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|Newsletters: My New Self|
|Paul Serchia, Avid cyclist|
When that guy whispered “Plastics” in The Graduate, he was foretelling my future, not Benjamin Braddock’s.
I lived the first half-century of my life as a full-fledged Homo sapien. Then I began an unexpected drift toward becoming something other than fully human. At the piecemeal pace that I’m moving, by the time I file my next income tax return or fill out a census form, I may be checking a box beside the word “Android.”
My teeth were the first part of my body to surrender. Around the time of my fiftieth birthday, a dentist declared my mouth a disaster area. He set me on the path to replacing the teeth I still had left with a set of upper and lower dentures. I took possession of my new plates in 2008, as spring was turning
For something crafted in plastic, my new choppers looked pretty spiffy. Once I tried to talk or eat, however, the plates took on a life of their own. It was a struggle to keep them attached to my gums.
I tested every denture adhesive on the shelf, but none of them worked. So I started to bug my dentist to adjust the dentures to get a better fit. Each modification was an improvement, but people couldn’t understand my speech and I didn’t dare use the dentures for chewing.
Even when not wearing my dentures, I had a hard time swallowing. A Diet Coke addict to the core, I could only ingest a micro-sip at a time. I needed an entire morning to finish one twelve-ounce can. I’m sure that Coca-Cola noticed a sharp slippage in their product’s sales in Southern California.
Getting a meal past my lips was exhausting. Soon, friends and co-workers began to comment on how my body was pulling a vanishing act in slow motion. It’s hard to keep weight loss a secret when you can’t keep your trousers around your waist.
Before long I found myself in the outpatient infusion center of my HMO, being fed intravenously. The next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital recovery room with a brand-new gastronomy tube (G-tube) tethered to my tummy.
I never knew G-tubes existed before I got one of my very own. All of you who have one are doing a commendable job at keeping your tubes secret from everyone else. Dick Cheney would be impressed.
Once I got over its freakish presentation, I became very fond of my new rubber appendage. Sure, my G-tube doubled my inventory of artificial body parts, but it also meant that I wasn’t going to starve to death — not as long as I kept pouring cans of formula down the hatch.
Dodging the starvation bullet didn’t solve all of my problems, however. Last winter, my tongue began swelling up to Hindenburg proportions, which not only made it more difficult to talk but also threatened my ability to breathe. Even if the rest of my body was in tip-top shape, a blocked airway makes everything else moot.
My doctors dug deeper into their bag of artificial parts. In January, I had a tracheotomy: installation of a plastic cannula into my neck to ensure that air can get into my lungs.
At the same time the trach was installed, tissue on my tongue was collected for a biopsy. When I awoke in the recovery room at the hospital, I not only had a brand-new fake body part added to my ensemble, I also got a cancer diagnosis. The cancer was anything but fake.
Treatment began almost immediately. In the winter of 2008–2009, I endured three rounds of chemotherapy and thirty-three sessions of radiation therapy. As I write these words, there is little clarity about whether those treatments succeeded or failed. Barring a medical miracle, I may be relying on my trach and G-tube for some time to come — maybe forever.
In a strange way, my tubes have had something of a calming effect on my life.
I’m gay; I’m single; I live in Los Angeles. I don’t know what it’s like in Memphis or Madison, but you can’t walk two feet in this burg without spotting someone sexing up their image to get attention or jogging shirtless down a major thoroughfare to ensure maximum visibility.
The G-tube has released me from pursuit of the six-pack abs I see everywhere I turn. Not that years of labor in the gym ever brought me close to developing a taut, tight tummy, but this tube sticking out of my mid-section has liberated me from pursuing that ideal.
If I were looking for a partner, I’m certain I would find an excuse to raise my shirt soon after saying “hello,” just so he knew exactly what he would be getting into. Then he better not shun the trunk protruding from my torso or pretend it isn’t there. If he knew what was good for him, he’d give it a pet name, like “Babar” or “Dumbo.”
The story with the trach is slightly different. After I got the trach, I became paranoid about having it exposed in public. I bought scarves to spare others the shock of seeing a man with a hole drilled into his neck, and friends gave me more to add to my collection.
But the scarves started to get unwieldy and bothersome. They had a way of getting caught in my zipper, slammed in my car door, or, yes, even dipped into the toilet bowl. Scarves required too much attention and maintenance. Sometimes they even made me feel that I had a boa constrictor coiled around my neck.
You need a certain élan or foppishness to pull off wearing a scarf. Mick Jagger has it; Charles Nelson Reilly had it; Thurston Howell III had it. I do not.
Now when I go out in public, I usually go commando as far as neckwear is concerned. Aside from one occasion when a woman dropped a veil over her baby’s face when I got in line behind them at the supermarket, exposing my trach hasn’t upset anyone or triggered a stampede of fear.
That’s not to say that my trach doesn’t capture attention. People are always staring at me, and I can follow their gaze to directly below my chin. But their curiosity sometimes leads to some interesting exchanges and “teachable moments.” On several occasions, my trach has provided an invitation for people to tell me about a loved one in their life who has or had a trach as well.
Are there more artificial parts in my future? Who knows — I can’t imagine what the next one would be. If I’m destined to develop man boobs, I’d prefer to acquire them the natural way rather than by silicone implants.
But I am at peace with the fake body parts I have. Not a day passes when I don’t praise each breath of fresh air I inhale through my trach, or tell myself “Cheers” as I watch another can of formula trickle down my G-tube.
Sure, I would happily shed these tubes if my doctors said it was safe to do so. But if that day never comes, well, I’m OK with that.
In a way, being partly fake only makes life more real.
2/6/2017 » 2/10/2017
Feeding Tube Awareness Week
2/18/2017 » 2/21/2017
Oley exhibit at A.S.P.E.N.'s Clinical Nutrition Week