Fair warning: This week’s post has very little to do with the craft of writing. In fact, it’s sort of a one-off non sequitur. I wrote it because I told these stories to some friends the other night, and they said, “You really should write those.” Well, this was the only venue that came to mind, and really, it does have a strong message about the importance of effective communication. So, here we go . . .
When I was 13 years old, I had to inform my mother that I had contracted gonorrhea. But more on that later.
One lesson I learned through the fire and rescue service is the importance of detailed, explicit communication when dealing the the victims of mishaps. As a medical provider with an important job to do, I occasionally lost track of how easily patients could be distracted more by perception than reality.
By way of background, EMT school trained us not just in overall emergency medical care, but also for some very specific rescue techniques. For example, there is such a thing as a “zipper rescue”, which is prompted by a “zipper injury.” This is a condition that in my experience applies exclusively to males who are in a hurry. Consumption of alcohol is frequently a factor. You’ve got the picture, right? Whether you want to or not? (I see you squirming over there!)
As you can imagine, patients who are suffering from this particular malady are often distraught, and always pretty bloody. Our protocol for zipper rescues was pretty simple: You use a pair of scissor to cut the zipper out of the trousers to take the tension off of things, and then transport the patient to the ER, where doctors would take care of the more detailed work. Honestly, you’d be shocked to know how many times I had to employ this technique in the field. It helped to have a college in close proximity to the firehouse.
This brings me to my communication failure. In this case, the patient was younger than usual–say, 12 or 13–and as far as I could tell, he was stone cold sober. He’d just been rushing things a bit too much. I assured him (and his mom) that this was something I was trained to take care of, and that soon he’d be feeling better.
Then he saw the scissors.
He, uh, jumped to the wrong conclusion. So did Mom, actually, which I found a little startling. Yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on that one, and no amount of backpedaling and explanation could stem the panic. I put the scissors back in the aid box and we transported him as-is, trousers and all. When the medical director asked me why I had violated the protocol, I explained. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a doctor laugh that hard.
Which brings me to my adolescent venereal disease. And again, it comes down to garbled communication.
If you’ve ever been a young teen boy–or if you’ve had them in your life–you know that certain . . . obsessions kick in as the hormones hit. Showers become longer and alone time becomes more important. Are you with me? Now remember, we’re talking about the early 1970s in a house where certain things were never discussed. Never. Those corners of life were giant voyages of discovery.
So, there I was in Mr. Binion’s English class when all the girls were herded out of the room and the school nurse came in with her film strip projector and a lecture on the perils of venereal disease–or, simply, VD. Why this presentation was made in English class rather than, say, PE or Shop class, is a secret known only to the administration.
I’m confident that we probably learned important stuff that day, but the one detail that nailed me to my chair was this: One of the primary symptoms of gonorrhea is . . . wait for it . . . a milky white discharge from you-know-where.
Well, shit. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how or where I got infected, but I was INFECTED! At the rate I was going, blindness and dementia couldn’t be more than a week or two away. Days, maybe. I needed a doctor, and I needed one, like, yesterday!
When I walked home from the bus that afternoon, Mom knew that something was wrong. I tried denying it for a while, but ultimately, the tears came, and with them, the devastating news of my disease.
And I saw the look. My mom’s eyes would flash when she was amused–almost literally–and that’s what I saw. She tried to keep her poker face, presumably to save me from humiliation, but I knew then that I had somehow miscalculated. Things weren’t as bad as they seemed. That night, my dad and I had the most awkward conversation of my life.
Happy Holidays, everyone! I’ll see you in the New Year.