26 August 2011

The Most Incredible Journey

Last week, I took a trip down to Memphis, Tennessee, right in the heart of what we northerners might call the "Bible Belt."

Why would I, an out gay man, take such a trip? Well, for starters, I wasn't alone. Over 90 individuals representing 26 different states in the USA, as well as the District of Columbia, ventured to Memphis for a life-changing journey in order to undergo training in nonviolent civil disobedience so that would would be enabled and empowered to take direct action and raise both the stakes and the spectrum of the fight for equality for all but especially of us LGBTQ folk. The trip and training were sponsored by GetEQUAL, a queer-rights activist group.

To be completely honest, I went on the trip for some pretty selfish reasons: I wanted to get away for a few days; I hadn't gone on any sort of trip other than for family matters in nearly a decade; I wanted to see the National Civil Rights Museum and determine how much import they'd given to Bayard Rustin, who has mostly been ignored by the Black civil rights movement because he was gay; and last but not least, I did think I could learn a few things and catch a glimpse of some eye candy.

I also had some pretty certain expectations as to what would happen while I was down there: I would be quite a bit bored; I wouldn't be able to wake up in time to attend all the workshops; I would be chastised and castigated for being a Republican in a mostly Democrat-leaning LGBTQ population; I would make a couple of new contacts; and perhaps I would make a new friend or two.

Looking back on what took place last week and finally being able to process a large amount of the past week, as well as having some conversations online with some of the folks I'd met down in Memphis, I'm left both ashamed and blown away by what took place.

With each new step I’ve been taking over the past few years, I’ve managed to meet and become engaged with some truly wonderful, loving, caring, and astounding individuals. This past week was no exception; in fact, if anything, I’ve connected with more such individuals than I ever had done before.

Perhaps I’m just getting older, perhaps my medications are working better, or perhaps I was just excited and knew that everyone attending this insanely information-packed training was there for one purpose: coming together to fight for equality but I found it much easier to speak with individuals in-person at this event that ever before in my life. Ideas were flowing, synergies were colliding, and information was spouting across every sphere of influence.

Yes, there was some eye candy there. But my interest in forming relationships with most of the individuals with whom I met in Memphis go far beyond having someone nice to look at and speak with. There were deep, deep bonds that were made, sometimes across chasms of pain, and it wasn't with just a few individuals. Rather, an amazing, astounding, and perhaps overwhelming number of friendships were forged out of this coalescence, which was the brainchild of a very remarkable woman and her team of cohorts.

Perhaps it was because I saw this as a business trip of sorts that I experienced such little social anxiety in such a large group but I was able to get to know and form a deep friendship with maybe half of the queer-rights activists attending the training. Of that half, there are a few men I'd like to get to know better and explore, over a very long period of time of course, whether or not there's any potential to be more than great friends. But that's secondary to what really happened down there.

The trip to Memphis exceeded my expectations at every level. I was not castigated and shunned for being a Republican; in fact, I was almost embraced. Instead of not being able to wake up in time for the workshops, I actually had difficulty going to sleep. I would estimate I managed to get in a total of 7.5 hours of sleep over the course of five days, and I believe that it was due to the tremendous amount of positive energy that everyone brought to the training. The divisiveness that usually is present when large groups of LGBTQ folk get together wasn't there; we were a coalition united around a certain truth: Equality For All is a fundamental right whose time is long overdue and we demand its immediate implementation.

I didn't make just a few connections and one or two new friendships. I connected with almost every single one of the other individuals present at the training, and formed deep bonds of friendship (or the beginnings thereof) with nearly half of them.

I was already familiar with a good deal of the information presented in many of the workshops held over the course of the 4-day training session; however, I did learn and much of the information that was presented, while I might have known it, had sunken to the deep recesses of my memory, so it was good that they were brought to the fore of my mind. It truly was a staggering amount of information that was presented; think of it as an intensive course -- you know, the type you take in college where you sit for a class six Saturdays out in a row and get a full semester's worth of classes in such a short time-span. So I wasn't bored out of my mind, either.

I am still in awe of what took place last week, and owe a great deal of debt and gratitude to Robin McGeHee, GetEQUAL's director, and her cohorts Heather Cronk (GetEQUAL's Managing Director), Dan Fotou, Jase Watson, and countless others whose dedication and hard work helped make the training the raving success it turned out to be.

I didn’t realize the true intent of Robin’s organizational symphony until very late Friday night (around 11pm). Earlier in the evening, Robin spoke about how she wasn’t bringing us all together to form a new organization. She said some other things, and all of a sudden, New York’s recent triomphe of marriage equality popped into my head. I couldn’t get it out of my head so I started playing with it a bit, poking and prodding here and there. I soon discovered some similarities between how marriage equality was actualized in New York and what Robin was doing, and it came down to one sentiment: coalition-building.

Instead of telling folks that she was attempting or wanted to build a coalition, she built it. Instead of asking folks to come together to fight for a common cause, she brought them together. Instead of worrying about “process” and “procedure,” she worried about “content” and “logistics.”

In short, Robin got an idea in her head and set out to effectuate its realization. And in doing so, she gathered together a truly wondrous group of 90 or so individuals into a coalescence of ideas, information, thoughts, energies, synergies, and actions. I would feel the love, the togetherness, and the oneness in the room as we progressed throughout each day, each presentation, and each training exercise and it renewed me. It energized me, and it filled me with impetus to take action.

So much so was the strength of this impetus to take action that I began planning a direction action event--a flashmob--to occur in the midst of our training: GetEQUAL activists planned to protest Urban Outfitter’s discriminatory and unequal treatment of its LGBTQ employees, such as not giving or even offering health benefits to LGBTQ employees’ partners or spouses. And that’s something that was not included on the agenda; it’s something that was organized and put into effect in less than 24 hours. It’s something that spoke directly to the training we were receiving this weekend. In essence, it was our “final exam” for the class. (The protest didn't take place due to logistical difficulties; many of the participants had to leave early to return to their homes and thus we were left with an insufficient number of participants to make the prosecution of the planned flash mob worth it.)

My life will forever be changed as a result of attending this training. And, I have a better idea of why I was made to go through all that I have endured in life, especially during the past ten years or so. For that, I owe Robin a universe of gratitude, admiration, and love.

To give you an idea as to the caliber of individual I've bonded with, in response to some of the blog posts that many of you have read right here, chronicling the my life over the past decade, as well as my own story as to why It Gets Better, I received this comment:

What impresses me so much about what you have shared is that through all the ugliness you are so sweet and giving of yourself. You have a basic kindness about you that I find so beautiful. 
A lot of people in your circumstance could be bitter or paralyzed with devastation. But instead, every interaction I have had with you has been with a brilliant, kind, caring person. 
And that is pretty effing remarkable.

That an individual could not only recognize this about me in the short period of time we've known each other but feel a need to vocalize their feelings about it to me, well, it leaves me speechless, humbled, and with a renewed determination and passion to fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves, so that we may some day look back on this and scratch our heads and wonder just what the heck all the fuss was about.

And so it is with profound and great love, gratitude, and the deepest respect for my new friends that I write and dedicate this post to them, the Memphis 90+, for I believe we will be seeing great things coming from this historic gathering of individuals who created, and will continue to make, history.

12 August 2011

Journeying Into Old Age

Yesterday, I had my first real experience on the journey into old age, and it wasn't fun.

I've not been feeling well for a while now; at the beginning of the month I was having "stomach issues" and I've just generally been feeling pretty run down.

Around 7pm yesterday evening, I began experiencing a great amount of pain in my chest, which made it difficult for me to breathe. I wasn't doing anything physical, and hadn't done anything physical in a while. In fact, I was sitting on my bed, as usual, on my laptop computer.

I called a few friends to see if I they had any idea of what might be happening, and was able only to get hold of one. She suggested that I go to the emergency room ("ER") right away, as chest pains might be related to the heart.

At first, I postponed such action as it didn't feel like my heart, per se. But as the minutes ticked by, the pain became worse, and it became increasingly difficult to breathe. The pain spread to my shoulder, back, neck, and head. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like someone was standing in the middle of my chest, on the inside. There was pressure but the pain mostly originated from within my body.

It wasn't the sort of tightness I normally would have associated with an asthma attack. I'd never before experienced anything like it. The pain increased exponentially as I inhaled, and it got to the point where I could only take very, very short, shallow breaths.

Twenty minutes after the pains began, I called 911, and reported that I was having chest pains and difficulty breathing. I have VOIP service from my cable company, and they advertise providing E-911 services with their VOIP service.

The 911 operator asked me where I lived, and I had to give him my address. It was quite difficult to talk, mostly due to the fact that I could only take very short, shallow breaths. He then told me to hold on and wound up transferring me to an EMS operator, where I had to repeat myself, including giving them my address.

I have verified with the cable company that the E-911 service that comes with my VOIP phone service through the cable company automatically transmits my address to the 911 call center. They are, however, running diagnostics to ensure that it was transmitted correctly yesterday.

There's no reason I should have had to spend just over two minutes on the phone with 911 to get an ambulance to show up. In my opinion, what should have happened was that as soon as I said I was having difficulty breathing, they should have asked if I wanted an ambulance sent to me and if I responded in the affirmative, should have read my address to me and asked if that's where I wished the ambulance to be sent.

I went outside of my apartment building to wait for the ambulance, which arrived pretty quickly. Once they got me inside of the ambulance, on the stretcher, they prepared to head to hospital, and the ambulance broke down. They had to radio for another ambulance to arrive, which took less than five minutes.

The EMS response was very good, in my opinion, and they treated me well. They allowed me to write down answers to questions (such as contact info, insurance info, medications taken, allergies, etc.) so I wouldn't have to talk, as they saw I was having difficulty with that. They took my pulse, blood pressure, and performed a few EKG, as well as measured my oxygen levels.

So once in the second ambulance, we took off for hospital. They asked which hospital I wanted to go to -- there are two of them in Yonkers. The one I'd gone to in the past (for less serious health matters) was supposed to be the worst of the two, so I opted to go for the one that's supposed to be better.

I was taken (on the stretcher) from the ambulance into the ER and placed into a room. I would say that approximately one-third of the rooms in the ER were occupied when I arrived. The first person I saw who came to the room I was in was the registration clerk. He took my insurance information, and was kind enough to take other information he need from my phone.

After about 20 or so minutes of being in the room, the triage nurse came in to see me. She hooked me up to the blood pressure and oxygen monitors, and took my temperature. As she was doing this, she began asking me some basic questions, such as what medications I was taking and if I had any allergies. Since I had already given this information to the EMS technicians, I was somewhat peeved that I had to repeat myself, as EMS techs usually transfer that info to the ER the few times I'd been taken to the ER by ambulance in the past.

She finally got around to asking me what was wrong, and I began telling her. As I was describing the symptoms I was having to her (which was difficult as I the pain was getting worse and it was extremely difficult for me to breathe, due to the pain), she left the room. I mean, she actually walked out on me while I was talking to her, without saying a word. No "I'll be right back" or anything.

Even more time passed, and another technician came in, who performed an EKG on me.

Approximately two hours after I entered the ER, the doctor on call finally came in to see me. She was very nice, and listened to all of my concerns. She examined me, and ordered medications as well as a number of tests, including a slew of blood tests. She advised me that she didn't think I was having a problem with my heart, and I agreed with her as it didn't feel like that. The doctor told me that the muscles in my right shoulder/neck were having severe spasms, and were impacting on the nerves, thus causing all of the pain and discomfort I was experience, which in turn was making it difficult for me to breathe.

A few minutes after the doctor left me, "my" nurse came into the room, along with a phlebotomist. The nurse administered one of the medications, and they both began poking me to draw blood and hook up an IV to administer some other medication (it took a few tries to fill the eight or so vials needed for all the tests the doctor ordered on my blood work, and I thus was left with a few bandages in different places on my arms and hands--ever since my automobile accident in 2002 where I spent nearly an entire year in hospital, it's been very difficult for phlebotomists and the like to find my veins as most of them had collapsed during that hospitalization).

The oral medication (a muscle relaxant) began to kick in, and as it did so, my pain and discomfort began to decrease.

I was then moved to a different area of the ER, a holding area, and was told that I was being moved there as they were finished treating me. I was finally able to take a normal breath, but breathing deeply was definitely out of the question. If I tried to do so, pain would immediately kick in and shoot from the bottom of my rib cage straight through to the top of my head.

About an hour after she first came to see me, the doctor returned to speak with me. She asked how I was feeling, and said that she could tell, visually, that it looked like I wasn't in anywhere near the pain and discomfort I was when she first saw me. She advised me that my blood work came back fine, except for an elevated white blood cell (WBC) count. However, since I didn't have a fever, she didn't think I was fighting an infection but advised I follow up with my regular doctor.

She then told me that I would be discharged, as it seemed her diagnosis and treatment were working. A bit after 11pm, the triage nurse came in to see me, had me sign the discharge papers and gave me some additional paperwork, as well as a few prescriptions. I was then free to go.

In Westchester County, in which Yonkers (where I live) is situated, most buses stop running some time between 9pm and 11pm. I advised the triage nurse that I came by ambulance and no way of getting home, as I didn't have money for a taxi. She told me that she didn't think the hospital could do anything, but I could ask at the registration desk, which she brought me to as I had to fill out some additional paperwork or answer questions (I can't really remember). The clerk at that desk told me that there wasn't really anything they could do for me. I was left on my own.

Mind you, after I had been moved to the holding area (where they moved me after treating me), I began contacting a number of people I knew in the area who might be able to help me out by picking me up to take me home, or something along those lines. However, since it was fairly late in the evening (although early for me, as I'm a night owl), most didn't answer me and I assumed they had gone to bed, which assumption was confirmed in the morning when they began responding to me but, by that time, I myself had gone to bed).

Long story short, as this story is long enough as it is, I sat in the waiting area for about three hours. Seeing that I was there for quite some time, the security guard approached me and asked if I was OK; I told her that I came to the ER by ambulance and had no way of getting home as I had no money for a taxi, and the buses had stopped running by the time I was discharged (I do have a bus card with money on it, and I did have that with me, useless that it was).

The security guard took it upon herself to make some phone calls, and finally was able to secure transportation for me to get home. I got home around 4am, nearly 4.5 hours after I was discharged from hospital.

I'm still feeling a bit icky, and definitely under the weather. I slept for nearly fifteen hours, when I finally did get home and was able to fall asleep.

As I write this, I can breathe normally and even take a modestly deep breath. At certain points during this ordeal yesterday, I know that my anxiety was kicking in and making things worse, especially during the time I was lying in the ER bed waiting to be seen by someone and having such difficulties and in extreme pain.

It should not, in my opinion, have taken a doctor almost two hours to see me after being admitted to the ER, especially as I was brought in by an ambulance (non-ambulatory, or patients brought in by ambulance, are usually given priority in the ER). The ER was neither particular busy nor occupied, from what I could see.

The triage nurse should not have walked out on me while I was answering her questions, especially without saying anything to me.

The ambulance that first arrived should not have broken down, causing me to be transferred to the second ambulance, increasing the amount of time it took to get me to the ER.

I should not have had to give my address to 911 operators, especially as I was having difficulty breathing, and especially as I had to give it to them twice.

I should not have waited the twenty or so minutes I did before calling 911, after the symptoms first appeared.

If I were younger, I would not be nearly as grouchy and not be complaining so much about this experience.

I guess this was my official "welcome to the You're Getting Old club initiation." It was not pleasant. :-p

I have, however, walked away from this journey with some souvenirs:
Souvenirs from my journey into old age.
I'm glad it wasn't a heart attack -- it could very well have been. The technical diagnosis on my discharge papers is "non-cardiac musculoskeletal" something or other (the ink got a bit smudged--event, perhaps?). Whatever it was, it was quite frightening. It's not often I'd call 911 to be taken to the ER, and it's not something I hope to have to do anywhere in the near future, either.