Cat Scratch Fever
(Tokoni 05/09/2009)

I was wandering around the kindergarten yard looking for something to do; I didn’t play a lot with the other kids – not that I didn’t want to, but I guess most of them sensed I was a little ‘off’. A difference. And you know kids: the ones who are different get shuffled into isolation, made to play with themselves. The rejects; the ones no one wants to know. I’d already had my hand stepped on – quite intentionally, with the other kid looking down and grinning as he used his foot to grind my hand against the bar of the jungle gym to keep me from climbing up. My hand still hurt; it would hurt the rest of the day. And the swings were occupied – they were always occupied, and usually there’d be two kids at a time, one pushing, one riding, while the teachers stood by and supervised.

Anyway, I’m wandering around the yard – leaving the play area to walk around the building, when what do I spy there, laying on the air-conditioning unit, but a cat, curled into a comma, its nose tucked under its tail.

So I go over to the kitty – there’s no one else around – and begin stroking its oh-so-soft hair. Its a fine cat, a healthy cat, and, I think, the school’s cat. The cat, pleased at the affection, raises its head and purrs – I can still feel that vibration in my hand – and rubs its face against the back of my hand, its long whiskers tickling. I love this kitty already – its body is so warm, its fur is so soft, and it is being so affectionate towards me.

Kitty apparently loves me, too, for kitty does what cats often do – it give me a little ‘love bite’, right there on the top of my hand. I don’t mind – in my mind’s eye I can only see a little drop of blood, and the pain is nothing compared to what I’ve already been through. I just smile and continue to pet the cat, loving the way it loves me, returning my affection with affection of its own.

Soon the teachers begin calling the children in, but I’m left standing there, out beside the building and no one really notices me – until a teacher comes around the corner and sees me petting the cat.

I guess I may have been bleeding a little bit more than I thought, because the teacher gets quite excited, and rushing me in, has me washing my hands for what seems hours, but was probably only minutes. I’m not bothered; in my mind I can still see the cat laying there, waiting for me to come back out again. But that was not meant to be.

Later that evening my hand starts to swell up. I don’t mind. I can still see now how puffy and red the back of my hand looked, and the single puncture wound there. Apparently it got much worse, and quickly, though I don’t remember feeling any pain.

That’s when it started.

(okay, I STILL get goosebumps here.)

Let me tell you about the old Ft. Gordon military hospital.

Imagine a field. It’s almost exactly five miles long; I know, I’ve driven past that field in my adult life many times. In this field is the hospital. It’s not one building – it is many, all connected by a long, undulating hallway that runs the entire length. Going west to east, you would find the wards (or wings) on your left; the small examination rooms to your right. And this hallway – just about ten or twelve feet wide – follows the ground under it, flowing up and down.

This hallway – where there aren’t examination rooms or ward entrances – has old, white wood framed windows. The entire hospital is built like the old army barracks – white plank boards outside, white framed eight pane windows studding it like black eyes, and it sits just slightly above the ground on blocks, thwarting the Georgia termites. Here and there, periodically, are parking lots – more dirt basins, for very few of them are paved – and you always have to walk up a set of stairs to get into the hospital.

Inside the hallway – well, even to my adult mind it was a drab and dreary place, more industrial looking than anything. This was during the Vietnam era, but due to its size, it seemed we rarely met many people in the hallway. They were usually waiting in the wards – endlessly packed waiting rooms, and in my case, ones with lots of screaming and crying children. Sometimes you had to wait a long, long time, because the soldiers came first; dependents came last when it came to treatment. That’s just the way it was – and rightly so, in my opinion.

Underfoot this hall had large square tiles, dark green, scarred by age, and covered with a years of polish. No matter what, that floor maintained its dark, glistening glow, catching the reflection of the light from the windows and the utilitarian half moons of the metal lamps that hung periodically overhead. And overhead! An endless maze of steaming, hissing pipes, some covered in asbestos insulation; others naked steel. Wires aplenty ran this way and that, mostly hung high along the walls, as if this was some sort of bizarre crown molding. The walls always had black framed pictures and posters, and the occasional bulletin board. Having been there prior to them tearing it down, I know the black framed pictures weren’t pictures at all: they were the standing orders, given by the C.O., and stating hospital policies. There was nothing decorative about this place at all. The walls were an off-white, and metal strings of conduit hung down everywhere, supporting switch plates and boxes.

It was always a scary place for a little kid to go, but I was somewhat used to it. I’d been living around military doctrine all my life; these utilitarian sort of places were like home to me. Hissing steam pipes – the occasional cloud of steam – dripping pipes – you didn’t dare touch the water, it would burn you. I knew these sort of things, though I don’t know how I ever came across this knowledge, unless it was by finding out the hard way at some earlier time I don’t remember. I do remember touching the ancient steam radiators – we’d lay a finger on them, just a quick touch, just to know what they felt like – whether they were cool or warm, or in many cases, scalding hot to the touch.

Anyway, back to the story.

My mom takes me to this hallway, and we walk down it for what seems an endless ways. The steam pipes are venting above me; you can smell it in the air – sort of a flat, chemical smell, the peculiar one that steam always seemed to have. (I learned later in engineering it’s because of the rust preventative chemicals they put in the water that they use to generate steam with.) We walk and walk, my mom has my hand firmly squeezed in hers.

Then they take me to this room. Actually, its not “they”, but my mom. Its one of the examination rooms – there’s the window facing the door, a big stainless steel table in the middle, and metal counters all around. I also remember the chair they had sitting there – one of those metal framed, armless, vinyl coated cushion chairs – right by the door, next to a cabinet as you walk in. I would come to remember that chair very well. It was a sickly sort of light green, with a narrow back, and the cushions were only about an inch thick. How I’d come to hate that chair – and that room! And the doctors in it.

Now I don’t know if this was the first time, or the second time, or the third time, or more. It all gets a little jumbled up.

What I do know is this: after the first time, my mom would leave me in that chair, in the company of those doctors, to do their ‘stuff’.

She has since said it was because she couldn’t stand to hear my screams. She would walk away, out of that room, down a mile or two of hallway, and go sit out in her car.

And I know that she said that she had to start bringing me in the late afternoon, because my screams were disturbing other people in the hallway. It was disturbing the G.I.’s who’d gotten shot up in Vietnam. So the doctors had her start bringing me in later – when most of the traffic had died down, and the G.I.’s would be in their distant wards, not getting treatment in the rooms.

Maybe that’s why the hallway always looked so empty. Because we were always coming there late.

Here’s what I remember.

The doctors would come in – not one or two, but six or seven. This is because I was a strong little boy. I ran and played hard, and wasn’t afraid to tackle someone twice my age. (Later this would become an issue, but that’s for another time.)

They would have me peel off my shirt, sitting in that chair, and then . . . I remember that so clearly. Peeling the shirt off, turning, setting it carefully on the chair for when I would be back. Then they – one or two – would lift me up on that table.

The first time – I remember that, the first time, and I guess it was like that every time. But the first time – it caught me with a childlike surprise. After all, I was young – five? Kindergarten age.

The doctors spread me out on this table; firm hands press my legs and arms HARD against it, REAL hard. Hand grasp the side of my head. Hands come down on my chest. Hands holding me down everywhere.

And (goosebumps again) – I can still see THAT so clearly. The doctor, his face half covered by a surgical mask – I can barely see him through the forest of arms, bending over my mid-section. In his hands, angling down toward my chest is a needle. It’s the longest needle I’ve ever seen. It looks like it could go right through me.

Now, as a kid I was NEVER terrified of needles. I thought they were cool. The doctor would always say, “Look away now!” – but I’d just watch, fascinated. The pain wasn’t nothing – not even for all those endless inoculation shots they gave me prior to going overseas. Lots of other kids – my brother especially – would go into hysterics at even the mention of a shot. Not me. I welcomed them. Like I said – I thought they were fascinating. Watching the needle go in – slight jab there, slight pain there – the plunger depressing – sometimes the skin bulging up a bit – then zip! The needle would come out, the cotton ball pressed on, and it all was over. No big deal, right?

Not this time. This time it was different.

This time they had me in for the rabies series. And this was no joke.

I remember the first time – or the first time every time – when they’d sink that needle in my gut. Me suddenly bucking and screaming from the burning hot agony pain!! jeez …. then black. Just fade to black. I must of screamed pretty loud, because here, forty-five years later, I can still hear the echoes of those screams in my ears.  And like I said: it disturbed the war hardened vets enough that the docs had me come at night.

Apparently I screamed quite a bit, given what I learned later, and by what you’ve read before.

And I was a tough kid. I know. They all said so. They still say I’m tough, but that – that was something else altogether.

Afterwards – I don’t remember ever getting off the table, but I do remember standing in front of the chair, stiffly – very stiffly, very very … hurt – picking up my shirt and putting it back on. Being careful not to let it touch my gut. And then sitting back down to wait for my momma. The doctors would file out, leaving me there to my own devices – but all I remember doing is sitting there, staring at the walls, and that tall, long steel table. Knowing I never wanted to come here again. Knowing that I probably would.

Sooner or later mom would come get me. Never a word was said; none that I remember. No hugs or kisses or “I’m sorry they did this to you.” The doctors were as utilitarian as the hospital they worked in. My momma was much the same. And she’d take me by the hand – her grip ever so tight, as it always was, and we’d go back into that hallway and start walking. Going back to the car – and home.

I don’t know how long this went on – but later, in my mid-twenties – I found out something.

They had shipped the cat out to Atlanta for testing – and the cat died.

It turns out that I didn’t catch something from it – it caught something from me. Influenza or something – and expired.

They stopped the rabies series early (thank god) – but to this day . . . .

Jeez, there’s just not words to describe it, the emotional crap behind this memory. Pain? Yes. Obvious. The sense of abandonment? Yeah, it was there. The dread when we’d start walking up that endless hallway. The weird scent and sound of the steam pipes overhead. The dark and dreary interstices between the pipes. The yellow white light of the lamps. And all those doctors bent over me, their faces half hidden by their masks; never a word of comfort to me, but endless advice to each other – words like “hold him” and “stop kicking” and “hold him.” That one got used a lot. Odd, that one.

When I say “hold him” in regards to a child, I usually mean hug him (or her). Never this sort of thing. Not hold him down so that I can stick him.

And I know when my daughter got sick and hospitalized at five years old – I was right there beside her, the entire time. I even took off from work so that I could sleep right next to her, in the very same bed. I never left her side except to go to the bathroom. And when I held her, I held her tight, and with all my love, and her screams and cries just made me want to hold her more.

Not abandon her in the room she was in.

Not like my mother did me.

I don’t care how loud or hard a child cries – I go TO them, not away from them. (Heck, I did this just the other day, hearing a child screaming from a block away.)

And I don’t fault the doctors: they were just doing their job, what they were trained to do, what they needed to do.

But perhaps – just perhaps – they could’ve been just a little bit more human.

And yeah – I’ve always felt bad that the cat died. For in the end, it turned out there was no need for any of it. None at all.

Not that it doesn’t continue to affect me some (Re: the goosebumps). And the other effect is that I’m very sensitive to a child’s pain. Just can’t stand it. But like I said: I don’t run away. I run towards.

Any child in need.