Friday, September 5, 2014


 From kindergarten through high school I only cut school once. On March 3, 1958, my fifteenth birthday, I awoke at 6:30 unwilling to face the long walk to the bus stop, the ride to the Forest Hills subway station, and the twenty-three stops on the GG train to Brooklyn.  I told my mother I had a terrible stomach ache and went back to sleep.  When I awoke again she was out shopping; she returned at noon, surprising me, and I had to double over and grab my stomach to maintain my act.
Justifiably suspicious, she insisted on taking me to Doctor Lamb, my old pediatrician.  I'd fessed up about lying so I could stay home from school, but she intended to teach me a lesson.  I sat for an hour in the doctor’s waiting room with an open window blowing March snow on my neck while an over-zealous radiator on the floor roasted my lower half.  I had a fever by the time Doctor Lamb examined me. In obvious cahoots with my mother, he rabbit-punched my kidneys.
“Did that hurt?”  When I couldn’t catch my breath to respond, he said, “Mmmm, this looks serious.”
It was.  Two hours later, my first failed body part lay in a jar of noxious fluid.  When I woke up in a hospital room, my cardiologist uncle was there. “If you hadn’t stayed home from school today your appendix would have burst and you might have died on a subway platform,” he said.
From then on, I resolved to always trust my gut feelings, though I did swear off cutting school. As for my surgery, I’d been the only male patient under forty on my wing of the hospital, which made me the focus of a dozen student nurses. I knew that would never happen again, so I decided to quit surgery while I was ahead and avoid surrendering any more body parts.
For the next fifty-six years I stayed out of hospitals. When I went to my doctor complaining that my shoulders always hurt, he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who told me I had a choice between complete shoulder replacement surgery and living with pain. 
(The following photos were "borrowed" from the website of the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons.)  A healthy shoulder:

 I pondered the decision for a couple of months, until the day I was holding my eighteen-month-old grandson and realized that a sudden, unexpected stab of pain might cause me to drop him.  It was time to discard another failed body part and replace my arthritic left shoulder with a new titanium one that looks like this:

The surgeon said it was a simple procedure.  Not to worry.  A month in a sling and two months of physical therapy and I’d feel eighteen again, and Medicare and my supplemental Blue Cross would pay for it. But he left out a couple of things.  No driving for a month (I only waited twenty-four days); learning to sleep on my back (which I’ve yet to master); having to bathe with a sponge sitting on a bench; being dependent on my dear wife for things I’ve always done myself; and the long list of things I’d always taken for granted that were impossible to do with one hand. But the horrible pain everyone predicted never materialized, and though I only met one student nurse this time, the experience turned out as well as possible.
It's now day thirty-two and my shoulder aches.  I’m recovering, but I still have questions. Should I go through it again to have the right shoulder replaced?  How many body parts can I replace with metal ones before I turn into a human lightning rod? And what about airport metal detectors?

AlanZendell spent more than thirty years as a scientist, aerospace engineer, software consultant, database developer, and government analyst, writing really boring stuff like proposals, technical papers, reports, business letters, and policy memoranda.  But trapped inside him all that time were stories that needed telling and ideas that needed expression, so with encouragement and cajoling from a loving baby sister he plunged into fiction.  Since then, he has written mostly science and extrapolative fiction with three-dimensional characters.  It’s the things they believe in and how much they’re willing to invest to preserve them that make a story worth telling.  It’s convincing interactions and well-researched credible plots that make a story worth reading. And, of course, like any writer, Alan loves having an audience.  You may find Alan’s books here.


Patti Shene said...

Alan, I enjoyed your post. I can identify with your medical problems in reverse since it's my husband who has been dealing with limitations over the past several months. I had to do things for him he was used to doing for himself, and it is difficult for the patient and the caregiver. I hope you fully recover soon!

Angie Boyter said...

Alan, It's variations on a theme for all of us. If we aren't replacing shoulders we are replacing knees or hips or, in my case, um, boobs. I get discouraged at times, BUT think about our parents' generation at our age. We are in MUCH better shape generally than they were, and, for me, I plan to stay that way. As for the specific issue of replacing the other shoulder, I've been reading about the very promising new technique of growing new cartilage for knees. That is truly exciting, and I gotta believe it would transfer over to a technique for other parts of the body, like the shoulder. I'd be inclined to wait, although I know you want to swing that tennis racket!
PS The other upside of surgery is you discover how caring your friends are; WHEN THEY KNOW about your incapacity, they come out of the woodwork to help. So let people know next time!

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