Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day 13 - The Joy of Surgery

You might feel a little pinch.

          I have 14 kidney stones. Some of them are quite large. The biggest one is about 5/8 of an inch in length and a quarter inch across. That is a huge piece of gravel when you consider where it has to come out. I’ve passed kidney stones before, and I can attest that doing so will make a dancer out of the stodgiest and least rhythmic of old men. My urologist has scheduled a lithotripsy to start breaking them up. He thinks it will take at least two procedures and maybe as many as four to get them all. Modern lithotripsy is a wonderful thing. They use focused sound waves to crack the stones. The doctor doing the procedure can watch the whole thing on a video screen and see how he’s doing in real time. They put you to sleep to keep you from jumping every time they zap you, but there’s no cutting. That’s the best part. I don’t like cutting.
          Cutting was featured last year when I had cancer…and then I didn’t. This is a good story for two reasons. First, at the end I’m still alive…so far anyway. Second, it illustrates why I think that Fritz is very likely a jerk.
I went for a routine colonoscopy at the end of July in 2007. I tell people that I like a colonoscopy. No one wants to believe it, but it’s true. While bits of a colonoscopy are certainly unpleasant, especially the prep the day before, I really don’t mind them. I’ve had several. They give you good drugs, they knock you out for the actual procedure, and when it’s over you get the rest of the day off even though you don’t feel bad at all. What’s not to like? I especially like them now that one has probably saved my life.
I woke up in the recovery room after this particular colonoscopy. My wife was there making sure that I remembered to breathe because for some reason I don’t find breathing all that compulsory when I wake up from general anesthesia. Also it seems I like to profess a profound and abiding affection for the nursing staff while the anesthetic is wearing off, and my wife likes to stay close to keep me from either succeeding too well at fascinating the nurses or making a fool of myself. Anyway we were thus engaged, me waking up, my wife encouraging me to breathe and stifling my other natural inclinations when the doctor came in to the room.
“Well, you have cancer,” he said, just like that, no ‘good news—bad news’ preamble, no greasing the skids, no easing the shock.
Of course I was still stoned, so the gravity of what the doctor had said really didn’t register on me. My mind was busy processing other information such as: did that gasp I just heard from my wife suck all the oxygen out of the room? And couldn’t you have sent a nurse to tell me that—say the curvy little one with the dark hair and the big eyes I just saw pushing the IV pole down the hall?
In case we were still conscious after hearing this momentous news, the doctor also brought pictures he had taken of the inside of my colon. One of them featured a protuberance with an angry looking mass on a stalk. It was quite impressive. Not the kind of thing you’d like to meet in dark alley or a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I took a sample,” the doctor said. “We’ll send it out to the lab to confirm, but I’ve seen a lot of these. It’s cancer.”
As it turned out, he was right. The lab confirmed cancer. I got hooked up with a colorectal surgeon, and we scheduled a bowel section to remove 14 inches of southbound pipe. I suppose there’s no scarier thing you can hear from your doctor than ‘you’ve got cancer.’ I only suppose this because it seems reasonable, but the fact is that I never got scared. I got mad. I got mad as hell, but I was never really scared. I think the reason for this is that my job already sucked so much that the prospect of a terminal illness represented something like a reprieve from having to go to work. At the very least I was going to get some time off, or so I thought.
I suppose the degree to which I got angry merits some comment because who I got mad at was God, and when you have a serious disease that might kill you like cancer the usual course is to start sucking up to God in order to cut a deal. ‘Oh Lord if only you take this cancer away I promise I will go to church faithfully every Sunday, be generous when they pass the collection basket, and never ever hit on another nurse as long as I live.’ That kind of thing. My problem, the thing that made me mad, had to do with the Scripture reading and the sermon that went along with it from the Sunday before I got the troubling news about my colon.
You may know the scripture. I know I’ve heard it many times before. It is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, verses 11-13: ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
I listened and took these verses to heart. I prayed earnestly for a boon from my Father in heaven. I prayed to be delivered from my job. Really I did. That was my fish, the thing I wanted, the gift I needed, the proof that I was loved. ‘Oh, Lord, please get me the hell out of here. Give me something else to do. I’ll take less money. I’ll take a smaller office, harder work, grittier conditions. Just please don’t make me do this any longer.’ Instead I got cancer—a snake, a scorpion, a crumby deal. I was pissed, and I stayed pissed for weeks.
Then an amazing thing happened. Maybe I was just tired of being angry all the time. It takes a lot out of you—staying mad. It wears you down. You lose your edge, your focus. You begin to be open to kinder, gentler thoughts just because it gives you a break from the bile in your stomach. What happened is that it began to sink in that I could actually die, and that if I did then technically my prayers would have been answered. God just might be getting me out of that job by calling me home. When I realized that, I actually began to feel a little thankful. God does answer prayers, but frequently not in the ways that we think he should. When the day of the surgery finally arrived several weeks later I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, and I was pretty okay with that. The Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t He?
So I woke up in the recovery room, and I was thirsty as hell. The nurse was busy trying to make me comfortable. My wife wasn’t there because the surgeon forgot to go tell her that I’d lived. It was just the nurse and me and the sweet freedom to become the fool I ached to be. I asked her for some water. She said I couldn’t have any. I asked her for some ice chips to suck on. She said I couldn’t have any. I told her I just needed some relief. I wasn’t going to rat her out. I promised to love her forever if she would bring me some ice chips anyway. She brought me a whole cup of ice chips. She was overwhelmed by my post surgical charms, which it would seem are becoming legendary.
The surgeon finally remembered to stop by to tell us—my wife had found me by that time—that the surgery had been a success and that I was going to live. He had an amazing tale to tell. The surgery went well. He’d taken out the agreed upon 14 inches of colon. He’d checked the lymph nodes. He’d looked all over hell’s creation for some sign of cancer but couldn’t find any. He’d found the marks that other doctor had left during the colonoscopy to indicate where he ought to cut, but he couldn’t find any cancer. He couldn’t find any polyps. He couldn’t find anything to indicate he’d done me any good whatsoever. My wife found a miracle in this. Hundreds of people were praying for me. God had heard their prayers and taken the cancer away. I had to go through the surgery so that the doctor could confirm the miracle for us. It was plain as day.
I found something else in this. I’m not so easily duped by the Almighty. It may well have been miraculous, but the upshot was that I was eventually going to have to go back to work. My prayers had been answered not at all. I was reminded of my own personal favorite scripture—favorite because it is to me the most apropos: ‘Happy the man who delights in the chastisements of the Lord.’ Apparently I had not yet been sufficiently chastised, and, even worse, now I was going to have to answer for the nurse with the ice chips.
All of this brings me back to Fritz. Fritz had replaced Clive the sweetheart shortly after the company was sold to a private equity firm (not Cerberus) out of New York. The new owners were all about efficiency, urgency, and sweeping change. They didn’t approve of sweethearts. There was no room for sensitivity in their modus operandi. They wanted change agents, fiddlers, proactive thinkers outside the box, buzzword chandlers, and jerks. They wanted the kind of managers who occasionally throw out the baby with the bathwater. They fostered the kind of environment where it doesn’t really matter what gets destroyed or lost in the process as long as you are continually moving forward.
Fritz was perfect for them. Fritz is tightly wound. Fritz hums with barely contained energy that sometimes arcs out, sparks and fries things around him. He talks in clipped sentences. When he asks you a question, instead of listening to your answer he is already processing the thing he is going to say next. Fritz thinks that when he has everyone toiling needlessly at urgent tasks, spinning their wheels, arcing and sparking just like him, that he has done a good job of managing. You can imagine Fritz as a sea captain on a clipper ship. The entire crew is up in the rigging, hauling sheets, trimming sails, dodging lightning strikes, hanging on for dear life. Fritz is furiously spinning the wheel, port to starboard, starboard to port, only the wheel is not attached to a rudder. There is no rudder so all of what everyone is doing is for naught. There is a saying carved into the bowsprit. It represents the guiding philosophy of the ship and its master: ‘If it weren’t for our sense of urgency, we wouldn’t have any sense at all.’
At the time of my surgery we were working on the annual budget. Deadlines had been posted. The first pass of the budgets had already been done. That is broad assumptions had been made and translated into expected revenue and cost numbers for the upcoming fiscal year. The second pass—a more refined, more thoroughly vetted version of the first was due two weeks after my surgery. I had already done most of the work. I felt I had a week to recover from the surgery and a week to finish up the budget. That would give me plenty of time to do the few hours work that would be required to submit by the deadline, even if I took a few more days to recover than I thought. To me everything was copacetic.
This didn’t suit Fritz. He started worrying about it while the surgical team was probing my bowels on the operating table. I had the surgery on Friday, and was released from the hospital on Sunday afternoon. I went home with a couple of dozen staples in my abdomen and a bottle of oxycodone caplets to ease my considerable discomfort. Monday morning I got a frantic call from the other Ron, the new corporate accounting manager. Fritz wanted to schedule a conference call to discuss how we were going to get my budget done while I was recuperating.
“It’s not due for two weeks,” I pointed out. “I’ll be back in the office next Monday, and the budget will be submitted by the deadline. No problem.”
“Fritz doesn’t want to wait for the deadline.”
“Then why did he publish one? I mean, come on, Ron. We discussed this at the controllers’ conference. We’ve had conference calls since. We all agreed on the gateways and the deadlines based on what was feasible and what the board of directors expected. Why does he want to change it now?”
“I don’t know. He just wants to be able to massage it for a week or so before he sends it upstream.”
I could tell that Ron was very nervous. Fritz had given him a task. Get the budgets in early. Now he was having trouble getting me on board. I wasn’t being a team player, not being flexible enough, not demonstrating sufficient dedication to the team effort. Oh no, I was lollygagging at home with a belly full of staples and a head full of pain relievers.
“Is tomorrow good for you?” Ron asked.
“I have a doctor appointment in the morning.”
“So how’s the afternoon look?”
“I’m recovering from major surgery, Ron,” I say. “I’ll be right here, in pain, on drugs, forcing fluids, and hoping I don’t get sepsis and die.”
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll try to set it up for 2:00 p.m.

The call itself was confusing. This may have had to do with the level of pain medication coursing through my system and short circuiting my synapses, or it may have just been the mind numbing drivel coming out of the phone. It was hard for me to gauge at the time. The conferees included Fritz, the two Rons and myself. I spent some time making my case that the budget would be done in plenty of time, that I had planned for being out, and that the budget was under control.
Fritz however, as New Ron had indicated, was anxious to get something early. To accomplish this he wanted me to get someone else working on massaging the budget while I was out. I didn’t want to do this. The budget is a complicated animal. It resides in a huge interactive spreadsheet. Someone who doesn’t understand where everything is and how everything interacts could easily damage it. It is so complicated that it ranks among those things—we all have them—that are harder to explain than they are to do. Fritz wanted me to tell the new Ron how to do it. I knew that this would be harder than just coming in and doing it myself—even on drugs. I also knew that explaining this to Fritz in such a way that he would believe it would be more difficult still.
I began to think that I would never get off the phone. Fritz was going to keep us talking until he got a resolution that suited him. I only had two outs. I either had to die—interesting don’t you think how many of my problems seem to have an untimely death as a viable solution—or I had to lie. I decided to lie. I told Fritz that I would go over the details of the budget with new Ron and get him accumulating and analyzing expense data. I told him there was no reason for all of us to discuss the detail on a conference call. New Ron and I could do it privately after we all hung up. I told him that this way we could have him the second pass at the beginning of the following week rather than the end. He seemed to be happy to have made things more difficult for all of us, which is after all his own personal gauge on his effectiveness as a manager. That he chose to do it three days after I underwent major surgery makes him, in my book, a monumental jerk.

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