Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is there a Doctor in the House? - Part Two

April 16th, 2008

Prison walls tell a tale. It is a rare surface indeed that does not bare the scratched, painted, drawn, or burned (!) marks of the men who came before me. I've found I rather enjoy reading these colorful messages from the past. The metal doors in the holding tanks of John Sealy hospital in Galveston are a bit like an archaeological dig. On the surface, you have recent activity: messages scraped into the brown paint, dating back to the last time they bothered to repaint, which was, apparently, just before March of 1997. Someone named Mr. T-Boy opines that Tyler is "Del City wit no Pity." I'm not sure how accurate that statement is, but I found it humorous. Underneath the surface layer, or strata, to continue my sorry metaphor, you can faintly see the messages that came before the painting, though you sometimes have to decipher them by touch. I had plenty of time to stare at this particular door, and I pondered what mark I should leave. In the end, rather than attempting to proclaim that I was the coolest or toughest (or "flyest,"or whatever the devil these people talk like these days), I left them the empirical formula for a human being, if it were broke down into atoms:

(H15750 N310 O6500 C2250 Ca63 P48 K15 S15 Na10 C16 Mg3 Fe1).

I figured that would add some color to the work, and establish that while I may not have "Dem Fists of Pain" like D-Loc, or be "3-Sided Fama" like Ochoa-06, I at least had claim at being the biggest nerd in TDC. Yay, me.

Obviously, they got around to the problem of my arm, as the photo in the previous entry testifies to pretty clearly. I've also been told by my friend Erin (who takes very good care of me) that I "looked a little thin," which is true. I lost 34 pounds since the injury in October, which wouldn't be all that bad of a deal under different circumstances, but this weight was practically all muscle mass. Apparently, my gut missed the bloody memo that we were downsizing. I've been talking to him, trying to make him see reason, but he thinks my threats of a full-scale sit-up blitzkrieg are baseless. Hell, he's probably right. For now.

During one of our last visits, my Dad listened patiently while I complained about feeling like an old, beaten-up man. "Well," he said, "At least you can brag that your guns had gotten so large you could snap titanium just by flexing." Sigh. Everyone's a comedian. I've now been to John Sealy four times. When I last wrote about this issue, I mentioned that Dr. Zond (previously referred to as Dr. Z, and yes, my alias-naming abilities are truly CIA-like) had come to my cell, in response to the cacophony I was making. He ordered X-rays, though he did an end-run around the corruption here at the Polunsky Unit by ordering them taken at the regional hospital unit in Galveston. Late in the evening of Wednesday, February 20th, I was informed that I needed to "pack my shi*" because I was going on "medical-chain" the following morning. I loaded up all my belongings into red onion bags, and tried to sleep. The next morning at 4:30 AM, I was awakened when a guard started slamming his club on my door, and chained me up. As I walked in front of 12-Control, I was told to hold up. They wheeled this strange, gray chair out and plugged it into the wall. Turns out this chair, called a B.O.S.S. chair, is a full-body metal detector. Keep in mind, when I sat in the chair, I was wearing ten pounds of handcuffs and chains. Which were made of metal. The chair, appropriately, went nuts, though the guards seemed to be more interested in their debate of fishin' lures than the possibility that I might have some industrial sized bolt cutters under my shirt. The chair, it would seem, is yet another useless piece of equipment the legislature appropriated for DR. (For an even more egregious waste of tax-payer money, see the massive X-ray machine situated when you enter the Death Row building. This is one of those contraptions with the conveyor belt and computer screen, like TSA uses in airports. It is never used; it has never been used since it was installed last year. I have no idea what a system like that costs, but I did over hear some guards complaining that they could have bought six perimeter trucks for the same cost, so think 100k plus. You paid for that, citizens of Texas. Aren't you proud?) After sitting in the detector chair, I was led outside to a waiting van. In the coming weeks, I would ride in several different types of vans and buses. This transport included several inmates from units in the area. I was a bit surprised that I would be allowed to ride with them, since one of the arguments every prosecutor makes in every capital trial is that DR-worthy inmates are so dangerous, they can't be around normal gen-pop inmates. Apparently, this is yet another area where rhetoric and reality part ways. The conversation in the van was interesting. One of the Mexicans had lived in Monterrey, so we compared notes, and argued over the better anti-hangover food, tacos de chorro, or caldo de res. It was nice to get some news from people not concerned about getting murdered by the State. Parole, as always, was being stingy. I think they are proud that Texas has now officially passed California for the largest state prison system in the nation. (To put it into perspective for you, there are 2.5 times more prisoners in Texas than in the entire country of England. To put it in more perspective: America has 5% of the world's population, and 25% of the world's prisoners.) I wonder how many more billions of dollars this state plans to spend before they realize this farce is coming to an end?

The musical selection chosen by the two pistol and shotgun clad transport officers was truly heinous. I've never been a fan of country and/or western music, but apparently there is a deeper level of hell to this genre: "classic" country. Some wanker complained for an eternity about how loving two women was like a ball and chain, and it only got worse from there. We passed through downtown on 45, though I was very passive about this. I used to love being downtown. All the energy, all the movement, all the life, so opposite to what I felt inside. I think skyscrapers, more than any other aspect of modern life, scream to the heavens as a testament of the ego of mankind. They absolutely insist upon themselves. I guess it was easier to ignore God when I had these towers to lean on. Whatever the reason, I barely looked at the buildings. They weren't a part of me anymore.

Anyways, John Sealy is a rather interesting hospital. First off, it's a teaching hospital, so everything is done by young doctors. In preparation, I tried to arm myself with some Doogie Howser jokes, but I've pretty much purposely purged the 80's from my mind, so Doogie and Vanilla Ice will just have to remain forgotten. (And let's be honest, this is best for everyone, anyway. Parachute pants, anyone?) The portion of the hospital set aside for TDCJ is sort of reminiscent of what a hospital would look like if designed by Orwell. The floors have a central picket area, and the various wings are all separated by electric crash-gates. I was led to the high-security holding cells on the 4th floor, C-wing. Holding cells, no matter the institution, are universally filthy. John Sealy has come up with an ingenuous way of minimizing the cleaning staff: they leave the cell lights off, so you are in darkness the entire duration of your stay. It's harder to dwell on the blood and urine soaked walls/floors when you can only smell them. I wonder about the institution where you need to go to a hospital just because you went to a hospital? but whatever. I basically tried not to touch anything. We arrived at the hospital around 7:00 AM, and I stayed in the holding cell until around 2:00 PM, when I was taken to the ortho clinic, where I was X-rayed. The doctor who looked at the films might have finally gotten a handle on puberty, maybe. (That might be a bit of an exaggeration.) The X-rays confirmed that the bone was indeed broken, as well as the titanium rod, though nobody could explain to me how this happened. One doctor suggested that the rod would have had to have been faulty to begin with. There was no mystery, however, when it came to the opinion that Dr. P., the unit doctor who claimed for months I simply had a "touch of arthritis," badly misdiagnosed the extent of the problem. (I have since obtained the complete medical file from the prison, and it turns out that it wasn't a misdiagnosis, but rather a blatant attempt at not performing the surgery. There was a side of me that wanted to sue the pants off of this jerk, but I decided that there are far too many lawsuits flying around these days. Plus, it's also hard to rest on forgiveness and grace if I'm not willing to extend it to others. Even criminally negligent quacks like Dr. P.)

I was given a choice by the doctors: leave the arm as it was, or have surgery. The risks included nerve damage, loss of limb, and death. I had to decide right then, though it was an easy decision, as I was about to cut the arm off myself anyways. Most people would choose the possibility of no pain over the certainty of it. I was sent back to the holding cells after signing some papers. The whole lot of us waited until 6:00 PM for the bus back to our units. At this point, all I really knew was that Dr. P. has known about the broken rod, and lied to me (ok, I suspected this before, but now I knew). I also knew that, at some point in the next few weeks, I would be called back for the surgery, provided the "medical professionals" here at Polunsky didn't veto the whole thing.

I wouldn't have long to wait. On February 29th, I once again made the trek down to Galveston. The musical selection was a little better this time around. REM was singing about Andy Kaufman and truck stops, instead of St. Peter's, as we passed through downtown, which somehow seemed appropriate. It was sort of fun to see all the new models of cars they've come out with, and I considered making faces at the people who stared at me, but I didn't think they would appreciate my sense of humor, so I abstained. As we crossed the causeway to Galveston Island, Neil Young (one of my favorites to play on my six-string) crooned about the needle, and the damage done. The last lyrics I heard before they turned off the radio were "I hit the city and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man. Gone, gone, the damage done." This seemed even more appropriate than the REM song. Yeah, it was just about perfect.

This time around, I would not be staying in the holding tanks, at least not indefinitely. We arrived at the hospital around 8:00 AM, and at around 11:00 PM they came to take me upstairs, to the 7th floor. The hospital room looked exactly like what you expect a hospital room to look like: a real bed (!), television (!!), and, best of all, a real mirror and window (!!!). The beds even had pillows (in prison, there are no pillows, you have to make one out of anything soft you can find). I noticed the bathroom had a shower, which I dove into greedily, as I felt infected by my stay in the holding tanks. While I was showering, a guard unlocked the door to tell me that I was only supposed to shower during the hours of 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. I told him I understood, and politely ignored him. I think I took about six showers a day that weekend, whenever I felt like it. All I can say in my defense is, if you normally had to wait all day for over a year to take a lukewarm shower, you too would probably enjoy feeling hot water whenever possible. After my long shower, I watched some TV, my first since coming to the Row. Again, I was surprised at how little it interested me. I mostly watched the Discovery Channel, before falling asleep around 3:00 AM. I awoke with the sunrise, and was absolutely blown away by the view from the window. Less than a mile away, I could see the ocean. I had been smelling it all night, but that's not quite the same thing. I think I spent more time staring at the sea than I did the television, that Saturday and Sunday. I did watch Lawrence of Arabia, one of my favorites. I had a good friend from high school who got me in the habit of guessing whether I could take historical figures in a fight. It began with the "who would you like to meet" question, and somehow Lane twisted it into a discussion of whether Scipio Aficanus had a mean left hook. It's been years since Lane died, but I still have the habit of asking the question: could I take so-and-so? All in all, I'm pretty sure I could beat up Peter O'Toole, though he did get shot in the arm, only to bounce back up and parade around once more, so maybe that limey had more to him than I thought.

The next morning they woke me up at 5:00 AM to prep me for surgery. I was shackled to a stretcher, and taken downstairs, where I was asked a number of questions regarding my previous experience with anesthesia. My IV was eventually hooked up, and I couldn't help but think that the next time they hooked me to an IV, I probably wouldn't be so calm. The whole medical team seemed extremely young, and I wondered if this was objective fact, or if I am just getting old. The very pretty Asian anesthesiologist asked me if I was nervous, which I admitted. She said she was going to give me something to relax me, and began administering something in my...darkness...the first think I remember thinking is that somebody's bloody alarm was going off. Never mind that there are no alarms in prison. Never mind that I didn't know who I was, or that I felt like I had just been pureed. I just wanted the alarm turned off. The offending mechanism turned out to be some piece of medical gadgetry, which was probably better left alone. I later found out that I had been in surgery just under eight hours. The broken metal rod was difficult to remove, so they had to open the arm from elbow to shoulder, and then they carved out a piece of bone from my right hip to graft in there. Instead of one large rod connecting my shoulder to my elbow, I now have two pieces of bone linked by four screws and a plate. There is a gap of about an inch between the two segments of humerus, and if these do not grow together, my days of working out are done.

I stayed in the hospital four more days, until they chained me up for the return to Polunsky. I'm not going to spend much time discussing the next few weeks (this is quite long enough), except that the events included: the IV wound reopened on the van ride back to the unit, so I was covered in blood when I reached the unit; a mistaken trip back to Galveston and the accompanying two day holdover in the tanks due to a clerical error; the nurse here at Polunsky tasked to remove to 50 stapled got faint and snapped at me when I gave her advice, so I took the tool from her and removed the last half of the staples my own damn self; when I arrived at the unit, they took the protective cast off, claiming it was a weapon, though I now have a new one, thank you very much. I could go on and on, but I've beat on this drum long enough. If I haven't made my case that they are incompetent, lazy boobs here in Livingston, then no additional information is going to sway you. I'm over it. Mostly.

To everyone who writes me, I have now caught up on the mountain of mail which somehow had figured out the trick of asexual reproduction, so if you don't get something from me by the time this is posted, chances are I never got your letter. Thank you for all the prayers.

In conclusion, should you ever find yourself in TDCJ's grasp, remember the wise words of Mr. Lester Bower regarding medical care: don't get hurt. Best advice I ever heard.

Texas Prison Health Care: On The Brink of Unconstitutionality, Again

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an ordeal. I'd be curious how your arm has finally healed up after all this time. I debate commenting on articles so old, but as I'm reading them for the first time I feel obligated to chime in when somethings on my mind, and hey, you did say you wanted comments - right? "Beggars can't be choosers". - Kidding of course but I wanted something to lift your spirit. -Ken