewmalone on flickr– CC: A

It’s no wonder today’s kids are so damn fragile.

Weber Middle School in Port Washington, N.Y. recently enacted a ban on all “hard” foot- and soccer-balls as well as baseball and lacrosse balls. Additionally, they banned the playground game of tag and the ability to perform cartwheels unless those activities are performed under supervision. Port Washington Schools Superintendent Kathleen Maloney told CBS New York that the policy changes were necessary because of a rise in injuries. Within weeks, Charlotte Avenue Elementary School in Nashua, N.H.  also barred the game of tag from its playgrounds.

In recent years schools, in the name of physical and mental health and safety, have also banned things such as celebrating Father’s Day because some kids don’t have fathers, using dictionaries since they contain inappropriate words, bake sales, dancing (Footloose!), and even the simple act of touching another human being.  If you have paid attention to the news, over the past few decades there’s also been a rise among children in allergies to items including pet dander and peanuts. Does anyone remember the “everyone’s a winner” fad that was ramrodded through the world of parenting about ten years ago? That was where even the losers in competitive sports got trophies because not doing so would psychically damage them. The latest fad has been the Helicopter Parent who constantly gives support and guidance to their kids to prevent them from making mistakes. Well, I’ve officially gotten to that point in my life when I have an opinion about this.

How many children have we as a society effed up over the past thirty to forty years? How many young- to middle-aged adults are walking around unable to deal with personal failure?  How many people are sent to the hospital each year for being in the same room as an open jar of peanut butter, or are unable to enjoy the companionship of a furry pet because they get hives? During my childhood I played outside, often alone, in the dirt. I even ate dirt, like kids used to, as well as paste right from the jar at school. I was around animals, got licked on the face and mouth at times, and had my hands all over the dog and cat at playtime. I ran a lot, played tag and touch ball games, fell and slid on my knees, and occasionally got into fights. I also broke an ankle, got some bloody noses, and lots of scrapes and cuts. Oh, and I watched the UNCUT Looney Tunes cartoons with the graphic make-believe violence in them. Other than some unrelated health issues I have no appreciable allergies, can discern the difference between real and pretend violence, and can eat nearly anything I want within reason without being admitted to a hospital or morgue. In other words, I am a relatively healthy ‘old school’ adult of the kind that’s rapidly becoming extinct.

Parents, it’s okay to love your kids and want the best for them. But loving them so much that you shield them from the ugliness and violence that’s ever-present in the world will do them irreparable harm. Studies show that kids who are too sheltered grow up to resent their parents, in addition to being unable to adequately navigate through life’s day-to-day difficulties. Studies are also showing that exposure to those “filthy, unhealthy” pets as well as eating a little dirt can spur the development of their immune systems and make them healthier in the long run. On the psychological level, if you’re conditioned to always win and you experience failure your world collapses. Imagine the poor people who eventually end up working for one of these perfectionist bosses who cannot tolerate failure!

So let your children develop healthy coping mechanisms and when they lose, let it be a life lesson: Don’t stop trying, just try harder next time. If they’re learning how to play ball, skate, or climb, they might break something. The kid will definitely heal, and will learn not to repeat that particular maneuver (or to do it more skillfully when they go for a repeat performance).  Let them be licked by the family dog, make a dirt sandwich, and get filthy when they play. Oh, and if they’re writing with their left hand and not their right, don’t force them to use the “correct” hand. As long as their handwriting’s readable why should it matter? Instead, encourage them to use both and you’ll have someone who can function well if either hand is ever broken.

Until our society stops being so litigation-conscious things may not change much. However, as parents you can do your part by letting your kids just be kids. And when your local Board of Education comes up with a boneheaded ban on a harmless normal activity, stand up and call it what it is: stupid, fearful B.S. If you let them get away with it, then next year’s school uniforms just might be made from bubble wrap.

Enjoy more of Andrew Malone’s flickr photos here.

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Powerball Illogic

lottery

In mid-May of 2013 an 84 year old widow, Gloria C. Mackenzie, walked into a Florida Publix supermarket and purchased a quick pick Powerball ticket. It turns out that one of her sets of numbers won the $590 million dollar jackpot. As she waited in line to purchase her ticket, a fellow resident of Zephyrhills Florida named Mindy Crandall gave up her turn in line and told Gloria to go ahead of her.

Now the media is up in arms, relating the story and playing up Crandall’s “bad luck” (and poor choice of timing). Lots of people are apparently wondering if the elderly widow will give her benefactor some of her winnings in gratitude. The entire situation is ludicrous, both on the winner’s side as well as the loser’s. Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, the “loser’s” side. This was not a contest where, for example, the thousandth customer would win, and Crandall was that thousandth person but gave away her place in line. Nor were Mackenzie and Crandall purchasing scratch-off tickets, where there was a possibility that they were going to purchase tickets from the exact same game and each person’s place in line would be important. The lottery is a game of chance with astronomical odds of winning. The winning numbers weren’t hand-picked–they were automatically generated by a computer with a ‘supposedly’ random seed. (At least, that’s the way these things are supposed to be run.) I don’t know if Crandall also had her numbers auto-picked, but with the odds stacked against the players anyway, there’s little chance that she would’ve gotten the winning numbers had she kept her place in line.

Second, let’s look at Mackenzie’s side. She was in the right place, at the right time, and received a ticket with randomly-chosen numbers. Her odds of winning were as improbably high as anyone else’s. Is there a reason she should split any part of her money with Crandall? Not particularly. If she were going to reward an act of kindness shown to her, shouldn’t she also give money to the person who filled her gas tank so that she could drive to the store? How about the clerk who handed her the winning ticket? Any reasonable person can see where this could go. She owes no one a thing, and if she didn’t share her winnings it wouldn’t matter a bit. I firmly believe in there being a plan for each person’s life, and she would have won that prize whether she’d gotten the ticket earlier in the week or an hour after she originally purchased it. She wouldn’t have needed to go to that particular Publix, or even to play more than one set of numbers.

Now let’s look at the ludicrousness of Mackenzie’s win. According to news reports she’ll take home approximately $278 million after taxes. Did I mention that she’s 84? Being older I’m sure her personal needs are modest. She’s reported to have four children and I’m sure she’ll give each of them something. Even so, she’ll have a lot of money to manage and it’s very likely she won’t live long enough to fully enjoy her windfall.  Unfortunately lottery winners have a history of having their lives ruined by their good fortune. It gives credence to the old saying that God shows his disdain for wealth by the kinds of people He gives it to.

And, if the lottery is really a tax on people who are bad at math, what can we say about those people making the erroneous leap of logic in this situation?

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Our Political Process is Broken

…and I was happier when I was apolitical.

Elephants and Donkeys, Oh My!

Balloons Filled with Imported Hot Air from Washington D.C.

Until 2004 I didn’t care about politics. I didn’t vote and I didn’t care what happened.  I believed that my vote didn’t count for anything except in the local elections (thanks,  Electoral College!). However, I came to believe that the country under Bush was worse off, and I had to take a chance to change that. I became a rabidly active voter and began to care deeply about the process. I’m rethinking that stance.  Election Day is nearly over except for sweeping up the celebratory messes. Voters have been bombarded with ads for months now—both negative and positive—to the point that most people are fed up with the process. This year I decided to get “the vote” out of the way early and submitted an absentee ballot.  Before voting I sat down with the Voter’s Guide published by the Dayton chapter of the League of Women Voters and did some research.

The first thing I was confronted with was four (!) candidates for the office of U.S. President. I knew about Obama and Romney but hadn’t heard of Gary Johnson (Libertarian candidate) or Jill Stein (Green Party). I’d seen no advertising for these people and wondered if they were national candidates or simply contenders in Ohio. This led to a web search that took me to the Politics1.com site. They list nearly 130 candidates for the office of U.S. President in 2012. Some of these people have “ballot status” (they’re on the ballot with the Republican and Democratic candidates) in multiple states; some are in only one state and still others are running as write-in candidates. I wasn’t aware there were so many different third parties—from the “America’s Party / American Independent Party” to the “Socialist Worker’s Party.”

You might recognize a few of these names—the “Peace and Freedom Party” have Rosanne Barr (yes, the Rosanne Barr) and Cindy Sheehan as their candidates. It really gets interesting when you look at the list of ‘Independent, Other, and Write-In Candidates without Ballot Status in Any States.’ These people depend mostly on word-of-mouth to target voters unsatisfied with all the other choices who would write their names on the ballot. Just think—you could vote for Santa Claus (his real, legal name), President Emperor Caesar, “Mad Mike” Hughes, “Sophia the Logos,” Love-22, “Mad Max” Reikse, “Average Joe” Schriner, and someone named “Da Vid.” There are a lot of normal-sounding people in this list as well but I don’t think they stand a chance. According to her website, Sophia the Logos is the sole proprietor of “Nuclear Cold-Fusion a Divine Light Energy source” that “activates and reprograms DNA.” If she’d been elected, Sophia could’ve purged the corruption in Washington’s old guard with a mass DNA reprogramming session. Think of the possibilities!

Going further into the available candidates I ran across a number of races for County Sheriff, County Engineer, County Coroner, and a lot of court judges where there was exactly one candidate. These are usually incumbents. The text under the job description read “This is not a contested race. No other candidates filed to run for the position.” Something seems fundamentally wrong with this–elections are about choices. If I thought the county coroner had done a crappy job and had ruled too many deaths were caused by blunt trauma from desk staplers, I should be able to choose another person to replace him. With only one candidate I have no choice other than to withhold my vote, which wouldn’t matter because their job is assured.  I understand that a lot of people aren’t dying to be a coroner but still…

Alternate candidates in an election create an interesting dilemma for the voter. They don’t have the advertising resources or party backing that mainstream candidates enjoy so they can’t purchase lucrative ad time. They’re usually unknown until their names show up on the ballot, meaning they can’t be researched and an informed choice made while you’re at the polls. The mechanics of our political system effectively locks out anyone other than party candidates unless they do something particularly newsworthy. So what can a dissatisfied voter do in order to express themselves in our flawed system? Let’s look at the possibilities:

1)      Don’t vote at all.  Despite my belief that my vote simply doesn’t count for the presidential race, I believe it still matters in the races for Representatives, Senators, and State and local races. Withholding my vote completely will affect a much wider swath that I’d intend to do. Not to mention voting is a privilege and not a right, so you shouldn’t waste the opportunity.

2)      Vote for the alternative candidates. The problem with this tack is that people other than the mainstream candidates have no realistic chance in hell of winning.  If you then vote for the underdogs, you might consider your vote wasted (as I would). This would also mean that, if you didn’t like either candidate, you’ve lost your chance to elect the lesser of two evils. Keep in mind that voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.

3)      Abstain from voting for those you don’t like but vote for those you do like. People who don’t like to leave things incomplete will hate this option. If there’s no competition for an office, only one choice on the ballot and you don’t like the candidate, then don’t vote in that category. This is the best move for your conscience’s sake–at least you’re not enabling evil.

4)      Become the enemy. Get involved in local politics and work your way up the chain in one of the major parties. Run for that coveted seat of power yourself and win, and then abandon your campaign promises and constituents to enact your own agenda. Oh wait, that was the problem with many Reps and Congressmen in the 2010 election class…

Well, now that the madness has passed we can all take a stress-relieving deep breath and get back to our everyday lives. At least until the next election cycle.

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How I Spent My Spring Break

…and no, it wasn’t a trip to the beach.

I’ve been a diabetic for nearly twenty years; at least, that’s when I was first diagnosed with this damnable disease. I spent the first 12 years or so in denial. After all, I didn’t feel as if anything was wrong so why should I care about my blood glucose levels? I was given meds by the doctor, which I dutifully took while eating what I damn well pleased and didn’t keep close tabs on my health. The type and variety of meds I was prescribed increased, and insulin was eventually added to the mix. I continued my carefree denial and life was otherwise good.

That all changed on a business trip in the fall of 2003, when I awoke thousands of miles from home with most of the vision obscured in my left eye. I contacted my ophthalmologist and made an appointment for my return. The diagnosis was that the blood vessels in my retina had weakened and begun to leak blood into my eye. After several months when the vision cleared enough, laser surgeries were performed from outside the eye to seal those blood vessels. When I was finally confronted by the effects of diabetes I got religion. I started eating right, tracked my blood glucose, and tried taking better care of myself.

In the nearly nine years since then my body has suffered an ongoing series of indignities. Blood leakage in both eyes eventually led to more laser surgeries and finally two vitrectomies that saved my vision.  I had gastric bypass surgery almost four years ago in an attempt to halt the diabetes in its tracks. It failed to do so but reduced my dependence on meds and made the glucose easier to control. (I also lost 90 pounds.) Several years back I discovered that I’d had minor heart muscle damage when my LAD artery was found to be collapsed in two places and narrowed in another. After two stents and an angioplasty I’d beaten the Widowmaker.  Life was good again, but I always wondered what was lying in wait for me.

I found out in March. I returned to my cardiologist when some of my pre-stent symptoms returned. He scheduled a heart cath to see what the problem was. I checked into the hospital with no particular worries—I’d been through this before and it wasn’t a big deal, right? Afterward while I was still groggy the cardiologist talked with me about the results. Both the front and rear arteries to my heart were blocked 90 – 95% at their junctions. He said he was referring me to a heart surgeon for a bypass, and then he quickly bowed out and left me alone with my thoughts. A bypass? Wasn’t that where they cracked your chest wide open and worked directly on the heart? That was the one thing I’d heard about over the years that really made me nervous. The surgeon finally arrived and talked with me about what I’d face. He told me he’d needed the same procedure himself three years earlier. He told me that the first eight days would be rough but things would quickly get better. He then said he was back in the O.R. performing surgeries three weeks later.  His staff wanted to schedule the operation for the following week, less than five days away, but I had it scheduled for nearly two weeks out. I had a number of things to do and I needed to do them quickly. They were skeptical but agreed to my timetable.

The first thing I did was to make a will. I’d put it off for years, but after doing it I was finally at peace. I knew that things probably wouldn’t go exactly according to my wishes even with a will, but I’d done my best.  I consulted with several good friends to get things lined up that needed done, and made arrangements to board my dogs for the week or so I’d be in the hospital. And just in case the worst happened, I spent some time writing a statement I’d want read aloud at my funeral and even picked out some music for the ceremony.  Did I ever mention there are times I can be anal-retentive?

I spent time having a number of tests done before my admittal to the hospital, and checked in on Thursday for my 7 a.m. surgery the next morning, on Good Friday. You read that right—and these circumstances led to several good one liners from friends and co-workers about that one.

“Good Friday? You know what happened to Jesus!”

“Just don’t let them spread your arms out when they get you on the table.”

“Let’s hope the surgeon’s sober at 7 a.m. that morning.”

I added to the last one, “And that his Tourette’s is under control.” This is a good place to mention how important it is to keep a sense of humor when you’re faced with serious situations. Mine tends toward Black Comedy, with a good sense of the morbid thrown in, but whatever your style you should always try to find the lighter side.

Good Friday 2012, 5:20 a.m. I’d managed to sleep fairly well and was awakened for my prep. Soon I was wheeled down to the surgery waiting room where I was joined briefly by my friends Jim and Dawn. I’d already been given a sedative and I was a bit anxious—where was the surgeon? I’d talked with the anesthesiologist and a number of nurses but really wanted to see the guy with the knife. He finally came in and we talked briefly (I guess; I was already half-sedated and I don’t remember much of it). After Jim took a picture of me in the bed with both thumbs raised high, I was wheeled into surgery.

What followed was nearly two days of “blurry.” I knew that I’d have a breathing tube shoved down my throat and that concerned me. I have a horrible gag reflex and could see myself being very uncomfortable. A nurse had told me not to worry. “You’ll be hooked up to all kinds of sensors. They’ll know if something’s wrong. If you move in bed they’ll know, and they’ll be watching you closely for the first twenty-four hours.” And so I awoke after surgery, arms strapped down and unable to open my eyes, with a tube down my throat. I heard a reassuring male voice and I clacked my teeth against the tube.

“You want some ice? I’m sorry but you can’t have any just yet because of the tube.” I could move my legs, so I thrashed them a bit to set off the sensors I’d been told about. Fade out…I was probably given more morphine. I awakened later, same drill. Clacked my teeth, was told no ice, and this time I shook my head back and forth. “Ah, you want the tube out.” I nodded. “I’m sorry, but it has to stay in a bit longer.” I thrashed my legs a little, faded out. The next thing I remember was a voice saying, “I’m pulling the tube, cough while I do it.” I did and the tube was out. I was finally given ice to crunch on, and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

The day after the operation I received bad news. A chest X-ray to check on the healing process showed cloudiness where my left lung should have been. I was bleeding internally which was making breathing difficult and painful. The blood needed to be drained off. I was directed to sit on the edge of the bed with my head and arms thrown over the tray table. I was first given more morphine, and then an aspirating needle was inserted through my back into my chest cavity. The effort was unsuccessful so we went to the next step.  The doctor administered a “nerve block” as the area where they would insert the tube had lots of nerves in it. Then he cut a hole in my side and inserted a tube between two ribs into my chest cavity. I’m told that a liter and a half of blood came out, and I think a lot of it ended up on the bed. He kept telling me I’d feel a lot better when the blood was drained off, but instead of relief I got new pain from the end of the tube being inside my chest cavity. It eased after a bit but bothered me a lot depending on how I positioned myself.

The next day I was transferred to a “step down” unit, or a room in a regular part of the hospital with less than one-on-one attention. At least the room was a single, and the door could be closed to block out some of the noise. You see, outside the room was a door to an adjoining hallway, which led to a wing that was undergoing construction. There was a constant banging from that door as well as a constant flow of noise and chatter from the floor itself.

That constant flow of noise coupled with the near-constant morphine injections created what I call “morphine nightmares.” Imagine this: you have a recording device (computer, digital audio recorder, whatever) that has a capacity of five seconds. You start recording and, when the five-second limit is reached, recording stops and the audio plays back in a loop. Every few loops it records a few more seconds of fresh audio, replacing part of the audio you’ve been listening to with new sounds. Meanwhile you’re left nodding in-and-out of consciousness while listening to this symphony of noise in your head. Oh, and you feel nauseous from the morphine. I mentioned the nausea to a nurse who told me she could give me something for the nausea, but they could only give it every eight hours while they administered the morphine every six hours. So there’s a built-in period where you’ll feel sick no matter what you do. Fortunately after a few days the morphine became less necessary and finally stopped altogether. What blew me away was the realization that there are some people who pay big money to achieve this type of high illegally. I now know I’d never be a druggie. I believe I’m allergic to them. In fact, when I left the hospital I was given a prescription for Percocet and I shredded it.

For the past few weeks I’ve been recuperating at home. I had some visits both in-hospital and at home from friends and co-workers who also brought food to my home so I wouldn’t have to cook. I started a course of cardiac rehab, where you exercise under medical supervision and a heart monitor. My biggest problem has been fatigue. In the beginning I got winded fairly easily and had to fight for air. It’s slowly getting better but it will be a few weeks before I can go back to work.  It’s given me lots of quality time with the dogs and enabled me to write. In all, it’s not the kind of spring break I’d have chosen for myself but I’m thankful for the time to slow down and appreciate life. A now-retired co-worker and friend left this message on my Facebook page: “Good to know you got through the surgery good. You get a new future.” That was a heavy thought…and I’ve had some time to figure out the implications. I’ve just had another birthday and I almost didn’t make it. I’m thankful I listened to what my body was telling me–and I’d encourage every reader of this blog to spend more time listening to your bodies. Someday that time spent might save your life.

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Playing the Blame Game

or, Why Do People Waste So Much Time Scapegoating?

 I worked for the local PBS station in a previous life in IT support. I considered it a dream job—I not only supported computers but got to indulge my interests in audio, video, doing voiceovers, and TV.  It was really great for the first year-and-a-half…and then things started coming unglued.  Besides the fact that the working environment was, as one of their video editors put it, an “effing Peyton Place,” the top management was inept.  There was a President/General Manager who didn’t understand many of the technical complexities and didn’t care (surprise!), he just wanted to use every available resource to make money.  The Chief Engineer at the time, and my boss, was a big Teddy Bear who was always eager to please and would roll on his employees and his decisions when the President barked.  Those of us who understood how things worked and asked detailed questions about proposed plans were deemed “negative and un-cooperative.”  I was unfortunate enough to get tangled in some of those “Peyton Place” machinations and, after experiencing a catastrophic event that is every IT support person’s nightmare, was eventually invited to tender my resignation as the station and I were “no longer a good fit.”  They were generous in that I was allowed to work part-time for six months at full salary, while I searched for a new job.  (They were probably afraid I’d do something nasty to them or their computers, or sue them for wrongful termination.  But after another staff person admitted they’d been deliberately corrupting the station’s program rights database and I got her fired, you’d think they would have understood I don’t play that way. Whatever—I got another, better job within a few months.)

That nightmare catastrophic event was the failure of a hard drive in the station’s PBS messaging and email server. At the time PBS gave every station an Apple Quadra 650 (as I remember) that ran a program called FirstClass.  The machine came with a magneto-optical drive (remember those?) for backups.  A backup program ran a script nightly, and the backup discs were regularly rotated.  The problem with most backup systems is that you cannot tell if your backups are any good unless you try to restore them.  One evening the main hard drive in the Quadra failed.  An attempt to restore the previous day’s data failed, as well as the day before that, and the day before that.  I was finally able to restore the data from several weeks before, but a lot of data was lost.  Since most of the staff used FirstClass as a virtual filing cabinet for all their data (despite being warned many times not to), several important people like the business director were ‘inconvenienced’ in a major way.  I admitted the failure to the entire staff in the weekly meeting and accepted the blame for the failure without making excuses.  That must’ve been a first; the director of corporate sponsorship told me later with a hint of awe that he really admired me for doing that.  Later I found out that the business director went nuclear in a closed door meeting with the upper level staff and ranted, “Somebody’s got to pay for this! There has to be consequences!”  Not long afterward the invitation came that forever changed my life for the better.

In the ten+ years since I’ve thought a lot about that phase of my life, and what I’d have done differently.  We were always pressured to cut costs and do more with less, but I should have invested in a couple of identical hard drives to practice installing the backups onto.  I should have retired those damned MO discs and simply used hard drives in a regular rotation.  Forcefully reminding the staff to copy their valuable information onto other media on a weekly basis would have been a good idea.  (So would having a boss that would make a decision and back it and his staff under pressure, but I digress.)  I’ve also thought a lot about the business manager’s insistence for blood in retribution for his loss—not in a vengeful way, but in a realization that the bloodshed didn’t solve one single problem.  Instead of looking at the issue and saying “It doesn’t matter how we got here—how can we work together to solve this crisis?” the only acceptable option was to “kill” the person who screwed up regardless of that person’s previous record.  (In my case the other entanglement sealed my fate, but my boss’s revelation that the President/GM never thought I was the right pick for the job probably meant I was a goner anyway.)

I’ve seen this problem before, many times—most recently in the case of Tony Hayward, BP’s beleaguered CEO.  Tony was probably like most corporate CEOs.  Most if not all of the company’s daily operations were not even on his personal radar except in the broadest sense.  His primary concern was most likely how to grow BP and increase its value for shareholders.  Things like safety violations and drill rig design compromises were left to others many management levels below him, and when those topics arose they probably never got to his level.  Yet BP made Hayward its public face, a spokesperson charged with soothing frayed nerves and tempers while trying to spin the tragedy into a less negative event.  There were a couple of problems with that decision.  Hayward was not from the States so he had no idea about the area and what it provided to the country.  He was unable to soothe tempers or nerves when various attempts to stop the leak failed.  He was chained by company lawyers into political triplespeak that shielded the company from serious legal consequences if they admitted certain things outright. And he had a fatal flaw many enlightened people share: he could see the futility of the blame game and he visibly displayed his intolerance for it.

Keep this in mind: I’m not advocating for Mr. Hayward or his company in any way. What the company did not only in its reported flaunting of safety rules and regulations as well as compromising the well’s design is inexcusable.  The best thing BP could have done early on was to accept full blame and financial responsibility without leaving wiggle room by saying they’d pay “all legitimate claims.”  The media were in full offensive position before, but feelings toward BP became more hostile after that statement was made.  Then came the thousands of reporters asking the same inane questions over and over again, as well as the constant interviews with “the little people” (as BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gaffed during a press conference) showing how their lives were devastated.  All of this constant attention and yammering is like a hammer, beating the carcass of the horse long after the beast’s life has departed. I believe BP gets it—they screwed up in the most public way possible and were caught in flagrante delicto.  I believe they know exactly how much trouble they’re in and how much the environment will be impacted, but perhaps not how much it will cost them.  Mr. Hayward had finally had enough when he said he wanted his life back—a statement that further infuriated the populace but was one of the more heartfelt expressions of humanity to come out of BP’s side of the tragedy.

But it still wasn’t over.  “His life? What about ours?” the residents of the Gulf started to wail and cry.  Then Congress got involved, doing what they do best—spinning their wheels and wasting taxpayer dollars by putting on a public spectacle worthy of Roman gladiators, attempting to beat the oil industry in general and BP in particular into a bloody carcass for the delight of the American people. It got to be too much for Mr. Hayward, who had started the hearing hat in hand with apologies from BP.  When the inanity continued and refused to let up, he returned after a break with an attitude of disdain for the process.  He began answering questions with perceived contempt, even looking at his watch at one point as if to ask when it would finally be over.  He left the hearing more despised than before, but the entire point was missed by many people who watched every interminable moment of the proceedings.  The exercise was a waste of time.  It might have made people feel better by putting a human face on the disaster rather than a corporate one, but not one more gallon of oil was captured or prevented from flowing when it was over. Congress doubtless thinks they did their job and justified their place in the government, but all they really did was to stir an already smelly pot (literally and figuratively) while fanning the flames of public outrage.

When will we learn?  It is every single person’s responsibility to do what they can, to pull together in times of crisis to solve whatever problem has presented itself.  As for the Gulf spill, there will be time after the well is plugged and the cleanup is underway to assign blame and collect retribution.  Oh, and you media types?  Why don’t you do right now what you do so well after a disaster—turn your cameras off, go away, and stop making a circus out of this mess.  Only this time, give updates when something newsworthy is happening, and try to find some bright spots in this dark night of our souls. Stop being so incendiary and be more helpful. Screw the ratings for once. That goes for especially for you, CNN—dump the ‘bug’ on your screen pointing out how many days the oil crisis has gone on.  When the blame game is played everyone loses.

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