There was a knock on my room door. It was Reece.
“Want to go with me to donate plasma?” he asked.
Being that kind of college kid who hadn’t yet learned to think things through, I said, “Sure.” I put down my bowl of ramen, slapped on my Birkenstocks, and went to see the wizard.
Everything I knew about plasma donation came from the ocean of flyers plastered around UNT. Each advertised how rich you can get through safe, regular donations. Although I was desperate for any spare cash, something about whoring out my circulatory system unsettled me enough that I resisted its financial lures. Yet here I was, willing to walk all the way across campus in order to literally spill my guts.
Reece was also a “plasma virgin”, but he knew enough details about the process that he was able to educate me during our stroll. He described the ins-and-outs, how my blood would be removed, washed clean of plasma, and returned to my body in regular cycles. I learned of the comfy chairs we would sit in, the cornucopia of cookies we would enjoy post-donation, and the televisions we would watch.
Sadly enough, the TVs were the selling point for me. Consisting of miniature monitors craning around on extendable arms, they helped one pass the time during the tedious donation process. In essence, we would be paid to watch television…the American dream! This was an important perk, as my weekday existence at the time was centered on ABC’s 2pm-3pm daytime schedule, where my mind switched from art classes and pursuit of girls to keeping track of the Quartermaines and Felicia — mmm, sweet, sweet Felicia — on “General Hospital”. Yes, you read that right…”General Hospital”. I was a soap opera addict. As if scheduling classes so that I had enough time to get back to my dorm room each afternoon wasn’t enough, one of my short life’s highlights up to that point was the year that A.J. Quartermain served as our campus homecoming parade’s honorary chairman.
We arrived at our destination, and the sign out front glowed “BioLife”. Inside, the antiseptic white interior momentarily blinded us, and it took awhile for our eyes to adjust to the interior. In the lobby, televisions attached to worn-out VCRs on continuous loop blared forth videotaped testimonials from the exponential number of souls we would with our life-saving donations. Fire victims, cancer victims, children with diseases — all of them would be helped by just a single donation.
After filling out reams of medical forms, we were admitted to the inner sanctum. Rows of leather-clad lounging chairs spread out before us, each one accompanied by large machinery which resembled paint mixers. Reece and I sat in adjacent chairs, and we each had a kind female nurse who introduced themselves and walked us through the process we were about to undergo. Our arms were checked for fresh prick wounds, a sure sign that we were donating more frequently than medically recommended. The televisions were fired up, and glowing on the screen was my soap. Everything was ready.
The nurse asked that I outstretch my arms, and in short succession I had a needle protruding from each arm. Both needles hooked up to the aforementioned-machine. When it was switched on, before my eyes my body was being recycled. Out one arm went my dark crimson life-force; into the other flowed something similar but slightly more transparent, as if I was getting back half of what I gave.
Every so often, the machine whirred, its centrifuge stripping out my plasma, mingling the remainder of my blood with saline, and pumping it back to my body. Within the first few moments of having my blood returned, I could feel a cool shock fire up my arm, as the cold saline surged through my veins. My lips tingled as the cooled blood soaked into them. It was an experience both odd and fascinating in equal measure.
Just as quickly as I experienced those sensations, the novelty wore off as I realized it would take quite awhile for the machine to scrape out every last morsel of plasma. As long as it was done no earlier than 3:00pm, I had no objection. Besides, this wasn’t a gift horse I was about to look in the mouth. I had just stumbled upon an important source of income, significant enough that it might help me stay in college. And I got to watch General Hospital and keep track of Jagger, Sonny, and Brenda…sweet, sweet Brenda.
I wasn’t about to look this gift horse in the mouth. After all, I had just stumbled upon an important source of income, one that might keep me in college. And while going about it, I could watch General Hospital and keep an eye on Jagger, Sonny and Brenda…mmm, sweet, sweet Brenda.
Gift horses were the last thing on my mind the next morning, as I woke up and felt like he ultimate ass. My sinuses were swollen with thick fluid, my throat was scratchy, and any movement was exhausting. My brain felt as if it was floating on a sea of mucous, and each turn of my head sent both hemispheres sloshing to-and-fro like skiffs on an open ocean.
I immediately thought of strep throat, as it was going around. I called the student health center and requested the first available doctor’s appointment, and thank the gods t was just one hour from now. Having some time to kill, I hung up then stumbled down to the Bruce cafeteria to have some breakfast.
I got my usual pancreas-hostile meal of Golden Grahams and orange juice. My cafeteria tray drooped like lead in my arms. I felt the urge to sit in the closest seat I could find, yet I had enough presence to remove myself from the population and sit at the most-remote table possible. I ended up on the McConnell side of the cafeteria, the south side, where the high-school prodigies from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science sat, separate from the native Brucelings thanks to a form of self-imposed social segregation. Surrounded by freaks and geeks smart enough to eventually be my boss, I focused on fighting through my swimming head.
Spooning Golden Grahams into my mouth was a Herculean enough effort, and I certainly didn’t have enough gas left to properly drink my juice. As I brought the glass up to my lips, it slipped out of my hand, fell straight down, clipped the edge of the table, tumbled over 180 degrees, and spilt its entire contents into my unsuspecting lap.
Bruce Cafeteria chairs each had a concave shape, with a slight downward slope from front to back. If I wasn’t sitting in the chair, the juice would have flowed off its back. But thanks to their bowl-like nature and the tight seal caused by my legs, the cold juice pooled in my lap and soaked my jeans, my underwear, and the naughty bits beneath. I could feel the citrus marinade lap against my thighs. Humiliated and too exhausted to move & get cleaned up, I gently laid my head down on the table and began to cry.
Thankfully when my appointment time came around, the student health center was just across the street from Bruce Hall. Like a zombie, I shuffled over and waited to see my doctor. When my name was eventually called, a kind nurse led me to an examination room where I met my savior.
Dr. Hansen was my physician. A middle-aged yet youthful-looking man, he came across as friendly and in possession of a bedside manner which was more highly developed than my previous doctors. Chief of staff for the health center, he was the head man, the top dog, the big cheese…no one could possibly be more qualified to cure my condition, I thought.
After a brief examination, Dr. Hansen confirmed I didn’t have the plague, West Nile virus, bird flu, roto, SARS, or any other disease du jour. Instead, it must be a sinus infection that was roaring through my system. I inquired about strep throat, since so many around me had been stricken by it. Although my condition shared one or two symptoms with strep, he believed that most of them were more akin to run-of-the-mill sinus infections. But if I insisted, he said, he could perform a strep culture, which would be at extra cost. Balking at the idea of paying even more money that I couldn’t afford to spend, I declined the culture and assumed that anyone who’s been in school longer than me must know best.
Dr. Hansen asked if I was allergic to anything, and I said no. “Great,” he said, “I have just the thing for you. Ever heard of Zithromax?” he asked. I said no, and he went on to describe it. A wide-spread antibiotic which was relatively new to the market, Zithromax was new enough that no bugs had yet developed any resistance. Also, its dosing instructions were relatively simple, with just a handful of pills to take over a few days versus the standard 10 regimen. And finally, it was long-lasting…those few pills would remain in my system for days afterwards, ensuring that whatever consuming crud I had was cleared out completely.
Although a bullet to the head would have worked equally well at this point, Zithromax sounded great and was less of a mess to clean up. Dr. Hansen supplied me with some free samples, two of which I consumed on-the-spot as directed. I then dragged myself back to Bruce Hall in order to get some much-needed rest.
I began to feel better over the next couple of days, as Zithromax surged through my veins like radioactive spider venom. After just one day, I was able to muster enough energy to resume studying, although I was still far too drained to attend any classes. With each passing morning, I dutifully consumed the antibiotics as instructed until all four pills were gone.
Then began the itching. At first subtle, my skin quickly became hyper-sensitive to touch. Soon enough, both arms turned red and blotchy, as if I had a sunburn in the dead of winter. Finally, my arch-enemy the sore throat had returned with a vengeance. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and for the first time in my life I was scared for my life. I immediately went back to the student health center and visited with Dr. Hansen once again.
After I reiterated my symptoms, he expressed surprise at their intensity, especially considering that my medication was widely considered safe. “We must have missed something,” he said. Dr. Hansen asked me to start from the beginning and recount anything in the past week that might help him figure out my problem. When I mentioned donating plasma, he paused me. “Wait…you didn’t mention that before. Why not?”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” I said. “After all, they told me when I donated that it was safe.”
Dr. Hansen begged to differ. “It’s been my experience that when you donate plasma, although they are supposed to return to your body the white blood cells they took out, sometimes it doesn’t always work.” He went on to explain that donating plasma puts stress on the body, and if I was unknowingly catching a bug at the exact same time, the intensity of my illness could be high like it is now.
“Take off your shirt,” he commanded. After disrobing, even I was shocked by what we bore witness to…nearly every inch of my skin was covered with hives, rosy and dry from inflammation. In short, I looked like the receiving end of a meat tenderizer. Dr. Hansen’s eyes quietly scanned every inch of my body.
He then broke the silence by saying, “You know, Matthew, it’s patients like you that make doctors like me lose their jobs.”
Although I had skipped this option before in order to save a buck, this time around I underwent a strep culture at Dr. Hansen’s insistence. After my tonsils were violated via Q-Tip, I was instructed wait in the hallway outside while the swab was tested.
Outside, I slumped onto the nearest chair. Next to me was a fellow student in obvious distress. With squinted eyes and an ice pack pressed against his forehead, he was valiantly attempting to overcome the headache from hell.
Time seemed to drag as I fought my own pain and nausea. I scanned the room, looking for magazines, co-eds, anything to pass the time. On the wall opposite of me hung one of the scrambled 3-D prints which were fashionable at the time. The Force had never with me when I tried to view these, and countless hours spent over the years attempting to scry their contents had turned into an equal amount of time wasted. Never had I been able to see past the visual noise and see any meaningful image.
Yet this poster…I looked at it briefly for just a second, and suddenly an arresting image leaped out from nowhere. I witnessed dolphins jumping over flaming volcanoes, with orange lava-borne flames licking the blood red sky. I couldn’t believe it! I jabbed my comrade-in-pain and implored him to gaze upon the glory I just saw. My neighbor lifted his sweat-soaked head, and within seconds saw those magnificent sea mammals. Between grunts of pain, he muttered, “Oh yeah, man. Cool. Ow!”
Then a nurse called my name. Her summons broke my concentration, and the magnificent sea mammals I had just borne witness to disappeared into a pixilated sea, forever gone. I sighed, then got up and entered to Dr. Hansen’s office.
Dr. Hansen had mixed news. The positive news was that my culture came back likewise, confirming my ailment was a roaring case of strep throat. He also informed me that Zithromax is a great choice to fight such an infection, so it should clear up after my body stops stressing out so much. However, the hives and itching were textbook examples of a drug allergy. And because one of the “benefits” of Zithromax is its long-lasting presence in one’s bloodstream, my only recourse waiting for my body to flush it out of my system, a process that could take several weeks.
It seems I had a long way to go before I was back on my feet again.
I woke up.
The room was dark, except for slivers of sunlight piercing the tightly-shut blinds. Despite having just slept most of the past twelve hours, I still felt exhausted.
My body immediately began to plea for a swift return to dreamland. Before giving into its demands, I got out of bed to check for messages.
As expected, a folded note sat slipped underneath my door. I picked it up and read its contents. It was from one of my classmates, and written on it was that day’s literature assignment.
After digesting its last words, I refolded the note and placed it on my desk, atop a stack of similar missives quickly becoming a paper Jenga game growing to untold heights.
I crawled back into bed. The idea of further slumber was alluring, but the more I slept the further behind I would fall. So instead of closing my eyes, I reached over to my left, grasped a nearby easel, and inched it closer to my bedside.
English homework would have to wait. It was painting time.
Weeks after I went to the student health clinic for a simple case of strep throat and came away with a violent drug allergy, I found myself practicing the same daily routine: blocks of sleep interrupted by intermittent bouts of school work, all in a desperate attempt to not drop out of school.
All of my other responsibilities had fallen by the wayside, including my paid job delivering pizza and my unpaid position as Bruce Hall’s President. Because I couldn’t work, money was becoming scarce. My bedridden nature had gone on for so long that I was forced to lighten my course load, going from a full load of 15 hours down to 9.
Those dropped classes were a small blessing, as the tuition refund I received kept me financially solvent for several weeks. But while I was able to drop non-essential classes, I couldn’t drop my two art classes — I was already behind my classmates thanks to failing my junior review. I had little choice but to keep painting or else.
So went my days, napping to fuel my weak batteries, and discharging them in exchange for brief bursts of creativity. And except for the occasional note under the door, I had little contact with the outside world and entertained few visitors — except for one notable exception.
One evening, there was a knock on the door. Because it was never locked, I shouted, “Come in!” Into my room walked Amy.
She had two unmistakable looks on her face: one that wondered how I was feeling, and another that silently said, “We need to talk.”
For several weeks, I had anticipated this moment, as my attempts to get closer to Amy had been met by her further emotional withdrawal. I desperately wanted to be close to someone, but my overeagerness in pursuing Amy only steeled her resolve to be with anyone else but me.
I could sense Amy was getting closer to our mutual friend Rolly. I thought if I just tried that much harder, it would persuade her I was the better man. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to understand how that led to the opposite intended effect.
I sat up in bed, and Amy situated herself on its opposite corner. The only light came from a nearby desk lamp, which cast Caravaggian shadows across each of our faces.
For several minutes we sat in silence. Intermittently between looking around the room, we stared at one another, attempt to kill the clock until the inevitable moment when Amy would say her peace.
Yet when she finally spoke, there wasn’t much to say. Amy told me that she didn’t want to date me. I didn’t ask why — although she didn’t mention Rolly, I knew her reasons. Besides, I was tired…tired of fighting disease, tired of trying to stay in school, and especially tired of trying to force someone to love me.
Sometimes when you break up with someone, there’s a relaxation that comes from knowing you’re doing the right thing, even if the act of dumping itself is hard to get through. After Amy said her peace, this was one of those moments.
Everything in my room was an art supply of some sort. Once the weight of what just occurred had left the room, we grabbed whatever was nearby. Like little kids drawing on walls with crayons, the two of us reached out to color each other with scores and marks of ink and paint. Soon enough, I was drenched in red ink, as Amy drew targets and bull’s-eyes all over my chest. Her arms were adorned with unicorns and corny tattoo phrases.
At some point, my camera came out, and some of the silliest photos I own were soon produced.
In every one of them, Amy was smiling, and I realized that she didn’t do that often enough in our short relationship.
After Amy walked out, I began to feel hot and uncomfortable. I thought of ice. Yes, ice. That’s the ticket. Ice would help. Must get ice.
The nearest ice machine was two floors up and two wings over, a considerable distance in my current condition. But I couldn’t just sit in my room and think about being dumped.
I threw on some clothes, then swaddled myself with a blanket, draping it over my head and shoulders like a cloak and tunic. Pprotected from any unexpected chills, I ventured out of my room and into the “Bowling Alley”, the crowded, main throughfare of Bruce Hall’s ground floor, so named after the blonde hardwood flooring spanning its length.
I strolled south towards the main stairwell, wheezing quite audibly from the intense labor. With all of my energy focused on surviving, my shoulders slowly drooped over the course of my journey. My hood drooped low, obscuring my face. When combined with my degrading posture, I looked like one of the hunchbacks from days of yore.
When they became aware of my presence, people quickly snapped to attention and made way for the leper passing by. A huddled mass of cloth, with little exposed except for arms caked in red, scaly blights, was an odd sight. In this pitiful soul’s outstretched hand was an empty ice cup, held forth as if soliciting alms for the poor.
It was one of the few times in my life that I cared nothing for what others thought of me. I was on a quest for icy manna to fill my grail. I sauntered past the spectators, got my cold cubes, and returned to the comfort of my dark cave.
I woke up once again. But unlike other such occasions in the past month, I didn’t feel the urge to reverse such an action. Instead of feeling tired, I was vibrantly refreshed.
A week had passed since Amy had broken up with me. Perhaps not coincidentally, I had begun to recover physically in those same seven days.
I got up out of bed and opened the blinds. As the slats snapped open, clouds of dislodged dust billowed forth. Sunlight visited my room for the first time in days. I held my arms within the beams and examined my skin. Despite being dry and peeling in some places, the majority of its irritation had passed. I was on the road to recovery.
Tired of being cooped up in my dorm room, I cleaned up, slipped on some clothes and went to rejoin civilization.
I trekked down to the Bruce Lobby, where I was always sure to bump into someone I knew. People murmured in amazement when they realized what a rarity it was to see me alive.
After chatting with a few friends, I looked out the window into the courtyard. Outside, an exciting game of sand volleyball was heating up. A couple of semesters ago, I had gotten hooked onto the sport and spent at least one hour each day digging and spiking.
Despite a complete loss of conditioning the past four weeks, I hopped outside to join the game currently in progress. And instead of my usual hour of participation, I played for several, using my trademark wicked serve to make up for my lack of blocking talent.
It was the first warm day of spring, hot enough to encourage most of the guys to remove their shirts, including me. My pale skin exposed, it soaked up solar radiation as if it had gone forty days in the desert. So intense of a sensation, it was as if I could feel the Vitamin D pour into my veins. The brilliant light reflected harshly off my pasty flesh, so much so that it hard even for me to look at myself without squinting.
Someone there had a camera, and I was one of their many subjects.
When I later saw the photos, I didn’t recognize myself.
I was gaunt, having lost a significant amount of weight, and my untrimmed hair had grown quite shaggy. Clothes hung off of me like sails on a ship. “Not a big deal,” I thought. After all, it was visual evidence of something that I had grown truly worried wouldn’t be the case: I was alive.
After the volleyball game ended, I put on my shirt and headed back to my room. It was time to return to what help keep me alive in the first place. I began work on my next painting.