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Al Martinez

Falling off a ladder hardly becomes a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. : Just a Little Discomfort

February 13, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I broke my wrist. That is not an occurrence of such magnitude that it will appear in the New England Journal of Medicine or on the front page of the National Enquirer below the story of the woman with three breasts.

I simply stepped off into space from a six-foot stepladder for reasons not quite clear to anyone. The law of gravity being what it is, I naturally crashed to the floor.

The result was not only the aforementioned fracture, but also a broken toe, which altogether gives me the appearance of dragging back from the front, where the fighting was fierce.

I wear a cast on my right arm, which drastically limits my ability to brighten your otherwise drab workaday lives with reckless efforts at two-handed humor. It also does nothing to sweeten an already acrid nature, but, thank God, sweetness has never been a life's ambition, so we limp along as best we can.

The only reason I mention all this is that being bumped and broken afforded me an opportunity to view firsthand the medical treatment of pain.

Pain is the operative word here. I never simply hurt. I clutch my head and pound my fists and writhe in agony, responses which, my mother led me to believe some years ago, is an ethnic failure on my father's side.

"Mexicans," she used to say, "hurt more than most people."

They were less than impressed at the emergency ward of the Westside hospital I visited for treatment. The woman at the reception desk wanted to know if I was in discomfort.

I stopped writhing for a moment to stare.

"Discomfort?" I said. "Discomfort is what fleas give dogs. Discomfort is losing your air conditioning on a 100-degree day. I, on the other hand, neither itch nor sweat. I suffer, woman!"

She nodded. "Just exactly where is the discomfort?"

I sighed and showed her the areas of discomfort (which hurt like hell) and then she asked, "Religion, please."

"What for?"

"That's what they ask," she said.

"I do not require clerical comfort to get me through this."

She put her pencil down and looked at me. "I have to have it," she said. "Just in case."

"Nobody ever dies from discomfort," I said.

She shrugged. "You never know."

The message was clear that if I did not tell her my religion, I would be left to writhe in the lobby. One makes compromises in pain.

"Fallen Catholic," I said. She wrote it down.

After X-rays, the physician on duty said my wrist was probably broken.

Probably?

"Well," he said, "we can't actually tell. We'll wear a cast for two weeks and X-ray it again. If there's a healing line, we'll know it's been broken."

That seemed an awkward way of going about it, waiting until the man has died to see if he's been sick, but I was in no position to argue.

"Shall we do the cast?" he asked cheerfully.

I hate buoyancy when I am in pain. I hate the editorial we any time.

"What the hell," I said, "if you will, I will."

"Position your thumb and your index finger as though you are drinking a Diet Pepsi," he said, less cheerfully.

"I don't drink Diet Pepsi."

He sized me up. "Then hold it as though you are drinking a beer." Part of premed training is learning to determine what a patient drinks.

"I don't drink beer," I said.

The RN was a big woman with the personality of Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." She did not mess with questions. She simply wrested my thumb and forefinger into the proper position. God, the discomfort . Real pain would have been unbearable.

But the cast went on and here I am, trying to peck out a column with one good hand. It is not only writing that a cast inhibits. Try zipping your fly with the wrong hand. Try combing your hair. Or shaving. Or a lot of other ordinary functions which are best left to the imagination.

I simply make no effort at shaving or combing my hair anymore, and if my wife is not around, the zipper doesn't get fully closed either. In Topanga, that's all right, since not being combed, shaved or fully zipped is regarded as a cultural asset.

Elsewhere, however, I am looked upon with suspicion. I am either a war hero or a wino, and since we are not involved in a war at the moment, I must be a wino. I am taken with an incredible urge to drink Night Train from a paper bag.

The hardest part is explaining what happened. Falling off a ladder hardly becomes a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, even a columnist who is forced to write from the suburbs.

We do not, by God, fall off ladders. We fall out of airplanes or we fall from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but we do not plunge to the floor in our own homes while looking for a bottle of vermouth.

In the spirit of the Times Image, therefore, when someone asks what happened, I offer the weary fortunes-of-war smile that Humphrey Bogart mastered so beautifully and I say, "They sunk my sub."

"Oh, my God, you must have suffered terribly!"

There was a little discomfort.

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