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Only Human


“Difficult trials will build character”

In the past two months, I’ve had a bone shattered by extreme forces, dealt with a right-side disability while I healed, had my wrist torn open and “fixed” by doctors I can’t entirely understand, and through it all, the worst experience by far has been giving up immortality.

Because it takes a debilitating injury like this to force us to look at ourselves and admit our bodies are much more fragile they we would imagine them to be; we are capable of incredible feats, to be sure, but in the end, our survival and lack of injury depend entirely on luck and circumstances. Skill and experience play a part, no doubt, but it only takes one freak occurrence, one stray gust of wind, one rock under a wheel to make our pride fall from grace.

It’s a terrible thing to be stuck in a hospital in another country, where you can usually get by with minimal language skills but here, to have to learn the medical terminology as well, and receive no visitors.

Hospitals were first designed by sadists who wanted an entirely new way of seeing people suffer. Tight, crowded quarters. Surrounded by people you believe to be sicker. An old woman moaning across the hall at two in the morning. Prodded for examinations on a regular basis. Forced to answer intimate questions about your life.

Although blood sampling is a necessary part of testing and hospitalization, it still doesn’t change one small fact: nurses are cutting you open and draining part of your life force. Doesn’t matter how small or insignificant or easily recoverable it is… that little trickle of red gently floating through the clear tube like soda through a straw is you, drop for drop.

I see all these TV dramas about action-packed emergency rooms with supportive families, mothers grieving at an unacceptable loss, and a rollercoaster of emotions until the unlikely yet irrefutable diagnosis is confirmed. My God… thank goodness they discovered it in time.

But, in reality, what of the moments before surgery? Those long waiting hours sitting on plain, white sheets, the only companion a twittering of voices just beyond the barrier of the nurses’ station. This is what it’s like. Waiting. From the waiting room in the lobby to the waiting room of the department. Then, waiting on a diagnosis or waiting on treatment. Waiting to wake up from this nightmare and return to your life as a healthy, unscarred human being.

The Japanese nurses. Occasionally one will come by to offer refreshment, or perhaps suggest a good suppository for pain relief (kind of a catch-22, if you ask me). You might even have your arm pricked for blood sampling, or asked to strip so a 43-year-old woman can sponge you down. Body temperature is measured under the armpit, not in the mouth. For the record, 37 degrees C is equal to 98.6 degrees F.

As a foreigner with poor medical Japanese skills, I noticed that I was treated with just a little more respect than a patient in the children’s ward:

“Please wear your shoes when you walk, or your socks will get dirty.”

“Don’t put your dirty shoes on the bed” (obviously, I didn’t)

“You should give us your money to hold before you go into surgery. Hospitals are dangerous.” (not exactly instilling me with a lot of confidence for sleeping here)

Any attempts to approach the nursing station with a serious question (what time is the doctor coming… where is the shower… can I receive visitors now?) were met with a fit of scattered giggles, long stares, and a forced confrontation with a “spokesman for the nursing organization”, who managed to shyly mutter a reply.

Coming out of surgery, regardless of the nature or severity, is like beginning life anew. The moment that anesthesia kicks in you are either destined to die in eternal sleep or be reborn.

Waking up, everything seems loud and fast – the assistants shuffling the meat sack you once considered your healthy body onto a gurney, the doctors yelling in voices far too loud to be considered good bedside manners, that “everything had gone ok! Look!”

And you are, quite literally, a child once again: forced to spend day and night in bed unless escorted by a senior figure, waited on hand and foot by women dressed in white (even mouth-fed when the situation calls for it), and relearning how to do the most basic tasks with different parts of your body incapacitated or overwhelmed with pain; you might be able to brush your teeth with one hand, but how to get the paste on the brush?

I want to believe in impossible, fantastic miracles: that a beautiful woman from another realm will come by, pursued by evil one-dimensional monsters, and have the ability to heal with just one touch. Something about my life, my experiences on this world make me the perfect candidate for her magic; she heals me, I defeat the monsters, and we live happily ever after on a tropical island.

…or, perhaps, this has all been some great mistake; there’s nothing wrong with my wrist, just some doctor who can’t read an x-ray properly. Normal people don’t break bones, so why should I? Quick band-aid and some Advil, I’ll be fine.

Somehow, these visions never come to light. Worst of all, I have enough time to ponder them, over and over again…

All those dramas you see with caring families tending to the wounded as they lay incapacitated, friends cracking jokes and getting their ill companion to forget his woes, ties of love forming as a significant other realizes time is short, and all of us are only human, only flesh, destined to only borrow time on Earth…

These things don’t happen to me, due to my own lack of ties of blood and water. I lay incapacitated, living by the clock as I always have.

When I tell people I run marathons, one of the first two questions out of their mouths is: “wow, that’s a lot of time running – what do you think about?”

What every runner thinks about, what every runner lives his life by: the race itself. Going from one mile to the next, one kilometer to the next, passing each second by focusing on the numbers that keep one sane and grounded: pace, time elapsed, time to finish, time to next marker… and any landmark can be the next marker, whether you’re pushing yourself to catch the man in blue or straining to just keep pace until this uphill is finished. Living one moment to the next without looking back, only the now and the what will be, what could be…

Even in a hospital in the middle of Japan with my right arm affixed to a metal stand, I remain the same runner, the same thinker, as if I were passing the 15K line in a half marathon. I run alone, in a sea of spectators, seeing only the numbers in my head and how they will play out. Now is no different: what time does the doctor arrive… how long until these meds kick in… when can I leave… when can I escape?

I remain as I always have been, alone in a sea of people, always the watcher, never the watched. I’d like to believe that my isolation over here has been the result of being lazy about friends, lovers, or even traveling acquaintances, but the truth is, this is the most alone I’ve ever felt in my life, being in pain, cut off from family, and lacking serious friends in Japan, and it’s a bit of a shock to me.

I don’t think I can afford to keep others at arm’s length anymore. I never push to know, never try to involve myself than as more as some guy you might like to have a drink with. And I’m reaping the consequences of living such a lifestyle, as I go into day five of hospitalization by myself.

I happen to be a foreigner, and a human being in pain.