What we fear, and why?

On a Sunday earlier this spring, before the whole Coronavirus issue, Maggie and I were hiking in the valleys surrounding nearby North Mountain, in Phoenix, AZ. As we walked a couple engaged in a vigorous discussion passed us, going in the opposite direction. They were speaking Russian, a language I’ve learned to recognize. They spoke freely, with no shyness or hesitation. As we walked I was struck by what my brother, Leif, had told me about riding the Russian subways when he and his family lived in St. Petersburg.

Leif and his wife would not speak out loud on the subways. Communicating meant pressing their lips carefully against each other’s ears or those of their children and whispering quietly. He had a genuine fear for their safety if other riders had been able to discern they were foreigners. The children, however, were fine. Growing up in Russia, they had no discernible accent and could speak freely. This experience made me think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. It is unlikely anyone in the USA fears for their safety when speaking a foreign language or having an accent.

At the most local level, where we live, Americans rarely feel fear of “the other.” The Greek family that runs the bakery upsets no one. The Mexican family living down the block with the mother and father who aren’t so good at English, heading to work every morning, and often getting back late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves are completely fine. The neighbors all keep an eye out for them with a willingness to step in if anything looks amiss. Even the elderly Sikh man who’s never seen without his turban has been accepted, with some neighbors figuring out that not cutting his hair is part of his religious observance and they’re okay with that.

Given this is true, then why are we so easily manipulated to fear “the other,” by politicians and others wishing to use that emotion for their own ends? How sad when “the other” even becomes our own neighbors, friends and even family, when they have political positions different from our own. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to understand although difficult to do anything about, other than being aware and vigilant of what is going on.

Our attitudes of fear and even hate of “the other” is a primal survival mechanism. It is part of our instinct to avoid danger, to fear anything appearing to be different. It is what kept us alive in ancient times. As the writer Bill Bryson so eloquently states in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

But like many remnants of our reptilian brain, some of what goes on in that part of the brain has very little usefulness in modern society. When one race or group of people consciously or unconsciously fears for their safety, if their importance or control is threatened, they’ll develop defenses. This can quickly lead to exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race or group to justify their actions to secure their own safety and survival.

We’ve outlived most of the need for this deep-seated instinct, but it still exists and is often manipulated by unscrupulous individuals and advocators. It is easy to cause us to fear a horde of “XYZ militant terrorists,” or whatever “the other” group is that is being exploited, or “this party or people” who want to destroy our country.  It holds barely a thread of something that sounds like fact, and any actual risk of such an event or attack occurring is often so remote to be downright silly. Yet newscasts are frequently monopolized with these unlikely and remote eventualities having little chance of ever impacting a particular listener.

For instance, around Halloween, many people fear their children are at risk of being given poisoned candy by strangers while trick or treating, even though there has never, ever been a documented case of this happening. Ever. Yet “urban legends” are regularly brought up and repeated, often as fact and often on the news.

I get angry when the media blatantly exploits these deep instincts. My brother and his wife’s fears on the Russian subway were probably justified. It made sense to trust their experience and reports from American friends advising caution. But it does not make sense to trust politicians or media talking heads who exaggerate or make up facts to make us fear other people when that fear, in context, is not justified. Or, at the very least, they should be required to put the fear they’re pointing at in the context of other real risks the population actually faces. But that’s another whole set of examples and considerations.

Martinis and smoke – one magical mixture

Dr. Ed Banner gave me a glimpse into a part of the world of which I was mostly unaware, but in a way that made me feel there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. We were vastly different in age and light-years apart in economic and social status, but he treated me as an equal. This story from nearly 50 years ago would be impossible in today’s world – for many reasons which you will discover. Enjoy.

As manager of Schaak Electronics in Rochester, MN in the 1970s, some of my best customers were from the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest employers in town. These men (nearly all buyers of high-end stereo equipment were male), had far more money than my family and friends had growing up. In Fairmont, where I lived until I was a junior in high school, people with this amount of wealth didn’t even exist. Attending my senior year of high school in Rochester, I became aware of people like this, but was mostly oblivious to the various cliques and resentments some students felt about “those stuck-up rich doctor’s kids.” My interest at Schaak Electronics wasn’t about status, it was about selling more stuff and winning sales contests. Going out of my way to help those who could make more and larger purchases was part of my job.

Three group photos from Schaak Electronics.
When managing Schaak Electronics in the 1970s, I sent Xmas cards to our customers. These three survived.

One of my favorite Mayo Clinic customers was Dr. Ed Banner. Not only was he a doctor from the large, mysterious white building in downtown Rochester, he was originally from “the big city” (Chicago), drove a Ferrari, and sported a shock of red hair. His coming into my store was more like a “grand entrance” than someone casually strolling in to shop. He’d purchased stereo systems for his living room, office and other spots in his house and frequently shopped for electronic-oriented gifts for family and friends. Not only was he a good customer, I considered him a friend. One evening he heard me coughing and told me to call his office at Mayo the following day. Even then I knew people waited months for an appointment at the Mayo Clinic. But when I called his office, his assistant told me she’d been expecting my call and to come right down. After a quick stop in his office, soon I was being examined by the head of Mayo’s ENT department. As head of the Gynecology Department, Dr. Banner would not be treating me himself.

Anyone spending even a short time in Rochester, MN would hear stories about Dr. Ed Banner. His exuberance, confidence and style made him the center of attention everywhere he went. He lived large and possessed a bigger-than-life presence. He was hard not to notice and impossible to forget. His Ferrari was the only one in town. If he was in a restaurant having dinner, everyone knew it.

One Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas, Dr. Banner had finished making some seasonal gift purchases at my store and we were chatting at the counter. Making conversation, he asked about my plans for the evening. Normally, my life was pretty dull and I would have had nothing interesting to report. But this time it occurred to me I might be able to impress the good doctor with my evening plans: “Well Doc, tonight I’m having dinner with my girlfriend at the Country Club.” Now Rochester’s Golf and Country Club was a private, exclusive, and high-dollar place I’d never been. However, that particular evening, the country club was the venue for a corporate holiday party and my date was an employee of that company. The company owners were flying in on their private plane from Quincy, Illinois, and had arranged the dinner at the club. My girlfriend worked at KROC-TV (later to become KTTC), and invited me as her date. I was excited at the prospect of going to “the country club,” and proud of it.

No sooner had I revealed my plans when Dr. Banner said, “Ah, yes, Alice and I will be dining at the club this evening as well.” He then paused, thought for a moment, stroked his chin, and asked me, “Steve, do you like martinis?” I’d never had one in my life and only seen the odd-shaped martini glasses on television, but I instantly replied, “Yes, I do.” Then he asked, “And do you by any chance also enjoy a good cigar?” And again, although not having ever smoked a cigar other than those horrible Swisher Sweets in college, heard myself answering, “Of course, Doc.” And it was then he made the following proposal: “Steve, why don’t you come over to the house about an hour before you’re set to pick up your date, and we’ll have a martini and a cigar. I think you’ll like that.” We finalized a time, and off he went.

Late that afternoon, I arrived at the Banner residence just as it was beginning to get dark. Snow flurries, the big, puffy, slow-moving ones that you can see clearly as they lazily float past, were drifting down. I parked in the driveway and rang the bell. Dr. Banner’s wife greeted me warmly, saying, “You must be Steve. Ed is waiting for you in his library,” and she guided me past windows overlooking all of downtown Rochester. Wow, what a view!

Dr. Banner stood up from his desk in a large comfortable office that was indeed, full of books. Classical music played at a low volume from bookshelf speakers I recognized as ones from my store. Mrs. Banner closed the double doors and we shook hands in greeting. After some preliminaries, he said, “Now, let me make you one of my famous martinis.” He pulled out a large bottle of gin and a smaller bottle of vermouth, and carefully measured them into a stainless steel shaker filled with ice. Spinning the liquid around, he told me it was important not to be too vigorous, as one could “bruise the gin.” After a minute of this, he left the room and returned with two large martini glasses. From their frosted appearance, I knew they’d been chilled. He carefully poured the crystal clear liquid from the shaker into the two glasses, turned to me, and said, “Do you know what the ladies say about my martinis, Steve?” I said nothing. His eyes twinkled and he said, “Well, they say, ‘Doc, I’ll have just one, two at the most, because three I’m under the table and four I’m under the host.’” We both laughed.

Before we could sample the drinks, Doc said, “Now, we’ll leave these here to rest just a bit, while we find something to smoke.” We left the room and entered his garage where he had a large refrigerator. Opening the door he showed me the entire refrigerator had been transformed into a massive humidor and filled with boxes and boxes of cigars — nearly all he pointed out, were imported from Cuba or South America. “You know,” he said, “many of my patients are the wives of South American politicians, and when they wish to show their appreciation they send me boxes of cigars.” He pulled two boxes out and opened them, saying “Here are my two current favorites. While the fillings are virtually the same tobacco, you’ll see one is wrapped in a green tobacco leaf and the other in a brown leaf. Which wrapper do you think you might prefer, the green or the brown?” I looked at them for a moment and then said, “I’d like to try the brown one.” He pulled one of the huge brown cigars from the top of the box and handed it to me. Then he selected one of the green ones for himself. But before he left, he took another of the large green cigars from the box and slipped it into my inside suit jacket pocket saying, “Why don’t you take one of these for later,” as he selected a second brown one and put it into the inside of his jacket pocket.

Back in his office he patiently took me through the ceremony of circumcising a cigar and then the right way to light one. Apparently, you were never to use a lighter — only large stick matches — to light cigars of this caliber. Obviously he knew I was a novice and unfamiliar with all of this, but he never once treated me like we were anything other than equals performing a ritual together that we’d done hundreds of times before. As we sat across from each other in his classic Eames lounge chairs, I will never forget the smoke and its deep rich fragrance wafting slowly around our heads and filling the room. I can recall sipping the super-chilled martini while listening to music quietly playing in the background. I remember us clinking our glasses in a toast or two but not to what. It was like being in a deep and relaxing dream while simultaneously, being fully awake and hyper aware of every sensation. Before I knew it, Dr. Banner was rushing me to the door, saying I must not be late. I drove down the hill on an amazing high. The snow had accumulated about an inch and was still softly falling. Parking in front of my girlfriend’s apartment, I left the car and walked up to the front door – actually, it didn’t feel much like walking, more like I had floated up. And if you want to know the truth, boys and girls, when I turned and looked back down the walk toward my car to check, it was indeed the case. There were no footprints in the snow as there should have been. While I can only speculate, I’m quite certain that I had literally floated up the walk on an invisible pillow of cigar nicotine and martini.

Arriving at the Country Club, we soon found the party, which was being hosted in a semi-private room. No doubt due to my girlfriend’s stunning appearance, we were seated at the head table with the owners of the television station from Quincy, the local station general manager and the local anchorman and his wife. Dinner progressed easily and safely. I remembered everyone’s names while forgetting which piece of silverware to use when. As soon as people figured out I was uninvolved with the television business, they ignored me – and I was fine with that.

We’d completed dinner and desserts were being served when I heard a commotion behind me at the back of the room. I watched the eyes of the people across the table from me as they stared transfixed. Someone obviously had entered the room and was heading for our table, but stopping here and there on the way toward us. Then the voice became recognizable and I heard it say, “Good evening, I’m Dr. Banner, pleased to meet you.” At another table, “Yes, hello Bob, good to see you, happy you could be here tonight, so nice of you to come.” I turned and watched as he slowly worked his way in my direction, moving along as if running for office and everyone here a potential vote. With a big brown cigar clenched in his teeth, he shook hands, told everyone how lovely they looked, and finally arrived at the head table where the local managers stood and introduced this local celebrity to the out-of-town visitors. Banner exchanged pleasantries with them, all the while resting his hand on my shoulder. Then he looked down at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Now, everyone knows I like these Cuban cigars with the brown wrappers,” as he pulled the large cigar from his mouth and held it up to admire it. “But every once in a while,” he continued, “I come across a discerning gentleman who’s been lucky enough to find one with a green wrapper. Might you be him?” he asked me. At that moment I remembered the green wrapped cigar Dr. Banner has slipped into my breast pocket several hours earlier. I slowly reached in and pulled out the cigar, held it in front of my face, and looked at it, then turned to Dr. Banner and asked, “But how did you know?” Dr. Banner looked down at me, smiled and said, “I can smell them. Here, let me light that for you.” And he did.

Epilogue: This night, so memorable to me, no doubt was just one of thousands of wonderful nights in the life of this incredible man. Dr. Banner passed away at 80 years old, on Nov. 5, 1992 in Vail, Colorado. After getting his medical degree in 1939, he began a fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1942. In 1947 he was appointed a consultant in obstetrics and gynecology at Mayo and in 1969 became a professor at the Mayo Medical School. While he’d never mentioned it to me, I learned Dr. Banner was on the board of directors for the Rochester Country Club. His son, Dr. Ed Banner, Junior, graduated from Mayo High School in 1969 as did I. Young Ed Banner practiced medicine in Houston, Texas.

Yeah, this is roughing it!

Steve at Schaak Electronics

In the early 1970s, after purchasing my Lotus Elan, I was working at Schaak Electronics in Rochester Minnesota. We were suffering yet another long and exceptionally cold winter. Little did I know, the following spring I was going to experience one of those self-realizations and experiences that would forever change my life.

Apache Mall was the home of Schaak Electronics. The store was managed by Gary Eiesland, who’d taken over from Carl Estey. Gary’s management style and creativity seemed like genius after the unfathomably odd and foolish projects initiated by Carl. Gary’s reign as store manager felt a bit like Obama following Bush, (if you’re a Democrat) or Trump following Obama if you’re of the opposite political stripe. Unlike all the single guys working at Schaak, Gary was a real adult, being married with two small girls. Besides being an awesome manager, Gary took me under his wing, sharing his outside-of-the store interests as well as coaching me on work duties.

One day Gary inquired if I liked to hike and camp. Given his Svengali-like mesmeric influence on me, I could only say, “Of course.” Soon Gary was bringing in camping, hiking, and outdoor magazines filled with adventures and ads for outdoor gear for me to read. A store selling outdoor gear, a precursor to present-day REI, had opened at the other end of the mall. Gary and I would head in their direction whenever business was slow and wander the aisles, fantasizing about all the places we would go and top-end gear we’d acquire. It must have been January when we made our first big purchase; real, expensive, genuine hiking boots. These boots were the precise ones you’d buy if you were heading off to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. We’d watched the salesperson demonstrate and pitch these boots many times, as well as carefully examined the cut-in-half version of the boot, done to illustrate its advanced features and superiority. To ensure proper break-in for our as-yet-to-be-determined epic hike, we wore the boots to work every day, along with our 3-piece suits. For some reason, the idea we may have looked ridiculous was lost on us.

The boots were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to gear acquisition. We needed a tent, sleeping bags, gas lanterns, portable cooking pans, foldable plates, canteens, a compass, and specialty dark glasses with yellow lenses to better illuminate game trails as one traversed through the woods. And of course, few visits to the hiking gear store were made without loading up on the survival food options strategically placed near the cash register to maximize impulse buying. Boy, did they have us pegged! We bought bars having the same size and look as a Hershey’s candy bar, but so full of concentrated protein a single square would keep a man alive for 3 days. Of course, we each bought several, although not always on every visit. We got a box of a dozen oatmeal-type roll-ups, with the promise that each one would keep a lost hiker from starving for a week. We loaded up – after all, you never know what might happen out in the bush, and most of all, we wanted to be prepared.

Our decision on which backpack to purchase involved studying a host of reviews followed by months of arguments and discussion. After all, the Pacific Crest Trail ran over 4,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Buying the wrong backpack could be a disaster. So, we borrowed one backpack after another from the gear store, took them out behind the mall to the banks of the Zumbro River, and loaded them up with smooth river rocks. Then we would walk back and forth around the mall parking lot, making thoughtful and careful assessments to find the very best backpack for each of us. Which sleeping bag to buy generated at least as much attention as the backpacks: on the one hand, it would need to be light enough and supportive enough to safely suspend us on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, yet be warm enough to keep us alive on Mt. Kilimanjaro where we’d read the temperatures got to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While that doesn’t sound that cold, that’s 20 degrees without wind chill factor. If there is one thing two Minnesota boys understood, it was wind chill.

The long winter contributed to a bit more shopping time than might have been optimal. Although we might have been able to get along without every single item, it never occurred to us we might have extras. One weekend the weather warmed and wishing to test our tent and gear, we pitched the tent in Gary’s backyard and set up camp. It had not been too long after we’d unrolled and crawled into our sleeping bags when Gary’s wife ambled into the backyard with Gary’s daughters. “Do you have any ideas on what I can tell our neighbors about why my husband is sleeping in a tent in our backyard with a guy from his work?” she asked.

Morning eventually came. We took the tent down and carefully packed it up as outlined in the instructions. Same for rolling up sleeping bags and mats, and with meticulous attention, stowed the gear in Gary’s garage. The day when we might be able to head out and use our gear on a real trip filled our brains like sugar plums dancing in the heads of toddlers before Christmas at the turn of the century.

Eventually the weather began to warm, the snow melted and we seriously began planning for our epic trip. It was decided that before spending the big bucks and traveling to a distant locale, we’d do a hike in our own region. However, it had to be properly devoid of civilization to give us a genuine sense of roughing it. This meant no civilization and no easy “outs” if things went wrong. We needed to test all of our newly acquired gear while putting our outdoor problem-solving abilities to the test. We eventually settled on a trip to northern Wisconsin.

Gary had heard of the unpronounceable Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, nearly to the most northern reaches of Wisconsin. He said there was nothing there but wild wilderness and wild beasts like deer and bear. It was settled, the very next Friday morning we would head north. He’d arranged coverage at work so we had the full weekend and truth be known, no one was going to worry if it took us another week to turn up back in Rochester.

Being this was before the Internet, our ability to research and plan every detail in advance was limited. But spiritually our goal was simple – drive into Wisconsin, a state known to be wilder and less populated than Minnesota and take every road going north, until civilization ran out. At which point, we’d be in the deepest, darkest forest, where we would hike, camp and forage. Yippee!

We’d decided to drive my Lotus. One feature of all the gear we bought was it was compact and fit into the trunk of the Elan. Plus, the car was fairly new, and the idea of a long road trip was exciting. Our first hint of not quite perfect planning was making far better time than we expected. Six hours after starting our trip we pulled into Bayfield, Wisconsin. Huh? With over 250 residents, this was a booming metropolis in our book. Driving around the tiny town we saw a Ferry terminal and several cars and a few people lined up to go out to Madeline Island. We learned there wasn’t much to do out there and most attractive to us, we heard it was the LAST FERRY of the day, and if we went out there, we’d be trapped overnight, at least, maybe longer if the weather got bad. We were hooked. They had room for just one more car. The Lotus.

racing toward shore, cars ready to drive off the ferryArriving on Madeline Island less than an hour later, a light mist was still falling. We drove past a large old hotel, trying not to look at it. Following the only road heading north, we took it out of town. In about a half-hour, the road gave out and turned into a logging trail. We kept going. Finally, we were out into the backwoods. Eventually the limited clearance of the Lotus required us to pull over. This was not a problem, and actually, it was what we were expecting and had prepared for. Out came our gear, backpacks were loaded, the car was locked and we pushed ahead north on foot.

Taking note of the compass and sighting in on a distant tree, we headed out. We hiked through the thick forest terrain, reaching the tree we’d seen. Using the compass, we spotted another tree and pushed forward. Now might be a good time to point out our second unexpected event. It turns out the light mist falling for most of the afternoon, had soaked the grass and brush. As we walked through the weeds, our pants legs soon became soaked. The water then worked its way into our hiking boots. Somehow the promises of being waterproof had not covered this eventuality. After about an hour, with our feet colder and colder, we began to think about finding a nice clearing and camping for the night. We decided we were suitably deep into the north woods. At just about that time, we crashed through some bushes and there, directly in front of us, was a nice red cabin. Shoot! Nothing smacks more of civilization than a cabin. We had to distance ourselves and fast. Gary pointed off to his left at another distinctly shaped tree and off we went, our cold feet making us more and more miserable and now realizing, no matter what we did, we’d likely not be more than a half-mile away from some damn cabin. Approaching a clearing, Gary pointed to a grassy spot in a small clearing and asked, “How about here?” I looked around and then noticed something odd. I pointed further to Gary’s left and said, “let’s try over that way a bit.” We pushed in that direction about 50 feet, came around a massive oak tree and there it was, my nice bright yellow Lotus Elan, right where we’d left it. I thought that tree had looked familiar.

We’d both read about people lost in the woods and their tendency to walk in circles, but had never assumed it could happen to us. It had felt like we were walking in perfectly straight lines the whole time.

But at this point we were tired, our feet were freezing and we just wanted to get warm. We unpacked and pitched the tent a few feet from the car. Before crawling into our sleeping bags, we tried to light a fire. However, the wood from the forest floor was wet and we couldn’t get it to start. Then Gary recalled a stack of wood covered with a tarp along the driveway of the red cabin we’d seen a ways back. He talked me into going back and stealing a few sticks of dry wood so we might have a fire. I did and we managed to get a small fire started, but no sooner would it get going than the rain would put it out. Nothing we did would keep it going long enough to roast the wieners we’d brought along for the occasion. But all was not lost – in addition to a bag of Cheetos, we had an entire box of emergency, super high-protein, keep you alive for a week, candy bars. Upon reflection, I can’t say if it was deep hunger or an artificially induced case of the munchies, but I know we ate every single one of those candy bars and fruit/oatmeal roll-up things and even raided the pockets on our backpacks where we’d hidden even more of these treats for emergencies.

In the morning, as soon as there was light, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, and rolled up the tent and other gear the way most men fold fitted sheets – but faster. We stuffed these balls of gear into the trunk of the Elan and headed back to the Ferry dock. We managed to get the first ferry back to Bayfield and from there, headed home to Rochester in the rain, with the windows down, allowing some of the most rancid farts ever produced to drift out of the car and pollute the road behind us.

This was a life-changing experience. Since this time, I’ve never once been seriously tempted to go on an overnight hiking trip. Been there. Done that!

Aghh! I thought it was COVID-19. It was worse.

On Thursday night, May 7, indigestion flared in my gut. It kept getting worse with other symptoms developing. Little did I know, two trips to the Emergency Room (ER) and two 3-day hospital stays were about to follow.

When my indigestion discomfort was joined by a racing pulse (95+ just lying in bed), dropping blood pressure (96/55), diarrhea with black stools, light-headedness, and nausea, at 4:30 AM I woke Maggie and said I was sick. “I think COVID-19 is attacking me with a vengeance.” We called Mayo’s triage line and a third of the way through my symptoms was told to go directly to our closest ER. Go now, do not pass go, do not collect $200. She gave us no diagnosis, so I was still thinking COVID-19 had got me. Maggie dropped me off at Mayo’s ER around 5:30 AM (she was not allowed inside) and after a half-hour wait, some Gastric Intestinal (GI) specialists were examining me. After a quick blood test and ECG, they told me I was down about 7 pints of blood. (Doctor: “Going from an Hb of 14.6 to 7.4 is quite a plummet – you’re down about 7 pints or half a tank.”).   After admitting me they did a test for COVID-19 and started the 24-hour clock on that. Then it was off to the high-isolation floor, where confirmed, suspected or unproven COVID-19 patients resided. Nowhere in the hospital are visitors allowed, the least of which this floor. It had separate ventilation filtering for each room and was staffed by heavily-masked nurses and doctors, including eye masks. The next morning the Covid-19 test came back negative and I was moved to the third floor, east wing, room 80.

Okay, if it wasn’t COVID-19 making me so sick, what was going on? Late that morning the GI team informed me they wished to do a Colonoscopy and an Endoscopy, essentially checking my GI track from both ends. This couldn’t be accomplished until I drank a gallon of GoLYTELY. This stuff wins the award for the greatest difference between a thing’s name and the actual result produced. I’ll not describe the process or impact, but the uninitiated and curious can follow this link.

So, after a cleansing evening, I was taken down for two procedures, thankfully done in that memory-less dream state that marked the end of Michael Jackson. Several hours later I learned there were 3 ulcers in my stomach which were the most likely source of the bleeding. They administered a test for the H. Pylori bacteria known now (due to a discovery twenty years ago) to cause ulcers and a few hours later it came back positive. A contributing factor to the bleeding was an “out-of-range” INR reading of 5.3. INR relates to the anticoagulation factor of the blood. The higher the number, the greater the likelihood of internal bleeding. If you don’t have a mechanical heart valve, normal INR values are between 1 – 2. If you do have a mechanical valve, like me, it should be between 2 – 3 and they get it there using a drug called Warfarin or Coumadin. Anything over 3 is considered too high. 5.3 is very bad.

On Monday the 11th, I was finally released to go home, with a regimen of pills to address the H. Pylori and imbalance in my GI tract. I was told if additional symptoms appeared, such as black stools or feelings of light-headedness, to get back to an ER right away. Off we went, with me super glad to get out of there, although suffering from the effects of being low on blood – which include extreme fatigue, light-headedness when trying to do anything fast, and absolutely no physical reserves.

As I planned my recovery, I learned a lot about iron-rich foods, both from plants and animal sources. I’ve been eating vegan for the past several months, so I was hoping to only need to occasionally stray into the meat side of things and still make good new blood. After planning a series of menus with Maggie filled to the brim with iron-rich foods, I learned from my doctor brother-in-law (Joe Phaneuf, M.D.) that rebuilding one’s blood to normal is not a matter of eating a week’s worth of liver & onion meals. It takes a couple of months. And my plan of taking iron supplements and eating foods high in iron was further blown apart from the study Joe sent me showing that the body monitors iron ingestion. If we significantly increase iron intake, the liver makes a protein called Hepcidin which is negative feedback for iron absorption.  In other words, lower doses of iron, like once a day or even every other day, are more effective than taking iron twice or three times a day. Okay, okay, I vowed to change my plans and take it more slowly.

Steve, holding his IV cart, wearing his monitoring gearOn Wednesday morning the 13th, after just one full day at home, I awoke shaking, light-headed, and not liking the look of the toilet’s contents (sorry to be graphic). I hated the idea of going back to the ER and made several attempts to reach the doctors on the phone. No luck, so back to the ER I went and you’ll never guess what happened. I got admitted to the hospital. AGAIN! This meant another COVID-19 test, but thankfully, they judged me a low risk of having contracted COVID-19 so quickly, and after my test put me back in the hospital on the same floor, the same wing and in the same room. Even the same nurses and support staff.

If uninitiated, you should know a colonoscopy starts at one end of the GI tract and the Endoscopy at the other. Neither of them reaches the small intestines in the middle. These small intestines are over 20 feet long and none of their “wands” or scopes reach that far. So, they wanted me to swallow a small camera so they could take photographs of my entire GI tract, with particular attention to the insides of the small intestines – oh, but not today. “First you need to drink another gallon of GoLYTELY, so the pictures will all come out nice and clear.” I was livid. I hate that stuff. I promised the GI team when I got out I would introduce a bill into the legislature requiring anyone prescribing GoLYTELY to have to take it themselves with the patient. Other than some sympathy, I got nowhere with my idea. So, another afternoon and evening of drinking a 6 oz. glasses of this horrible concoction every 20-30 minutes and never drifting more than a few feet from the bathroom.

This is the pill I had to swallow

The next morning, Thursday the 14th at 10:00 AM, after being judged clean as a whistle, one of the GI team brought me a camera to eat. Well, swallow – no chewing allowed. Before ingesting this magic brightly blinking bus of a pill (remember the movie the Fantastic Voyage?), they glued a half dozen pick-up/receivers to my torso and draped a box the size and weight of a 1990 1TB hard drive and just as heavy, around my neck. Combine this with the remote heart monitor and its 6 leads, two IV drips (one in each arm), and mobility was out of the question. I couldn’t even answer my phone because bending my elbow set off an IV alarm.

On Friday morning, the GI team picked up the recording device and took it to review the photos. Sound like fun? The camera transmits 7 high-res photos per second, or 420 pictures a minute. This works out to 25,200 pictures an hour. So, after twelve hours, they had over 300,000 pictures to review – 302,400 to be precise. Just like vacation photos, it’s a good bet they weren’t all winners. But still, that’s a lot of photos to look through. It took the 3 person team until around 2 pm before they declared there was nothing new going on in my GI tract and I might as well go home.

This time, the “leaving the hospital instructions” included a different set of drugs. They decided for several reasons, the first set was not that great. But, 3 new prescriptions later and I was on my way.

It turns out, getting my GI tract back into line wasn’t as big an issue as re-balancing my INR and getting it back in range. This involves transitioning from the Heparin IV drip I was getting while hospitalized to a drug called LOVENOX (here is how it’s pronounced). The trick is this drug can only be delivered by syringe. This means twice a day I get jabbed in my tummy with a needle and injected with enoxaparin. Not fun for me or Maggie, as I can be a real baby when it comes to shots.

I got home Friday night after picking up the new meds and some wonderful take-out food from Picazzo’s Healthy Italian Kitchen (one of my favorites). I was in bed and asleep before 9 PM. Happily, I am still negative for COVID-19. That’s a good thing, as it no doubt would have killed me, given my blood count issue and non-existent reserves. My GI tract and blood situation can be repaired and brought back into line over the next couple of months. Given what I’ve been through in the past, this was just sort of a blip in the road, although it was a potentially lethal blip.

So, how was your week?