We got up early that morning so we could be on the road to beat traffic. This was not a day to be late. The appointment was for 10am but we needed to be there by 8:30am. Everything was riding on this one conversation with a man we had only met once before. It had not gone well the first time.
“Let’s wait until we are closer to the office before we stop to get breakfast,” he said.
“Ok,” I replied knowing well that he was not hungry. He was just trying to see my reaction. Trying to figure out if I was just as nervous as he was.
We got in the car and drove listening to morning talk radio trying to distract ourselves. There was something about a car accident in the opposite direction of our commute followed by sports, weather, and the latest celebrity gossip. The day had started out sunny and was supposed to stay that way but inside the car we could feel the storm on the horizon.
90 minutes later we arrived at our destination. There inside that gray-brown, mundane, cookie cutter building was where his fate was to be determined.
“We are early.”
“You wanted to be early.”
“I’m scared. What if he says no.”
“You have to convince him. You have done everything he asked. What else is there to do?”
Pause….. a long pause, the kind that happens when someone is making mental edits to something important they have to say.
“I know you’re hungry. Want a bagel?” he asked.
“I’ll have one if you have one.”
I could see how he was scanning the parking lot. Looking at the cars, looking for the newest most luxurious model. That would be the man’s car, the man with the final say, the man with all the power.
“Looks like he is not here yet. We will be back.”
We drove for a few blocks and found a gas station. There was no point in trying to find a “nice” breakfast place. We would not enjoy it. We had not driven 65 miles into the Inland Empire to try something new. We were here to right a wrong, to change someone’s mind. He was here to get his life back.
On a normal day gas station food would be a fun cheat day treat. Something we would playfully guilt trip each other for and finish with, “yeah, but it was sooo good!” But today it was just mud-water and chewy pieces of cardboard.
It was 9am by the time we were back at the office parking lot. There was nothing else to do but wait and the summer heat was starting to pick up. The Inland Empire is known for its record setting summer heat. We looked at the clock on the dashboard, then at each other.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said.
There was nothing else to say. There was nothing else we could do.
We entered the waiting room, signed in, and looked for a pair of seats that were as far away as possible from others. When he sat down I saw him touch the left chest pocket of his shirt to make sure the letter was there. If all else failed by his own power he hoped this letter would tip the scales in his favor. I looked at him and smiled.
“If he doesn’t want to listen to me, then maybe he will listen to him.”
The minutes dragged on one painful television segment at a time. Mid-morning talk shows advertising some miracle supplement or that unbelievable diet trick you just had to try TODAY! All quick fixes to life-long struggles. Selling hope to the desperate as if people are always in complete control of their lives.
“Mr. Roha, the doctor will see you now. Please follow me.”
We got up and followed the nurse down a short hallway and into an exam room.
“The doctor will see me now, sure. I don’t see him. Do you?” he said sarcastically.
“The shield is up,” I thought. He is getting ready.
Suddenly out of nowhere there was a loud fart followed by the smell of one-hundred rotting eggs.
“You have got to be kidding me!” I yelled trying not to breathe in the odor. “Dr. Woods will never approve your surgery if he walks into this.”
“I am so nervous! I can’t even control my ass,” he said while trying to not to breath his own stench.
Immediately I began to open and close the exam room door trying to fan out the smell. Open, close, open, close, open, close, I went as fast as I could.
“You will have your ass to blame. It always has terrible timing! ” I said in between breaths.
He held his stomach as he laughed and finally managed to say, “I’m sorry!”
For a brief moment we forgot where we were. We laughed like school children and recounted the story that has just happened. Me exaggerating my reactions more and more every time, holding our stomachs with laughing pain.
By the time Dr. Woods finally made it to our exam room the fart smell and the laughter were long gone. It was time to come back to reality. It was time to be grownups again.
“Mr. Roha you are back,” he said as he looked at the patience chart to jog his memory. He didn’t remember us, his blank face gave him away.
“Yes, you said I had to wait a year before you would reconsider approving my surgery.”
“Right, the back issues.”
“Like I told you last time. I don’t think it’s a good idea. It is a very high risk surgery and not many people have been able to recover. They end up worse.”
“I have done everything you asked. All of my therapy sessions. Everything you suggested. I did it all. You said you would reconsider in one year.”
“Get up on the table. Let me examine you.”
He laid down on the exam table and allowed the man with all the power bend, lift, and twist his legs and lower back in ways he no longer could. From the corner where I was sitting I could hear grunts of pain and cuss words with every movement.
“Let me see you get up,” Dr. Woods commanded.
He slowly raised his upper body and used what little strength was left in his soul to get him up off the exam table.
“Try and touch your toes,” he commanded again.
I could see him twitching in pain as he tried to bend over. He used the exam table for support on his right side. The same side he used his aluminum cane on. There were more grunts accompanied by loud exhales. His hands only went down to his knees, it was impossible to go any lower.
“I see you are in pain, but you are still able to move. You are still able to have a life. A back fusion is a permanent surgery, there is no going back. You understand that right?”
“What else am I supposed to do? What quality of life am I supposed to have when I am in constant chronic pain?”
“You are asking me to approve a procedure that could make you worse. You are asking me to live with that decision. I want to wait until you are older, 24 is simply too young for this procedure.”
I could see the disappointment in his eyes. He had been here before. He knew that tone. I saw him slowly reach into his shirt pocket and pull out the letter.
“My pain management doctor asked me to give you this.”
He gingerly handed Dr. Woods the letter. It was his final card to play if he was to get the answer he desperately wanted.
“He wrote his personal number and said to give him a call after you read it.”
Dr. Woods took the letter looking upset.
“He said to give him a call, did he?”
With that Dr. Woods left the room...letter in hand... and we waited...