Thursday, October 12, 2006

Be Positive

From my room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, I could, if I craned my neck, see the lights of George Washington Bridge. Of course, bleeding internally and with a catheter inserted, craning my neck was more than a bit of a challenge. Still, I did it, and even now I'm not sure why.

As bridges go, the GWB is an engineering marvel and probably the most travelled of the Manhattan bridges, but it pales when compared to either the Brooklyn or Queensboro bridges for aesthetic beauty. But on a cool, crisp fall night in September of 1984, the GWB was all I had. Waiting to hear if the freak injury I had suffered earlier that day would cause me to lose a kidney and thereby end my playing days, I think seeing the bridge gave me hope. The twinkling lights seemed to draw my eyes across the Hudson to New Jersey, and though I had never then and still haven't ever thought of reaching New Jersey as an especially significant accomplishment, on this night the idea did seem inspiring. When my doctor visited me later that evening to tell me the news, he chuckled at my bed-ridden calisthenics. Though I returned a half-hearted smile, I was terrified.

As Doctors are wont to do, he said little and committed to nothing, telling me that it was basically a wait and see game. If my internal bleeding slowed by noon the next day, he'd let nature take its course, in essence allowing the kidney to heal itself. If not, he'd remove it surgically. In answer to my query about surgical repair of the organ, he again chuckled, explaining that trying to repair the fibrous tissue of a kidney would be like trying to sew closed the holes in a block of Swiss cheese. Making his way to the door, he made one more mention of my blood count and its need to stabilize. Nervous, alone and scared beyond measure, I asked a question so preposterous that even twenty some years later I cringe in embarrassment at the recollection. I asked him my blood type, explaining that I had never known what it was. He called the answer over his shoulder as he stepped through the door, and the answer seemd to hang in the air long after he was gone. B+ is what he said.

Shortly after that I called home. It was after midnight, and my father answered. I explained the situation, repeating what the doctor had said, and he asked how I was in a groggy, sleepy voice. I lied, saying I was fine. I felt no better after the call. I'm not sure what I expected my father to say to give me comfort the doctor himself hadn't been able to provide, but I lay there thinking that surely there had to be some reason to feel good. That's when I heard the echo of the doctor's last words: B+. B positive. Be positive. Somehow, in that fearful moment in that darkened room in that old hospital with no one there to provide solace, I found what I was looking for in a play on the words associated with my blood type. Such is the desperation of the injured who've been told by the best medical personnel available that there's nothing much they can do but wait and see. Be positive. Follow the lights of the George Washington Bridge to northern New Jersey. Gaze beyond the bridge to see the outline of the cliffs of the Palisades against the dark but sparkling water of the Hudson. Close your eyes and try to sleep, knowing you'll wake to one of two possible futures. I think back to that night and marvel not at how different my life might have been, but at how little I understood the significance of the moment. With the vaguely contented mind of a simpleton who smiles at a joke that is far beyond his powers of perception, I drifted off to a remarkably good night's sleep secure in the comfort provided by the misinterpreted words of a fatalistic physician. Be positive.

And I was.

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