Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Leg...part 1

Over the past year, since Obama has been elected, we have all been bombarded with talk of health care reform. It seems as though, no matter why you voted the way you voted, the only thing that has mattered over the last 200+ years was a shitty health care system in need of serious overhaul. I happened to vote for Obama and my reasons were varied, while health care was a small part of that I have been anxious to move past that and get on the next issue. Hopefully gay marriage...if my vote counted.

Now that reform is on it's way I am looking back at what was the worst ever year in my life. One of the many varied reasons for the awfulness that was '09 was my leg issue.

Somewhere around mid October I started to have some leg pain. It would prove to be extremely expensive, arduous, and educational. Quiet simply said though it was the biggest fucking pain in the ass (yes, in the leg actually) that I've ever gone through in my life. What I know know, and wish I knew then, was that I was part of the problem, causing myself to owe several extra thousand dollars atop the already inflated and high costs that came outside of my own ignorance.

For a few days it felt like I was sleeping atop a pebble, I would brush it away while laying on my stomach waiting for sleep to win out. Inevitably there was nothing on the bed and brushing away (even the smallest) nothing does no good whatsoever. I began to realize that the section of my leg where I thought was a pebble, living in my bed, was tighter than normal during regular business hours. Originally I thought it was a pulled muscle.

In high school I played a bunch of sports, I'm no stranger to a muscle pull or ache. A simple fact that I overlooked initially was that a pull/strain starts off really bad, very painful, and eventually lessens over time. This little pebble was starting small and sort of growing.

A few days, perhaps a few weeks, went by and the problem persisted but wasn't really effecting my life in any sizable way. As the pain grew I noticed it was worse when the blood rushed towards it; when I would first stand after having sat for a while it would go from annoying little thing that I didn't want to touch or bump to a hugely painful charley horse (note: I tried both 'charlie' and 'charley' there, even charly but none look right at the moment, you get the EY version.)

I work for a doctor who started a company outside of the medical field. He is still a practicing physician who works at a prestigious hospital in NYC and I work for his other company...in Los Angeles. I was calling him to mine for answers over the phone. As is always the case, he was extremely helpful and as luck would have it he was in town the following weekend. We set up a time to meet up so he could have a look. He warned me several times that without the use of diagnostic machines it was likely that he wouldn't be able to help me.

"There is a noticeable bulge, I'm going to get you an appointment at UCLA." Oh, I knew there was a lump. By this point it felt like 1/4 of a chicken breast was sliding around just under the skin, resting above my upper right quad muscle. If you want to know exactly where, to scale on your own body stand up, place your right palm on your hip bone, line your middle finger up with the seem of your pants, spread your fingers out comfortably and press in with your index finger. Now, imagine when your pressing in causes a nice size chunk of chicken to slide around inside of your leg.

By this point, the week waiting for the doctor's appointment, my pain had reached a level that I cannot properly describe. I would wake up at 4am, take 2 ibuprofen and try to go back to sleep - get out of bed at 6am and walk my dogs to the end of the driveway and back inside. All the while I would never stand erect, as that hurt far too much. Every 6 hours, on the dot, I was shoving more ibuprofen in my face. It helped, somewhat. I mean, as much as it could help I suppose. Although, the pain was consistent and I walked around all day like a 105 year old man. Bent slightly at the waist, shuffling my right leg along, often grabbing at it in pain. I would stand slowly and brace myself as I did. On two separate occasions I had to catch myself from falling to the ground because of the pain.

Most people, wherever you are in the world, know who Shaq is. Imagine for a moment he was the world's most famous ballet dancer instead of basketball player. He is hovering over you with his ballet shoes on, all of his weight supported by parallel bars. He touches your leg with his toe. Over the span of 10-15 seconds he allows for all of his weight to press down onto your leg, all of it pinpointed by his awesome (pink and sparkle filled) ballet shoes...that's what it felt like to stand up...every time I stood up.

So off I go to see a specialist, on the suggestion of my company president - who is also a friend, I trust his opinion without question now as I did then. Little did I realize then though that I was feeding into the health care problem. Initially I get a "required" x-ray even though the Dr. tells me it isn't necessary and won't tell us anything ($ for me $$$$ for insurance company.) As he said it told us nothing. He examines me and asks me some basic questions; how does it feel, can you do this, can you do that, nothing too big. Until he asks an important question; "when I poke at it, does it send little electrical shock waves down your leg." I hate these questions because I wasn't really sure. I felt them sometimes, one poke would shoot pain downwards, the next poke would be an isolated pain. So how do I answer? Obviously he wants me to say yes, so I do. Not knowing if it was the right answer. It's the same as when the eye doctor flips the lens and asks; "which is more clear, a or b?" I always feel like I'm getting it wrong.

Based on the shock-wave pain that may or may not have been really there he thinks I have what is called a schwannoma tumor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwannoma) the same thing that my company's president thinks. I'm relieved because this is most likely not cancer. But, to find out I'll need a CT scan. Well, not really, but this will rule out some other things ($$ for me $$$$$ for my insurance company.) Was this needed? Maybe a little more than the x-ray but still, not essential. I go, the same day, same building, for the CT scan. I waited for about 3 hours.

A long 3 hours. I called my mother, my brother, and J, my best friend who had and survived (as evidenced by the fact that I was able to call him) cancer. Everyone was reassuring and I was still playing it very cool with everyone in my life. "I'm sure it's nothing, maybe an operation. I'm more worried about the money it's going to cost," was my standard line. While, at home, in private I was a wreck. My nights were spent crying in pain and in anticipation of the worst. I would soak myself in a warm bath, which was my cure-all growing up. Sweating, I would lay there thinking of the things I wanted to do before chemotherapy started in. Tears would come up more quickly than I could stand. My dogs had no idea what was going on, all they knew was our walks were getting shorter and shorter by the day.

The pain only worsened the next few days/weeks. It was too the point that I felt like ibuprofen was my only friend. One time Nate wanted to go to the bar so I skipped 2 pills so that I could enjoy a beer. We shuffled to the bar - although this was much earlier in the story it was the last time anyone asked me for a social evening throughout this process - it was a horrible experience, I don't fault him for not wanting to hang out with a dying senior citizen.

I called the doctor. I called the doctor. I called the doctor. Over and over and finally I emailed my president, who studied under the doctor he recommended, he began calling the doctor, emailing him, etc. Eventually, late one evening the doctor called me, it was the first day that my leg actually started to feel a little better. At the time I wondered if I had gotten used to the pain or if it was really clearing up. "I'm just waiting to hear the results of your biopsy," he told me. After I explained to him that he never ordered me to have a biopsy he pushed me through for a test that Friday, or three days later. The biopsy was essential. This was going to tell me if I had cancer or not. So, finally an test that was worth paying for.

Whenever a doctor says; "well we want to test all options," I say be weary. Find out what is essential and what isn't. It happens, a schwannoma tumor, while extremely painful isn't cancerous. Cancer was always my worry and it was really the only awful outcome we could get from all of this. The bills I received were pretty horrific, nearly 6 months later I'm still paying them off, but money comes and goes - cancer doesn't go so easily. I just downloaded and listened to the two part "This American Life" that explains far better than I ever could about the health insurance industry, the medical industry, etc. I won't bother even trying but I honestly urge you to download them and listen for yourself. Believe me you are being sold a lot of bull shit from both sides of the aisle when it comes to health care reform. In iTunes they are episodes #391 and #392.

In case you don't want to listen to the 2 hours of "This American Life" listen to this, you don't need all the tests they say you need! Always buy generic drugs. And for fuck's sake, how could you read this blog all the way to this point and claim you don't have an extra 2 hours to listen to the most amazing radio broadcast I've ever heard? This coming from a total talk radio junkie too.

Anyway.

The night before the biopsy was easily the worst. It was the first day where I went ibuprofen free. The pain was finally starting to subside and I couldn't have been happier but that was 100% overshadowed by the remaining fact that I may still have cancer and the biopsy is the only way to find out.

When I say that a biopsy isn't a comfortable experience what I mean to say is that it fucking hurts like shit. My leg was finally feeling better and then this. A thick needle going directly into my chunk of chicken, sucking out some cells to be tested at a later date. It was fucking awful. Although, maybe your first biopsy won't be so bad. See, by this point the chicken chunk was starting to become frozen chicken. It was hardened as opposed to feeling like a slimy raw piece of meat. It was because of this hardening that the needle was having a difficult time in penetrating the bulge.

After about 20 minutes of prodding, poking, and jabbing with a "serious" needle, I'm talking like the Samuel L. Jackson of needles, it was in the bulge. After a few painful clicks, several warnings not to move, it was all over. They told me not to worry, it was "too hard, too solid to be cancer."

I continued to worry. I continued to have tear filled nights. A few days later I was driving along Santa Monica Blvd., approaching Highland. I got a call that I rarely answer, "unknown," only this time I did answer. It was the doctor, it wasn't cancer. It was an old injury that had taken years to calcify...essentially part of my muscle had become bone. Again, I cried...I'm a fucking pussy...only this time I cried with a smile.

It was difficult to call people because I still wasn't letting on that it had effected me the way that it had. I'm in therapy, in large part, because of that situation.

For the record it was about $4,000 out of pocket and about $20,000 for my insurance company. All to tell me that I was healthy. So, we are all fucked, but at least we all don't have leg cancer.

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