Monday, April 23, 2012

THIRD STRING ODYSSEY - Part 1 ; when the doctors almost killed me



This was the field. We were in junior varsity football at Chaminade High School, Mineola, Long Island, October 1961. We were in those red uniforms but it was a weekday practice scrimmage...

A few months before in the drenching humidity of late August we had started practice, some days with double sessions. I remember in one break between those double sessons we all returned from the convenience store to eat on the grey wooden bench. As we listened to "Sherry" by the Four

Seasons on the radio I wolfed down 5 hot dogs and two Nedicks Orange sodas. Not a good idea. Before the coaches returned I managed to barf it all up right in front of the bench. Now the radio played "Walk Like a Man" by the Four Seasons. A few weeks later me walking normal wouldn't be for long. I struggled to keep up on the team.
But then came October 18th, 1961 - 50 years ago today. Tonight (as I write this Oct 18th 2011) we'll go out for dinner to celebrate the longer life I got, no thanks to the medical profession.
  I had been the third string end, the tallest on the junior varsity team but lately for some reason I had been catching every pass. The coach said I was going to start against St. Francis of Brooklyn, the toughest team we faced. It was just a quick short pass over the middle. What could go wrong? We were just playing each other. I lined up on the left, ran out, cut right and 5 guys came at me, specifically they all came for my left leg. One was Ed Dennehy, younger brother of actor Brian Dennehy who had graduated in 1956 but was not near his fame yet.
   My best friend in the early elementary school days at St. Christoper's was Danny Mc Groarty. His oldest brother had been a football player at Chaminade with Brian Dennehy. We were the young kids hanging out in the summer on the back screened in porch of the McGroarty house, playing with Danny's model airplanes and watching TV. Those huge older guys, Brian Dennehy included, used to pass through the porch on their way to their lifeguard duties at Jones Beach. I guess we wanted to be like them. Certainly Danny did. Now we were almost there.
      I caught the ball and hung on to it but immediately all 5 managed to find their share of that left leg as they brought me down. It was a clear windless fall afternoon and there was a loud crack heard by everyone at the line. Both coaches heard it. It was obvious I wasn't gonna get up. It was very painful yes, but I was pounding the dirt. Not only was I not going to start against St. Francis my season was over. And, as it turned out, I would never play football again.
       With the whistle blown I guess the procedure was not to call an ambulance. Instead, the assistance coach, a fit but diminutive blond guy ambled up the steps in the stadium seats and over to the locker room. I writhed in pain in the meantime while the practice continued not too far away. A few minutes later the assistant coach and Brother Gerard, an overweight geeky sort of teacher that sadly was often made fun of, came through the stands with an army type stretcher. Into old movies as I was, I could hear Bette Davis in "All About Eve" saying "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride!" so I braced myself. The assistant coach had the stretcher handles at my feet. They were taking me up the stands to the back of the school near the lock room door where a station wagon was parked. The assistant coach began ascending the stairs. I had enought pain but now they were josteling me to a 45 degree angle. I was looking up at my feet. Brother Gerard holding up the rear was weakening under the weight leaning towards him. Were we gonna make it? Barely. They slid me into the back of the station wagon. It was back to hardly tolerable pain and the short ride to Nassau Community Hospital. They bounced me into the emergency and bid me goodbye. Good riddens. Now I was with the professionals. Or so I thought.
      "What's the problem?" asked the ER doctor with a nurse nearby. "Broken tibia and fibula." I said. Oh boy were they impressed. They said something about the superior education I was getting at Chaminade High School. Actually I was in the midst of biology class and we had just covered it. Yes it was my left tibia and fibula. Both bones, both a clean break. No complications on this injury - WHEN I ARRIVED.
         It was somewhat frightening, alone in the hospital. My parents hadn't arrived yet, and they drugged me after the xray showed the clean breaks, then they drugged me again, asked me what I was still feeling, drugged me some more, set and encased that left leg in a full cast that weighed a ton and would be part of me for many months. I was wheeled into a room where Jim, a pleasant 45 year old greeted me with a smile and made the evening a pleasant one. He was recovering from a heart attack. He was engaging and interested in what had happened to me. He made me feel like the adult sized body suggested I should be. Mature.
      This is the point where normal leaves the station. It probably was invisible as it got on the Long Island Railroad and headed for New York but normal was gone. No one involved knew there would be a ripple effect of medical professional incompetence combined with amateur medical incompetence which would play out for five months with a side trip to hell and back. For that night however, the 5' 11" 15 year old kid with the big cast was basking in the glow of a lot of demerol shots injected into him in a hurry. Wow, I had had some Seagrams 7 and & 7up at a few parties but this high was at whole new altitude.
      My parents and friends visited through the weekend and things seemed to be going the way we all thought it should. They would periodically asked if I was still in pain. I would say yes. More Demoral. At night the nursing staff were enthralled eves dropping on "Dr. Kildare" with Richard Chamberlain which seemed to be on every TV set in each room.
      By the fourth day I was really enjoying my time with hospital roommate Jim. As juiced as I was how could I not be having fun. That night my cousin Richard Cooney came to visit. He was a bit of a hero to me. Four years older and captain of the nearby Hofstra College football team. He was the son of my mother's uncle Rody Cooney. Rody was a member of the original Boston Celtics and a winning coach for St. Francis College in Brooklyn in the 1930's and early 1940's. Richard talked warmly for a while. I was somewhere between pain and floating above the bed in exctacy. Whether I was exaggerating how I felt I can't remember but Richard proceeded to bully the nurses on duty to give me more demoral. I was now in day four of ingesting this happy juice. The news on TV got me giggling. My roommate was quiet during the news. Such a young man, in his forties, to be struck down this way. 
     Through day six they kept giving me the drugs and I giggled more. That night a lady I had not seen before. If I did I had forgotten her. She was in her forties, attractive but stern. At first she looked puzzled while examining my chart. When her expression morphed into a scowl like look it was clear something was very wrong. She left our room in a hurry.
      The next morning was my day of discharge. My parents were told it would be a little while for me to come down from planet venus because there was some mistakes about the amount of dope they had given me. The total was said to be 64 adult doses in six days. The stoic nurse who caught the errors was Mrs. Dennehy, mother of Ed Dennehy (and older Brian), one of my tacklers. It was said that I might have been killed in there. Maybe paranoia about male practice wasn't a big issue then. Me, I didn't have a care in the world. I was a large teen hyena tethered to annoying cast.
      They drove me home. Learning to navigate with the crutches I headed for my room, put up that cast and leg which weighed a ton, settled into bed and started laughing, way more than needed, at cartoons, endless cartoons which I never used to watch.
      Then there was the class time and homework I had missed. It was difficult to even organize the notebooks amid the giggles. My father was a smart man. He never went past the sixth grade in formal schooling. He claimed to have gotten his GED somewhere along the way. In later years he would claim a lot of things, fantastic things. He read a moderate amount but for some reason he seemed to save his most intense curiosity for the world of medicine. He had never pursued any work in that field so his interest always did puzzle me. He was developing a theory that the reason I was acting strange was that I had hit my head. I didn't and there wasn't a mark on my head. My head continued to giggle. My father's head continued to wander into an amateur diagnosis.
        He arranged a head XRay. I was transported, head, cast and giggles, to an XRay place over in the next town, Freeport. The results? No I had did not have a head injury. But something else just HAD to be wrong. We were now aboard the medical merry go round and the practitioners along the way would be happy to take my parent's dough. A few more spins and I would be flung off into Suffolk County and the Nuthouse.


Coming up in Part II - my personal preview of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

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