Thursday, October 14, 2010

The kindness of strangers

What I remember most are the nightmares. They were merely and always a reflection of reality taken to the extreme, fear gone amok with a brush and palette of colors hellishly mixed to glistening greens and scintillant scarlets, luminous with spectral highlights like the iridescent sheen of oil on water. And when at a Dairy Queen in the small dusty town of Stratford, Texas, the nightmares proved themselves not figments of the imagination but prescient, harbingers of an inevitability I refused to consider, the denouement was written not just in my flesh but in Lori’s horrified expression.

As with the nightmares, so with reality: I peel a wet and bloody sock from my left ankle to expose a gelatinous mess the size of a small saucer. The sight is enough to make me queasy but the look on my wife’s face drives a stake of fear through my heart.

What are we going to do, she asks.

What can we do, I reply, trying to maintain an air of nonchalance I in no way possess. We’re five hundred miles from home.

Promise me you’ll see a dermatologist in Albuquerque, she says. Promise me.

And so I do, knowing that my chances of winning an appointment on such short notice is about as likely as my rash healing itself.


It was always “my” rash. Not “the” rash, or “a” rash, descriptives that would have distanced it somehow or minimized its presence, or even depersonalized it to an object of no importance. It was my rash, and it was mutating and spreading in a nonlinear trajectory.

It inhabited my nightmares and tainted almost every waking moment. It changed how I lived, restricted which clothing I could wear in public, squandered far too many hours in plausible but ultimately ineffectual homeopathic remedies, and cost me money I could ill afford.

Worse, perhaps, it stoked my suspicion that the medical profession was a parasite, that it sought to replicate itself like fungus or mold without the slightest concern for its food source. The running joke was that it was named “medical practice” because of its inability to provide concrete results. No warranties were expressed or implied. If a particular medication failed to perform there were no applicable refunds or credits, only an insistence to try and try again until the practitioners miraculously got it right or the patient perished, lost all hope or bled dry financially, whichever came first.

I can’t say how or when it started. Years ago, five at least but maybe more, at first a red stain under my wedding band. It itched unmercifully. Within months I stopped wearing my ring in the vain hope the rash would go away. Instead, it morphed and spread across various parts of my anatomy—under my eyebrows, between my toes, on my crotch.

Because I don’t have medical insurance we tried over-the-counter medications for athlete’s foot, vaginal infections, poison ivy. We powdered it, oiled it, soaked it in colloidal silver, turmeric, black walnut, common plantain. When I broke down in desperation and went to see the doctor, he diagnosed it as a fungus and prescribed several tubes of ointment and vials of pills. The combination gave the rash a one-two punch that sent it reeling into the ropes. Where it rested for a while, biding its time, regaining its strength.

The second assault was worst than the first. Certainly it was less unobtrusive or stealthy. The doctor tried another tack, this time without noticeable effect.

A third trip, a fourth, each to expose my rash’s various permutations to a fresh set of eyes. Ours was a curious relationship, with lots of throat-clearing and intense scrutiny and poring over medical texts and prescriptions that didn’t work. For treatments that wasted my time.

Until I said, enough.

I knew that if I were to ever be delivered from this scourge it would come through a specialist rather than a general practitioner, and all the more costly because of it. That was the future, however. The now was manageable, more or less, a lie I told as I tore myself to tatters.

We were on the way to New Mexico when I stopped to photograph an abandoned grain elevator somewhere in western Kansas. Or Oklahoma, I can’t remember. Walking through bristly weeds triggered a violent response from my ankles—both of them, as the rash had spread exponentially—leaving me in abject misery. As I drove away, I reached down to scratch the itch and came away with crimson fingers. Skin peeled away effortlessly as if floating on a layer of putrescence. For a hundred miles I fought the urge to scrape myself to the bone, and then came Stratford and the ill-fated DQ. It was then that we saw the damage. My one remaining option leaked away into the fabric of my socks like so much pus.


I have connections, my older brother, Wes, said. Let me see what I can do.

My parents said, he’s the best dermatologist in the state. If anyone can help you, he can. But it usually takes six months to get an appointment.

The dermatologist’s office called to say they could see me the next day.

Dr. Matthew Thompson, a fit, trim man with a genial air took one look at me and said, you’re a mess. He smiled when he said it. I saw dollar signs and predicted catastrophic financial failure. He was still smiling when he said, drop your drawers.

The needle went in without warning. Thompson wrote several prescriptions and patted me on the back. This one’s on the house, he said. Get better.

Later, when we were discussing it at the house, my father said, you should have seen the look on Tommy’s face. You should have seen it.

The look. I can only imagine it from an outsider’s perspective, the initial shock erasing all thought, paralyzing my expression into a mask of surprise, mouth agape, eyes welling, speechless at the wholly unexpected gesture, helpless to do more than stammer my gratitude, and then, in the weeks that followed, increasingly humbled at the inconceivable kindness of strangers and the rapidly vanishing traces of a rash that once plagued me.


Jenni said...

Oh my goodness! I'm glad you found the help you needed. The description had me horrified and worried for you. It's awful having a physical problem for which doctors can't nail down a cure or even a cause, especially when you don't have insurance.

We have never been able to afford health insurance, and dh has a problem he's been chasing down the answer to. The dentist told him TMJD: $3,000 on a mouthpiece and a few visits with a specialist. (Shoot, I think he could have just gone with the $20 night guard from Walmart!) When that didn't work, the dentist told him he needed his impacted wisdom teeth removed. I can't remember how much that was, but it was over $1,000 and less than the TMJD treatment. Someone else thought it was an ear thing and referred us to a doctor who would give a discounted price for uninsured patients. He put a tube in dh's ear--for free. What a blessing. We'll never forget that kindness, but, alas, that wasn't the solution either.

Tom Parker said...

Sounds like you're familiar with medical "practice," too. Sorry to hear about it, but at least you had one practitioner who took pity. Hope you can find some answers, and soon. I was lucky--luckier than I deserved.

Wes said...

Tom, you cannot imagine how glad I am that I was able to help you in a small way to get better. I love you, brother!

Tom Parker said...

Wes -- Love you, too. You did good and now my rash is just a fading memory. I was beginning to imagine gangrene and amputation... Next time we're down I'll buy you a chile relleno dinner somewhere with a Negro Modelo or two.

shoreacres said...

I'm a great fan of specialists. A specialist sure enough may have saved my eyesight.

Beyond that, every time I hear a story like this I remember how little it can take to heal a life. For a few days I'm nicer to store clerks and try and and be more patient with people. You never know when a gesture will do more good than you know.

And isn't it great to feel good again, after feeling bad?