Southern Exposure

Ruminations of a Native Son


Greater Washington. DC., United States
February 06
Compulsive writer (mostly memoirs and sociopolitical rants), musicologist, hermeticst, fiscal conservative, radical centrist, agrarian socialist; Charter member, Factualist Party; born and raised in DC, healthcare professional, retired businessman, civic and political activist on two coasts, civil rights movement veteran. An empiricist's worst nightmare, I believe in everything but I don't believe everything, including many things I believe in. Turned down by US Army in 1966 for medical reasons, thrown out of Col. Hasan's Black Man's Army in 1967 for being "too militant." Scion of a family only Tennessee Williams could have dreamed up. There's more. There's always more.


OCTOBER 23, 2011 2:00PM

Coming Back

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(Some very special thanks are in order to some very special people for this story: Nikki Stern for badgering me to write it, and Dorinda D. for her encouragement, support and belief in what I'm doing. I love you both.) 

Thank god it's...Monday?


What on earth is wrong with me? With this picture? With this sentence?

I will tell you. I will tell you because I write, and when I do that I tell people things.

So far, however, writing has not fed the bulldog (it is an obscure saying, that, but it remains stuck in my arsenal). Some future day perhaps writing will supply me with some of the money I will not be able to earn with the sweat of my brow. But for now...

Almost four years ago I was merrily - well, passionately, fervidly, frenzied-ly? working in a hospital emergency room in D.C. It was my first job after having come back home from an extended adventure in California, during which I'd worked for five years (my longest gig in my second career) at a great hospital in south Orange County, and I loved it, loved the hospital, the people, the location, all that.

One day, on the  way to work, I felt as though I were going to pass out. I had a ways left to drive and was near a local hospital in Maryland. I pulled over and waited, checked myself as I would a patient (to the extent that is possible) and waited some more. I didn't pass out, but the feeling would not go away. I wound up calling in to work and telling them I had a problem, I'd get it taken care of, and I'd be back soon.

I never went back.

The problem, idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, runs in my family. My father was temporarily crippled by it, confined to a wheelchair for almost a year. My youngest is plagued by varying whack-a-mole symptoms because of it. Once it attacks the autonomic nervous system almost anything can happen, especially if that anything is stupid and makes one appear to have been drinking for a solid week.

That's how I got in short order. Couldn't walk right, staggered, tripped over my own feet, walked into walls now and then, and got these prolonged sensations of presyncope. You just can't be in that condition and work in an ER or pretty much any place where you need to be quick on your feet. The funny thing (yes, my sense of humor is quite warped) was I could still drink as per usual and it didn't get worse. 

Eventually, as I saw one neurologist after another, I realized this was going to take some time. My father beat his turn at it despite the fact he lost the use of his legs for the better part of a year. I never got there, and I am grateful, but it did interrupt the arc of my second career, the one in allied health/nursing support/emergency medicine/critical care. I had figured I'd work til I didn't want to or need to anymore, and suddenly I had to rethink this rather careless strategy. Most of my life planning has been seat of the pants anyway.

I'd started this second career in 1996, though I'd been a volunteer EMT with a local fire department since, well, since they started making EMTs. A long time. That was, in fact, the key to moving on when the family business finally collapsed after 33 years flying under the radar, and after I'd had a heart attack and emergency heart surgery, all of that in 1994.

I needed to do something. My father, genius that he was, asked me if he could see my EMT card. I handed it to him. He then asked "Why don't you take this and use it?"

Oh. Oh yeah. Okay.

So at age 51 I changed horses completely and went from firefighter/EMT and paint and wallpaper salesman to hospital corpsman. 

I've worked a remarkable number of jobs in the past 15, almost 16 years, because of that card. I didn't always change because I wanted to, either. Sometimes the job - or the facility - went away. Sometimes I moved. Things happen. Thus that seat of the pants strategy. Life doesn't respect plans much, and that's okay. I've always landed on my feet, and I have been tripped more than a few times.

Prior to having secured the ER job, I'd decided to take advantage of my Social Security benefits, since I realized one lucid day I was old enough I could do that, and I didn't know when I would find work. Then I had to limit the amount I earned. It took me nine months to find that damn job, and I needed to live in the meantime. It all worked out nicely, though, since I do not require huge sums to support my loutish lifestyle.

Having to quit work again so soon after finding such a satisfying job was extremely frustrating. Perhaps even depressing (I'm not quite sure, since I was also mourning the end of a long-term relationship, which was why I came back to DC anyway). Then another thing involving dollar signs struck me: I could apply for Social Security disability, and so I did. My income increased. Of course the amount I could earn,  should I ever be able to return to work, decreased. 

A few months into my disability I stumbled onto an opportunity to do two things I loved: write and help people. I became an editor/advisor for a medical website. It was quite an adventure (I have written about just how intense such a job can become, here on OS). Eventually, though, the job became problematic owing to payment issues, and besides, I was beginning to walk like a sober person again, and was wanting to get out and have some place I needed to be. I missed the social life work had provided, and I missed the hands-on clinical setting. I had not planned to be sitting in the house the rest of my life.

I was eventually cleared to return to work, but in the meantime a lot had happened outside my house, like the financial collpase of 2008. My already modest retirement fund had taken several severe hits, and clearly wouldn't last forever. The job market was starting to dry up. People were losing homes and incomes. So during my layoff and this economic fiasco, while pondering what to do next, I went out and bought myself a house.

Yes, I did that. It's all been chronicled here on OS. It provided some incentive for me to get off my butt and make money happen.

Early this year I decided to return to the clinical setting, having borrowed three years of my retirement while first disabled, then distracted. I discovered one of my essential licenses for working in Maryland was lapsed and I would have to go back to school. I went back. I was the only one in  the class the same age as the instructor, and man, she was old! It was a blast.

School out and clinicals over - I will never wear whites again! 

Then came the bureaucratic nightmare that attends licenses and stuff. I waded through that. I also hit full Social Security retirement age, so would be allowed to earn as much as I could manage, if I chose to.

Then I launched my job search in earnest.

No one, it seemed, would give me a chance to walk in the door with my head of white hair and try to show them what I could do. I was troubled by this, especially when the local hospital, the nearest one, less than two miles from my door, wouldn't even grant me an interview. "Do they know I'm old?" I wondered. I know they aren't allowed to use age to disqualify applicants, and I didn't know how they might know anyway, but I was becoming something of a paranoiac, because I was lobbing applications every which way, and nothing was happening. Nothing.

I inundated the local place, applying for every job for which I was qualified, even though said hospital has a less-than-stellar reputation and pay scale. I didn't care. Besides, the lack of travel time would more than make up for being slightly shortchanged, and I wanted to work, dammit!

Well, to make a long, tedious story somewhat shorter, it finally happend, and the local place asked me in for an interview. The interviewer was impressed (and I do not appear to be the age it says I am on on my driver's license, which helps, I suppose). Then came the verbal offer, the paperwork, the trips to their main offices at another, much larger hospital, and finally, after everything else had been done first, the in-person, after-the-fact delivery of the offer letter.

This past week I spent at the bigger hospital, the county's flagship (some might call it the SS Filariasis, per William S. Burroughs), and I was more than impressed. To work for an outfit that has to periodically beg the state for millions of bucks to keep operating several facilities, one has to be in it for something besides the money, and these people are. They are in it for love or insanity, but definitely not money, and it appears so far everyone I've met is in it for love of the work, and the fact that they know fully 25 per cent of the clientele won't be able to pay, so the place will never make budget and things will remain shaky - at least until the University of Maryland Healthcare System takes over the reins sometime next year.

That part is very exciting.

So my  point, and I did have one, is that in my mid-60s, with a head of white hair (that's been that color for 30 years already, so it shouldn't really matter), I am returning, at long last, to what I consider home. I will be working, but more importantly I will be working at what I love, this time in critical care (not the first time, though I still like ER best), and I am ready to bop til I drop. The fact that I am working for a place disadvantaged by charitable urges makes it better. That it may soon be taken over by a major medical network that has been a giant in trauma care and advanced medicine doesn't hurt at all. That it is four minutes from my driveway by car is kind of sweet, too.

People ask me why I don't just retire, why I am going back to work when many are quitting to hit the links. My reply, in the words of Samuel Hoffenstein: "Some play golf and some do not."

Coming back. I am always coming back from something, always returning home, always being raised from the dead, once literally, once symbolically, several times relationship-wise, and repeatedly occupationally. Seat of the pants. Wing and a prayer. Old but not yet in the way - and so not really old at all.

No, not really the least bit old, in fact. To borrow a line from a really stupid movie ("So Fine') "I look this way because I've been living." If I may give myself a pat on the back, it appears I have been living right.

I am Douglass MacArthur and, once again, I have returned.

Get out of the way!

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I'm glad the local hospital finally came to its senses and hired you. Your compassion and professional experience, as well as your life experience, will serve them and their patients well. Congratulations, AJ! You deserve only the best.
Thank you so much, Susan. I can't help but expect this to be part black comedy, and I suspect they called me in to get me off their backs, but it worked! Thank you so very much!

FLW: And I love that you love it. Thank you!
OMG whites!!! aiaiiaiaiiiaigh
did you burn yours yet?
*happy dance* go you for finding something good!
you are an amazing person; I am happy for you, enjoy!
Wonderful! All the best. You will be a great success, I know.
inspirational! congratulations ... your story brings hope and a smile.
hyblean-Julie: As I said I would last June, I stuffed them in a leaky time capsule and buried them in the back yard. Burning them does appeal to me though. I may go dig them up and fire up the Weber! :)

Patrick Hahn: I believe I will sir!

Kathy Knechtges: Thank you!

Lea: With your blessing I have no doubt I will be a success. Thank you SO much!

Chuck A. Stetson: Thanks! Any time anything I write, say or do brings hope, much less a smile, I consider it a day well spent.
A cure for what ails you; an antidote to feeling old or depressed or both. This fantastic piece deserves to be read by everyone, young and old, who feels like their plans were disrupted, that life has passed them by, that they are bored or at the end of the line. This lifted my spirits and put a smile on my face. I love living by the grace of the universe-- throwing things out or taking advantage of what passes by, and, honestly, more often than not, it all turns out perfectly. Thanks for reminding me of this.

Sorry this is so long! I should just have said what Lorraine said: I LOVE this!
Denese: Everything you said has turned out to be true for me, and I cannot help but believe it would be true for a lot of other people as well. If we could see through walls and around corners we might never go forward, even if the scary thing could be gone by the time we got there. So we do go on, sometimes hoping against hope or sometimes, as it is with me, because that's the way life has worked all along, the sun does come up, and I am now fairly confident it will continue to come up.

Your comment wasn't all that long, but it means a great deal to me. Also, I owe you a huge thank you for all the help and support you've lent along the way. Thanks for the love. Truly.
I'm sure I left a comment AJ, but it must have vanished in one of those OS glitches. At any rate, thanks for this wonderful story and update and my best wishes for you going forward.
bbd: While things have gotten somewhat better here at the Open Saloon, they are still not without glitches. Argh! That said, thank you for your persistence and even more so for the good wishes. Much appreciated!
i'm so glad you told the story. there's so much more to this than just, oh, well, i decided to go back to work so i did. and probably because i'm 'of the age' too, i understand why you kept at it and made your determined way around the roadblocks. congratulations, aj, on the success.
I am so happy for you, AJ, and I admire you so much. Here's to the next chapter! ~r
I think you look handsome in white and I miss how the wearing of white in the medical community was de rigueur. Somehow a nurse in faded Winnie the Pooh scrubs does not inspire confidence. Best wishes in your compassionate healing of others.

You look good in those whites with your matching white hair!
oh yeah!!!! *applause, applause and fist pump*
This is a wonderful read, AJ, and so real and full of hope. It takes a special person to make it through those life traumas.

You're in the right place at the right time with the persistence to make it happen. Bravo!
GReat AJ best to you, and how resilient you are!
Congrats! Good for you A.J. And still publish that book, okay?
Congratulations on finding work in this troubled time. There's a lot to be said for steady, loyal older workers, but as you point out, too often they don't get the opportunity to say it.

The job-market is an alien nation for people like you and me. It is too often under the control of HR directors half our age, who subscribe to the myth that the young are so much more desirable employees because of their high energy.

That might be true if so many of them didn't imagine they could do a decent day's work after partying till 3 am. The ugly truth is young people get hired because they work cheaper and faster, tho not necessarily better. All that frenetic energy can't make up for a lack of experience.
A good news story - congratulations and enjoy.
Miguela: I'm at least halfway there with you on the whites. When it became the mark of an intern or nursing student is when I began to get annoyed with it. On the other hand, yes, if I see one more set of Pooh scrubs I think I may scream (unless, of course, it is in a peds area). Thanks for reading and for the very nice comments!

greenheron: Regarding golf: Yeah, I know, right? As for the white on white look, thank you! I hadn't thought about it that way before. :)

Nikki: Thank you SO much!! :)

Blue Roses: What nice things to say! Thank you! And yes, being in the right place - maybe literally, this time, had something to do with it. I was being taunted. I won. Hahahaa!!

Seer: Thank you! Ol' rockin' chair ain't got me yet. When and if it ever does I'll use it to drive everyone around me insane with my stories. :)

Rita: Thanks so much! I often quote Warren Zevon's line (from "Renegade") that "next time I'd rather break than bend." I've found there is, as usual, a third way. I took it. Maybe that's what resilience is.

Scarlett Sumac: Thanks so much, and absolutely, the book is still coming! Now more than ever I am motivated to get that done and out there. Thanks for that, too.

TC: Unsurprisingly, I find everything you say rings true. HR has become a hell for accomplished people, and probably the biggest liability with younger ones is exactly what you said. I've watched that phenomenon all through this second career, and they never let me down with that look of dolor and misuse after partying between 12-hour shifts. I'm sure I'd have done the same thing if I'd started this sooner. Of course I was doing something similar: showing up for work at my own business after being out all night on a fire or bad accident. We're only young once - thank god! And speaking of the deity, thank you!

Myriad: Gotta dig for the good news sometimes. Thank you! I intend to enjoy this.
What a beautiful life you have created for yourself. Your purpose is clear and you worked hard to be able to do it. I enjoyed reading this positive statement of determination.
rated with love
Romantic Poetess: Thanks so much for your kind comments and for getting it. There's a certain art, I finally realized, to living life on one's own terms. Sometimes I forget, but eventually the ringing in my ears reminds me. Thanks again.
I am very happy for you, old man . . . er, I mean AJ. :^)
tea tom: Why thank you, sonny! ;)
Just found this. Love you. You will outwork and outlive them all. And remember what I said about patients needing to see you at 3 a.m.
Dorinda, so glad you found this. There are no words to adequately reply, except to say Yes, yes, I will. I will do all those things. It is a promise, and more: It is who I am.