Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Summer Wind (or How I Broke My Wrist in Georgia)

I reckon I would've pulled it off gracefully enough at a younger, shorter, nimbler age. My instincts told me that it was easy from here on out, pretty much inevitable: simply a matter of pivoting on my left foot by way of setting up a blistering volley into the upper 90 with my right. Instead, the world shot out from under me and I flew upwards and then backwards at such an angle and with such velocity that the control tower in my brain abandoned all hope of coaxing the rest of my body into a smooth landing. Mayday. I sat down on my left wrist.

There may or may not have been an audible snap. There was not, at first, any pain whatsoever. I remember holding my hand up in front of my face and observing, rather calmly, that it looked more like a foot. 

Some of my students had gathered around to gawk. A few of them fought back vomit; the others shielded their eyes and turned away. My host brother, crying, ran off to fetch mom. One of the teenagers extended his hand, offering some sort of assistance, and I was disoriented enough to take it; he made as if to snap the joint back in place and I lashed out at him like a wolf mother. He backed up a couple paces.

I am not a radiology tech, though my dad once was. Some trivia, there. I knew that I had broken my wrist very badly. No bones were sticking out in any literal sense, but not for lack of trying. An older high school student – incidentally, the only kid in the village with frosted tips – approached with a rectangular chunk of cardboard that he'd scraped up off the ground. With one of his own shoelaces, he rigged up something to keep my arm level and blood-imbued until the ambulance came. I asked him what his name was. Giorgi, he said. No surprise there. Thank you, Giorgi, I said. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Then I asked when the ambulance was coming.

Word travels much faster than ambulances in the Georgian countryside. The whole village had turned out to take in the spectacle of the vulnerable American. I was slumped over on the asphalt in a pool of anxious sweat with my arm propped up in a rudimentary cardboard splint, cursing in the Queen's whenever the pain flared up, making gallows amputation jokes in Georgian whenever the pain ebbed away. These quips were my first attempt at skirting the fringes of something I really preferred not to think about, not then or hopefully ever again: Georgian healthcare. In America, the situation would've been clear-cut: I'd get my wrist fixed by a professional and tumble into debt for the rest of my life. In Georgia, it was possible that I'd lose an arm for free.

My host brother returned with the rest of my host family. He darted down an alley behind the school, where he dissolved into a puddle of tears. Earlier in the day - the first real day of spring - he'd called me fat. So I'd tromped off to my room. I returned sporting a bootleg Chinese Nike t-shirt-and-shorts ensemble. "What the fuck," my host brother said - who teaches them this stuff? "I'm fat," I said, "so I'm going running." He wanted to come with, so we went on a two mile jaunt up into the mountains. Then we trotted down to the playground to do some pull-ups. Then we played soccer for four hours. Then I smashed my wrist to bits.

My half-tight host dad peeked over the heads in front of him, caught a glimpse of my arm, and let fly a traditional Georgian aüf! My host mom slashed through the crowd like a battleship and set about scolding me for inhabiting the body of the idiot that I am.

It was twenty minutes before the ambulance showed up: a first edition VW hippie van, scrap metal gray, rusted out, with red crosses spray painted on the sides. The paramedics pushed through the crowd, examined my wrist and the Giorgi MacGyver splint job, and decided it was good enough for the time being. Then they told me to get up. It was evident from the beginning that I was a liability. Nobody wanted to touch me. I nodded toward frosted-tips Giorgi, who helped me to my feet, and with the half-whimper/half-laugh that sometimes accompanies incomprehensible pain (a noise my host mother found unmanly and therefore amusing) I began to hobble towards the ambulance. Nobody helped me inside, so I climbed in and found a seat in the back by the window.

It was a sunny, dusty day in April. I've watched too many Vietnam movies. The way I remember it, I was in the back of a chopper, tall grass tussling in a propeller-propelled gale, smoke flares hotboxing the heavens, generations of rice farmers gathered round to watch their wounded white-skinned hero spirited away in the bowels of a strange metal bird, bleeding generously from head and torso, gritting his teeth (also basted with blood) in order to flash a dogged American smile and a thumbs up out the window as …

I leapt to my feet. A pain in my ass. I jumped up and clunked my arm against the wall. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! I turned around and saw that my pants were down, and that there was a paramedic kneeled behind me with a syringe squirting clear liquid all over the ass of my chaps. 

"You could've asked first," I said. I stuck my ass out. They injected something into my left buttcheek.

Nothing happened. This was not morphine. My host mom climbed into the ambulance. She would not help matters much. The paramedics slid the side door shut behind them. The driver tossed his cigarette and pulled himself up behind the wheel. I steeled myself for my long-awaited Vietnam-era smile and thumbs up scene. The engine wouldn't start.

The engine wouldn't start for a good long while. Eventually, the driver gestured for Jgali's biggest and brawniest to gather behind the ambulance and give it a push towards town. I halfway expected us to get pushed all the way into town until the engine sputtered to life a click or two down the road. I winced a smile and flashed my dogged American thumbs up out the window. Nobody seemed to notice.

The nearest hospital was in Tsalenjikha: ten minutes by bus, twenty by ambulance. A pair of nurses ushered me into an office of sorts. I sat down. They asked me if I wanted anything and I didn't know the Georgian for "the strongest opiate Soviet Russia has to offer," so I said "water" instead. I drank glass after glass of water while the doctors copied the text of my passport by hand into a notebook. After a while, they pulled my pants down and injected me with more antibiotics. I couldn't be sure, but it seemed like my fingers were turning blue. The doctors finally turned their attention to my wrist, gave it a cursory glance, then left the room together. On their way out, I saw the one say something to the other and make a chopping gesture at her left elbow. The doors to the ER swung shut behind them. 

"I'd like to talk to my boss," I told my host mom.

"Yes, Kiti," she said, over the phone, "what ees problem?"
"I broke my wrist," I said. "I was playing soccer. Or football."
"You were drinking?"
"Then ees no problem. Health care cover this problem."
"Great. In the meantime," I said, "I want you to ask these people what exactly it is that they're about to do to me."

When the doctors returned ten minutes later, I was given to understand that they were probably not about to chop my arm off, but that their little hospital in Tsalenjikha was in no way equipped to treat an injury of such magnitude. They would give me a rentgen – an x-ray – and send me on down to Zugdidi. A load off their shoulders. A load off my mind. Zugdidi was a city of sorts. Zugdidi was developed, within reason. There was a kebab stand in Zugdidi, run by a real live Turkish dude. A whole street of shady 24-hour casinos managed by Armenian pimps. And where there are Armenian pimps, there are doctors.

A bald guy in a white lab coat – I could've sworn I'd seen him mopping the lobby earlier – came in some time later and told me to follow him. We were not headed for a lab or an office. He led me outside. We walked a couple blocks down a pothole-pocked gravel alleyway until we arrived at a slipshod old barn. He struggled with the padlock, knocked it open eventually. We went inside. He flipped on the lightbulb. A dirt floor covered in rat droppings. In the corner, an x-ray machine.

When the film had developed some 45 minutes later – it was dark out by then – I was finally told what I'd known all along: that my wrist was broken and that I'd need to go to the hospital. The director of my school had shown up (likely to cover her own ass) and the three of us - the director, my host mom, and I - piled into her Georgian Geo Metro. 

But we didn't go anywhere. For half an hour, I sat in the backseat while my director and my host mom argued with each other. My director, apparently, was not confident enough in her driving abilities to shuttle me the thirty minute straight shot to Zugdidi. My host mom offered to pay for gas. (In retrospect, the cost of benzin, I imagine, was the sticking point.) My director said no, driving wasn't an option, maybe they should just call for an ambulance. This went on for a while. I was sitting with my forehead pressed against the glass, miserable to the n-th degree of f-bomb. I was starting to drift into the third person.

After an hour of talking it out in the car, my director hit upon an idea. She remembered that another foreign teacher lived just across the street; maybe they could go get her and bring her out and she would know what to do. My host mom duly got out of the car and walked across the street. She talked to a shopkeeper for ten minutes, much gesticulating and laughter, then wandered down the road to a rusted metal gate, opened the gate, and stepped into the driveway. A guard mutt went crazy. A middle-aged woman emerged from the house. She and my host mom chatted for a bit. My host mom came back. 

"The foreigner is asleep."

My director called for an ambulance. We waited in the dark. I was no longer talking to anybody. I clamped my eyes shut and pretended to be asleep, or dead.

The ambulance took an hour to arrive. But it was a real ambulance. I was helped out of the car by real doctors. An old man, an old woman. I took one look at them and knew that they were professionals and guessed that they were married, and I was right about both. The old woman handed me a bottle of water. I guzzled. The old man checked out my wrist and raised both brows and asked me if I was in pain. I nodded vigorously. He asked me if I wanted medicine. Again with the vigorous nodding. A syringe was produced, was flicked, and a shimmering arc of clear fluid was ejaculated up into the air between the doctor and me. 

After the opiated ambulance ride, the hospital was a night terror. Like the music video for "Knives Out" by Radiohead, if you've seen that. Flickering fluorescent lights, everything metallic blue or concrete gray, or pitch black when the lights crapped out, all manner of medical procedures taking place side-by-side at a breakneck broken neck pace. I was shown to a bench between two other benches. From the sounds of things, the guy to the right of me was having his intestines removed, link by link. The woman to my left was schizophrenic or worse. A busted wrist wasn't so bad at all, certainly not in the state I was in. But then, it is easy to look on the bright side on morphine.

A tall, gray-scalped doctor with witty little creases under his eyes came in and shook my functioning hand. He explained what was about to go down. 

"We fix you arm," he said.
"You won't be cutting anything off?" I asked.
"No," he chuckled. "No cutting. You only go to sleep."

Sleep I could handle. I lay back in my cot with two entirely different kinds of screaming going on in my left and right ears. Nothing mattered terribly much. They plugged me into an IV. 

"This," the doctor said, flicking the baggy dangling over my head, "make you sleep."

I laid there a moment or two and watched the doctor as he massaged a roll of gauze into a tray of gray slime, setting up shop next to my wounded paw.

"Er," I said, "I'm not ready for that yet. I'm still awake."
"It okay," he said. "Soon you sleep, Kiti. Very soon you sleep."

He began to toy around with my arm.

"Oof. Ugh. Aüf! Er. I just don't think I can be awake for this, doc. I'm on some big drugs already, believe me, I understand that, but I'm pretty sure what you're about to do to me ... it's still gonna ... I mean ... I ... "

I sat bolt upright in bed. Something had catapulted me outside of time and space and misery. My wrist belonged to somebody else.

"There it is," I said. "There it is. I tell you, doc. Whatever this stuff is ... whatever it is ... I tell you what ... you gotta market this shiz ... the kids back home ... you'll make ... I promise you'll make a fuggin' mmmint."

My head hit the pillow.

An existential second or two later, I was awake again, a wet heap of gauze molded to my left arm.

"How'd you do that?" I asked.
"Is easy," said the doctor. He snipped off the last wrap of tape with a pair of office scissors. "I am doctor."

The day I broke my wrist was the first day of the year you could really go outside. Summer was coming, with its promise of heat and sun and lukewarm beer and lukewarmer women, subpar Georgian beaches, and three months of fuck-all to do. But it was this summer that I was to serve out my penance for having never once broken a bone in my youth, for having never once missed out on a childhood summer. For having never showered with a cast. For having never sat idly poolside reading The Boxcar Children #72 while everyone else cannonballed their asses off. This summer would be my Rear Window summer. I'd sit and watch the cows go by, watch my host aunt pin the clothes up on the line, watch my host cousin get spanked pale-assed; it was the summer I'd learn how to work a Kindle one-handed, among other things …
A month later, the month of May, I went back to get my first cast removed, presumably to get my second cast installed. I was reunited with the doctor who'd done the original cast job. I offered him a fistpound with my operational hand and he received it, though he didn't blow it up. He cut free the cast and I was overwhelmed at first by the stench and then by the withered t-rexian appearance of my left arm. He sent me to the radiologist's lair to get an x-ray.  

The radiologist returned a couple minutes later with the good news. In English, no less.

"You are not needing cast," he said, holding the x-ray up for my approval. "Is healthy. Is fine. Are young, so excellent progress. You leave here today. You are not needing cast."

This, I knew, was false. It had been a month since my wrist had been smashed. 

I presented the x-ray, along with my translation of the radiologist's verdict, to my doctor.

He donned his bifocals and glanced at the x-ray, turned it from side to side. 

"Is the bull shit," he said. "You need the new cast."
I shrugged.

"I thought so," I said, "but it was a little weird. The radiologist said – "
"Yes," the doctor nodded. "I know radiologist. He belong in hospital. He is doctor, but have qualities of mental patient. He have something schizophrenia."

[here, the blog post you are reading cuts abruptly to a "closing credits" sequence in which our protagonist and pseudo-hero is observed from slightly above and directly behind, reclined in a plastic beach chair, cocktail in one hand, 39 pounds of Georgian plaster wrapped around the other, silhouetted against the Black Sea at dusk, and "The Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra swells into the foreground and crescendos until the sweetness of the moment becomes almost unbearable – the director of the scene pours himself a nightcap and sits and drinks and strokes his whiskered chin as he watches and waits and finally decides to allow the full two minutes and 53 seconds of the original Concord Records recording to blow themselves decrescendoing softly to sleep]

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