A black Lincoln Town Car sped away from New York Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, Brooklyn as Hurricane Sandy raged. Disoriented and delirious, I was in the back seat of the car on the verge of throwing up with each jerk of the wheel. Morphine will do that do you. On the radio, the dispatcher called, “Pickup at Prospect and 2nd. Any drivers? Anyone? Prospect and 2nd?” No one responded. “Are any drivers listening? Any active drivers out there?” If any drivers were on the road they were heading home to their families, not making pickups. My wife whispered, “We’re almost home, Marc. We’re almost home.” But as the storm bore down on the city, we didn’t know what our ground floor home would look like.
Two nights before the hurricane hit, my wife and I were leaving our apartment for a dinner in Fort Greene. Like most New Yorkers, we talked about whether or not we had enough bottled water for the week, where our flashlights were, if losing gas would negate our stockpile of soup, and if we needed more granola bars to outlast the ensuing storm. In our minds, we were prepared for the worst.
We didn’t make it to dinner that night. In fact, I wouldn’t eat anything for a day and a half. And I would never find our flashlight. As I put on my jacket, a pain in my side turned from annoying to excruciating and I was soon rolling on our bed, clutching my lower left back as if I’d been stabbed by a serrated shank. My wife asked, “How badly does it hurt?” and I answered only in expletives. The next thing I knew, I was squirming in the back seat of a cab as the frightened driver promised me that he was doing all he could to get us quickly to the emergency room.
In the ER, an ultrasound showed blotches of light and color radiating in a concentrated area in my kidney. Below the kidney was only black. Later in the week I would be reminded of the ultrasound by the New York Magazine cover photo of midtown Manhattan taken from the air. Lots of color uptown and on the sides. Only a ghostly darkness below.
While the city’s issue was colossal, mine was no bigger than a pea—a 5mm stone that had blocked the kidney and caused it to swell and leak. This, the doctors told me, was why the pain broke through every painkiller they had on hand. Luckily, morphine straight in the vein took the edge off.
“You know, they say that kidney stones can be as painful as childbirth,” my wife said, reading from her iPhone.
The following afternoon I underwent surgery to break up the stone. It is a humbling procedure, to say the least, and I am thankful that I was asleep throughout. Nurses and doctors and all of the workers who most certainly wanted to be home for the storm did whatever they could to ease my pain. With the help of regular morphine injections, they kept me in relative comfort for the night.
The next day my wife gave me the disturbing news. Hurricane Sandy had made her westerly turn and the Jersey shore was beginning to flood. With high tide still to come at 8 o’clock, places like Seaside Heights, Bay Head and Avalon, where my parents have a vacation home, were sure to see flooding.
The remaining storm updates came on the faces of the nurses who came in to check on me. I could tell when they had received news from home and more often than not, the news was not good. They were sure to be stuck at the hospital through the storm yet they never showed an ounce of regret.
With beds filling up and more serious cases sure to come through the door, my wife and I had to say our thanks and leave. Miraculously, my wife found the last Town Car in Brooklyn and after enduring the near vomit inducing ride through the empty Park Slope streets, we returned home to a quiet, dry apartment precisely as the storm raged over the city. The power was on. The wind whipped along the back of our building and I waited for the moment when a branch crashed through a window, but, for us, those moments never came. At the same time, all around the region, tragedy flourished.
The next morning, with power and heat still on, I turned on the television to an interview with citizens of Rockaway. As they described what it felt like to see their homes burn, literally holding each other up for support, I noticed that they were feeling something that I hadn't felt even when I was at my lowest point in the hospital. They hurt. Even though I had reached my threshold of physical pain during the storm, it never hurt. It never hurt the way it does when something or someone is taken from you; the way that losing a home full of memories hurts, or losing crucial wages from cancelled work hurts, as many interviewed mentioned.
While they could have easily folded and cried "oh, whoa is me," these people exhuded pride. They were brave, resilliant, and no matter how badly one was affected, always spoke about those less fortunate. But they needed help.
Kidney surgery and Sandy taught me that focusing on the pain or hurt will only bring more pain and hurt. Instead, healing is all that matters.
Playing doctor is no longer relegated to five year olds and actors. While I was fortunate enough to have the services of trained doctors and nurses, we are the citizen doctors and nurses for hurricane victims, the ones who clean up for them, bring them meals, or simply take their minds off of the pain and tell them that everything will be alright. If we consider the affected areas to be the perimieter of a mega hospital we give people a better chance to heal. This is the best prescription. If we follow it, we might just find ourselves given a clean bill of health sooner than expected.