Look, I am a man’s man…after all, I am a former Marine, ride a Harley, have tattoos, and I love guns (I would provide more evidence but it would be showing off and a real man is humble, too). One thing I have figured out in this SLLCC journey is that certain elements of my past are slapping me about. I have provided lots of humor and ammunition for my family…
I have a hard time walking so I use a cane but since my illness also affects my hands, a wheelchair was provided for me. It is not a wheelchair in the traditional sense. It is a transport wheelchair. The transport wheelchair does not have the large side wheels by which the wheelchair confinee can move about. I expected those large wheels as I attempted to get in this transport chair. The VA graciously gave me one. If you have never been to a VA hospital you are missing a treat. It is a large gathering of SLLCC that are still trying to prove that they are not SLLCC. The name of one’s particular branch of service is proudly displayed on T-shirts down to waistlines that are significantly larger than chest sizes, service pins and medal facsimiles on hats, and special language and looks bantered between those of similar military sects. There are also countless wheelchairs, walkers, canes, gurneys, prosthetics, and limps that support the branch representations.
In many ways it is very similar to the military. Men sit next to one another in endless waiting rooms and do what we did on active duty experiencing the terminal waiting… gripe. Think about the DMV. You sit next to someone you do not know and eventually griping emerges. The gaggle of former military will gripe to one another after the preliminaries and positioning: “What branch were you in?” “Enlisted?” “When were you in?” “Lifer?” “MOS?” This provides your standing in the pecking order: WWII, Korea, Vietnam…they all win no matter what they did as they are still kicking. They deserve it. The rest of us jockey with the exception of combat vets. They move to the front of the line.
The VA experience is a sweet, nostalgic, sad place. For many, this is it. If they don’t get help here, they don’t get help. For some that recognition is deeply engrained on their faces. There are those who’ve been slackers all their lives leaving a trail of dependency, entitlement, and abandonment. For most, the VA reflects what they expect and not what they were promised. Most of us know what the deal is with the VA; the government seems to be the only ones that are shocked. For me it is the freedom to look at another face and connect, nod at another man with a Marine hat or tee-shirt or pin and utter Semper Fi and always… always get a reply no matter the time period served, the expanding waistline, or the desperate nature of the situation. “Semper Fi.”
While I was in I had an injury to my groin from a physical altercation while on active duty. After numerous tests, the medical bobble-heads decided to perform an ultrasound of my man-land. After some prepping, I was placed on a gurney with a rather interesting twist. One specific portion of my anatomy was set on a towel with everything else was covered. I found it rather amusing in the private preparation area. Soon however, the ultrasound patients were lined up in order for the ultrasound in the hallway. There I was with my “most English parts” literally on display in a public hallway: Marines, sailors, women and children. The corpsman said not to touch or cover anything because I was prepped exactly like the doctor wanted. I was so relieved when I was wheeled in for the test. Very early in the test I was clutching the sheet in a fist up around my chest due to the pain and the doctor stopped and would not proceed until I released my fist promise not to hit her. I wanted to hit her but didn’t.
Now, my transport chair. One of the techs said, “Sit in this here out in the hall, it is less crowded,” and turned away to leave. The hallway was not much less crowded than the waiting room, but I thought I would give it a shot. I still had my cane and looking around as to what to do with it. Across from me was a gentleman in his seventies in a “classic” wheelchair not looking too good in a backless hospital gown. There was a woman standing in the hall waiting to assist a family member. I swung around, kicked my foot back for balance as I shot my butt backwards to sit down. Several things happened very quickly. The wheelchair moved backwards about ten inches from my foot because the tech did not engage the brakes (I had forgotten that wheelchairs had brakes). The result was different than if I had kicked it completely from under me and my body immediately sprawling on the floor. This was that agonizing extended attempt to right the ship–grasping, kicking, and drunken master-like movements by me and everyone in sight trying to get me in that chair (even the old guy in the gown was trying to help).
All was saved, my butt never hit the deck, and I didn’t hit anyone with my cane. One leg was pushed up under me while the other was at a weird angle for balance. Both of my arms were still slowly looking for the big-wheels with my shirt up under my armpits because my back was the only thing on the chair seat. I muttered some incoherent excuse that no one had given me a training class for this model. It is hard to regain much dignity after that.
Amazingly, the occupational therapist came to escort me back to his office personally about an hour later. He was the only health professional actually prepared for my unusual disease having researched it thoroughly. He informed his intern the delicacy by which they must proceed with my body. I was stunned. Jon (not his real name) asked me about my living situation and brain-stormed how to improve my safety in doing normal daily functions and “improve your quality of life.” NO ONE has ever considered or seemed to care about the quality of my life. That is how he softened me up. Jon then looked at me and said, “I know your type…a Marine and I bet you ride a Harley.” I proudly said “That’s right!” He said “I want you to be able to get off your feet and minimize the use of your hands as you get around doing things that you refuse to stop doing because of your disease. I know you are cooking and cleaning as much as you can but it exacerbates your condition doesn’t it?” “Yes” “I want you to consider the new electric mobility transport chair we have.” There was a significant pause. “I see by the look on your face,” he said “that you know I am talking about one of the hover around type scooters and the answer is NO.” Here he went for the close as he leaned in and said, “Don’t you want to extend THE quality of your life and the use of your hands and feet for important times with your wife and sons…not wasting them cookin’ and cleanin’?” Then he broke the hypnotic connection jumping up asking, “Want to take one for a ride?” I got on one and rode in a hallway thinking I must be dead and this was just a sardonic hallway passage to heaven but alas, no. I told my wife for 20 years to “just kill me first” when she would joke about me “riding a hover-round scooter.”
In a matter of thirteen months I devolve from riding a powerful, loud Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic with a big bore kit, 2-to-1 pipes, and enough chrome to blind someone a mile away on a cloudy day to a transport chair only to be pushed around to a Seinfeld episode senior citizen scooter.
A Man’s Man…my tattoos will probably wash off when I get home.
I feel like a group hug…Dirk