How I Spent My Summer Vacation

For denizens of the dino-media, August is traditionally a slow news month. For me, it became downright torpid when I suddenly found myself laid low by a microbial assault.

As a result, an informative, if unwelcome, opportunity presented itself: I spent several days examining, in detail, the bowels of our much-discussed health care system. The system spent that time returning the favor.

The assailant that stole the better part of a fortnight from my life is commonly called C.Dif (colostrium difficile). Typically, that bacterium is content to bide its time lounging among our intestinal flora, playing shuffleboard or whatever it is that amuses the tiny livestock each of us constantly carries in blissful ignorance of this potentially lethal symbiosis.

From time to time, however, C.Dif gets riled up in reaction to a person’s exposure to an antibiotic, or is summoned from dormancy through contact with an infected host or a tainted environment. As one would expect of a pathogen whose name sounds a bit like the showbiz handle of a Gangsta Rapper, C.Dif is a truculent and destructive organism once something gets its attention.

About two weeks ago, the Diffster made its presence known shortly after a swimming excursion with my kids.

As my stomach bloated and unbearably malodorous gas began to emerge in irrepressible burps, I assumed that I was being paid a visit by my old friend, amoebic dysentery, whose acquaintance I made in Guatemala back in ’83. Then I suspected I had picked up cryptosporidium from the swimming pool, something I experienced as a child. (You wanna talk about me and intestinal parasites? Don’t get me started!) With weary resignation I bought the usual suite of over-the-counter palliatives, assuming that, ah, this too would pass, as it were.

Except it didn’t.

Now, assuming that you’re still reading an essay devoted to an affliction involving bodily functions most people politely ignore unless they’re paid extravagantly well to deal with, I offer the following advisory: From here on, things are going to get really rough. Caveat lector.

The Tuesday morning following the onset of first symptoms (bloating, runs, and insurmountable fatigue) dawned innocuously enough. I was tired, but not abnormally so. My stomach wasn’t complaining, as it had over the previous two days. Our family planned to go house-hunting and then visit an amusement park in fulfillment of a promise I had made to our children before the closing of the blessed parenthesis we call Summer Break.

Given all of this, I was stunned and troubled to discover during my routine morning ablutions that I had, ah, deposited something the color of borscht. (My apologies to anyone who has enjoyed that Slavic delicacy or any other porridge made from that noble and misunderstood tuber, the beet.)

What I had left behind was blood — a lot of it. I wasn’t terrified; my reaction was one of weary annoyance coupled with a mixture of resignation and regret.

Regardless of what else was to come, this much was certain: Sometime, in the near future, an endoscopic camera was going to take a long, scenic tour of my intestines — sort of like the voyage of the Starship Enterprise through V’Ger, I suppose, although I doubt that V’Ger felt degraded and violated by the experience.

My initial experience was repeated several times that day. Each time I got weaker and more light-headed. Yet, displaying the obtuse stubbornness that is my most salient trait, I persisted with our schedule. We went and inspected our would-be new dwelling, and then I took the family to an amusement park in Meridian (a suburb of Boise).

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I found myself increasingly weary: In the 90 degree-plus weather, my legs strained to carry me as if I were wading hip-deep in rapidly coalescing hot tar; breathing became an exhausting chore, a feeling I experienced a number of years ago doing calisthenics while above the clouds during a visit to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. But we were at sea level, and the most rigorous thing required of me was to walk while carrying our seven-month-old child, Justus.

Still, idiot that I am, I insisted on taking a couple of rounds at the batting cage.

The most challenging machine at that particular facility is set to pitch at between 75 and 80 miles per hour, which means I usually compensate by standing about three feet in front of the batter’s box.

On this particular day, I took 48 pitches — two dozen right-handed, and two dozen as a lefty, a nicely bi-partisan allotment. Every pitch I beat right into the ground, a sure sign of exhaustion (my legs were too tired for me to make the appropriate adjustments in my swing). With each pitch, my breath grew shorter and my heart rate escalated — which is not a normal state of affairs.

I had bought three batting tokens; I offered the third to our ten-year-old, Isaiah (who acquitted himself with distinction against the 65 MPH machine). I walked woozily over to where Korrin was sitting and sat down. I caught my breath, but it soon managed to break free of my grasp. The visible horizon started to wobble ever-so-slightly, and a cold sweat began to ooze from me.

“Dad, you look white,” William said, his brows conjoining in concern.

“Honey, we’ve got to get to a hospital right now,” I gasped to Korrin. She helped me round up our offspring and we made a beeline to the nearest hospital, which — praise God from Whom all blessings flow — was about fifteen minutes away.

As I was admitted to the ER, I looked at William and we carried out a ritual that became familiar during my years on the speaking circuit.

“William, while I’m away….” I began.

“I know — I’m Daddy ex officio,” replied my Firstborn with the same quiet confidence displayed by Mr. Spock as he assumed command in Captain Kirk’s absence.

For the next several hours, Korrin and our children waited while I was poked, prodded, interrogated, scoped, and — most unnervingly — examined in the time-honored fashion of victims of alien abduction.

That last experience prompted me to make a wisecrack (pardon the expression) about the title of Led Zeppelin’s last studio album.* That sortie didn’t reduce the ER staff to puddles of mirthful admiration, nor did several others in the same vein (“Mr. Grigg, do you suffer from constipation?” “Actually, I rather enjoy it” — drum kick). “Man, this is a tough room,” I complained as the grim-faced staff tried to figure out why an overweight but otherwise healthy man was apparently bleeding to death from his retreating aperture.

It took just a few hours for the lab to report a positive result for C.Dif, which — given some of the other possibilities — actually left me relieved. I was admitted overnight for observation and treatment and put in a room subject to isolation protocols. I was also immediately put on an IV antibiotic following a second positive lab finding for C.Dif.

Within a day, the bleeding stopped, and I was permitted to eat actual food. A day and a half later I was discharged.

Two days after that, I was hospitalized again following a relapse that left me so weak and breathless I could barely stand — even though I insisted on walking into the ambulance, rather than being carried on a stretcher.

Through a gathering hypoxia-induced fog, I tried once again to crack wise: “Please tell me we’re not going to Bethesda Naval Hospital,” I croaked to the competent and personable paramedics, who didn’t understand the allusion and couldn’t have cared less to have it explained to them.

During the next four days, I was given six units of blood. In preparation of the dreaded colonoscopy I was also given the privilege of consuming a gallon of something that tasted like a cocktail of liquid copper and film developing solution.

“If copper bullion were actually a broth made from metal cubes,” I commented, “it would probably taste like this.”

My nurse, who was polite enough to pretend that I was amusing, told me that I could have some ice if lukewarm electrolyte solution was difficult to choke down.

“No, thanks,” I replied, “I prefer my electrolyte solution `neat.'”

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The product in question, incidentally, is called “Go-lyte-ly,” which struck me as both a really bad pun and a very inappropriate allusion to Breakfast at Tiffany’s — or to any meal at any location, for that matter, given the purpose of that purgative.

Following a night of torrential outpourings that brought to mind a passage from the Book of Jeremiah (“My bowels, my bowels!… I cannot hold my peace…” — Jer. 4:19, KJV, sort of), I underwent the dreaded inspection, which — as experiences of that kind go — was relatively painless and brief.

The most difficult part of the experience, of course, was waiting for the results. After a couple of hours on tenterhooks, I was told that the examination had found nothing.

Just a few hours later I was told that I would have to undergo a barium X-ray. That procedure would be much less invasive. The “prep,” however, involved the consumption of 1200 ml of a heavy liquid, the progress of which through my innards would be followed in search of unauthorized detours — the slightest of which would divert my life onto a new and unwelcome path.

“This is a remarkable concoction,” I commented to the X-ray tech as I swilled the irradiated milkshake, a viscous brew the color of rotting bathroom caulk that tasted a bit like a mixture of government-grade powdered milk and chalk dust with just a soupon of metal filings and a dash of strawberry flavoring added as a contemptuous concession to human taste buds.

For thirty-five minutes I was photographed by the X-ray tech. For another twenty minutes I was examined by a specialist in radiological medicine. And then I spent another two hours in anxiety waiting to learn what, if anything, had been found.

Eventually a nurse was dispatched to offer the news:

“The tests were all negative,” she said. “They didn’t find anything.”

“Well, it’s certainly not for a lack of looking,” I replied in homage to the cinematic Patron Saint of investigative journalists, Chevy Chase’s Fletch.

It has been said that there is no stronger force in nature than necessity. Human beings, designed as we are to adapt and learn, can re-adjust their perceptions of necessity very quickly, and with those adjustments comes a reconfiguration of one’s subjective perceptions of value.

To put this in practical terms: Given the fact that people can and do die from C.Dif, I now find myself pathetically grateful — literally, to the point of offering prayers of thanksgiving — for a normal BM, one that doesn’t involve passing blood.

As someone who only recently managed to overcome a lifelong aversion to hypodermic needles, I found myself willing, and even eager, to undergo the poke-and-burn necessary to restore my blood volume when sudden symptomatic anemia left me bug-eyed, pallid, tremulous, and dying.

The past month has been unusually freighted with unsought “learning experiences” for our family.

Just days before my illness, we were subjected to an anonymous, and malicious, “child endangerment” report that upended our affairs for several days.

The morning before my hospitalization I received a letter from the thuggish parasites at the IRS (who are easily as loathsome as, and even more potentially lethal than, C.Dif) informing me that they had decided I owe them more than a thousand dollars more than I had paid in 2007 for the privilege of living under a government that is destroying the economy and waging war against freedom and human decency.

Our home of the past four years is being foreclosed out from beneath us because our absentee landlord decided to walk away from the mortgage. Since no legal action has been taken yet to seize the property, we could stay on it rent-free for up to six months or more. However….

There is a very good chance that some unrepaired problems with the plumbing created the environmental conditions that led to my recent sickness. I can’t permit Korrin (who has serious and apparently incurable health problems of her own) and our children to run the risk of similar exposure. So we’re technically homeless at present, living as refugees in my parents’ home in eastern Oregon while trying to find another dwelling.

A long-running freelance gig (arranged by a man of angelic generosity and supernal kindness) that has kept our family alive and solvent for nearly two years ended while I was in the hospital. This means that, for the first time since I was thrown to the wolves by former friends and professional associates in October 2006, I am now completely unemployed.

“Honey, the van is running funny and may be about to break down,” Korrin told me during the phone call in which I reported that my tests were negative and I was coming home — wherever “home” might be at the time.

“Oh, that’s a relief,” I replied. “For a moment I was afraid that we were running out of problems.”

Indeed, this past month has had a flavor that reminded me of the five scariest words in the first chapter of the Book of Job: “While he was yet speaking….” That refrain refers to the multi-partner tag-team of messengers who reported the cascade of disasters that took place during a particularly crowded morning.

Job didn’t wake up that day suspecting that he would be destitute and bereaved by noon. But after being pummeled in rapid-fire by losses that no human being should be able to bear, Job still knew that his Redeemer lives, and that He remains sovereign over the universe.

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Apart from the genuine agony I feel as I watch Korrin suffer, and the anxiety I experienced wondering if I was going to be taken and leave her to raise our six children alone, what I’ve experienced is — at most — a bit like a trite sitcom based loosely on the sufferings of Job.

Our family has been fortified by countless prayers offered by our friends and family. My parents are, as they have always been, gently and quietly heroic. Several friends have distinguished themselves through their caring and generosity; I would make public and particular mention of several of them, but in doing so I might thoughtlessly slight others, given that so many have taken an interest in our welfare and given of themselves with an eagerness that has left me astonished and, sometimes, ashamed of myself.

I won’t minimize the magnitude of the challenges our family faces. This much I know: My sense of necessity has been permanently re-defined. The experience of being left breathless, even though my lungs are filled with air, has fortified my sense of determination and re-focused my attention on the essentials.

Sure, we’re still in a lot of trouble. But at least now, after several days when doing so was a challenge, I can truly breathe — and while I breathe, I fight.

*For those of you who don’t know — and really, why should you? — the last Led Zeppelin studio LP was named, for some reason, In Through the Out Door.