Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don’t think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I’m not that strong
Rolling Stones, “Sister Morphine”
Can you ride or not?
Hell, yeah, I can ride.
I was riding when I fell off.
I’m a regular buckaroo.
Certified damn bronc peeler.
Paraphrasing Cormac McCarthy, “All the pretty horses”
I do not know where four or five days of my life during the past month have gone. There is that inarticulate haze through which I am able to see snippets of visions, sounds, nightmarish traipses to very dark and dangerous places, of voices that ebb and flow, telling me one thing or another that seem at first to make sense then don’t. The haze, however, is not sufficiently substantive to allow me to snatch those four or five days back whole, safe and sound, to the place we call memory. No, they are essentially gone. Whatever substance they may once have had slips further away. Even now as I write this, I still feel the slip, slip, slip of it all, of those days, those accumulation of moments I shall never be able to retrieve.
It all began simply enough. On the morning of Friday, July 23rd, I drove to the stable where I keep my horse, Shy. He, as always, was waiting for me, knowing that my arrival meant copious amounts of candy would be palmed for him to lip up. Whether or not he also anticipated some satisfaction in the grooming–the brushing, the picking of the feet–is unsure. I suspect he does enjoy it. After the grooming, I worked him in a large round pen, snapping a lunge line onto his halter, and moving him in circles with the occasional crack or simple twirl of a whip at his hindquarters. He responded well. He was a little lazy, a little mellow through about twenty minutes of lunging. No Ya Yas (kicking, bucking, disrespect for me) emerged as I worked him to a canter.
It did not at first occur to me that it had been almost one year exactly that Friday morning, the 23rd of July, since Shy had dumped me. Yes, on July 20th, 2010, I came away from the stable in an ambulance. I would spend only three or four days in the hospital with three fractured vertebrae, including my sacrum, and another six months recovering from that accident. But this year, on July 23rd, that unfortunate incident a year ago had not even crossed my mind. Over the past two years since I had acquired him, Shy had shown himself to be a sweet horse, a smart little guy who rarely spooked, and when he did it usually encompassed nothing more than simply standing his ground, studying the new or different phenomena that had crossed his senses and then, after satisfying himself no threat existed, moving on.
So, on that Friday, nearly a month ago, after the grooming, after the good lunging time, I had a choice: I could either tack up Shy and ride him around the stable property, or just walk him up to his favorite grazing spot and let him eat grass for a bit before I put him back in his stall, with me heading for home. The somewhat inordinate amount of time I spent making that decision now, after all that has happened, hints that there was a prescience to those several moments of decision making. I did not understand the depth of that prescience. And, in not understanding, I tacked up my boy, put on my helmet, and pulled on my Luccheses. I inched Shy toward the mounting block, held my reins tight, gently voiced a “Whoa,” put my left foot in the stirrup and swung my right leg up and over his hindquarters.
It is, of course, axiomatic that if your horse is going to blow up the best place for you to witness such a thing is not on that horse’s back. When a horse blows up there’s usually a lot of bucking, kicking, and a very determined effort by that horse to skedaddle from the source of what they perceive to be a danger, a threat. Suffice it to say, I was atop Shy when he blew up Friday, July 23rd, and managed to maintain my balance and hold on for two bucks. The third buck sent me flying off Shy’s left side. I hit the ground hard, landing mostly on my left side. The fact that I was able to move my legs pretty much immediately after the fall–I had, after all, been through this before–convinced me (wrongly, as it turned out) that I was relatively intact…no fractured spine, no broken bones.
Of course news of a dumping spreads pretty quickly through a stable, and I was soon surrounded by my trainer, the owner of the stable, some stable hands, and a couple other fellow owners/riders. Since I was relatively mobile, the ladies left it up to me to decide what needed to be done, whether or not I felt I needed the emergency room, an ambulance, or just transportation to medical care. I chose the latter, and a fellow owner/rider was kind enough to take me to the nearest Kaiser complex.
At Kaiser I complained of left side and groin area pain. X-rays of my ribs and pelvis were taken, revealing three fractured ribs, 5, 6, and 7. The picture of the pelvis looked fine. I was sent off on that Friday to recover with a goodly supply of Percocet to ease the pain that would surely infest my life for some time to come.
David had, of course–God love him!–taken a cab from work to the stable, and was waiting to drive me home when I arrived back at the stable from my trip to Kaiser. I don’t recall us discussing it on the way home, but I’m sure my continued horse riding–or, at least, my continued interaction with Shy–was surely on both our minds as something needing resolution before I managed to break my neck in some future mishap.
Through Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the fractured rib pain persisted, but so too did the groin discomfort, and soon another little twist emerged. My abdomen seemed to be either swelling or tightening up. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable. And with that ever increasing discomfort, I dug out the leftover supply of Dilaudid from my first accident almost exactly a year ago, and began popping those little devils in preference to the Percocet. By Monday, I was feeling pretty miserable, and when David came home from work I reported that I had thrown-up several times and that I thought I should go to the emergency room. Something was not right. Sure, I had fractured ribs. But there was something else going on, something…well, different than what one would expect from just fractured ribs.
David took me to St. Joe’s, where I was seen relatively quickly. It was then, beginning at St. Joe’s where time began to lose its substance for me, the place where those four or five days of my life’s moments, now lost, began to slip, slip, slip.
I remember distinctly a trauma doc and a nurse hovered over me, one’s hand over my eyes, the trauma doc’s voice telling me I needed a tube to my stomach that would relieve the pressure in my abdomen. I remember the tear of paper, a measuring out of the tube, the nurse saying something like, “I really like the silicon ones,” then the doc admonishing me that once the tube cleared my sinuses (they stuck it up my nose) I needed to “Swallow, swallow, swallow, swallow, George, just keep swallowing.” I remember experiencing their delight in watching the profusion of liquid emerge from my stomach, up that tube and into the jar-like container to which they’d attached the other end. I remember them asking me if what I had thrown-up earlier had tasted like feces, and I remember responding that I didn’t know, that I’d never tasted feces. (To this day, that question from the docs seems, oh, at least strange, a little odd.) From then on, if you can believe it, things pretty much flowed downhill. I’m sure I was beginning to be infused with morphine, fluids and god knows what else, as I was soon transported from St. Joe’s to Good Samaritan Hospital up north, toward Lafayette. St. Joe’s is not a “trauma” hospital, and Kaiser’s trauma patients are therefore sent up north to Good Samaritan. I had spent three or four days at Good Samaritan after my accident a year ago, and surely, oh, most surely preferred Good Samaritan to St. Joe’s.
Snippets. Incomplete scenarios played out, over and over again with no particular end and no particular beginning. The comings and goings of sweet-faced nurses demanding I use the wretched plastic device that somehow–how?–would save my lungs from pneumonia which I already had, not to mention the lower lobes of my lungs already damaged from my fall. (It would be only after I emerged from those four or five days of viciously sublime ignorance that I learned of my true physical state.) Nurses poking my stomach with needles full of Heparin–”A little poke, a little burn….”–then injecting something into my I.V. line, then admonishing me over and over again to use the despised plastic thingy to breathe, breathe, breathe. My legs were swelling with fluid, becoming twice as round as they usually were. I did not care. I floated in and out of awareness, never really understanding all the fuss. Soon I was told that every ten minutes I could inject myself with morphine: “See, every time this light comes on–it’s kind of a bull’s-eye, see?–you can press this button and get more morphine. Very simple. Every time you need it just press the button.” And I did. Oh, I did take comfort in Sister Morphine…over and over and over again.
The dreams, the nightmares were the worst. I do not know if I ever really slept during those four or five days. I suspect I did. A little. I do know that over and over I crept to the edge of a very dark place, a hole where, on my hands and knees, I looked over the edge and saw… I do not remember the details. I do not remember the specifics. I only know that what I saw was more fire than ice, dark, dark scramblings of viciously unkind creatures intent on inflicting pain, hideously celebrated pain. Then I recall, in more lucid moments, seeing my old friend Tom Bonner who, just a couple months before, had died from the effects of bacterial infested lungs following surgery to create a pseudo-esophagus (his esophagus had been found to be cancer-laden, and required excision and recreation from stomach tissue). I recall acknowledging something like, “Tom’s lungs did him in. Your lungs, Georgie boy, your lungs are about to do the same. Bon Voyage, Georgie boy. Bon Fucking Voyage.” I never did see Tom’s face beckoning me to… I suppose, no, I know it was a comfort that Tom did not urge me to join him…wherever it was he had gone.
David tells me that my first week in the hospital had me on a surgery ward where not much in the way of extraordinary effort was put forth on my behalf, on behalf of the continuance of my life. David tells me that he had no reasonable alternative toward the end of that first week but to get “butch” with the whole medical team at Good Samaritan, and demand something, just something on my behalf. David believed I was dying. Perhaps I was. And, whatever “butch” he was able to exert did bring the attention of the chief internal medicine doc at Good Samaritan to peek in on me. By that time, as David tells it, I had balled myself up in a fetal position, and had turned “blue.” The chief internal medicine doc observed it all with the determinable conclusion that I needed to immediately be moved to the ICU where I would spend a week.
This is all second-hand from David: 1) All those fluids they were infusing me with were discontinued, or diminished significantly. If your lungs aren’t working, you’re not dispelling fluids–thus the swelling in the legs. 2) A breathing device was brought in and, each night, a kindly technician placed what I, in my stupor, called a “Captain America” mask (a goggle-like face piece) that when turned on pushed, pushed, pushed oxygen into my lungs in what seemed like a totally random rhythm, not mirroring my normal inhalation/exhalation at all. 3) Massive–no, I don’t know if it was “massive” or not–doses of antibiotics were fed into my I.V. line. My feet and ankles were encase in soft, comfy open-toed sock-like thingys that attached to a compressor unit and, through the night, inflated and deflated, thus encouraging blood flow through my legs. Doctors came and went–the chief internal medicine doc, the chief surgery doc, the chief pulmonary doc, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, aides, technicians, priests and preachers, all passed through my door. And, it was on the second or third day I was in the ICU that I emerged from that dark and dangerous place and time where nothing was guaranteed, where oblivion was valued simply because it provided comfort away, oh so far away, from the reality of the world.
I do not, to this day, know the extent of the physical damage done to my body from the second fall from my horse. I will visit with my primary care physician soon and may, just may get some idea of the progress of my aging feebleness, exacerbated by my latest horse accident. And now that I reread what I’ve written, I hereby take pains to absolve my boy, my Shy from any responsibility for what happened. He is a horse, for goodness sake. He witnesses everything, and if he witnessed a threat during the my mount on that day, almost a month ago, then so be it. He responded as a horse. I do not condemn him for that. It was what it was. Period.
I have visited my boy Shy once since the accident. David came along, as I was/am not yet comfortable handling my boy. David brushed him out, but, as always, drew the line at picking his feet. That’s fine. I’m sure my trainer will take care of his feet. I haltered Shy, attached his lead rope, and let David take him up the hill to his favorite grazing spot. I followed behind, breathing more quickly, more forced than usual. It was good to see my boy. He’s as handsome as ever, and seems to be filling out–his musculature along his loins and hindquarters, shoulders is notable.
The upshot (what a peculiar word!) to all of this and, perhaps, to what those of you who are horsepeople have already concluded, is most certainly what my future is with regard to horseback riding and, specifically, what’s to become of my boy Shy.
Firstly, I have determined that another fall from a horse–Shy or any other horse–would, most likely, end in my demise. I do not believe I would survive it. After two serious falls, after the shake and bake my lungs, my gut, my heart, my innerds have gone through over the past two years, I do believe I will leave fate as a lonely hunter with regard to my further tempting of the same upon the back of one horse or another. (I just learned today that a recent x-ray of my lungs still, STILL shows fluid where, of course, fluid should not be.)
The crux, the sad, sad crux of this whole thing is what to do with Shy. Oh, I do so love my boy. I do admit, freely, I have wept a few times into my pillow knowing that Shy’s fate is really not in my hands; I understand that others are now left to take a look at my boy, to size him up, to consider his potential, his history, to simply consider his worth as a horse in service to human beings. Oh, what bullshit, I think this all is. What utter bullshit this all is when it comes to Shy, my boy, the horse with the kindly eyes I gathered to my soul two years ago on those scrubby hills of South Routt County, Colorado. I chose him for his eyes, and the allure of a black-faced bay, a want so terribly urgent, so terribly enticing that no horse, ever, could have clouded my desire for this particular horse this shy horse who, from the moment I saw him for the first time, stole my heart…lock, stock and barrel, as they say.
Okay. Truths. I will probably never ride a horse again. Even the most gentlest of steeds may, on occasion, trip, falter, spook. I have become a fragile partner to a horse. My horse, my love, Shy is up for sale. Oh, lord knows I would give him away to a good home, a good owner, a good horseperson who is able to see his potential, his utter quietly intense view of the world about him. I do not know why he blew up that day. All I know is that he’s blown up only twice in the past two years. (Unfortunately, I was on him both times.)
I am a romantic. I will not deny it. Sure, my life has probably been significantly shortened by the unexplained caprice of a horse. (Caprice is probably not the correct word. Reactive stimuli from a perceived threat, maybe?) I do regret that. But I will tell you here and now that if I would have had it any other way, I would never have chosen anything other than the privilege of the stomp, the clomp, the determinable kick or buck or heavy snort or blow from the precious mien of a critter who witnesses everything of this earth, who sees every nuance, every snippet, every event of this earth with an eye guided sure and swift by something, just something that we, as humans, have lost along the way. If there is a God, a horse’s snort, a horse’s blow is a simple prayer, an utterly sublime prayer that the earth is good, that life is good, that the urge upon urge upon urge to run, to be free is good, is fulfilling, is…
I’ve gone on too long. I apologize. I hope you get the point of all this. Be well. And, please, don’t fall off your horse.
P.S. The comment from Mary, below, is enlightening, sadly encompassing much of what I experienced in the hospital. It brought me back to an incident after David raised hell with the docs. The head pulmonary doc–obviously, now that I think about it, was pretty completely befuddled by my dire condition–and certainly understanding David and I were “together,” had me sign a release for an HIV blood test, and kept talking a about a bronchoscopy with lavage. Now, having lived through the emergence of HIV/AIDS, I knew what a bronchoscopy with lavage entailed–an invasive procedure where the lungs are “washed” via a tube inserted in the bronchus and a dye injected therein–and recalled someone who’d had the test done describing it as “…a little drowning.” And, I knew absolutely what the pulmonary doc would be looking for–Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. This insidious pneumonia is common to HIV/AIDS patients. Yes, with the HIV test and the pulmonary doc talking about a bronchoscopy, I knew where she was going with this. Sure, she was baffled by my condition, and she’d put two and two together: this man is a homosexual, and by golly, by gee, (light bulb popping on!) I’ll bet my hunch is right on–he’s got PCP. Suffice it to say, even in my deepest stupor, I absolutely refused the bronchoscopy. Yes, I let her have my blood to rule out HIV. But, to let her stick a tube into my lungs, “wash” my lungs with fluid (the lower lobes of my lungs had, by this time, collapsed) was something even I knew was dangerous and unnecessary. I didn’t need any more trauma to my lungs. Thank you very much.
What was and remains curious to me, however, was the pulmonary doc’s assumption. There I was, a 62 year-old gay man, who’d been in a monogamous relationship for nearly thirty years, and yet the pulmonary doc’s assumption was Gay=HIV/AIDS. She didn’t even inquire about my and David’s relationship. She just made her assumptions. It was left to the internal medicine doc to ask that pertinent question about David’s and my relationship. It was left to the internal medicine doc to assure me that, no, we will not do such an invasive procedure if you do not want it. I do believe the internal medicine doc’s conclusion was–unlike the pulmonary doc’s–okay, no way this guy is suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS. There is no way “…a little drowning…” is called for, or necessary, or in the best interests of the patient. (“First, do no harm!”)
I promise this is the end of this post. No further updates will be forthcoming. I’m on the mend. Slowly, slowly getting myself back up to speed…sans horseback riding. Sadly, sans horseback riding.