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Monday afternoon, I caught a downtown bus to grab my final paycheck. It was far less tense with Pops away, so I hung out long enough to burn a few bowls and shoot the shit with the kitchen guys. In case he had a spy, I didn’t mention to anyone that I was cutting out of town at the end of the week.
It was a good day. The jock itch that plagued me for five uncomfortable, bow-legged-when-no-one-was-looking days had cleared up, allowing me to once again walk without fiery discomfort. Jonelle would never notice what time I got in, so I planned on staying out all night long. I hit Waikiki to play some pool, drink lots of beer, and whoop it up. As I racked up the billiard balls, “Dance the Night Away” blasted from the jukebox. Right about then, I actually felt a twinge of guilt, because I had told Pops I’d be nice to Jonelle while he out of town. Besides, that pool hall was a total sausage fest, so I split after a few games.
I got home just past seven to find Jonelle passed out exhausted on her bed. You ladies with toddlers know the feeling. After a bowl of hash on the balcony, I went inside to watch Rat Patrol. But for some reason, it wasn’t on TV. My guitar was across the ocean, so I couldn’t blast away my clouds of boredom. I grabbed a Playboy to catch up on some bathroom reading, and enjoyed some interesting articles, twice. But it was still far too early to crash out, and I regretted leaving the pool hall. I called my buddy Dick, grabbed a six-pack, and headed to his apartment.
When I got there, all he really wanted was a gram of hash fronted before he went to meet a chick. I was pissed he didn’t mention on the phone that he would be leaving, so I lied, “Sorry, bra. I left it at home.”
I took my six-pack (and hash) to a table poolside at our condo, cracked open a brew, and downed it in three gulps, then started on a second. About half an hour later, I felt like a swim and hung my shirt on a chair before diving in. I counted out twenty laps, then hit the hot tub to relax.
After stewing to almost overheated, a gentle rain began and I decided to have another beer. Shortest route is a straight line, so I went to the edge of the Jacuzzi to swim across and grab one. While I stood on the ledge three feet above the pool’s surface, an extremely fit, French-bikini-wearing blond caught my eye. I paused, hoping she’d turn my way so I could check her rack. Somebody’s boombox began blasting “Eruption,” and I launched head first toward my beer. From hot to cold, what a rush.
My forehead slammed onto the pool’s hard concrete floor, which set off a brilliant flash of light behind my eyeballs. From surfers’ stories, often repeated on the beach, I figured I was about to knock out and drown. “This must be that split-second right before lights out,” I thought.
It didn’t even take a moment for me to realize I wasn’t going to lose consciousness. Relieved, I tried to swim, but couldn’t move my arms. “Fuck, shit, fuck,” I thought to myself, “I broke my fucking neck.” In an instant, the control freak was rendered helpless. Talk about some fucked-up shit.
After a nanosecond of initial panic, I had no fear whatsoever, just waiting, waiting – holding my breath – staying calm while thinking about stuff. There were plenty of people around. Surely someone would notice a motionless kid face down in the water. After a few minutes alone with my thousand scattered thoughts, I faced the obvious. No one was coming to my rescue.
I held on a moment longer to wonder what my friends would think when they heard I died.
Time was up. Unable to hold my breath any longer, and not wanting to prolong the agony, I decided to draw in the biggest, deepest, lungs-full-of-water breath physically possible. I held on a moment longer to wonder what my friends would think when they heard I died. Would anyone really care? Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” played in my head, and I went for it. I didn’t fuck around either, and after forcefully expelling all the air from my lungs I sucked in deep and fast.
At that very moment, somebody rolled me face up. I could not feel their touch, and thought I must have somehow righted myself, so began gasping repeatedly, “Help, help, help.”
I heard a voice say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”
Even though there are no signs, across the way I heard “You Really Got Me” finishing up on the boombox. Thankfully, Van Halen songs are very short. If I was under for two Allman Brothers songs, I would have been a goner.
Spoiler alert – I didn’t die. No idea why. Guess I’m no good.
A little preoccupied at the time, I don’t believe I ever thanked the dude who saved me. Thanks!!!
My rescuer wanted to lift me from the pool, but my pre-lifeguard training kicked in and I took control: “Wait, I broke my neck,” and “less movement is the best thing for my type of injury.”
I asked for a deck chair to be brought into the pool, laid in the flat position, slid underneath me, and four guys to lift me smooth and level from the pool. I stressed the utter importance of keeping me flat, while avoiding exaggerated or jerky movements.
Before I knew it, the guys had done as requested. I lay poolside on a lawn chair, shivering, teeth chattering, with a broken fucking neck.
A fair-sized crowd gathered round, some gawking, others interested in finding out if there was anything they could do for me. Someone went to tell Jonelle that I had stubbed my toe, quite badly. I told a man about my beers sitting on the picnic table, and asked him to “Go grab one for me, crack it open, and pour it down my throat.”
He said, “You don’t need one of those right now.”
“That’s exactly what I need right now,” I disagreed.
But he wouldn’t budge.
Some old guy worked his way to me and started doing chest compressions. I told him, “I didn’t drown. I broke my fucking neck.”
“It’s all right, I’m a doctor,” he said.
I let him know that he needed to get the fuck away from me. It turned out that he was a dentist, and against my clear instructions had rolled up a towel, lifted my head, and placed it underneath as a pillow. I sometimes wonder if his well-meaning stupidity caused more paralysis than was necessary. Whatever, it’s not his fault that I broke my fucking neck.
After paramedics arrived, they threw on one of those cervical collars, slid a backboard underneath, and then strapped me down. They were lifting me onto a gurney just as Jonelle arrived.
To the ambulance, and soon enough onto the highway to set sail at freeway speed toward Straub Hospital. I requested lights and sirens, but was told, “Your injury isn’t life threatening, so we can’t.”
I bitched slightly, “But I broke my fucking neck, how about just the lights?”
It was not my first, or last, trip to an emergency room. But that night I was the center of attention. As the doctors, nurses, and the rest of the care-crew swarmed me, I thought that they would have run the lights and sirens; just saying.
My Quicksilver board shorts got cut off, which bummed me out because I paid twenty-five bucks for them. Someone asked me to move my toes, then on the other foot. I tried, but couldn’t. The only limb that I could move was my left arm, ever so slightly, but couldn’t move my hand or fingers.
After some small talk, I felt like getting high, so complained of pain. A nurse placed a couple pills on my tongue, and some water to wash them down. Kind of like junkie communion, followed by a lovely kick-to-the-head pain shot that had me buzzing sweetly by the time the X-rays were developed.
The doctor informed me that I had suffered a compression fracture to the fifth and sixth vertebrae of my cervical spine: a broken fucking neck. Gee, who knew? Even though I couldn’t move, and my body felt pins-and-needles tingly-numb all over, laying there higher than a kite while looking up at blurry lights, I was positive I’d be on my feet again in no time flat.
As an orderly wheeled me out of E.R., Jonelle walked beside the gurney and discovered the hash inside my shirt pocket. I meant to leave that shirt behind, but she had retrieved it from poolside. I told her to throw the hash in the trash, just in case the authorities started nosing around. I have no recollection of what happened next, because about that time, the pills kicked in and KO’d me.
I awoke the next morning in a private room, with a super-fine nurse bent over, emptying the pee bag hanging from my bedside. A doctor dropped by to explain that my neck vertebrae were not actually broken, just compressed and way out of normal alignment. He sought to remedy my neck bones’ sketchy situation with a traction device consisting of weights, a pulley, and a cable attached to a horseshoe-shaped piece of metal with spike-point bolts at the open end. A technician set up the apparatus while the doctor wrenched the horseshoe onto my head. As the bolts tightened, I heard bone crunching from the spikes sinking even deeper into my skull, all the while twisting and yanking my hair. I always hated my hair getting pulled, but couldn’t move so didn’t punch that doctor in the face. When all mechanical tasks were complete, the weight on the other end of the cable began slowly stretching my cervical spine back into proper alignment.
I needed help with everything: eating, drinking from a straw, talking on the phone. Believe me, when you can’t move your hands, the nose never stops itching. Because I could barely move just one arm, the same tech rigged up a nurse-summoning device. All I need do was bat a little ball hanging from the bed’s handrail, and one of them honey-skinned island girls came a-running. I seriously don’t remember even a slightly ugly nurse at Straub.
Hawaii gets its share of spinal injuries, and Straub was the place to go with that particular malady. With an experienced staff and excellent neurologists, they knew their shit. For patients lacking sensation, a major concern – overlooked often by many care facilities – are bedsores. Every few hours, they rolled me – from one side to either my back or my other side – to relive pressure. A few days in, they removed my Foley catheter and began intermittent catheterization. That’s when they insert a catheter, every four hours, into your bladder via the pee-hole, empty you out, then remove the cath. It’s far worse than it sounds, especially if you can feel it even a little bit.
Pops showed up to my room two days after my accident, saying he “had a bad feeling,” so called home. I believed him, until about five minutes ago when I started thinking that he probably never actually left Oahu. He was beyond heartbroken, and likely feeling totally fucking powerless because he couldn’t keep me safe. Control freak runs in the family. On the bright side, I never had to have “the talk” about crashing the car, and/or smoking pot. Though, given the circumstances, I would have preferred a stern lecture, followed by physical abuse and a swift kick to the nuts.
A few days later, some lawyer for the condo complex came by to ask a few questions about my accident. We weren’t the “I’ll sue you” type, so Pops okayed the interview. Everything started friendly, and lawyer-man seemed sympathetic. After a few fact-check-the-circumstances questions, he asked, “Do you believe that breaking your neck was your fault?”
Pops stopped me before I could answer. But when the lawyer tried to proceed, Pops got up in his face and barked, “Get the fuck out of my son’s room.”
We decided to get our own lawyer. As it turned out, we were the “I’ll sue you” type.
They punched a needle through my neck bone to inject dye into my spinal column to get a clear picture.
My neurologist needed to check the integrity of my c-spine, in search of bone chips or fragments floating around that might be irritating my spinal cord, and ordered a test called a something-o-gram. It’s a technical term. The procedure was relatively simple and straightforward. They punched a needle through my neck bone to inject dye into my spinal column to get a clear picture. It took the doc five tries to get the nineteen-inch needle inserted into the precise spot. Actually, I never saw the needle, just a guess, and gotcha! After each attempt – I could hear the needle crunch-piercing neck bone – he’d take an X-ray. Definitely an ouchie, but I think it was more mental.
I rarely complain about pain, because I don’t want to sound like a whiney fuck. Plus, it is what it is, so I just tell myself, “Tough it out, pussy.” I only mention it here because I’m telling a story, and I’m a bit curious about how it feels to be a whiney fucker. I have an extremely high threshold for pain, but neck-break pain can get pretty gnarly. My upper arms, shoulders, and back were “hypersensitive,” meaning even something as innocuous as the breeze from kitten farts, or the slight touch of a cashmere-wrapped cotton ball felt like a blow torch burning my skin. That hypersensitivity shit only lasted a few months, but every week or so, I still get a bolt of beautiful pain, reminding me that I’m alive.
With a choice of two different downers, prescribed for once every four hours, I could’ve had hard drugs delivered every two hours if I so desired. Not wanting to get strung out, I dealt with the pain and only partied every couple of days. My favorite was popping a happy pill twenty minutes before dinner, and then slamming the glass of wine delivered with my chow. If Ma would have found out I was enjoying myself like that, I would’ve heard the Judy Garland speech for the hundredth time. But I was trying to get back over the damn rainbow, and escape to Kansas was impossible due to my inability to click my heels together.
My first day in the hospital, Jonelle brought me an AM/FM cassette player, but no cassettes. There were a few new songs on the radio, “Boulevard” and “Late in the Evening.” Even though the music takes me back to my hospital room, I still love those tunes. Jonelle visited just about every day, but seemed frazzled from raising two babies, her man abandoning her, and me crippling myself. Barbara the cocktail waitress visited every single day, often with pizza, and spent hours at my side. I wasn’t really into The Police, but she brought me the Zenyatta Mondatta cassette, which I wore out until Jonelle bought me The Wall.
Pops sported a Hawaiian holiday for Ma and Joe, who seemed very, very bummed about my throwing away that hash. A few days after arrival, Joe told me that he dove into the pool from the same spot where I failed to stick the landing, and reportedly it went quite well. They visited for a few hours daily, but it didn’t stop them from enjoying their island getaway. It was annoying listening to all the fun they were having, but I’m kind of glad they didn’t camp out in my room for the entire daily visitation hours.
A sweet waitress from work came to see me several times, but what really stood out were those who didn’t visit. My hospital was fairly close to Matteo’s downtown, and not even one of the dudes from the kitchen ever stopped by or called. That really bummed me out, and is why I’m one of those who tend to visit hospitalized friends. The worst offender was my surf buddy, Dick, who only called once. He never even asked me how I was, only caring about where my hash was.
When a muscle that was once paralyzed becomes controllable again, they call it “return.” Though I remained almost totally paralyzed, about three weeks in, I was starting to move some paralyzed stuff again. They were minor improvements. Nevertheless, I figured I’d be fully recovered by year’s end. I dig a challenge, so I looked forward to working myself back into fighting shape, and then once again strapping on my dancing shoes.
After a month in traction, they unbolted that horseshoe thingy from my skull. Like before, it twisted and pulled my hair. By then I was used to pain, during even the simplest procedure, so didn’t get mad or even think about punching the dude. My vertebrae hadn’t fully mended. So they strapped me into a Philadelphia collar, requiring me to keep my chin up at all times. With neck bones back in their original alignment, acute care was complete.
My next layover along recovery road was spinal injury rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, in Downey, California. Before we departed Straub Hospital, a shitload of drugs happened into my bloodstream via syringe. I then caught an ambulance to the airport, while seemingly floating atop a special gurney. The medical transport off the island required my very own flight nurse and six first-class seats on a jumbo jet. I’m a baller. I had foolishly believed I’d be able to have at least a couple of first-class meals on my long flight. But it wasn’t to be, because next thing I knew, I was at Rancho meeting the very nice Dr. Gilghoff.
After a month in a private room in Hawaii, with pills on command, wine with dinner, and super-hot nurses that arrived immediately once summoned, Rancho was beyond disappointing. It was a vast, cold, creepy institution, originally built at the beginning of the twentieth century to corral TB victims until dirt nap time. They switched to polio when it was big. But even though Dr. Jonas Salk solved that issue, there will always be a need for creepy facilities. I ended up on ward 903, in a room with six beds. There were four rooms like it on my ward, and four wards per building. Multiply that by several exact buildings, sprawled across so much land that it spread out across Imperial Highway, and that’s lots of sickness.
The joint was run by L.A. County and the State of California. Civil service employees are the best. If I was lucky, a nurse responded to my call-light within the hour. Plus, I had five fucking roommates, and only one black-and-white TV mounted high up on the other side of the room. But it didn’t matter, because I had no say. Unhappy with my new living arrangements, I immediately called Pops to beg-whine, “You got to get me out of here.” I told of my two gangbanger, gunshot-victim roommates, hoping he’d be shocked enough to get me out of that shithole and back to privacy and room service.
A Foley catheter was inserted prior to my departure from Hawaii, and it remained up inside me for more than two days. By the time they got around to yanking that tube out, all the lubricant used to ease insertion had long since dried up. I still remember there being a shocking amount of pain, best described as what a garden hose wrapped with sandpaper getting ripped out my pee-hole might feel like. L I went back to intermittent catheterization, but soon my bladder started emptying on its own; it’s called “kicking off.” I then got a condom catheter, “gizmo,” glued onto my pecker to catch pee in a leg bag. It got a bit messy, but a few pubes getting ripped out is way better than a tube up your dick! Plus, I could pee on an occasional asshole’s foot without them noticing.
During my months at Rancho, I was blessed to have many lovely, caring, and companionate nurses – strong, noble women who do a selfless job. I can’t even imagine what it would be like if the world was full of me’s. No doubt there’d be loads of suffering people waiting for someone to clean poop from between their buttocks. After a month of being a total bitchy, whiney, uncompromising, demanding brat, I learned to appreciate them. Not just because they spent so much time with their hands on my dick, because they undoubtedly made my situation as comfortable as possible. I killed them bitches with kindness, and meant it. I said please and thank you without fail, as well as overlooking stuff like getting pizza shoved in my nose during feeding. If my girls needed to catch up on soap opera watching, who was I to bitch if they multi-tasked? I even laughed off the time – midway through getting my temperature taken – when I discovered a rectal thermometer hanging out of my mouth – yuck!
I still got it bad for nurses, and there were several memorable RNs, LVNs and nurse’s aides that I have nothing but the kindest thoughts, best wishes, and loads of love for. But none will ever hold a candle to the most spectacular nurse that ever graced my world, Anita, a smoking-hot redhead that a flower would be wise to seek beauty tips from. Her toned, shapely legs rose from earth to form the pedestal for a round ‘n’ tight booty that could make a dead man salivate. She was a total flirt, possessing sparkling eyes that lit up a goddess’ face, which became even lovelier while laughing at my corny, off-color jokes. I will always love her.
I could write several chapters about those helpful ladies from Rancho, other caregivers I’ve known over the years, or even the nurses that I’ve watched performing on the internet who only wear their cute nurse’s outfits long enough to set the scene. But I shall leave it at my all-time favorite.
I was at Rancho for rehabilitation, which meant learning how to function as independently as possible. There were medical, therapeutic, and mental health services. A few times a week, and far too early in the morning, the doctors would gang up and make their rounds to scribble notes while discussing treatments amongst themselves. As for the mental health services, I avoided the shrink on our ward. He was an alright dude, but I saw spilling my guts as a sign of weakness. I’m old school – weakness will not be tolerated.
Therapy was divided into occupational and physical therapy. My OT (occupational therapist) taught me how to perform daily tasks despite my limitations, and knew which adaptive equipment or device would make certain tasks possible. For example, it’s hard to button a button with just one hand, but there’s a device for it. My PT (physical therapist) doled out most of the work out to her assistant, Christine, a no-nonsense taskmaster who refused to let me get away with being lazy. We worked on bigger-picture stuff, like overall strength and independent mobility. My
cell roommates and me gave Christine way too much shit, but the truth is, we needed more like her. Thank goodness she was extremely patient, and shrugged off our meanness while keeping the program moving forward.
At least once a month they’d run a variety of sensory and motor skills tests, one of which I called, “Fuck, not that shit again.”
Doctors and therapists are a curious lot. In order to design my rehab plan, they continuously questioned, poked, and prodded. Some probing, too, but mostly late at night and afterward I was instructed to “Never tell a soul.” At least once a month they’d run a variety of sensory and motor skills tests, one of which I called, “Fuck, not that shit again.” That little mind-fuck required me to look away while someone used an open safety pin to either prick or trick me. Every couple of inches, I’d say if I felt sharp or smooth. Other times, they used a pinwheel, so I could report where I felt the pin pricks. Roger Waters lied – after the pinpricks, there were plenty more “Aaaaaaahs.” Another hoot of a test, I’d close my eyes so they could reposition one of my limbs then ask which direction – up/down, left/right – it had traveled? I had no idea.
One morning, to my utter delight, I discovered that I could twitch the knee muscles of my left leg. It became big news around my ward, and everyone seemed quite excited for me. The very next day, Christine began EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) to exercise the leg muscles via jolts delivered though strategically placed electrodes. My injury was so high up it severely affected my breathing, leaving me with about 60% normal vital capacity. So while the electrodes were passively exercising my legs, I did diaphragm exercises, using a contraption called RIPP (routine intermittent positive pressure), to expand my lungs. The RIPP machine was just a vacuum cleaner with a mouth piece that blew instead of sucking.
A human spinal cord transmits its motor and sensory signals through opposite sides from one another. Because I was fifteen and did everything half-assed, I got myself an incomplete spinal injury – technical term: “Brown-Sequard Syndrome.” My paralyzed right side can feel temperature and pain near normal-ish. My left side has movement, but I could burn spots with a blow torch and not know. Then there are the involuntary movements. Even though I wouldn’t feel it, if I were to pound my toes with a framing hammer, my leg would spasm like an epileptic having a seizure on a trampoline. I get a kick out of spasms.
By the second month post-fuck-up, my right arm had gotten a fair amount of return, but remained mostly paralyzed. I was able to move my left arm pretty good, even the fingers. One of the first things I did after regaining control of my fingers was flip off my shit-talking roommate. Fredo was a quick-witted, cocky dude with an easy smile and – when he wanted – very likeable. One summer night, he was in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and got shot several times, leaving him paralyzed from the knees down.
Another roommate, his homeboy Michael, was also shot in the spine and left partially paralyzed. Although they were gunned down in separate encounters with rival gangs, those two had grown up across the street from each other and were jumped into 18th Street, Bonnie Brae Locos, a few years before their severe lead poisoning. Both he and Michael loved the old black-and-white, noir gangster flicks, and after lights out, we often watched classic movies like (the original) Scarface, Menace to Society, or Little Caesar; pretty much anything with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, or Edward G. Robinson.
In a time when phone conversations were private and music was public, Fredo rolled around our ward with a boombox resting in his lap, endlessly pumping out Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” obtained using the old school “file sharing” method of waiting for the desired song to come on the radio and then pushing the record button quick enough as to not cut off too much of the intro. But he also cranked Motown and rock oldies playing on K-EARTH 101 FM. I fell in love with songs like “Eighteen with a Bullet,” “My Guy,” and “I’m Your Puppet.” But after I hipped him to hard-rock bands, Aerosmith, Floyd, The Who, Stones, and Sabbath, Fredo became quite the rocker.
A little more than two months after my accident, I sat my ass in a wheelchair for the first time. It required a sling underneath, and a hydraulic lift to transfer me from bed to chair. Even though my hospital bed was adjustable and I sat up all the time, sitting upright with feet on a footrest was completely draining. I barely tolerated the scheduled fifteen minutes, getting lightheaded while holding back a hurl. But within a few weeks, I got used to sitting in a wheelchair, and then was out of bed for most of my days. The neck brace and weak arms hampered my mobility, so PT hooked me up with an old, rickety, slow electric wheelchair.
I was on the road again, and began attending school. About a hundred yards from my bed was Rancho Los Amigos High School, a one-room schoolhouse with a midget teacher and, literally, a classroom full of drooling retards. Just your typical L.A. public school. In those days, the term “retard” was not offensive – to retards. I didn’t dig doing 2 + 2 math problems or reading assignments from Fun with Dick and Jane, and without the internet, I had not yet developed my little-person fetish. Believing myself above that crap, I ditched school to smoke pot with the janitor. No one really seemed to care, so after two days, I never went again. That was a total fuck-up, because if I had done the “school work” at Rancho, I would have received credit and not had to redo tenth grade the following year.
When even James Bond is a pussy-whipped metro, it’s hard for me to enjoy twenty-first-century cinema.
In the room right next to mine lived Mark, who was rendered completely paralyzed from a skiing accident, such a devastating injury that he required a ventilator to breathe. Mark was a brilliant and fun-loving guy with a positive outlook, plus he had a VCR, color TV, and a massive bootlegged VHS movie collection. We’d gather round his bed to watch the very latest movies: Raging Bull, Caddyshack, The Empire Strikes Back, Used Cars, Penitentiary, Up in Smoke, and pretty much anything worth a view. The movie stars back then were all manly men: The Duke, McQueen, Eastwood, Bronson, Caan, De Niro, Pacino, etc, but it seems like nowadays all we got is a bunch of man-bitches. When even James Bond is a pussy-whipped metro, it’s hard for me to enjoy twenty-first-century cinema.
The food at Rancho was atrocious, the same fowl gruel served to inmates locked up at Los Angeles County Jail. I only ate about part of a meal per day, if that, and lost more than thirty pounds during my stay. Pops didn’t think it necessary to leave me pizza money, but Mark got food delivery several times a week and always shared. I thank God for him and his cool, generous dad, Vic, funding those treats. I often wished Pops would back me up like Vic did for his son. If he felt like any Rancho staff had crossed a line, Vic would rage furiously till shit got straight. Right on, Vic.
One of the toughest things about institutional existence was being surrounded by misery. In my room lived a kid named Mike, who suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Ten years earlier, at the age of five, his parents had abandoned him to live out his years at Rancho. In Mark’s room, there was a sweet teenage girl with a beautiful, rosy-cheeked smile. Olivia had been run down by a drunk driver, leaving her paralyzed with a traumatic brain injury. A cute little Asian girl, around eight or nine, stayed in our room for a few days. She had been rendered a vegetable after some drunken anesthesiologist fucked up the oxygen supply during a routine dental procedure. Those sad stories could be repeated tenfold. The sorrow evident in parents’ eyes was heartbreaking, and far too common around that place.
My actual physician, Dr. Barros, was a cold-hearted clinician who I never really liked. She ran the pediatric department, and gave the impression that us older, delinquent spinal injury kids were not worth her time. Three months in, after my left leg had gotten stronger, I asked about updating my physical therapy. “When are they going to start teaching me to walk again?”
Dr. Barros remained expressionless and, while barely looking up from her clipboard, spoke in a matter of fact tone. “No one told you? You’re never going to walk again.”
Nope, no one had mentioned that.
1980 was an election year, with everyone in my world sure that Jimmy Carter would win handily. But that was only because Ronald Reagan was just a B movie actor, and crazy old heartless warmonger to boot. I remember a comedian saying, “Ronald Reagan is sixty-nine years old, and if he becomes president, he’ll have his finger on the button. My grandfather’s sixty-nine and we won’t even let him have the TV remote.”
By late on election night, it became clear that Reagan would be our 40th president. The following day’s L.A. Times’ vote recap showed that Reagan received 489 of the 538 available electoral votes, kicking Carter’s peanut-faming ass quite handily. Ma and her friends seemed to believe Reagan’s election meant a nuclear conflict was imminent, but I remained agnostic toward our next president. I had liked Carter in sixth grade, but he lost me with the whole Iranian hostage wimp out.
After almost four months of my neck being braced, I underwent a series of “flexion and extension” X-rays to determine if my neck bones were stable enough to lose my itchy, stinky Philadelphia collar. Days later, I received the bad news: a spinal fusion surgery would be necessary. The procedure required removing a slice off of my rib and then fusing it to my c-spine to stabilize the area. It promised to be an extremely painful procedure, with plenty of room for error and a whole slew of possible side-effects. One of the guaranteed outcomes would be loss of much range of motion in my neck, leaving me barely able to twist my head from side to side or tilt it up and down. I lobbied everyone – Pops, doctors, God – for a second opinion, arguing that at one time or another, I had broken several different bones and they all had healed up on their own. My pleas fell on deaf ears. Surgery was scheduled for early in the New Year.
One of Ma’s fellow cabbies, Tip, had sent over a Heaven and Hell LP autographed by Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. Ma also made a cassette so I could listen to it. Actually, lots of cassettes, but I mistakenly never put Electric Ladyland into the deck. In early December, I was stunned upon hearing radio reports that John Lennon had been shot. He was in surgery, but no other details were given. I dug through my cassettes and popped the first Beatles tape I happened upon into my deck, and then was shocked and saddened by the first lyric prophetically emanating from that tiny speaker: “Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in.” I knew right then that John Lennon had died, and within the hour, news reports confirmed his passing. It’s weird how shit happens.
Many kind, caring community volunteers donated their time and love to the patients. I don’t believe a week passed without someone going out of their way to do something nice for us. Disabled comic Gene Michener put on a free show for our building, and a local TV show, Eye on L.A., videotaped it. I even made it onto TV, cracking up at his hilarious handicap jokes. Lions and Kiwanis would often visit to do magic, or dress like clowns and make balloon animals. Once every month, a church group brought a wonderful treat of cake and ice cream. But my absolute favorite delicacy was candy stripe nurses. Every once in a blue-ball moon, a few sixteen- and seventeen-year-old babes would arrive wearing the cutest little outfits you’d ever want to see fall to the floor. One of them candy babes was even sweet enough to adjourn with me to a secluded spot to make out. She could have given me a lot more sugar, but it was fun and memorable.
Christmas at Rancho Los Amigos was kick-ass, and surprisingly festive. A gaggle of movie stars made the rounds from ward to ward to hand out autographed 8x10s and make us feel special. I was beyond thrilled to meet The Fonz and Joni. Mork didn’t show up, but Mindy gave me a peck on the cheek under some mistletoe. I got stacks of presents from family, friends, and complete strangers. My godparents, “Uncle Eddie” and “Aunt Barbara,” gave me a kick-ass nineteen-inch color TV so the nurses and I could watch General Hospital in living color and keep up with the goings on of Luke and Laura. No longer stuck with the room’s channel consensus, at night I’d watch Happy Days, Chips, Mork & Mindy, and That’s Incredible. During the midnight hours, it was Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, or Bing and Bob in those “road movies.” It’s not like I had school the next day.
The best gift of all was a little cassette player made by Sony, called a Walkman, which one listened to through headphones. The quality of the sound was like nothing I had ever heard, as if God was creating the music right inside my very head. I wanted everyone to experience its cutting-edge, otherworldly sound, insisting anyone around give it a listen. Someone loved it so much that my Walkman got gone. I took it hard, and not because it reportedly cost two hundred bucks. You see, even though I was a thieving piece of shit, I felt like Rancho patients were part of my extended family of misery, so during my entire stay I never even considered lifting anyone’s stuff.
Since first visiting my hospital bedside in Hawaii, Ma preached of visualization and positive thinking as my best path to recovery. When I became able to hold a book, she overloaded me with visualization and self-hypnosis manuals. I skipped most of them, except for Silva Mind Control, hoping that I might discover a way to mind-meld nurses into sex slaves. I do not doubt the power of positivity, and often utilize visualization to complete tasks quickly and efficiently. But those techniques did not prove useful for healing my spinal issues. One book she brought did pique more than my passing interest. No One Here Gets Out Alive got read several times and made me a huge Doors fan.
All the activity going on in my room regularly woke me hours before I wanted to face the day. Sometimes I’d keep my eyes shut, wishing and hoping that the whole thing was a very bad dream, and that when I opened them I’d be back in my bed at the condo in Hawaii, with my little brothers in their bed right next to mine. Then we could all jump up and down, roughhousing on the mattresses, and I’d destroy them little fuckers.
When the New Year began, one morning while I was still in bed, Christine came by to start me on a series of neck exercises. My rehab team had reevaluated the earlier X-rays and determined that a spinal fusion procedure would not be needed, which thrills me to this day. Quadriplegics never dance a jig, so I just happy-danced in my head.
Ten days of isometric exercise – to the left, right, forward, and back, pushing and holding my head tight against the brace for a five count – and then they freed my sticky, stinky head. Picturing the grunge clinging to that plastic neck brace where my greasy scalp had lived for months literally makes me scratch the back of my head every time.
In the meantime, there were bigger things going on in the world. It is often said that “weakness is provocative,” which proved true the very day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. After 444 days in captivity, the U.S. hostages were released from Iran within hours of his swearing in. I was no longer agnostic about our new leader, and liked Ronald Regan from the get-go. I pretty much kept that to myself, so my circle of Democrat friends wouldn’t think me stupid and heartless, like half of you reading this.
As a resident of a hospital overpopulated with paraplegics, I saw my share of wheelies popped. It looked fun, so once I lost the neck brace, it was past time to go for it. In just under half a second, I got from sitting upright to head-slamming hard onto vinyl tiled concrete floor. After enough nurses arrived to get me back into my chair – and stopped busting my chops – I gave wheelies a second shot. Same result. I’ve flipped over backward since then, some of those spills quite spectacular, but haven’t willingly tried a wheelie in thirty-five years.
With my neck officially healed, I began getting weekend passes. On my first trip home, Pops informed me I needed a haircut. And even though I refused, the next thing I knew I was in the kitchen with that motherfucker chopping off a year’s worth of frizzy hair. Between the forced shearing and a minor case of Arby’s food poisoning, it was a completely shitty weekend. Years later, Pops claimed the haircut was an attempt to motivate me to fight harder for recovery. It’s true, I do excel when challenged or belittled. And during the following months I made some impressive gains, but I chock it all up to the brace coming off expanding my therapy options.
Indeed, the physical therapy ramped up over the next couple of months. The biggie was learning to transfer in and out of bed, amongst other daily destinations, with the help of a sliding board. That was a piece of wood with an ultra-smooth finish, placed under my leg/buttocks on one end. The other end rested on my objective to bridge over the gap from chair to there. I also had to acquire an ultra-important habit, for every hour sitting in my wheelchair, I must relieve pressure from my ass for at least a couple of minutes. Probably the biggest mental challenge of all was learning how to do everything left-handed, because I never got return to my right side.
Often, while the nurses were doing stuff to me that I preferred to ignore, I’d close my eyes and sing along to whatever was playing in my head or on the boombox. There were a few nurses who seemed to genuinely enjoy my voice. They’d even encourage me to sing for them, and I’d gladly croon a panty-dropping serenade or two while they did what they do. A fruitless serenade of nurses was all fine and dandy, but I still wanted to be a cock-rocking guitar hero.
So when I was able to move the fingers of my left hand pretty well, I told OT Susan of my desire to play guitar again, but could not hold a pick.
From the moment I arrived to Rancho, occupational therapy had regularly pushed devices or suggested some kind of arm bracing for this or that mundane, everyday task. So when I was able to move the fingers of my left hand pretty well, I told OT Susan of my desire to play guitar again, but could not hold a pick. She thought playing guitar would be great therapy, so she sent me to orthotics – the brace-making department – where they measured me for a right-arm brace configured to hold a guitar pick.
Nothing got done fast at that shop. Months later, when the time came for my final fitting, I had come to terms with reality. I would not be able to play guitar unless my left hand got far more return of strength and dexterity. So I never took delivery of my custom-made, guitar-pick-holding right-arm brace. I’d wager that brace is likely still sitting upon a shelf of the Rancho Los Amigos orthotics shop with four decades’ worth of gathered dust.
At some point, Fredo and me caused a bit more turmoil than usual, and it was decided a few nights of getting to bed at six was an appropriate punishment. The first night, minutes after our wheelchairs were rolled away, Fredo scooted on a desk chair all the way across our room and on outside the backdoor to smoke a cig. I demanded the nurses bring my chair, arguing that because Fredo did not need a wheelchair to get around, I was the only one being punished. But no one cared.
The next night, come punishment hour, I loudly refused to get in bed. I was spitting mad as I hollered about how evil and inhumane it was to remove my legs (wheelchair) as a punishment. When they began forcibly pushing me toward my bed, I started breaking whatever was in reach. Attempts to restrain me were met with the swinging of a stethoscope toward anyone that got close. Hospital security arrived in the form of a tall-and-wide-as-a-mountain L.A. County Deputy Sheriff. I got a mouth on me, and energetically cussed him with a stream of expletive-laced expletives peppered with attacks on his size and strength compared to mine. At some point, his sexuality was strongly questioned. He looked about ready to blow his top, but resisted the beat down being begged for. Instead, the deputy remained calm while he held my arms, tossed me onto the bed, and then strapped me down. Totally unnecessary, because once they rolled my chair away, I was fully secured to that bed.
A major component of rehabilitation is teaching new gimps how to function and integrate into society. To that end, PT took a field trip to a local supermarket. Even though it was only a block away, I rode a special bus with about ten other movers, shakers, and droolers. When there’s a cripple around, folks do everything in their power not to stare. That was the day I first realized what a brilliant opportunity for thievery my wheelchair provided. Before my injury, I’d have to wait till no one was looking to boost something. But suddenly, all I need do was give someone a “Why are you staring at me?” look and folks looked away, leaving me free to stash whatever my heart desired. For the next ten years, I utilized that technique to help myself to thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Thanks, rehab.
My ward focused on pediatrics, and spinal injury expertise was secondary. The opposite was true across the parking lot in the 700 building, home to the adult spinal rehab program. The place was packed, sixteen rooms with six beds each, and a waiting list for any available bed. They didn’t take no shit over there. If a patient missed three therapy classes, they were discharged. The average time from admission to completing rehabilitation was about two months.
I had already been at Rancho for five months when I began attending the quad mat class on the adult ward, taught by an amazingly hot, but all-business PT, Jan. With her guidance and knowledge, I made far more progress during my first week in her class than my entire time at Rancho. I loved it so much that I requested a transfer to the adult program. Even though I told Pops about my rapid progress and the new skills I’d picked up, Dr. Barros was against my transferring. She sealed my fate by telling Pops, “They all smoke pot over there.”
It pissed me off that I couldn’t go to a place a thousand times more beneficial to my recovery. Even worse, I couldn’t rub their noses in the fact that I already smoked pot most days. My rehab team decided that I needed more incentive to be actively involved in my therapy. So they made a rule that if I missed three therapy sessions in a week, I wouldn’t get a weekend pass. I hated going to Pops’ so much, I began skipping my OT and PT appointments on purpose. But for those weeks leading up to going on pass at Ma’s, I’d have a perfect attendance record. Then Joe and friends would lug me up three flights of stairs for a weekend of pot, beer, pizza, and cable TV.
A few months passed with me missing most of my therapy, not going to school, and basically just hanging out in the front lobby, smoking cigarettes and offering dog-eat-dog smiles with accompanying sincere compliments to female passersby. From on high, it was decided that my rehab was complete. When the release date got set, I gave another shot at a transfer to the “Adult Program,” but no one but me and Jan saw any benefit from that. I knew I was capable of so much more, but the bridge had been burnt.
To this day, Ma remains convinced that I had my accident on purpose. Several times I’ve heard her say, “There’s no such thing as an accident.” She calls them “on purposes.” For years, I have been told laziness keeps me in the wheelchair. Ma thinks very highly of me. I’m her favorite unwanted child. “Life ain’t easy for a boy named” Cue.
I’ll be the first to admit that life at fifteen wasn’t anywhere near the breeze I thought it was going to be. It was downright shitty. But what kind of weak fuck breaks their neck on purpose? I really don’t understand how Ma could even remotely believe that I’m lazy. If that was true, I’d spend all day in bed, having my needs attended to by a cute Filipino nursing staff, watching soap operas and begging for another sponge bath. “Now the front, honey.”
I lived my life expecting the shittiest possible outcomes, and then when things go great, it’s always a pleasant surprise
It’s hard not getting at least a bit philosophical rethinking the events of this period. I lived my life expecting the shittiest possible outcomes, and then when things go great, it’s always a pleasant surprise. That’s why the whole neck-breaking shit didn’t catch me totally unawares. Once one realizes that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, they can plan accordingly. I did learn to trust my instincts more. Had I followed my gut the night I broke my fucking neck, I would’ve stayed out all night instead of returning home as Pops had requested. On the bright side, now whenever I fuck life-shit up, I can confidently say, “Not the biggest mistake I ever made!” In mid-April, my Stainless brand wheelchair was delivered to Rancho. With semi-pneumatic tires and backrest rising to the top of my shoulders, it wasn’t very easy to push. But it rolled far smoother than the ancient hunk loaner I had before it. A few days later, after an eight-month hospitalization, I was discharged. Instead of being able to walk, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital rehabilitated me to “independent with assist.” That term made absolutely no sense to me. When assistance is needed, it is not independence!