A Season In Hell: My Medical Nightmare – Part 4
By Don Millard
There is no prosthesis for a broken heart.
As the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay observed, “A heart once broken is a heart no more.” T.E. Kalem noted that “the heart is the only broken instrument
that works.” I now wished with all my heart that my heart had stopped beating in the emergency room in September 1989. At least I would’ve died with my love at my side. There would’ve been no tearful, heartbreaking goodbye in the driveway almost a year later. It would have been better for everyone involved, especially me.
Amy didn’t break my heart. Life did. My heart had been broken by the very thing that had broken my body. It was a twofer. That’s what made it so hard to even try to pick up the pieces and go on. After all, what had come between Amy and me would also doom any future relationship with a girl. How do you move on from that? How could I expect any other girl to put up with this medical nightmare when Amy couldn’t? This disease had changed the whole trajectory of my life. Maybe Amy and I would’ve married and been very happy, or maybe we would’ve killed each other over meatloaf. Who knows? The point is we never got the chance to find out.
That’s what broke my heart.
When all you’re doing is suffering, how is that living, anyway? I simply didn’t have a clue how to proceed in the next few months that followed and couldn’t really find any reasons why I should. I especially enjoyed getting helpful advice from healthy people on how to deal with a chronic illness that had robbed me of my life. The same people uttering these platitudes, telling me to keep my chin up had absolutely no idea of the extent of my suffering and this just made it worse. But, fortunately, life had come up with a sly way of making me forget about my own mortality: my father was diagnosed with throat cancer. This disease was definitely from tobacco. He had been a heavy smoker all his life. Growing up, we always had to go to the Drive-In if we wanted to see a movie so my Dad could smoke. Trying to watch the double feature through our nicotine windshield was always a challenge.
As I’ve said, my father had quit smoking in 1984, but started up again the day before my Mom died in 1986. When we moved to Florida in late 1988, he vowed to quit once and for all. But by the fall of 1990 he was still smoking and chewing nicotine gum.
As we awaited the results of his biopsy, my Dad said, “It’s probably cancer. I’ve lived about as long as I want to, anyway.”
It was cancer, of course. Luckily, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Institute, one of the top cancer centers in America, was only two and a half hours away in Tampa. It was here that my father underwent surgery, as a total laryngectomy was required to remove the tumor. After the lengthy operation, when he was awake and in the recovery room, I was allowed to see him. He was pale and had obviously been through hell. As I walked over to him, he was writing something on a yellow legal pad. The words read: “I Love You.”
My Dad would stay in the hospital for 10 days and they gave him a prosthesis that allowed him to speak again. He was very brave. Still is.
I was still keeping in touch with Amy’s mom, as she’d become like a second mother to me despite the nightmare and all that had happened. When I told her of my Dad’s cancer and operation, she said: “Why didn’t you tell us? We would’ve went up there with you.”
It was nearly Christmas when I heard about an amateur comedy contest that was to be held at the top comedy club in town. This was the very same club that I dreamed of working in when I first moved to Florida. It was one of the main reasons I had come to Florida. I had told my friends up North that I was going to work in that club one day. This club was an “A” club that booked some of the biggest names in stand-up comedy and they had never before opened their club up to amateurs. I had dropped off a cassette tape of my comedy to the owner a month or two before I got sick, but he had never gotten back to me about it. Me doing comedy in this club was the dream Amy and I shared. After I got sick, this was just another dream that got shattered.
I hadn’t done any stand-up comedy since my frantic trip to the emergency room, but I decided to try it again and see what happened. I had nothing to lose, since I had lost everything already. There were about 20 contestants. When it was my turn to go up, I did the best I could. My delivery was off and my mind was foggy, but I did get some laughs and even applause at the end. When the winners were announced, I came in second place. First place was the only prize in that the winning amateur got to be the opening comedian for a week. But afterward, however, the owner of the club, who had also been one of the judges, came up tome and said he thought I should have won. He then offered me the job of being the house MC for the club on the spot. The working week would be every night except Monday, when the club was closed. Monday was the day the comics usually arrived and were put up a local condo near the club.
So there it was… The dream I’d shared with Amy was now just handed to me like that. The dream job that I couldn’t enjoy now or half do properly was all mine. Life always seems to take away something from you before allowing something good to happen. It’s a very bad exchange rate if you ask me.
But I decided to take the job anyway and try to make the best of it. I began right before the new year and got to meet and work with comics such as Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Steve Harvey, Billy Gardell, Ben Creed, Tim Allen, and the greatest comedian you may have never heard of: Frankie Bastille. Sick and all, it was still inspiring to meet and hang out with creative people. My kind of people. It was also a good way to meet girls, and I even had a few flings that just made me lonelier. It was here that I learned that if I treated a girl like crap, I couldn’t get rid of her. As Bill Hicks sang, chicks dig jerks. I even had some fun as well as some crazy adventures, including leaving a then unknown Jon Stewart stranded at the airport after Tim Allen told me I shouldn’t have to pick up the comics since I was part of the show. Rather than picking Stewart up at the airport, I partied with my friend at ‘Fridays.’ The next day, right before the show, Jon Stewart came up to me and said, “Hey, where were you yesterday? I was at the airport for an hour before I took a cab to the condo.” I remember being at ‘Perkins’ with Tim Allen and him telling us all about the new show he was going to have and how he was going to have a next door neighbor but you would never see his face.
On Valentine’s Day, of all days, Amy’s mom came to see me and the show, bringing with her a whole table of nurses. When she first saw me, she said “Amy says hi.” Amy had moved to Tampa a few months before I became the MC at the club. I was glad that she had come, but I wished she would’ve picked a different day. Any other day.
During each show, we always had a shot special that I had to promote before bringing up the headlining comedian. Since it was Valentine’s Day, I proposed a toast as I got back on stage:
“To the ladies: May they live as long as we do.”
This got a good laugh, and it was the funniest thing I’d said in more than a year.
After the show, I could see and hear Amy’s mom talking with the opening comedian, Billy Gardell (now Mike in CBS’ “Mike & Molly”). “Isn’t he a nice young man?” she was saying. “Him and my daughter used to date.”
“Yeah, I know,” replied Gardell. “I could hear the heartbreak in his voice.”
It was now 1991 and I had stumbled onto a book about a mysterious new illness called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.This is one of the most poorly named diseases of all time, as it just makes people think that you just suffer from being tired. It’s also usually followed by someone who isn’t stricken with it to exclaim, “I’m tired all the time, too!” I’d first became aware of this malady about two years ago. Amy had called me one morning about a month into my illness and told me to write down the name of this disease because this is what she thought I had. This was, of course, before the shrinking and the strange skin sensations began. Still, as I discovered in this book, there were a number of other striking similarities between this malady and what had attacked me.
So, armed with this book, I went back to my family doctor and told of him of the similarities between my illness and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He did a blood test for the Epstein-Barr virus and it came back positive.This is the same virus that causes mono. At the time, this was thought to be the diagnostic test for CFS, but this is no longer the case. There is no one test for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My doctor informed me that I did in fact have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He told me not to run to the health food store and buy a bunch of herbs, but to just take a multi-vitamin once a day.
“Sorry we took so long,” he told me.
Sorry we took so long? That’s all you have to say? Sorry we took so long? This coming from the same guy who told me and everyone around me how I was delusional about my health and body?
I felt like punching him in the mouth and still wish I had. Maybe next time don’t be so quick to disbelieve someone when they say they’re sick, asshole. I hope that someday some thing’s wrong with him and no one believes him.
I knew that this diagnosis wasn’t really the answer by any means, but it was enough to show that this wasn’t a delusion. It was enough for me to hang onto and to go about clearing my name.
A few days after my diagnosis, I stopped in to see Amy’s mom and told her the news. While I was talking to her, I noticed that she still had a picture of me in a frame among the photographs in her living room.
“God, you were right, sweetheart,” she said. “You should be a doctor.”
This took away a little bit of the emotional trauma of not being believed about being sick. I felt like I’d been falsely accused of a crime for nearly 3 years and had finally been proven innocent. But I still knew that I was dealing with something much more horrific and apparently unprecedented in the annals of medicine. I also still worried that I had caused it, somehow. God, how this thought still haunted me.
I had now been working at the club for nearly eight months and it had been a great experience, despite my health situation. My foggy brain kept me from really developing any new material and that was very frustrating to say the least. There were also some strange doings afoot in the club itself. These strange circumstances corresponded seemed to begin when the owner of the club took on a new business partner, the Greek guy who owned a restaurant in the same plaza. He was a gruff, nasty little man whose gold chains around his neck weighed more than he did. He viewed this once great club as a restaurant rather than a comedy club and treated the comics like dirt. He was the only dirt there that I saw. Some of the checks to the comics were bouncing and it seemed like they were purposely trying to go out of business.
It was right about at this time that a totally unexpected and welcome offer came my way out of the blue. My best friend in Connecticut, Pete, called me one night to tell me he had gotten a DUI and was going to lose his driver’s license for 90 days. Believe it or not, just a few months before, his parents and older brother had bought a house and moved to the very same town in Florida that we had moved to. My friend didn’t want his parents to know that he had got busted and was about to lose his license (I would later learn I didn’t have a license, either, but that’s another story). He also knew how much I had come to detest Florida. Florida is an old Spanish word that means tee shirt shop. Pete wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming back to Connecticut to drive him back and forth to work. In return, I could live rent free with him in the shoebox mobile home him and his folks and older brother had grown up in. Would I be interested in doing something like that? Why, YES! Sounded good to me!
I was going home, at least for a while.