She is not my regular physician but with our respective offices only a non-racer’s five-minute drive from each other convenience ruled the day. At any rate, this is as good a reason as any other I could give for choosing on an unforgettable Thursday afternoon two years or so ago to call on Tanya Beaubrun, not on Martin Didier who had taken excellent care of me for at least 20 years from his clinic on the ground floor of Tapion Hospital. (Rest assured, dear incredulous reader, that politics also had made a tiny contribution to my decision; but why go into matters so commonplace and infra dig? Before he was evicted by strangers in the night, even the man in the moon knew that on this Rock of Sages nothing, yes, nothing is ever free of the retarding poisons of small-island politics!)
For a minute or so we exchanged pleasantries and anecdotes about our respective sons, both students at American universities. And then, conceivably satisfied I had been suitably anaesthetized (distracted?) Dr. Beaubrun rammed home her first work-related injection: “Now, tell me, Rick, when did you have your last check-up?”
“Oh, that would be a little over a year ago,” I said, momentarily forgetting she would soon easily uncover the truth. In my own best interests she would naturally confer with our mutual friend and her medical colleague, my regular doctor. (Who knew for certain that she had not earlier spotted me among her waiting room crowd and immediately put particular questions to Martin? I gather it’s well known throughout the medical establishment that I suffer from a condition locally referred to as doktaphobia—known in medical circles everywhere else as “iatrophobia.”
The truth is I dare not venture near a doctor’s clinic, pharmacy or hospital lest I suffer the worst stomach convulsions. That I’d actually visited one or two friends in hospital proves only how much they meant to me. I swear I can smell human blood a mile from the source, with debilitating consequences, physical and psychical.)
Hardly taking her eyes off her notepad, Dr. Beaubrun (“Bubbles” to her friends) sing-sang: “Ah, more than a year, huh. In that case we’d better put you through some tests before we go any further. That’ll include X-Rays as well as taking blood samples.”
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the purpose of my visit: for more than three months I’d been having trouble getting a full night’s sleep. It had nothing to do with insomnia. I’d fall asleep like a baby the minute my head met my pillow, only to be roughly awakened over and over throughout the night by involuntary leg activity; usually the right.
The doctor’s casual reaction: “Any problems with your back?”
She might just as well have asked if the sky was blue. For as long as I had been a serious bodybuilder, I had suffered lower back issues. But stretching, warm-up exercises and regular sessions with chiropractors good and not so good, both in Europe and the United States, had kept me in winning form.
More truth be told, athletes—champion athletes, especially—know well in advance the price they might have to pay for the indescribable thrill of having been where no one had gone before. Active and retired star tennis players, footballers, golfers, cricketers, weightlifters, swimmers, discus throwers, track stars—all sing the same sorry song about injuries on the field or in training.
For them, busted elbow joints, dislocated knees and shoulders, concussions, torn ligaments, ankle and neck fractures are as synonymous with what they do as are honeybees with honey. Professional sports are what they are—alas, in too many ways a lot worse today than in my heyday. The price for winning was never steeper, including the rampant use of mind-altering drugs that almost overnight turn promising young people into monsters. All of which may explain the sometimes surprisingly early retirements despite the unbelievable paychecks!
I was lucky: I quit competitive bodybuilding with only a problematic but controllable lower back. What would come later had nothing to do with weight training; not directly, anyway.
When I had told Bubbles about my nightly kicks (it happened, too, whenever I sat for too long in front of the TV or my computer) she said: “I’m willing to bet this has something to do with your back.” (Two of her uncles had been my training buddies when we were not yet teenagers. Who knows what Patrick and Jimmy had told their niece while exaggerating the excitements of “the good old days!”)
Her eyes glued to her notepad, Bubbles went on: “You men, you really kill me. So macho, yet so scared of doctors. You should take a lesson from your wives, your girlfriends and sisters. That’s why we women outlive you!”
Having completed whatever she had been committing to paper, she stood up then returned to her original question: “More than a year since your last check-up, huh. Then I suggest we do some tests. X-Rays, ECG and so on. We’ll need some blood samples. Oh, while we’re at it better let me check your blood pressure.”
Ninety minutes or so later, Bubbles summoned me to her private quarters. “Well,” she almost whispered, “your pressure is just fine. So are your lungs, your heart, liver . . . but you have a whole lot of arthritis in your back. Mae told me you guys are off to the States in a few days, right? I suggest you look into that kicking problem while you’re out there. Oh . . .”
She looked me straight in the eye before continuing: “There’s just one other thing: your prostate. I don’t like the result of your PSA screening. Although it may turn out to be nothing to worry about. I’ll make an appointment right away for you to see a specialist at Tapion. He’s very good. No need to worry. But you have to promise me you’ll see him before you leave the country.”
The smile on her face as she delivered the last line spoke of my famous doktaphobia but just then I was far more concerned about my prostate. That night I hardly slept—and not because of involuntary leg activity.
My first visit to Tapion Hospital as a potential patient is unforgettable. For starters, there was the doctor’s office: compared to the relatively sumptuous ambience earlier experienced, it was a hole in the wall shared with a receptionist-secretary. A paper-thin wall divided them. The waiting room must’ve been designed to accommodate no more than two undernourished patients at one time. Which would explain the crowd outside, sitting, standing or just walking aimlessly outside the hospital’s main entrance and in the corridor immediately outside the doctors’ offices.
As for my specialist’s working environment, suffice it to say most of it appeared to be taken up by bric-a-brac that did not automatically strike me as medicine related. But Bubbles was right, the occupant was pleasant, obviously knowledgeable, absolutely thorough. So thorough, in fact, that I could hardly wait to get the hell away from him. He familiarized me with all the possibilities ahead of me, whether or not I wanted to know.
It was when he started explaining in graphic detail what a biopsy involves that I nearly coughed up my breakfast into his lap. A day or two later I returned by appointment to his clinic to have my most private orifice invaded by strange instruments that permitted the doctor a close-up view of my prostate as he snipped off tiny samples for the purposes of lab technicians. (A surprising number of men, it turns out, choose to die rather than submit to this rectal-probing process. I, on the other hand, wanted to live badly enough to permit the doctor any liberties with my reluctant rectum. Well, almost any liberties. To everything there’s a season—and a limit!)
The call I’d been dreading reached me about a week following the biopsy. Shaking all over, I asked the caller: “Good news or bad?”
“I never talk about such matters over the phone,” said the doctor, his voice as steady as a rock and just as transparent. Judging only by his tone, he might just as well have been placing an order of coffee and toast at a Rodney Bay café. “Come and see me as soon as convenient.”
Of all people, Kenny Anthony came to mind and I smiled. If only there was more than one way to interpret the doctor’s four last words: As soon as convenient. Alas there hadn’t been for Kenny at the time of last year’s deputy speaker issue, and I knew damn well I was wasting precious time speculating about what awaited me at Tapion Hospital. My heart doing flip-flops, I got into my car and drove myself yet again to the doctor’s clinic.
The news was bad, though not nearly as bad as it could’ve been. The cancer attack on my prostate was still at an early stage and likely controllable. Before I was permitted to leave his office, the doctor offered me four or five options. Only one registered: I could have
my prostate surgically removed. Three of the other options could not be performed in Saint Lucia. I would have to be hospitalized in Trinidad or Barbados or Jamaica.
I’m cutting short this part of the story. So nauseated was I by the time the doctor was halfway through explaining my treatment options that I pleaded
with him to stop. (He seemed to be telling me, in effect, I had two life-saving choices: I could jump into a boiling Sulphur Springs cauldron or I could leap without a parachute from a plane a mile over Gros Piton!) A lose-lose situation, to my mind, is what I faced.
“Okay, Doc,” I said, “let’s get it over with. Let’s just cut out the damn thing.”
Still using his coffee-and-toast voice, he said: “We could do that, yes, but there are some side effects.”
“What?” I asked. “Like dying?”
And he said, “Well, for one, afterward you might not be able to have an erection.”
Was he kidding me? There I was desperate to avoid a face-to-face with the Grim Reaper and I was supposed, at my age, to give a hoot whether I ever got it up again?
Before I could react to that normally daunting possibility the doctor said: “The good news is there are things we can do. There are pumps that can . . .”
Lord alone knows how I managed to keep calm when all I wanted to do was ram my fist between the doctor’s professional eyes. “Forget about erections, forget about pumps and rubber dongs, all I want is make certain I’m rid of this problem.”
We finally decided there was time to think over all I had been told. At which point I got back into my car and drove home, all the while wondering how to break
the news to Mae and to Christian, both of whom were off island.
Be sure to tune in next week for the next installment of my story, which also happens to be every man’s story, bearing in mind that out of every six of us one is doomed at some time in his life to contract cancer of the prostate!