“Mitch,” Adam whispered conspiratorially over the phone. “I have a serious problem… you know, down there!”
I was only momentarily confused.
“What, with your feet?” I asked him.
I could hear him wince over the phone.
“No, not my feet. “ He answered. “A little higher, you know?” he said rather pointedly.
I immediately understood- it was in the vicinity of either ‘turn your head and giggle’ or ‘bend over and cough,’’ two private medical areas that most men wouldn’t talk about even if you held them at gunpoint! Hey, I don’t care who you are; those are sensitive neighborhoods to have some Light Fingered Louie diddling around in, even if he is a doctor of medicine, much less to have a serious problem with.
My youngest stepson never wants to talk to me on the telephone unless he has a problem. It’s not that he doesn’t love me; it’s just that he’s not the ‘Chatty Cathy’ type. Oh, we save our passing conversations for the dinner table when he and his wife come to visit. We talk about everything, his job, religion, philosophy, politics and he’s a very bright and intelligent young man. But, whenever he tells his mom that he wants to talk to me on the phone, it’s usually for advice on one of three subjects: a home improvement project, something to do with trimming the trees on his land, or a medical quandary he doesn’t want his mother to know about.
My wife is a bit of a worrywart and not very good at medical emergencies. She’s the kind who will slap a child for getting hurt, or bleeding, before she comforts them and dresses their wounds. I’m a little calmer in the clinches than my harried wife, having spent the majority of my teenage years in first aid and senior life saving classes. Consequently, in my house I am called by one of three names: Grandpa Crabby, Grandpa Daddy or Doctor Mitch. The first two are owing to my age, gray hair and sour disposition. The latter is due to my specifically limited but otherwise extensive general layman’s knowledge of things medical. I don’t get real rattled at the sight of blood or broken bones, unless they’re mine, having learned at an early age the three ‘B’s’ of basic first aid- Breathing, Bleeding and Broken Bones. Why are they in that order? Well, the bleeding doesn’t matter if the victim isn’t breathing and the broken bones don’t matter if the victim bleeds to death. Simple, right?
“What do you mean, you have a serious problem?” His mother asked.
“Mom,” Adam snapped, ”hang up the phone!”
After a moment’s pause, he continued.
“I have blood in my urine, Mitch.” He confessed.
In the early sixties we were living in the Nelson House on the Beach Loop Road. It was near to the end of summer and our neighbors were harvesting their gardens. Mom received a generous mess of summer vegetables from somebody or other and decided to boil them up for dinner. Around about eight in the evening, give or take, when it was time for bed, I went to the bathroom to relieve myself. I was a perennial bed-wetter and my parents insisted that I go to the bathroom at least once and usually twice before turning in. It never helped, of course, but I went through the motions of emptying my little bladder anyway.
“Dad!” I screamed frantically as I came running into the living room.
I nearly frightened him to death.
“What?” he sputtered as he jumped and clenched his newspaper into a ball.
My eyes were wide with fear.
“I… I peed blood!” I nearly fainted.
Dad grabbed me by my shoulders to keep me from falling down.
“You what?” He asked me.
I steeled myself in opposition to the widening fear, took a deep breath and braced myself against what I was sure would be certain death.
“I peed blood!” I repeated anxiously.
Dad took in a calming breath and let it out slowly.
“Show me, son.” He said calmly.
I led him to the bathroom and pointed to the toilet. There, mixed in the wastewater was a bright arterial red liquid.
“Dad,” I asked with all the seriousness of a condemned man, “Am I going to die?”
He looked the full length of me and smiled weakly. He was unnerved, I could tell but he was putting a good face on. He started to question me.
“Did you fall down at school today?” He began to carefully feel and pat me all over as he launched his slow and laborious triage of possible serious injuries to his frightened young son.
“No, sir.” I answered.
“Did you get hit in the kidney’s in football at recess?” He continued.
I thought hard for a moment. It was working. In getting me to think of the answers to his questions, he had momentarily gotten me to forget to be afraid.
“No.” I said.
“Did you get hit anywhere in your back or your side?” He asked.
“No.” I told him.
Dad looked back toward the bathroom door and called for my mother.
“Delores!” He called out. “Better call Doctor Crane.”
I nearly collapsed.
“Am I going to bleed to death, dad?” I stammered.
My father put a reassuring hand on my head and smiled warmly.
“Well,” he said, “maybe, but you’re not going to die right away and you’re certainly not going to die before the Doctor arrives!”
Adam was worried, I could tell by his tone on the telephone. I began with some basic questions.
“Did you take a fall today?”
He paused just long enough to form his answer.
“Did you take a hard throw in Jujitsu class?” I asked him.
He answered without hesitation.
There followed a long pause on the phone.
“There’s something else, Mitch.” He hesitated to say it. “I have blood in my stool too.”
“Oh my God!” my wife moaned.
“Mom! Hang up the phone! Adam snarled.
Doctors still made house calls in the early sixties, especially to the homes of rural country folks like us. Not that Dr. Crane was going to venture out in the cool night air- no, he had a young intern for that. What was the use of being a senior physician in a medical practice if you couldn’t send a junior colleague out at night? Doctor Crane would stay home in his jammies with his feet up and his nose in a good book or a medical journal and send his young protégé, Doctor Masterjohn.
“You have blood in your stool too?” I asked my stepson. That didn’t sound right. An internal injury would affect one or the other, the kidney or the bowel, but not usually both, unless the injury was a massive one. But, Adam hadn’t said he had been in anything like a car wreck, for God’s sake! In fact, he said he hadn’t been injured at all! There were of course certain other diseases- cancer sprang to mind…
Dr. Masterjohn came bustling through the backdoor all business and efficiency. Mom led him through the washroom and into the kitchen.
“Doctor Crane tells me your son is eliminating blood?” He asked my worried father.
“Yes.” Dad answered cryptically.
Doctor Masterjohn opened his little black bag and pulled out a thermometer. He shook it once or twice and then turned to me.
“Open.” He ordered.
The taste of isopropyl alcohol was vile in my mouth. He began his preliminary inquiry.
“Did you fall down at school today?” He began.
“No.” I mumbled trying not to crush the glass tube in my mouth with my teeth.
“Get hit in the back in sports or get into a fight?” He continued.
I looked nervously at dad. Fighting was not allowed.
“No sir.” I affirmed.
He grasped me by the shoulders and turned my back to him.
“Pull up your shirt, Mitchy.” He instructed.
I did as I was told. Dr. Masterjohn surveyed my back, thumped at my lungs in several places and palpated my torso where my kidneys were located to see if I winced in pain. When I didn’t, he turned me back around.
“Drop your drawers.” He told me.
I glared at mom and frowned. She dutifully turned her back to me.
The Dr. palpated my abdomen, checked me for hernia and then examined my penis and (yikes!) testicles. He exhaled long and hard and sat back in the chair.
“Okay. “ He said. “Pull your pants up.”
He took the thermometer from my mouth and looked at it.
“Normal.” He mused more to himself than anyone else in the room.
Dr. Masterjohn rubbed at his unshaven face as he looked around the dimly lit kitchen. Mom hadn’t cleared away the dinner dishes yet. He studied the remnants of our sparse boiled vegetable supper. He smiled. He wrung his hands together and cleared his throat.
“Anybody else have bleeding?” he asked suspiciously.
Mom and dad looked at each other and then to my brother and three sisters.
“No.” They answered in unison.
The doctor eyed them studiously.
“Anybody else besides your son use the bathroom tonight?” He asked.
Dad shifted nervously on his feet.
“Well… no, not yet anyway.” He confessed. “Mitchy has a bedwetting problem, so we make him go to the bathroom before he goes to sleep.”
I turned a crimson red. Dad hadn’t wanted to tell on me and normally he wouldn’t have but in light of the seriousness of the situation, he had to tell the truth.
Dr. Masterjohn smiled and leaned back in the chair and surveyed the cluttered dinner table as he began to close his little black bag.
“What did you folks have for dinner tonight?” He chuckled.
I sighed into the telephone as Adam asked me,
“Do you think it might be serious, Mitch?” He sounded anxious.
I switched the receiver from one ear to the other as I began to pace up and down.
“Well, it could be but, it wouldn’t be common to eliminate blood from both your bowel and your bladder or kidney’s simultaneously without some kind of preceding injury. Has this been going on for a few days or longer?” I questioned him.
My stepson is a tough guy and not one to complain or whine. He could have an arm hanging by skin and ligaments and say everything was just fine.
“No, just started this evening.” He told me truthfully.
“Okay. Well, let’s not jump too far ahead just yet. Let’s start with something simple first. If you just had blood in your stool,” I began to muse out loud, “I would guess, depending on the color, something as simple as hemorrhoids, unless it had been going on for a while…”
He interrupted me.
“No, just tonight, like I said.”
I continued to pace.
“Or if it was just bloody urine, I would guess a bladder or kidney infection or maybe both but blood from your kidney’s, bladder and bowel and all at the same time?” I wondered aloud as I tried to think.
“Think maybe I should call the doctor?” My stepson asked.
I stopped pacing just long enough for the slip-clutch in my memory to find an old gear and grind the present day to a stop and then throw everything into reverse. I began to recall something from four decades prior.
“What have you been eating?” I asked him.
Doctor Masterjohn surveyed the cherry-red stained dishes still on the supper table.
“Did you folks eat beets for dinner?” He laughed.
Clearly, I had caught my stepson by surprise.
“What do you mean?” He replied. “Like, what did I have for dinner?”
“Well, for instance, have you been eating any dark red vegetables, like maybe beets?”
My wife had obviously not hung up the extension.
“Oh, Mitch!” She scoffed derisively in her heavy Italian accent. “My son doesn’t eat beets!”
Adam was just about fed up with telling his mother to hang up the phone.
“Mom,” he nearly shouted, “shut up a minute!”
He cleared his throat authoritatively.
“Actually, yes. I had a cold beet salad for dinner in the restaurant last night.”
I began to chuckle in the telephone.
“What’s so funny?” He demanded.
Mom and dad looked questioningly at each other.
“Yes.” Mom finally admitted. “Our neighbors brought us a mess of beets and I boiled them for our supper.”
Doctor Masterjohn smiled benignly.
“Your son is eliminating the same chemical compound used to make red pen ink, which is commonly found in beets.” He giggled. “Chances are, when the rest of you use the bathroom, the same thing will happen to you, depending on how much you ate, but it looks like your son must have been pretty hungry and I’ll bet he ate a lot of beets. It’ll probably take a day or two, but the staining will eventually disappear. You might want to be aware that his stool, and probably some of yours will appear to be bloody as well for a day or two. But there’s no real harm in any of it.”
I felt a little stupid. No, I felt very stupid! Mom and dad didn’t look any the less sheepish.
“I’m not going to die?” I asked him?
“Not unless your mom poisoned the beets.” He answered as he glanced at my mother.
Mom glowered at the smart-aleck doctor, but who could blame him for a little jab? After all, he had been dragged out after hours for a house call, supposing a little boy was seriously ill and bleeding to death internally, not urinating bright red beet juice!
There was a pause on the phone and then a small relieved snicker.
“You’re a damn genius!” Adam exclaimed.
I laughed at him.
“No, I’m not.” I said as I began to tell him the story. “But, forty some years ago I was a very frightened little eight year old boy…”