I was seated in conference room 200 along with about sixty other employees, listening to the directors explain why they needed to lay off 27 people on Monday. Fortunately, I was not one of them.
More workers showed up at the entrance to the room and were spilling out into the hallway. The CIO waved for them to come in and take the few still empty seats up front.
"I promise you won't be laid off if you sit in the front row," he laughed.
Indeed it was comforting to know he still had a sense or humor. and hearing the guy next to me giggle, I guessed he still had his job too.
Another director began speaking. He was a small man in an over sized suit and punctuated each sentence with a flick of his wrist as if cracking an invisible whip.
"We feel we have met expectations within an organizational framework."
What on earth does that mean, I asked myself? Was I the only one in this room that thought he was talking gibberish.I looked around. People seemed to get what he was saying, or they were real good fakers.
My Blackberry rang and I quickly hit ignore. From the number I could tell it was the doctor's office. I hadn't been feeling well and they'd given me some routine blood tests. I would call as soon as the meeting ended, which I hoped would be soon. The air in the room was getting stuffy and thick with the smell of doom.
"Thank you all for coming," said the little director with the large suit. Who did he think this was, some kind of rock star or something?
Thank y'all for coming. I love you. God bless.
After the meeting I walked toward the Juice Bar Collective for something to eat. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The kind where colors are distinct and separate like blots of paint on a artist's palette. The yellow mustard in the fields, the green weeds, the blue sky. It gave me a good, clean happy feeling. I checked my voice messages as I walked.
"This is Dr. Yu's office." a woman's voice said. "It is important that you call us back as soon as possible." She left her number.
I stopped walking. I was okay with the first sentence. they were calling to let me know my blood and pee tests came back and everything was okay. But that second sentence -- that was a stunner.
as soon as possible.
What could possibly be the rush, I wondered. Maybe they were closing early for the day.
I kept walking and called the number.
She put me on hold while she searched for my medical record number. Apparently your name is not sufficient these days. She returned to the line and told me she'd left my number with the doctor's office and they would give me a call. There was nothing for me to do but wait.
I bought some lentil soup from the Juice Bar. I ate it walking. It was cold and needed more salt. I thought about death.
Finally as i walked home along Hearst the phone rang. Here it is, I thought, whatever it is, and it'll probably be nothing. I made my voice light and cheery, disease free.
The woman on the other end repeated my name. I still couldn't hear so I walked down the side of a house, at the entrance to someone's open backyard. There was a swing set, a kid's doll in the dirt, and a brown paper bag with an empty bottle inside. I put my hand to my ear and sat on a tree stump.
"Your blood tests came back," she said. "The results show severe kidney damage."
My pulse jumped. The traffic on the street was loud. I cupped my hand around the phone. The voice on the other end of the phone continued speaking. She was reading the results of my test. my numbers where low when they should be high, high when they should be low. I felt a sudden pain in my gut, from where I thought a kidney might be.
"Have you been taking Motrin or Alleve lately?" she asked.
"Yes! yes I have!" I said. "I took two extra strength Tylenol the other night." I had. It was true. Even as I read the instructions, I thought two tablets was a little excessive.
"No that wouldn't do it," she said. "How about drinking. Do you drink?"
Do I drink?
"Yes," I said. "why yes I do."
"How much?" she asked.
"A lot. One drink a night sometimes two. Maybe a half a bottle of wine."
This was no time for my usual "in moderation" response I gave nurses as they took my vitals. These were my kidneys. My poor little kidneys where ever they were, whatever function they performed in my body. It's gotta be the booze, I thought. please let it be the booze.
"Hmm," she said. "that wouldn't really do it. Let me call you back once I speak to the doctor," she said. "I will call you back this afternoon."
I was only two blocks from our apartment. I walked the distance in a daze. a severely damaged kidney daze. What's a kidney do, I wondered? And why wasn't mine doing it? I felt blindsided.
Hey you kidney -- what's this all about?
I thought about how I used to love the steak and kidney pies my mother bought from the butchers in Scotland. How there were never enough pieces of kidney in them. Sometimes I would take more than my share, dig around in the pie for those dark chewy morsels. I tried to picture my kidneys.The nurse had mentioned something about a filtration rate that my kidneys weren't filtering properly. I pictured my poor chewy kidneys soaking in booze.
Didn't booze affect the liver, not the kidneys? How could it be that I'd lived in this body for 45 years and had no idea how it worked. Maybe if I survived this, I thought, I'd go into medicine become a doctor. I imagined my future.
A sixty year old doctor with a slight drinking problem. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in student bills. Maybe I'd Google kidney instead.
I turned onto my street and headed toward our apartment. Our landlord was in the front yard. He had a shovel in both hands swinging it fiercely at the base of a tree in our front yard. the tree quivered each time he made contact.
I climbed the stairs inside our apartment and stood at the entrance to the bedroom. Linda was in bed with the iPhone held inches from her nose. Daisy jumped down and headed for the kitchen for her afternoon 1/4 cup of kibble,
"They say I have kidney damage," I announced. I dumped my backpack and climbed up on the bed next to her.
Usually when she has the iPhone in her hand there's a huge delay in her response. She puts her hand in the air for me to halt what I am about to say. I am put on pause while she completes the her Facebook post or finishes reading a Cycling News article. This day, she stopped sliding her finger across the screen and immediately looked over at me.
"How can that be? What did they say?"
I told her. I mentioned the part about drinking. "I knew we drink too much," I said.
"That's the liver dumb-dumb," she said. She looked back at the iPhone, the little finger poised to resume its tapping.
"Don't you Google anything," I said. "Don't!"
"I'm just gonna look," she said.
"Don't!" I said.
I thought that maybe in my newly diseased state I might have some influence over her obsessive iPhone usage. She shifted the pillow to get more comfortable, sat up and started tapping.
I climbed up onto the bed and lay flat on my back with my arms at my sides, like one of those luge athletes in the winter Olympics ready to plummet down the icy chute.
"This is like one of those awful made for TV movies," I said to Linda who was reading intently. "Hmm," she said and made a disturbed looking face.
"Don't make that look," I said.
"Is there a "y" in dialysis?" she asked.
"Stop! They'll call me and give me more information. I just need to wait."
"You need to stay informed," she said.
My cell phone rang then and I rushed to answer it.
"Yes," I said, "This is Erika."
"This is Dr. Yu's office. We'd like you to go to the ER immediately."
Again with the bad second sentences!
"Now?" I asked though I pretty much knew what immediately meant.
I hung up and told Linda what they'd said.
"This is just crazy," I said. "How did I mess up my kidneys?"
Instantly she snapped the iPhone off and threw the blankets off her body. "You better pack for overnight."
This was worse than a made for TV movie, I thought. It was an after school special made for TV movie. The kind where a fluffy Labrador dies.
I opened my messenger bag. Inside was a package of GU, an old bike racing number and a pump. I dumped it all out. would I ever ride my bike again. I looked around for my snowflake pajamas. As I packed, it suddenly hit me -- were these the last days of normal two kidney me? Would there even be a me in the future?
Linda stood in the doorway dressed and ready to go. A backpack hanging off her shoulder. she is the fastest dresser and undresser I've ever known.
I turned to her, "Am I going to die?"
"You're not going to die," she said, "but there's a chance you might lose a kidney."
Her bedside manner needed much work.
When I checked into the ER, I asked for the results from my blood test. The nurse wrote the numbers down on a little piece of paper. My creatinine was 2.81 when it should have been below 1 and my GFR was 18 when it should be over 60.
"Doesn't look good," I said.
"Your kidneys aren't happy," she said. It was a kind way of putting it. Linda could learn from her.
While we waited to be admitted a man pushed a woman in a wheelchair into the waiting room. Her right leg was outstretched with an improvised splint made of cardboard. She groaned softly, little painful whimpers of despair. Across from us a man sat with his arm in a sling. Linda said she'd heard he'd been hit by a car. I gazed at them with longing and envy.
Give me your broken bones! Take my sick kidney!
I drifted in and out of denial floating between terror and distraction. At one moment I saw myself in surgery, my torso cut open, my poor chewy boozy kidney exposed. I saw the surgeon cut it out and drop it in a bucket. It bounce a little. The next moment I simply stared at a TV commercial mesmerized by the sparkling clean swath left by the Quicker Picker Upper.
Finally they called me into a room and put me in a gown. The doctor came in and asked me if I was on EPO. Linda and I both laughed at that. Then he said he'd take more tests and we'd go from there. If my potassium was high, they'd admit me.
Linda left in search of food for us. While she was gone, I laid down on the gurney listened to the sounds from the hallway and thought about death. I am not afraid of being dead so much as the process of dying. You will be okay a voice said.
Outside the room there was a fight going on. "Don't you touch me," someone was yelling.
"Trust me i don't want to touch you lady." The machines made their repetitive hospital noises.
beep. beep. beep. beep
The blood guy came into the room and took seven vials of blood. I thought, how could they not find something in all that?
Linda returned. she'd bought me goats cheese, rice cakes, tangerines, and my favorite ginger snap cookie. One of those large ones that I never finish because it would simply be wrong to each a cookie the size of a dinner plate. We laid it all out like a picnic on a fresh blue pad -- the kind the blood guy had me rest my arm on -- and i ate with no regard for calorie content, like it was my last supper. I ate that damn ginger cookie dinner plate. Then we switched off the light and laid down together on the tiny bed. Linda, napper that she is, fell asleep and snored softly.
And then the doctor entered the room and flipped on the light.
"You're an interesting case," he said. "All your blood work came back normal."
If this was a made for TV movie, we'd all hug, and upbeat healthy kidney music would play. The dying Labrador retriever would return to health, let out some barks and we'd all laugh. As it was, all I could think was holy crap. The doctor shook my hand and suggested I make an appointment with a nephrologist to double-check the blood work. And that was that.
I was set free to go about my life. I got out of my gown and we packed up what was left of the food Linda had brought. Outside it was a lovely spring evening. We walked down the sidewalk toward the car. Linda talked and I half listened, feeling light as air. Just damn glad to be alive with two good kidneys that I hadn't messed up yet. all is good. All is so very good, I thought.