Since this is our final issue, it's time for a bit of closure. Coming up next is
the second of Sharon Farber's two articles and, we regret to say, the conclusion of
her 'Medical Adventures' series. There's a lot of things we'll miss about publishing
a fanzine, and one of them will be receiving a new Sharon Farber article in the mail.
Her final article in the series offers some closure of its own, in a way, as well as
a further demonstration of the old maxim that 'No Good Deed Goes Unpunished'.
Last week I was asked to see an unfortunate in the surgical ICU, a woman who had had a cardiac arrest as she was being wheeled into the unit. Despite the fact that a well-equipped resuscitation team jumped on her immediately, she suffered severe brain damage as well as multiorgan system failure. That is the fate of the vast majority of people whose hearts stop but are jump-started long enough to reach the hospital (and most don't make it that far), and also of many lucky enough to drop dead inside a top medical facility. The life expectancy of someone who dies is, well, about as long as that of a six-pack at a Superbowl party.
Part of a neurologist's job is to evaluate patients with anoxic encephalopathy (brain damage caused by lack of oxygen), and to give the family the odds for improvement. This woman looked about as hopeless as you can get, short of frank brain death. A machine was breathing for her; a portable kidney dialysis unit hummed continuously as it filtered her blood; there were at least half a dozen bags of intravenous medicine hanging above her.
I was trying to look in her ear, was getting tangled up in the endotracheal tube and the spaghetti lines straightened up, cursing, and some of my hair -- it's waist length, gets caught regularly in car doors, and after the movie Hannibal came out our office nurses became obsessed with slamming it in refrigerator doors -- my hair, by some fluke, drifted toward the dialysis machine and became caught up in the rotors. I was yanked toward the machine, my hair wrapped about the dial, the alarms started blaring as dialysis stopped, the nurses heard me shouting as I was getting scalped.
So there I was, examining a doomed patient and we're all laughing hysterically.
There is a fine line between tragedy and farce.
# # # #
I remember some letters to the editor of The Flash that I read in the early `60s. Readers complained that The Flash was not really comic; perhaps it would better be called a tragicomic. I found this quite profound -- I was ten, okay?
(Now, what I know about literary theory could be inscribed upon the head of a pin and still leave plenty of room for angels to dance, but I suspect that pure adventure stories are exempt from the binary characterization as comic or tragic. Though from my current viewpoint I do consider The Trickster with his anti-gravity shoes, Captain Cold with his freeze-ray, and the Weather Wizard with his weather control wand to be extremely tragic for their hopeless lack of vision. They could be millionaires, living off their patents. They could be entrepreneurs in the fields of entertainment, construction, air conditioning. They could be humanitarians, bringing rain to the Sahara and sunny days to Oregon. But no, they choose to be petty criminals, knocking over branch offices of the First Bank of Central City, to inevitably be caught by the Scarlet Speedster.)
As a writer, sometimes feel that almost any tragedy can be comedy, and vice versa, depending on presentation and viewpoint. Take Weekend at Bernie's. A would-be comic romp. But from Bernie's standpoint, more of a tragedy. Perhaps even for the young executives seeking their boss's approval. Could they not have wound up as the corporate versions of masterless samurai? (Whoa. Kurosawa's Weekend at Bernie's. Sometimes I frighten myself.)
What about the death of a great or beloved leader? Can you write a comedy about the assassination of JFK? Well yeah, it just won't be tasteful. (I saw an ad in several Christmas catalogues for a dye-cast model of the limo in which JFK was shot, complete with Jackie and the Connollys, the victims in that Zapruder-famous pose as the bullets enter... Only $70. Hard to top as a sophisticated stocking stuffer.)
It's hard to joke if the loss of the king leaves his realm in chaos, fodder for conquest... But what if the king decreed that he should be succeeded by whichever warrior prince is brave enough to rescue his daughter from one of those pesky towers guarded by dragons? Surely no less intelligent a method of choosing the head of state than the Electoral College. And what if a cowardly prince convinces an earnest yet dim stagehand to don his armor and undertake the quest.
Can you have fun with the destruction of planet Earth? No sweat. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Are some things simply too awful even for black comedy? Probably. The Holocaust (Benigni and Robin Williams notwithstanding). Though perhaps we have simply not yet birthed the comic genius who will create the definitive Hogan's Heroes' version of Auschwitz.
Tragedy. Comedy. All in the presentation.
# # # #
May 4, 2001 was the 110th anniversary of the day that Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty died, locked in each other's arms as they tumbled from the Reichenbach Falls. Some Sherlockians believe that Moriarty had been Holmes' teacher or friend. It's always much more personal when your archfoe was once your pal.
I had an enemy. Let Is call him Magneto, after another villain who had once been the hero's friend. Or perhaps I should name him for Mr. Fantastic's friend turned foe Doctor Doom; right title. Or for Superman's boyhood buddy Lex Luthor, also follicularly-challenged. No, Magneto will do.
He had been my mentor. I turned to him for help, I gave him respect, I accepted his leadership. Then he, in a bid for power, allied himself with an unscrupulous lot. My practice was damaged, I had to stop teaching, I lost many insured patients (or as managed care mavens prefer to call them, "covered lives"). I found that doctors whom I had also thought my friends, doctors whose family members I had cared for, even some doctors I had treated, would no longer send me patients. And that some of these doctors, desiring to refer my current patients where they could receive an infinitesimal share of the fees, would lie.
And so I was threatened with lawsuits based entirely on things these doctors had said.
Now, I am not perfect. I make mistakes. But the things I was accused of were laughable.
(I heard even worse stories from other doctors whose patients were similarly aggressively redirected. Leading to the joke: Q: What's the difference between the Mafia and the ________ Medical Group? A: The Mafia has a code of honor.)
Meanwhile, my 13 hour days had became 14, 15, 16. 1 was on call every third night and weekend. I lived on fries and shakes consumed while driving. My weight ballooned, blood pressure soared, mood plummeted, self-esteem tanked. I felt so disheartened and worthless that I stopped writing and broke up with a boyfriend. It was the last nail in the coffin of my idealism.
And I wondered how I had been such a bad judge of character. Perhaps, I concluded, Magneto had simply been a Rorshach pattern which I had misinterpreted as honorable and trustworthy.
Of course, being the chronically sleep-deprived bitch that I am, I didn't take it lying down. I told Magneto what I thought of him. For a number of years I either ignored him or insulted him.
# # # #
Friday, May 4. I hoped to finish early and drag friends out to celebrate the death and resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. (I used to hold a birthday party for Holmes every January 6. But everyone is all partied out on January 6.) I also hoped to get back in time for our office's Secretaries' Day lunch, which I had missed several years running. I skipped breakfast and set off for a hospital 30 minutes north, where I have a satellite office.
About 7:15, I turned onto the drive leading to the parking garage. It's usually deserted at this hour; doctors in this community tending to round later than in the city. A white Saturn was stopped outside the garage; not unusual for someone to pause while someone inside backs up. There was an SUV between me and the Saturn. A surgeon got out, striding toward the Saturn with an angry set to his shoulders. He was going to demand that the driver move.
Then I saw the surgeon do a double take. This was not automotive trouble. I turned off my car and sprinted. The surgeon was opening the door to the car, reaching in. was behind the door, couldn't see a thing. "He's dead," he said.
"Shit," replied. An inauspicious start to the day.
"It's Magneto," he continued.
"Shit," I repeated, with somewhat more feeling.
We stared at each other momentarily, and then he tried to lift. Magneto is tall, and a Saturn door not large. He looked at me again. "Well, give me a hand."
He filled the doorway, reached around, got my fingers around Magneto's collar, and hauled. We lowered him ungently to the ground, legs still in the car.
The surgeon looked at me and I at him. He'd been there first; by medical etiquette it was his code, I was the assistant. He held out his cellphone. I'm an idiot with cellphones, so I turned and ran back to my car while he began CPR. I called 911 then the hospital ER, screaming for them to send the codeteam and ran back. The surgeon was looking tired. CPR is harder than it looks. He gestured for me to take over respirations.
No one else stopped to help. A pediatrician later complimented me on my public spiritedness for running to help someone with car trouble. A pathologist admitted to having seen the Saturn idling and to walking by without stopping. We did acquire a small audience of the elderly and infirm, who wandered over from the medical building opposite to watch.
"You know, he's not my friend," I told the surgeon. "He's one of my worst enemies." As he compressed, counting to 15. Then I'd breath twice.
I wasn't sure it was working. You can see the resuscitation dummy's chest expand. For real is not as easy. "Shit," I kept repeating. "I don't think I'm getting a seal."
If he wasn't getting air, he wouldn't make it. His odds sucked in general, but the air thing was now my responsibility, and I'd feel guilty at the inevitable.
I thought should be feeling something at that moment. And I realized what I was feeling. Sheer overwhelming terror.
I've been in some bad situations in my life. I once crawled into a flipped car leaking gasoline to help the driver. I once, just like in a bad movie, jumped in front of a kid on a runaway horse. I once was tied up by a lunatic. But I had not been afraid in any of those situations, just mad as hell -- at the driver for trying a hairpin turn at 50 mph, at my sister for putting the child on the skittish horse, at myself for being stupid enough to be alone with my wacky employer.
But this time there was no one to be angry at -- my usual anger, in fact, defused -- and my heart was going about 150. (The surgeon later told me that his hands were shaking so that he couldn't operate for an hour.) Codes aren't scary in the hospital; they're part of the job. You're ready for them. There's equipment, medicine, more help than you need. This was, well, blind fate, and all we could do was give it a try and expect the worst.
I was also thinking, "Damn, I hope he doesn't puke." Vomit is the usual outcome of artificial respiration, and it makes it sort of hard to continue.
Then, pausing during the count, found myself looking at his eyes, inches from mine. And that was the creepiest part of the morning. Because he didn't have dead eyes.
As a neurologist, I'm used to looking into the eyes of the comatose, of the dead, of patients whose hearts stopped and brains fried. Glassy, unreactive eyes, lids open.
This was different. His lids were open just a bit, and I could see the irises under the lashes. His eyes looked -- peaceful. Not cliche peaceful, but...laid back. He had the expression of someone kicked back on the beach, a couple piña coladas down, enjoying the sunny day.
Magneto was one of the most Type A people I knew -- next to him, I'm Cheech and Chong. If the National Institute of Standards needs a prototype to put behind glass and label UPTIGHT, he's their guy. I realized that, even when we'd been friends, I had never seen him relaxed. Of everything strange that morning, this view of his eyes was what freaked me out the most.
# # # #
He survived. He more than survived, he was back to work six weeks later. It was a nine days wonder. Cardiac arrests just don't do that well. Cardiologists would say, "I saw your patient in the hall," then shake their heads in amazement.
Then they'd smile wickedly, and ask if I wanted the billing code for CPR.
I actually tried a couple times to start a conversation with Magneto, but it didn't work. I did receive a thank you letter and a souvenir clock. I keep the clock on what I call the Wall of Mortality (after the Animaniacs' Wheel of Morality), between a nice arrangement of dead flowers in a vase left over from a friend's hospitalization for cancer and the office's model skeleton, which I rendered cheery with a Grateful Deadish array of plastic roses.
# # # #
So, what's the point of the story? What are the implications of helping to save an enemy?
Other than proving the cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. I mentioned it to an editor. "If I wrote this in a story, you'd reject it out of hand."
"Right," he replied. "But you could selling it for big bucks to the Reader's Digest as a personal story, or Writer's Digest on the difference between life and art."
The first repercussion was that I was unable to work on my novel for half a year.
I have developed a delusion regarding my prophetic abilities. I was plotting a novel on Medea, and a ditz killed her two children. I started work on a disaster novel about a big quake in Japan, and guess what happened? I outlined a novel about terrorists taking over a hospital, and it happened somewhere in Russia...
A friend and considered writing a book where a comet hits the earth -- boring old stuff, except that it would be Halley's comet in 1910 and the characters would include Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf. I stopped that project real quick.
When the parking lot incident occurred, I had just finished the second draft of a book about Nazi werewolves -- not a lot of chance of that happening, thank you. But there's a character the heroine despises but will later come to adore, and there's a scene where she's helping shove his apparently dead body into a car for a getaway.
As we were pulling Magneto out of the Saturn thought, "This is like my novel in reverse." And that was enough to block my rewrite. Well, that and the thought of 550 pages of typos, grammatical errors, anachronisms and continuity problems.
# # # #
The second repercussion was that I did something nasty to my right shoulder and sterno-clavicular joint in the extrication. I had had to lift all wrong, using just my arms. It hurt bad enough I asked advice of an orthopod and one of my partners -- and me the sort of person who says "Yeah, I saw a doctor," meaning in the mirror while brushing my teeth. It's all better now, if I don't violate the mutual non-aggression pact and lift anything over ten pounds.
But for months it kept me from sleeping. And when I did sleep, when I'd dream, I'd see his dead eyes and I'd wake up with my heart going 150 again.
Until 9-11. The image of the second plane entering the tower replaced Magneto in the landscape of my nightmares.
# # # #
The most annoying sequel to the rescue was its effect on the medical community. They considered it hysterical.
I feared that would happen. I asked the ER doctor to keep my name out of it. But it was too good a story.
I had called two of my partners. When I finally got back to the office, very late, I found that it had been the topic of conversation at the Secretary's Day lunch. My associate had amused all with, "Mrs. Magneto called to complain about the lipstick." (It had briefly crossed my mind to be thankful I'd been wearing the really pale pink and not the bright red.)
Not a great witticism, but notable for being the first. And because this doctor had choked up when I told her, the only person to express any sentiment save amusement or amazement. Though she later denied being tearful, claiming she had been chortling.
No one I knew seemed broken up over Magneto's misfortune. He'd survived; it was fair game. One of his own former employees stopped me once to explain how she'd been on vacation, and when she returned her coworkers had said, "This is so funny, you have to hear this..." At the moment he had still been hospitalized, fate unclear.
I was sorry that my participation had turned Magneto's brief demise into a joke. The situation demanded some respect.
Then I learned that the majority of the jokes were at my expense.
Some labored attempts at humor focused on my imagined efforts to screw up the code, and my frustration when it succeeded. Most were cruder. Evidently the thought of mouth to mouth resuscitation is revolting even to doctors. The tamest was, "I heard you kissed and made up."
Most were just plain gross. A critical care specialist told me that he wasn't going to repeat what was being said, and that I should never, ever ask him. Doctors lacking his discretion have taken pleasure in seeing how much they can make me blush. Evidently the concepts of kneeling and blowing strike men as very, very funny.
Last week, almost two years after the event, it goes on. A gastroenterologist said, "I saw Magneto this weekend -- he looks great. He wanted to know if it was good for you too."
Now, I am a humorist and it would be wrong for me to imply that I never joked about it. When I could no longer bear the question, "Why did you do it?" I began to answer, "I didn't have a choice. He was blocking traffic."
Only two weeks after the code a pulmonologist said, "I cannot believe what I heard what you did for Magneto." My tuberculosis skin test had just turned red (luckily a false positive). I rolled up my sleeve for him to admire and said, "yes, and his troubles are only beginning."
# # # #
To return to my original theme: was this tragedy or farce?
From his viewpoint it should be tragic. He died, after all, alone, in pain, in a cheap car on a bright spring morning.
But he survived, recovered amazingly. If he had taken this as a cosmic sign to clean up his act, if it had stirred him to awareness of ethical malfeasance, if he had learned from it -- other than the usual "Uh oh, I'm past my expiration date, what the hell happened to my life?" -- then Aeschylus might have been interested.
But there's been no outward sign of Sophoclean epiphany. So, rather than sadness and despair, it is a tale of a proud, even arrogant man who must live under the omnipresent pale of doom, and who may or may not be aware that his demise was considered hilarious.
Now, that's comedy!
From my position, it should be farce. I went from revering to reviling the man, and then I breathed for him. Becoming in the process the source of infinite amusement, demolishing the feeble remnants of my dignity.
Maybe. But I had reached a certain bitter acceptance of my situation -- the loss of professional status, the loss of friendships, the loss of the closest thing to a mentor had ever had, and the end of my idealism. May 4 -- a day when I liked to parody celebrations of death and resurrection -- robbed me of complacency. It turned things around in patterns still don't comprehend, and made me aware again of loss and emptiness. Perhaps for me, it was a tragedy.
But hell, I'm just the writer. And as my critic friends tell me, writers just create this stuff. They don't have to understand it.
All illustrations by Charlie Williams