THE TOUCH-UP

Approximately three business quarters after a burn patient is rescued from the edge of death and immersed in a frothing cauldron of periodic therapeutic agony, the healing process begins to skirt completion. Scar tissue softens and stretches, its livid crimson flush once again blending into surrounding flesh. Joints extend through their full range of motion, strength returns, seams flatten and fade, blood and lymph circulation is reestablished, and the patient gets cocky.

Salt reentered my life. I could now gorge on Chinese food or pig out on pizza without waking up like a saline-inflated dirigible, limbs swollen, heavy, painful and disgusting to look upon. Booze was no longer forbidden, although that first double shot of fine single malt Scotch Lagavulin did have an unexpected effect. Alcohol is a potent peripheral vasodilator, urging all those myriads of microscopic capillaries in your skin to open wide. Scar tissue is very obliging. I quaffed Lagavulin, a smokily fragrant amber dribble of the Water of Life and looked up to see my woman's eyes bugging out. Every square inch of my shirtless hide, face, arms and hands that had been cooked was luminously vermilion. I looked in a mirror. I looked AWFUL. With thumping heart and smoldering adrenals, and no zombie-fying tranquilizers or opiates to dull my perception, I first realized just how close it had been. It had been much too close by far. Had it been any closer, it might have touched. Damn.

Every two months the doctor makes another payment on his private island in the Bahamas by calling the patient in for Rounds. The entire staff of doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, and the occasional janitor gather to imperiously strut past the patient, who should be thoroughly cowered and submissive, being not at all covered where it counts by those ridiculous hospital gowns. They throw a bored look at insulted tissue and later call their accountants to update their billing databases. The Chief Honcho doctor then shows his superiority, the true heart of the (business)man that he is, by saying,

"Mr. Schwartz, when will we revise the hypertrophic scarring on your left hand? It will never look very good, it seriously impairs the functioning of your hand, and it hurts, doesn't it?

What he is really saying is, "How would you like to drop another $30,000 for three months of debilitation, suffering, and intense anxiety?" But you look at your hand, old memories dulled by massive doses of lobotomizing drugs, and say "Let's do it." He now had permission to chop up my thighs, again, and rebuild my hand, and there was no reason to administer calming sedation because no one is crazy enough to be turned into hamburger three times, and I was fresh out of relocatable biological real estate.

Wednesday dawned, and with it the realization that maybe I was about to walk into the business end of a buzz saw. I reported to Pre-Op, there to surrender my clothes, lay on a gurney, and be wheeled into a waiting line where the psychotic thuds of my heart bounced off the walls. A nurse walked over to soothe my fears, telling me that the anesthesiologist would give me something before the surgeon started. The anesthesiologist walked over and said the same thing. The doctor approached me with a Magic Marker, and in short order I looked like a cow chart in a butcher shop, and for good reason.

I was wheeled into the Operating Room, nudged onto the table, and the various personnel did their various things to variously distract me. I looked away and down and noticed that remarkably thick leather straps now secured my legs and torso to that awful table. A cresting wave of adrenalin exploded forth from my kidneys, riding my bloodstream north as my mind exploded white. I awakened in the recovery room.

My left hand was hidden within a bowling ball of gauze and surgical tape, but it did not really hurt. This was a teaching hospital. My concern for what might no longer be my attached left hand was small compared to the possiblity that Somebody, MD had an NIH or DARPA grant to graft on a baboon's head.

Nobody ever asks the baboon. Hell, Richard Nixon tried to kill me in Nam, and he did not ask either. A propitious birthdate short-circuited that adventure.

My left thigh did not broadcast the calm ethereal bliss of survival of my right one. I tensed its muscles preparatory to moving it, and resolved not to do that again for a long while, maybe years. Urinary bladders being what they are, I did swing my legs over the bedside some hours later. My left hand was in the air, not so high that it started bellowing, but not so low that it started pulsing. I curiously arrayed my left leg in three-space, its bared fangs biting into my consciousness. My right hand held the portable pisspot as I balanced on my right foot. The attending nurse smiled and I suspected the betting pool was on again. In the bad old days I had earned a reputation as the Man with the 500 Milliliter Bladder, capable of ASTM precision. Lunch money would change ownership over as little as a gram of my warm mellow yellow.

I stayed overnight and then went home, there to spend five days variously oozing as newly raped and newly relocated body subassemblies snuggled down to reconstitute my being. Five days later, bright and early Monday when everybody wishes they were dead and a sloppy nurse can arrange it, they would pull out the staples. I clearly remembered the last StapleFest.

I sleep, I dream, I scream. No problem. I am a burn survivor.

(That last sentence is a sop thrown to the sadistic parasitic Burn Psychologist. The horrid bitch said I should write out my memories and then burn the papers to exorcise internal demons or some such crapola. Burn the papers? Hello... I wrote 'em, I gave her a copy, and only one of us was deeply disturbed by it. We aren't whining limp-wristed girly "burn survivors" immersed in counseling and drugs. We are CRISPY CRITTERS in your face, mofo. It's a permanent facelift, too - no wrinkles or sags.)


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