(The author 15 February 2015. Photo:Troy Lynch)
This photo was taken on the coldest day and night of that February, two years ago. I had gone to Burlington, KY to spend a few days with my friend, Sami. On the second day of my visit, I bundled up to venture out into the single digit temperatures to take some photos of his wooded hillside property covered with the sugary, chrystaline snow left by a storm two nights previous. After an hour outside, despite the fact that I was sweating as much as I would on one of those late July Ohio Valley afternoons at 95° and 95% humidity, all motor control in my hands had come to a state in which my fingers were operating with all the dexterity but even less articulation than a Barbie doll’s legs, and feeling as if they were at a searing temperature sufficiently hellish to transform those perfectly and impossibly shapely doll legs into the puddle of molten plastic they would be as it reaches flash point, begins flaming and regains the blackness of the sludgy, cloying state that it held as petroleum buried deep in the earth for many, many millions of years.
Let me explain. On the afternoon of Christmas 1977 I got on my bike, heading to the home of the Hanson family(Jenifer Hanson). That day it was unseasonably warm, in the high 50°s and I was anxious to get away from my home where the holiday was that year (most years) driven by the dysfunction of an alcoholic, abusive father and a mother who, though physically impaired by a serious and painful injury, was perpetually holding onto all she could; house; kids; cars; even husband, as every case of beer and bottle of licour he consumed threatened to wash it all away into an abyss that she had been raised in but managed to escape and was determined never to return to. Add to that less than idyllic household my homosexuality as a third, or possibly sixth elephant in the room and you should understand why after the chain broke on my bike a scant quarter mile out, even after I struggled unsuccessfully to fix it in the rapidly falling temperatures, I chose to tarry on as an Alberta Clipper of phenomenal and now legendary force delivered it’s unexpected and massive cargo of sub-zero white Canadian inconvenience.
By the time I had reached the outlying, houseless streets of the undeveloped part of the Glenn Lakes subdivision I had been walking against the storm or attempting to repair my bike for over two hours. As I walked past a short cul-de-sac I stopped, marvelling a beautiful swirl of drifted snow about four feet high that had formed there, and thought I should lie down and rest. I had been enveloped by an ironic warmth and a heavy eyed sleepiness that implored me to curl up in that soft blanket of snow bank, but as I tried to put my bike down, I couldn’t release the handlebars and noticed that my fingers had become as white as the snow. That is when I realized something was seriously wrong: I shouldn’t feel that warmth; white immovable fingers is only a good thing when one’s hands were feminine and the stars of an Ivory dishwashing liquid commercial; I have icicles clinging to my fourteen year old’s wispy mustache and my eyebrows and oh, wow, my hair! I have no idea how long I stood there, more than three times talking myself in then out of the deadly respite I wanted to take, but I do know that I left my home at 3pm and arrived at the Hanson’s at 6pm. After peeling my pearly fingers from the icy glaze that had formed over them as they grasped in determination to keep that bike in the afterlife, I rang the doorbell , and a depricating dread washed over me as I stood waiting, thinking how I was going to ruin Christmas for this family that I had come to treasure for its welcoming and loving normalcy that for someone like me was elusive as Bigfoot in the untethered social upheavals of late 1970s America.
In a display that heralded the lack of dysfunction and endearing charm of the Hanson family, all six children, ages six to seventeen, and Mom and Dad answered the the door, ready with a good natured, teasing joke about the cold and snow, but their smiling faces were replaced by ones of shocked concern as the gravity of the falling mercury pulled all the levity out of that moment’s orbit and was sufficient, ans cause time to slow and allow me a front row seat to the consequential fallout of the poor judgement of a teenager. Finally Matt, who was seven or eight broke the spell by saying with a humorously candid aplomb “Oooh! His hands are all white!” and this family of eight individuals went into action, leaving behind the dismayal that rang their doorbell on that Christmas evening, so they could attend to the boy whom it had escorted and from whom it needed an immediate intervention. They did so with a precision that dysfunction would have stalled, or worse derailed when presented with such urgency. This is when things become clouded in my memory. I know that Jen called the hospital and relayed the instructions to put my hands under cold running water while Christine assisted me at the kitchen sink, but as the icy cold water ran over my hands, awakening nerve cells that had shut down along with capillaries as the skin cells in my hands had begun to rupture under the expansive preasure of the water inside as it had turned to ice, making it feel as if she had thrust them into fire, and then I passed out from the pain. With little regard for the Winter Storm of the Century that was raging, Jack and Shirley Hanson got me to Bethesda North Hospital while either Christine or Jen held me in the back seat of their car, waiting with me until my parents were able to get there.
For several weeks my hands were useless due to pain and the dead skin turning a dark blue, thickening and stiffening before pealing off. To this day I lose feeling and blood flow below 50°, my hands turning that same ghostly white, then as temperatures approach freezing the burning sensation returns, although only to a ghostly degree of what it had been that Christmas night in 1977 when I got frostbite.
That afternoon, two years ago at Sami’s house, I came in from the cold, spending the time it took for the burning to abate and the color of life to return to my hands, relating that story as he prepared a dinner of stuffed Arabic aubergines and the two of us drank one of those red Zinfandels with a flavor so big it was practically chewable. With the wine in full effect and dinner settling into our bellies for a along Winter’s nap, we reminisced about the first of many Christmas parties he had hosted after being back in Greater Cincinnati from his native Kuwait. My ex and I along with another friend had spent the night at Sami’s while a snow storm and an ill prepared Kentucky Department of Transportation stranded us and hundreds of travelers just four miles north of us at the Ohio border, far to the south at the Tennessee border hundreds more, and an estimated 10,000 on the Commonwealth’s Interstate Highways.
As the evening proceeded and we became as stuffed as those aubergines and were satededly regaled by reminiscences of the early days of our neer twenty year friendship we listened obediently to the truth in the wine as it reminded us that this night the temperature would be dipping to -16°F, making it one of the coldest nights since the Winter of 1977-78, and therefore one best spent protected by a thick layer of blankets and the distractions of dreams. We said our goodnights then he went to his room and I to mine at opposite ends of the house.
Within an hour a pain that had thrice before vexed me over the same number of years had me writhing and moaning as it’s severity grew progressively intense. Just two weeks before, in similar circumstances, had I suffered for twelve hours as I waited unnecessarily for a call from my doctor’s office that the naïveté of a fifty-one year old with health insurance for the first time in his adult life (thanks to the ADA) erroneously had me thinking was prudent and requisite. By the time I received that call the pain had passed making it unlikely that the suspected cause of gallstones would be detected but I was told to not hesitate going to hospital emergency should it return.
In 1996 I was diagnosed with a disease that is manageable with expensive medications, though without those medications most die within five years of diagnosis, and because that diagnosis resulted in an ineligbility for insurance coverage, I had spent the preceding thirteen years knowing that this disease was ever increasingly likely to bring about by death. Every illness, major and minor, skin blemishes, periods of lethargic exhaustion, for more than a decade seemed a plausible harbinger of my impending demise. I began having fevers monthly, then weekly and finally after three years of this, every few days. Though none were that grim herald, the physiological and psychological impacts of living with such uncertainty, for such a long time, had compounded the then undiagnosed CPTSD I have been treated for over the past two and a half years. What happened next is the linchpin around which these recollections hinge, and that door to which those hinges are affixed opens to a greater sense of humanity.
I woke Sami up on what was indeed the coldest night since that long ago Winter and he drove me to University Hospital in his Chevy Suburban with an interior so roomy that after the 45 minute drive the temperature hadn’t climbed much above 0°, though when the nurse at the hospital took mine it was 94°. Once there I had the wretched remains of my badly diseased gallbladder and the single, fist sized gallstone that had been precipitating the plethora of symtoms that, because of the inaccessibility of medical treatment, were attributed to the manageable but deadly disease of which I had been aware. The surgery with complications that directly resulted from the dysfunction of living for such a long time with a badly diseased organ, and a two day hospital stay did not incur a bill that would have been impossible for me to pay, and soon after, for the first time in my adult life my physical and mental health began to improve.
When confronted with crisis, the dysfunctional will more often than not become distractedly mired by considerations and worries, some germane most not so much, until the crisis is no longer the focus of action, allowing the impact of that crisis to compound. When confronted with the same crisis those not impaired by dysfunction readily and with the barest modicum hesitation, necessitated by mindful assessment, immediately following which, they will seek resolution to that crisis, eliminating or working around any impediments.
Although far from perfect the ADA sought to eliminate many of the barriers to resolution of the crisis in health care that the dysfunction of American society had allowed to snowball as market forces were given deference over humanity. I will fully admit that health care is not a right under our great Constitution but it is a dysfunction of our society that with the third highest per capita economy in the world; the strongest most sustained economy of the modern era, that such a crisis has perpetuated for more than a century, despite the mission of the government, clearly stated in the Constitution to “promote the general welfare”. Sad.