My Year of Maladies — Vs. 2.0

Yoni, in the bubble-wrap suit, presented him by friends, for Halloween, 2018.

I last published this particular post on November 8th of last year. At the time, I was looking at the possibility of ending the year, as I’d started it — with another (third) surgery, this one on my shoulder. As it happens, the orthopedic surgeon who ended up being the one I stuck with (there were three prior to him), decided he wanted to play things conservatively. I saw him in December. Instead of surgery, he gave me a shot of cortisone (I’d had two, previously, neither of which did anything to alleviate the pain). He determined the two previous injections were given in the wrong place. 48 hours later, I was pain free, and thrilled beyond my ability to express. There would be no third surgery in 2018.

Two weeks ago, my shoulder started to ache again. I had good days and bad, but the bad ones were excruciating. Over the past few days, I was having good hours and bad ones. But since my follow-up with the orthopedist was already scheduled for today (February 14th), I decided to just wait and see what he thought.

Well, this may not be the beginning of 2019, but it looks like I’m getting that third surgery, after all. Although the doctor believes I may need an entire shoulder replacement at some point (oh joy), this time out we’re just gonna go with a “simple” rotator cuff surgery. If you know what that entails, no explanation is necessary. If you don’t, I’ll sum it up like this — three to six months of hell! So enjoy the story of how we got here, and please send good vibes. This shit is getting old!

For those of you who subscribe to my blog (and bless those of you who do), you probably know how physically traumatic 2018 has been for me. I’ve written about the complications caused by my first surgery of the year, what should have been a fairly simple, double hernia. Unfortunately, as I learned subsequently, it seems I have an unusually small larynx, something the anesthesiologist failed to note when putting whatever contraption he placed down my throat to inject the anesthesia.

The result of this faux paus was the loss of my voice for the better part of nine months, including a second surgery, this time on my throat, to try and mend the left vocal cord, damaged by the anesthesiologist during surgery #1. It took another five-plus months after the surgery on my throat, before I started to see beneficial affects, and was able to start talking again. My voice is now somewhere between 60 and 70% recovered. If I talk for long periods, it gets hoarse again, and begins to fade. And I still can’t sing, something that disturbs me to no end.

As those who’ve known me since childhood will happily tell you, when I was born, I was most likely vaccinated with a phonograph needle (for any young’uns reading this, ask your elders about that reference). Talking (and singing), is, and has always been, a major part of my life. It’s also been my prime source of income since I was 20. So not being able to talk was not only frustrating, it was terrifying.

Had that been the only problem I suffered this year, I might not feel so much like someone put a hex on my body. But it didn’t end there. On my birthday — August 1st — I was reaching for something on the butcher-block unit that sits in the middle of our kitchen, when I heard a snap in my left shoulder. I thought to myself, “well, that can’t be good,” so I started testing my arm, to see how it felt. Surprisingly — no problems. An hour or two later, I was sitting at our dinner table when a stabbing pain went through my shoulder, like someone sticking a knife in, and twisting it all around. Whoopee! A birthday trip to urgent care.

The P.A. who saw me, put my arm in a sling, and ordered an X-ray, which, as expected, showed nothing. As suggested, I followed up with my primary care physician later that week. He did a 15-minute evaluation, moving my arm (as best he could without me screaming in agonizing pain) this way and that. At the end he said he thought I might have torn my rotator cuff. He ordered an MRI for me, which my insurance company promptly rejected. They wanted me to do six weeks of physical therapy first, to see if that would help. So I made an appointment, and went to see the physical therapist whose office, as it happened, was directly across the hall from my doctor’s.

The therapist was a very nice woman, who spent about half an hour testing my shoulder, seeing where my pain was, moving my arm about, assessing what she thought could be done to help me. At the end of her evaluation, she asked me to wait a minute, and disappeared. Ten minutes or so later, she returned, my doctor in tow. She had actually gone across the hall to his office, and asked him to come over, which he did, even though he was in the middle of a very busy day. For the record, my doctor is the kind of guy you could imagine still making house-calls (again, kids, ask your parents and grandparents).

Anyway, the physical therapist told us there was nothing she could do for me. The damage was too extensive, she said, and physical therapy would only increase said damage. My doctor, being the wonderful person he is, gave a little whoop of satisfaction, and said, “well, now those bastards at your insurance company have got to approve the MRI.”

They didn’t.

It seems, United HealthCare — my insurance company — has a policy that once they reject a request, you have to wait 45 days to make the request again (I can only imagine how that policy might affect someone suffering a potentially terminal illness). So my doctor referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, figuring, if a specialist ordered an MRI, policy or no, they couldn’t deny those findings.

Say it with me — oh yes they could!

The orthopedist I saw, did a somewhat cursory (I thought) evaluation, gave me a shot of prednisone (a steroid meant to relieve pain) in my shoulder, and ordered the MRI, which was promptly rejected by UHC.

So we’re now into October, my arm is still in a sling, and the voice that’s only now returning is going raw from my screaming bloody murder about the lack of care insurance companies — again, in this case, United HealthCare — extend to sick or injured patients.

By this point, I was so disgusted by the entire mess, I was ready to walk around with a bum shoulder for however long it took for it to just fall off. I decided, fuck it! I’m not even going to wear my sling inside the house any more. What’s the point? It only get in the way.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 28. I was already in a volatile state of mind, which is putting it mildly. But the added rage I felt over the massacre which had taken place at Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, the day before, as well as the Nazi-like ginning up of hatred and violence toward minorities being used as propaganda by the current occupant of the White House (whose name I refuse to say or type), had me somewhat out of my mind.

So much so, when I tried to reach for a book on the top shelf of a tall bookshelf in our family room, and couldn’t quite reach it, I was so insanely angry, I jumped for it and just yanked the fucker!

Not my greatest move, ever.

Along with the book, the entire shelf, obviously not well balanced to begin with, toppled over, falling directly on me. I was slammed with books, shelves (one of which, hit my head, causing me to black out), and other items we had on the shelves. But here’s the kicker — as the bookshelf was falling, my immediate instinct was to raise my now slingless arm, to try and protect myself. As the shelf hit, it also slammed my arm and, in turn, my shoulder.

When my wife, Tanya, walked into the family room looking for me, all she saw was a toppled bookshelf. It took a second before she realized I was under the shelf, at which time I believe she screamed, before rushing to pull the shelf off me.

A short ambulance trip later, I found myself in the E.R. at a nearby hospital, where a CT scan was taken, to make sure my brain (such as it is) wasn’t bleeding, internally. Unfortunately, by the time the E.R. doctor ordered an MRI for my shoulder a number of hours after I’d arrived, the entire radiology department had gone home for the night. So even in the E.R., no MRI.

There’s a reason a group of my friends in Chicago, gave me a bubble-wrap suit for Halloween, this year. I should worn the fucker, full-time!

Two days later, I had a previously scheduled surgical follow-up with my ENT (that’s the throat surgeon, for the uninitiated). This was the first time I’d seen him since my voice had started to return, and I was excited as hell to show him my progress. However, what ended up being even more interesting than the exam, was a conversation I had with his scheduler, after my visit.

The scheduler, a very nice guy, and I had chatted before because, like me, he used to play baseball, and had gone to a very progressive high school where he took classes in film production, giving us something else in common. But that day, he pointed something out, no one else had bothered to mention. What he said was, “you know why your insurance company is pulling this crap, don’t you?” “Cheap bastards,” I responded. “No,” he said. “You’ve met your deductible for the year. They’re putting you off, so in case you do need surgery, you won’t be able to get it until next year, when you’ll have to meet your deductible again.”

Well, my jaw just about hit the floor. I don’t have a lot of respect for the overlords of the medical industry in this country, specifically, the insurance companies raking in billions, under-treating and over-charging patients for something I believe we have an inalienable right to — medical care. But as much as I despise medical insurance companies, it had never occurred to me, the company my wife and I are paying a fortune to, on a yearly basis, would play that kind of game with my welfare.

Naturally, I did what I always do at times like this. I went fucking ballistic!

So, once again, back to my primary care physician, who, after hearing all that had occurred since last we’d met, reacted exactly as I expected — he went ballistic, too. He grabbed a piece of paper, quickly wrote down a name and number, and told me, “go see this guy — tell him I sent you. And I want you to tell him the entire story. He’ll make sure you get your MRI!” My doctor was sending me to another orthopedic surgeon, one he thought would be able to push through United HealthCare’s bullshit.

So, this past Monday, Nov. 5, I went to see the new orthopedic surgeon, telling him the entire story, as my doctor had instructed. As it turned out, the new orthopedist was a homey. He had grown up in Yonkers, NY, not far from where I grew up. He and I had even had our tonsils removed at the same hospital, so talking to him was like old home week. In any event, after doing his evaluation, he gave me yet another referral for an MRI. However, this time he said something the other orthopedist hadn’t — “don’t worry about your insurance company. I know the exact wording to use so they can’t deny you.”

And damn if he wasn’t telling the truth! At long last, tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 9, I will actually be getting an MRI, which United HealthCare finally approved! The only remaining question is, what will the results show? Will I need yet another surgery before the year is over? And if not, how the hell do I get myself off this fucking treadmill, with a working (and pain-free) shoulder?

My only thought — c’mon 2019!!!!

Addendum: As I was writing this blog, I found myself so hung up on my voice (or lack thereof) and shoulder problems, I forgot this was also the year of ambulance rides — two, in fact. The first two times in my life I’ve ever been in an ambulance. The Bookshelf Incident (as I’m going to call it), was the second. The first came early this past Summer. I was standing in my bedroom, one afternoon, doing G_d knows what, when I felt a pain in my side, like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I went down like a shot! And with no voice, I was screaming my ass off! And this pain kept growing and growing to the point, I truly thought I might die.

After an incredibly painful (and, thankfully, brief) Uber ride to my doctor’s office (we are a one-car family, and Tanya had the car that day), my doctor took one look at me, felt around the left side of my abdomen, and said, “well, you’ve either got a nasty kidney stone, or a burst appendix. Either way, you’re about to take an ambulance ride.” And then, my doctor just sat there, telling me jokes, trying to take my mind off the excruciating pain, until the ambulance could get there. The man should be nominated for sainthood (and that’s coming from a Jew)!

Interestingly, my first ambulance ride was not quite what I expected. As the vehicle headed toward the hospital, there I am, lying on the gurney, screaming (quietly) in agony, and the EMT sitting in the back with me, casually asks if I’ve got my wallet. He needed to see my ID and insurance card. Talk about surreal.

Fortunately, once they got me to the hospital (a relatively new facility, not even fully-staffed), I was hooked up to a morphine drip which, after the initial rush — a feeling I fucking HATE —the pain eased, somewhat. Following this, they took blood and did a battery of tests, coming back with the verdict I had a nice big kidney stone, which was working it’s way, down my body.  

For entertainment value, the E.R. nurse told me about her kidney stones (yes, plural). She said it was more painful than giving birth, and she had three kids! She also told me she needed surgery for the first one. Then, the week after the surgery, she had another kidney stone. If that was supposed to comfort me, we’d have to term it an epic fail!

In any event, they kept me hooked up to the morphine, waiting to see if the stone would pass, which, eventually, it did. If you’ve never had a kidney stone, and someone tells you it’s the most painful thing they’ve ever felt, believe them! I NEVER wanna go through that again. No one should have to go through that kind of pain. Now I understand why women in labor scream, “EPIDURAL, GODDAMNIT!!”

So This Is 2018

The following is not exactly what I had envisioned for my second blog of 2018, which was meant to be my first. Most confusing.

When 2016 ended, I was profoundly happy. The end of a godawful shitty year, filled with the deaths of heroes and legends, culminating in the election (selection?) of one of the most vile, contemptuous, corrupt and totally incompetent fools to ever sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.

Not exactly a promising way to ring in 2017. Enough shit tossed about from day one, to make one long for those good old days of 2016.

Which brings me to January, 2018 (I’ve often found, glossing over miserable times can often be an excellent way to deal with them… by not dealing with them. As anyone who reads my blog knows, 2017 falls into that category.

On a positive note, my wife and I, accidentally stumbled upon a new medical practice we liked. The fact we found it by my contracting the flu was not exactly how I would have chosen to find a new practice, but, hey, what the hell. So, being long overdue for a physical, I set one up.

One week later, as my new primary care physician is giving me the overdue physical, she looked up at me and, pointing to my crotch says, “are you aware you have a hernia?” “Uh, no,” was my pathetically lame response, followed by a hopeful, “but it’s nothing I need to take care of right now, is it?” She looked at me with one of those, “Oh, you poor schmuck,” looks, and said, “I tell you what, let’s send you to a surgeon and see what they think.”

After getting a referral from my father-in-law, I made an appointment with a surgeon who specializes in hernias. On the appointed day, there I stood being examined by the surgeon, who’s now handling my lower extremities with doctorly detachment. After a few good feels — on his part — the surgeon looked up at me, and without missing a beat, says, “are you aware you have two hernias?”

So there I am, standing, pants down in front of this surgeon who’s performed thousands of hernia surgeries (his words). This is my second opinion, and he’s telling me I’ve got a spare hernia? But not a good spare, like “Hey! Great news! You may have lost a tire, but we just discovered you have a spare, so this won’t cost you shit.” Naturally, having already endured two surgeries in the past five years, I had to ask, “So, ummm — is this something I need to take care of like now, or do I have some time? So this doctor, the man who’ going to be slicing and dicing around my groin says, “No, there’s no rush. Not as long as you take care of it in the next three months or so.”

For anyone reading this who isn’t a member of my family, you’re probably wondering, WTF is he talking about, and what’s the big deal over a little surgical procedure. Well, here it is — I was born with a congenital heart defect that kept me in and out of hospitals, between the ages of one and a half, and four and a half, traumatizing me for life…at least, so far. Hospitals, needles — pretty much anything having to do with medical procedures freaks me out.

As it happens, my case was written up in medical journals for being the only case in recorded medical history — at least, through the 1950’s — to “spontaneously” recover from the condition I was born with. What that means in doctor talk is, they can’t explain it. It also made my father something of a psychic for not only telling my mother all along that I’d be fine, but, due to the history of the heart trouble on my medical record, the military would never be able to draft me. And that’s exactly what happened when I turned 18, which was also toward the end of the Vietnam War. 4F, baby!

Flash forward to February 12th — surgery day. I arrive at the surgical center around 7am. Within the next 45 minutes, I’m lying on a hospital bed, multiple needles in my arm. My surgeon comes in to say, hi, as does the anesthesiologist. Next thing I know, I’m being wheeled into the operating room, where they’re playing some godawful music. They asked me if I had a request, so, naturally, I chose The Beatles. Instead, the bastards knocked me out and started the surgery.

That was the last thing I remember, before coming to in the recovery room. The doctor had told my wife, Tanya, the surgery would take around 75 minutes. I’m told they actually finished and had me in recovery, in an hour. I wouldn’t know as I was whacked out on Demerol & (one) Oxycodone. What I do remember is the pain. There was lots of it.

At this point I was incredibly groggy, so no one thought anything about the fact my voice was more of a croak, as opposed to my usual dulcet tone. Unfortunately, as time went by, my voice got worse, not better. As the days wore on, there were times I could speak a little. The problem is, when I did, I either sounded like Mickey Mouse, or reverted to the croak.

There was also one other problem. I couldn’t eat, or drink, without gagging and choking. My first visit back to the surgeon, so he could check my progress, was interesting. While the hernia scars were doing well, my voice freaked him out. He told me he’d never seen this happen to anyone, and didn’t understand what happened to me. My primary care doctor referred me to an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist, so I set up an appointment for February 27th, two weeks after the surgery.

On the appointed day, I went to the ENT, hoping he could find a solution to my problem. After numbing my nose, he stuck a long thin tube with a camera on the end, up my right nostril, and back down my throat. After taking a good look, he told me my left vocal chord was paralyzed. He also explained how, without trying, when he put the little ball that emits the gas which knocked me out for surgery, the anesthesiologist inadvertently dislodged something, which probably hit my vocal cord, creating the paralysis. He also told me, in all the years he’d been in practice, I was only the second case of this he’d seen.

Oh, great! I felt so special. I was the one in a million.

He also told me, in the one case he’d seen, the vocal chord healed itself. It took around six weeks, but he figured the same would probably happen for me. So we set another appointment six weeks later.

Every morning I woke up, hoping this would be the day my voice came back. And every day, I opened my mouth to try and speak. And every day, either nothing comes out at all, or it’s back to Mickey and/or the croak.

I primarily make my living as an actor, so this was getting a little nerve wracking. Day by day, as my voice stayed the same — non-existent — I grew more and more despondent. I had these pictures in my head of never getting my voice back, never being able to act again. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. To be perfectly honest, it was freaking me out.

In the middle of all this, the anti-gun march on Washington, led by the Parkland students, was scheduled to take place. People came from all over the country to voice their anger about our government’s refusal to do anything to stop the epidemic of mass shootings. I was determined to be one of them. Stephanie Miller, who hosts my favorite progressive radio show (comedy and tragedy, all in one neat little package), was coming in from L.A. to support the kids, and march with the “Steph-Heads,” of which I was one.

I was determined to meet, march with, and have my first opportunity to chat with Stephanie, the woman whose show, has helped me maintain some degree of sanity, through the reigns of Georgie Bush, through the Obama presidency, and now, with “He Who Must Not Be Named, haunting the oval office. Tanya was worried I wasn’t up to it, and determined to impress that upon me. I promised her that if I felt any pain whatsoever, I would stop, and come home. So, I went. But when my one opportunity to talk to Steph arrived, all I could do was type a message on my phone, thanking her.

At this point, I was beyond the six-week mark, with no improvement to my voice. So back to the ENT, who once more runs the camera tube up my nose, and back down my throat. As expected, the doctor told me there was no change (duh), and we’d reached the “what’s next” mode.

The doctor told me what he’d like to do is a minor surgical procedure, in which he inserts a gel into my throat, which will allow my vocal chords to meet, thus allowing me to talk semi-normally. The downside of this is, the gel only lasts three to six months. But the hope is, during that time, the gel will help my vocal chord actually heal, giving me my voice back. Oh, joy.

Wanting to cover all bases, I asked him, “well, just for argument sake, what happens if this doesn’t work.” His reply: “Well, if that’s the case, we have to start talking about more invasive surgery. But let’s wait and see how we do with this surgery.” He gave me the name and number for his “surgical scheduler,” and told me to call and set up a date for the surgery. As I have no voice, and the more I try to speak, the worse it gets, Tanya made the call — calls, actually. Depending on your point of view, that’s where it got really funny, or really ironic.

Tanya places the first call, only to find out, the scheduler is out, and will remain so for at least a couple of weeks, because she has no voice!

Not to be deterred, and as tenacious as she is brilliant and beautiful, Tanya got hold of the doctor’s assistant, trying to impress upon her the need to get a surgical date as quickly as possible. I have now been without a voice for more than two months. What started out as something we thought would be short-term and, at times, kind of funny, has now gotten far more serious. The doctor’s assistant told Tanya the doctor had a date available within two weeks. Only thing is, before officially putting me on the surgical schedule, she had to get the okay from Georgetown University Hospital, where the “procedure” will be taking place, that they had an available operating room.

Every day last week, Tanya called. No news yet was the response. So here I sit, telling the story the only way available to me at the moment. How long before the surgery? How long until I get some semblance of my voice back? And what happens if this surgery doesn’t work? These are the questions running through my mind, every single day. It’s been enough to make me nostalgic for the fun of 2017…almost. So there you have it.

To quote the words of Stephanie Miller, “happy 2018, everybody!”