On Monday March 18 I experienced a weird event. At noon Karla and I had just finished eating a tuna sandwich when I got hit with what the doctors call a mini seizure. It was brief—a five-to-ten-second feeling of fainting accompanied by a strong bad taste in my mouth like bitter/sour/vile. The bad taste lasted exactly as long as the fainting period, then I was fine. It was over.
I brushed the incident off. “Let’s go down to the new house and do something,” I said. We did. Then at four o’clock the same thing happened again, only less severe. We decided that I had a problem that should be looked at and drove back to the old house to change into cleaner clothes. Then we headed down the road to Oakhurst, the closest medical facility. On the way I had another episode, lighter than the two previous ones. After arriving at the Oakhurst hospital they examined me then called the ambulance to take me to Fresno. I was checked in at the Community Regional Medical Center, which is the huge hospital that has an affiliation with The University of California San Francisco as a training facility.
I spent at least the first 30 hours in the emergency ward (in a private room, believe it or not!). During that time I ate exactly one small glass of apple juice and half a white-bread turkey sandwich, but mostly didn’t feel hungry. I was wheeled to various rooms for tests: first a CT scan, then electroencephalographic stuff, blood tests, sonograms, you name it. Several doctors interviewed me, having me recount what I had experienced. In the meantime nurses took blood pressure and other tests almost hourly. Nobody could agree with finality what I had experienced, so more tests were ordered. The best one was the MRI. Wow! Star Wars! 2001: A Space Odyssey! What a cool machine, this hulking massive thing with a General Electric logo the size of a cow embossed over its huge maw, the entrance to hell that must intimidate at least 90% of the people who confront it for the first time. Even when idle it roars like a blast furnace in a steel mill. Wow, I’m going into that thing near-naked and will be pummeled with forces unimaginable fifty years ago! I am fitted to the tight coffin-like tray that will keep me immobile while massive beams of raw force course through my body to expose my innermost being. The noise is near-deafening. The operator was happy that I had brought my own foam earplugs which were much better than the ones provided by the hospital. I always have them in my pocket in case I have to use a chain saw or our road grader, both of which are very noisy. The shrill screeches, roars, battering booms and perky bongo-drum tappings were a weird cacophony that at first was confusing. Then I realized that when you’re looking down from the top of the head you use a different frequency and repetition rate than you would need when looking from the side or the front since you’re looking through a different mass. I tried to guess which angle they were probing from as the sounds varied. It was fun.
After the 30- to 40-minute scan, I was so jazzed I persuaded the operator to take me to her inner sanctum and show me what the scans had revealed. She pointed to the thumbnail images on the console then called them up one by one to show the various views she had recorded. “Here you can see that your brain has gotten a little smaller because of age. That’s normal.” Overall there was nothing abnormal that she could see, but she pointed out the white fringe on the outside of the brain. “Those are dead cells; it’s normal.” I saw that the center of the brain was black. I was told that was fluid. Water on the brain? Then I had to leave because there was another patient to be scanned.
I kept up my sense of humor during this entire episode. Making jokes, getting people around me to laugh at my silly comments. Highlights involved the urine bottle. Having only deposited about two inches in the bottle, I handed it to Karla and said, “Here. Take it to the sink and fill it with warm water. I want them to think I can pee like a horse.” She refused, being a rational human being. Another urine bottle joke: Pointing to the urine bottle I told the on-duty nurse that the apple juice tasted awful.
Every time the nurses took my temperature, they would slip a plastic cover onto the thermometer probe, then discard the cover afterwards. I told one nurse that I could save the hospital millions of dollars if they simply cut off the closed tip of the used probe cover, hand the cover to the patient and say, “Here. This is your drinking straw. Don’t lose it.”
During this entire episode I was interviewed by several physicians. The lasting impression I got was that every one of them marveled at my condition, especially since I wasn’t taking any medication and hadn’t had a primary care physician for over a decade. My cholesterol level was perfect. My blood pressure was perfect. My everything else was perfect. At the end of my stay, when the nurse entered my last blood pressure stats into the computer I heard her say under her breath, “Unbelievable—perfect.”
My most vivid impression of the entire experience is about the quality of the staff at the hospital. The people were warm, concerned about my condition, and resolutely dedicated to a very high standard of care. When I asked one of them how she felt about what she was doing, she responded that she was very happy to be working at this facility; it was the best thing she could ask for. What a valuable asset to have here in Central California!
All in all it was a beautiful experience. My health was perfect according to everyone who tested or interviewed me. I was thinking about what could have made the whole episode even better and came up with the following made-up scenario:
After three days I am being discharged from the hospital. Karla drives up the sweeping driveway of the beautifully landscaped entrance plaza. I'm sitting in the wheelchair chatting with the pretty young woman volunteer who brought me down from the ninth floor. The car approaches, and the volunteer starts to push the chair toward it when suddenly there is a commotion behind us.
A woman bursts through the hospital's front door and runs toward us.
“Mr. Hurley! Mr. Hurley! We think this is yours! You forgot it!” She hands me a folded piece of red fabric. I open it and see that it’s a cape with a big red and yellow capital “S” logo in the center.