Archive for December, 2022

…and I feel fine.

December 21, 2022

One More Life*

December 6, 2022

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”

Nineteen years ago today, something exploded in my chest while I was doing push-ups. I finished the set, smoked two cigarettes by the pool, and decided I was having a heart attack. So I drove myself six miles, in increasing pain, by way of my office in Palo Alto to check work emails, finally crawling across a parking lot into the ER of the Stanford Medical Center. The triage nurse didn’t like the look of me, though, and decided I could wait. “We have a lot of sick kids here today, Mr. Chambliss.”

So I waited. For two hours, slumped in a wheelchair, unable to breathe properly, and convulsing in pain, I waited. I finally got sick of waiting, rolled myself outside, lit a cigarette I couldn’t smoke, and was on the verge of driving back home to take Advil when birthday-boy Ilya Druzhnikov and Shenly Glenn showed up. They persuaded me back inside and convinced the nurse to admit me. Shenly even helped the idiot attending physician interpret my chest X-ray. Doctor: “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.” Shenly: “That’s because there’s no right lung.” Doctor: “Ah.” A spontaneous tension pneumothorax.

Two chest tubes (my lung collapsed again, seconds after the first tube was inserted), MUCH bellowing, and a pachyderm-slaying quantity of morphine later, they got me re-inflated. At some point during the procedure, choking and flopping like an upstream salmon while the doctor extracted the first tube (with which he had hooked a rib nerve), I turned to the group of med students huddled around me who had been invited to observe, spat froth, grinned wide with pink teeth, and growled, “Are we having fun yet?!”, prompting one woman to flee behind the curtains.

The epilogue: a few months later, in New York City, it happened again. As it turns out, I (like my mother) am opiate insensitive. So morphine, and even Fentanyl, don’t have much analgesic effect. I explained this to the ER doctors at Beth Israel. Their response: Oh yeah? They dumped so much dope into me that I passed out cold. When I woke up, I was inside a CAT scan machine (I’d cried out during surgery, and they thought I might have had an aneurysm), my lung had collapsed again, and I was asphyxiating. Dying, and too far gone to communicate what was happening to the med tech wheeling my gurney, I was saved by a doctor in an elevator with a penknife and a properly flexible interpretation of his Hippocratic oath.

After lung surgery, the hospitalizations, everything, I continued to smoke. It was so physically painful to do so, however, that I finally sought out an alternate delivery mechanism. I wound up slapping on a patch every day for the next seven months (developing an allergic reaction to the adhesive, until I looked, shirtless, like the sex partner of a giant squid). And then, in November of 2004, I quit altogether. Far easier to withdraw from a longterm nicotine dependency once you’ve already gotten used to the idea of being a non-smoker, IMHO.

Now it’s all but 2023, and I will soon be fifty. I’ve run thousands of miles since this happened, won track races, survived ultramarathons, climbed hundreds of mountains. Which is all to say, if you find my broken body at the bottom of a sheer, thousand-foot drop somewhere, please make sure to stick a needle in my eye before you call the coroner. Because I may piss and moan about my aches and pains, but when it comes down to it, I am hard to kill.

*According to the poet Joseph Brodsky, “…to forget one life, a man needs at minimum / one more life. And I’ve done that portion.”