By Robert J. Lanz LCSW
My apologies for being a little confusing in my postings the last few months-if you noticed. I can only use the chemo brain excuse. Well there was that 24 hour Propofol drip, entubated, on the vent in ICU that took a while to reboot from too. Everything they say about chemo brain is true, like dementia in some ways. I knew I should have written all those passwords down!
Anyway, six weeks of chemo and thirty hits of radiation and they say I’m all better. If you consider lack of taste buds and no energy all better I guess I am. Seems to me I am struggling just like anyone else. Did I have a go to Jesus moment? Naw. I did realize how difficult it is being the catcher of bad news after pitching for thirty years. I’ll write a story about the whole thing later-when I’m really better. The proof of that will be when I can walk all the way down to the Burrito King, get a giant green burrito and beer-and revel in the taste. Then I’ll say I’m better……
I was already in New York when I heard the news, and I know this is a stupid point, and obvious, but for some reason that was when I realized how easy it was to go from the living to the dead: one day you hear about some guy getting killed…and the next day, you’re that same guy for someone else.
Sebastian Junger, War
Jimmy ran three miles across town in the dark in an all out sprint from his demons. Just before he got to the hospital, he ran right out of one of his old disintegrating army boots. It didn’t even slow him down. By the time he hit the ambulance doors, he had all but run out of what was left of his sock, too. It flopped raggedly behind him like in one of those embarrassing moments when you exit a public restroom without realizing there is a two foot train of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
Jimmy was oblivious to those kinds of social mishaps, so it didn’t matter to him how bad he looked when he showed up. He was oblivious to a lot of things the rest of us probably take for granted. Jimmy was living in an abandoned ‘63 Chevy in an alley behind the karate studio where he used to train thirty years before. But that was in a different life, long before the Vietnam war robbed him of his best friend and eventually, his sanity.
PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s what happens when your brain is re-wired by bad experiences, usually involving intense fear, helplessness and near death events. Such repeated mental traumas, unless treated, create a situation in which the survivor lives every minute as if disaster is about to happen all over again. These guys, the war survivors like Jimmy, sleep with loaded guns in their beds and with one eye open, if they sleep at all. How could Jimmy sleep when he truly believes that the Viet Cong are waiting to catch him at it and kill or maim him during his first moment of relaxation?
Having to live this way creates a lot of problems. It’s hard to get a job when you don’t sleep and you suspect that everyone is waiting for the opportunity to kill you. What do you put down as an address on a job application, the Chevy in the alley behind Joe’s karate studio? It’s hard to make friends when you carry a big knife all the time, never smile, avoid eye contact and expect the worst from people. The anxiety of this living hell is so overwhelming that many PTSDers turn to drugs or alcohol for some temporary relief, often becoming addicted and creating a further set of symptoms to deal with.
Some go to the Veteran’s Hospital because they can connect with guys like themselves there, while others become reclusive survivalists, living in the wilderness, grateful for a bit of peace in the emptiness of the outdoors. Jimmy tried to find his safety in a place he’d known before the war, an alley behind the karate studio where he was working toward his black belt when he got drafted. He once told me the things he learned in karate classes almost always helped him to keep focused. But then his best friend got killed, his focus was gone and he was never the same.
The night in the ER, Jimmy was over the edge. His back seat sleep had been disturbed by the Doppler drone of helicopters coming in low and fast, spraying the community for the minuscule medfly, a little pest agriculture experts determined was about to destroy Southern California’s fruit crop.
But to Jimmy, this hell wasn’t about medflies and the agrarian economy, it was about choppers themselves. Choppers meant an attack, and Jimmy fled to safety. The only sanctuary he knew besides the cramped quarters of the broke-down Chevy was all the way across town. He ran to the hospital where he had felt safe before.
Jimmy arrived breathless, crying, in the middle of a flashback, wiping desperately at his clothes and screaming so loud that even the drunks woke from their anesthetized slumbers.
“Rodriguez!” he screamed. “Rodriguez! Rodriguez, please!” He brushed furiously at his pants and shirt, his animalistic cries resounding through the halls of the ER.
“Get one of the docs over here to give this guy some Haldol,” I yelled into the crowd that had gathered to watch.
Since Jimmy’s need was so great, he got his shot promptly and began to calm down within five minutes. It was a difficult five minutes for everyone. The hospital staff, the patients and their families watched in horror as Jimmy cried and wiped and wiped and cried until the medication did its work. No one could understand why he was brushing imaginary things off his clothes and calling for Rodriguez. I knew, but the Rodriguez story was too horrible to relate, and it would only have made our own pain worse. We couldn’t seek relief in a shot of Haldol.
A long time ago, when we first became friends, Jimmy told me about his best buddy, Rodriguez, and how he died. One afternoon, hot and tired after slogging across rice paddies all day, humping heavy rifles and extra ammo, Jimmy and Rodriguez arrived at a small dike that provided an island of dryness, a temporary resting spot where they could take a load off their backs while the tropical sun burned into their skin. As they stood and stretched to remove their backpacks, they got the ultimate reminder that war never rests. Rodriguez took a direct hit—nothing clean like a bullet or even a Claymore mine that blows your legs off but might let you live—nothing that forgiving. He took a hit from a rocket propelled grenade, a kind of personal-sized missile, which like any other missile system, is designed to blow up its target.
Jimmy had the misfortune of being next to that target, and parts of Rodriguez ended up all over him. That night in the ER, he relived the absolute horror of that moment in front off all of us, and until the warm wave of tranquilizers washed over him, numbing him to any pain, it was brutal to watch.
I hoped that the city or county would get the medfly population under control soon, because I never wanted to see Jimmy go through anything like that again. Even now, I don’t want to ever have to think about helicopters, rice paddies, Viet Cong or Rodriguez again. I don’t want any of our patients or anyone else to have to know what happened that night, because it hurts too much. I just want that war to finally be over for all of us.