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The Iliad of Oxygen

It’s late morning in early December and I’m waking to the sounds of gurgling in the bathroom. Taped around my finger is a blood-oxygen sensor connected by a cord to a blood-oxygen monitor that looks like an old-school Gameboy. It does not play Pokemon but if it did and I was currently in the Water Gym, I’d be laughing at the coincidence given the noise coming from the bathroom. Having survived in this apartment for seven years, I know what the gurgling means. The toilet is backing up. The tub will soon follow.

The gods are angry.

Cursing the wrath of deities, I trip over the sensor’s cord tumbling out of bed. Checking the time, I’ve only been sleeping for three and a half hours with the monitor on. I cannot take it off yet. The insurance provider needs at least four hours of data. Tethered to the world’s worst Gameboy, I pause for a moment to assess the situation.

When important things beyond my capabilities to fix encounter problems it feels like someone upstairs is playing games with me. When it comes to plumbing specifically, it’s the someones actually upstairs who are causing (unintentionally) the problem. Knowing this fact doesn’t stop me from assigning blame to higher powers because when you’re groggy and there’s water moving in exciting directions, the time for altruism is over.

Damn the fecal torpedoes the second floor dropped. The pipe is clogged. Summon the mighty plumber, lord of the sewage-field. And, prepare for turgid combat.

It only takes a phone call to hire a plumber, unlike other certain professionals. You don’t need a prescription to get your toilet snaked. But if the gods decide to mess with my oxygen machine or bi-pap apnea device, I have to rely on having a doctor’s prescription in order to have a technician to repair or replace the machines. The story of how I got that prescription and the ordeal that came with it isn’t brief or painless. Before the end arrives, we’ll know anger, despair, and Espanol. Like Homer’s epics, we’ve started in the middle, but let’s go now to the beginning.

Sing, Goddess, of Tuck’s rage, petite yet murderous, that cost his Oxygen Machine immeasurable pain, pitched innumerable bad words into the ears of Hades, and did not apologize for them as they were the will of– Okay, let’s not get that epic.

Also, I should explain what I mean by oxygen machine.

The oxygen machine is technically called an oxygen concentrator in that it gathers the oxygen out of the air and outputs a relatively pure stream of O2 to whatever device or person who needs it. For my sleep quality to not be garbage (which I will later find out is extremely vital to my physical and mental health), I require about 2 liters of oxygen per hour while I sleep. If you’re curious about how much oxygen that actually is it’s about 2 liters per hour. That’s as far as I’ve gone in visualizing it. If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to do so but then keep it to yourself because I prefer the mystery.

A mystery I do not prefer is the puzzling orange indicator LED on the front of my oxygen machine which, one summer morning, decided to glow.

Waking up involves a process of turning off machines. First, the alarm clock. Then, the bi-pap. And finally, the oxygen machine. All of these electronic devices make intermittent noises but I can sleep through them. On this fateful summer morning, I’ve risen to discover the warning light on my oxygen machine is on and the “everything’s chill, dude” green light is off. Something is wrong. Unfortunately, at this time, I don’t have a prescription for the device as the years of moving locations (university and grad school) have rendered me without a current lung specialist, a pulmonologist, and so I have but one recourse.

Google and prayers.

Looking the manual of the machine up online, I find a chart detailing the complexities of the three warning lights. Green is good. Orange is not good. And, red is nuclear winter.

After testing the machine several times by letting it run and observing the orange light turn on, I rule out a few of the obvious solutions suggested by the manual. No, it’s not overheating and yes, it has airflow. All that’s left is the stern recommendation to call a technician for repair. But I don’t have a prescription anymore so that’s not going to work. Knowing that my lack of prescription is largely my fault but feeling incredibly defensive about it, I decide to go to my regular doctor to see what can be done.

I drive five blocks to my doctor’s office. They make an appointment for me later in the day. I drive home for a bit and then drive back.

One might think having a doctor means you get to see a doctor but that’s not always the case in modern medicine, at least on the Medicare level. This afternoon I’m joined in the exam room by a doctor-ish person who’s young and out to prove it. When I explain what’s happened, she tells me it will take 2 days for the insurance to process the emergency request to have the machine fixed. Okay. Two days of subpar sleep isn’t the end of the world, I think. The machine still runs, but the level of oxygen is reduced significantly. It’ll be fine, I tell myself. But then another solution occurs to me.  I ask the young doctor about the possibility of just getting a prescription for the machine to pay for the repairs myself, bypassing the insurance delay. She insists that’s not possible and I’m an idiot for thinking otherwise. Maybe she couldn’t hear me? I did my best.

Leaving the office feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing, I go to CVS to buy snacks.

Two days later the insurance rejects my request because they don’t have sufficient evidence proving I need oxygen at night. Despite the several hospital visits they already paid for where I did need oxygen at night or my history of being prescribed it, they require more proof. I guess if it was really going to be that easy, the Greeks would have just gotten over Helen. Of course, then it wouldn’t be an epic.

Returning to the doctor’s office, I make another appointment so the doctor can recommend a specialist for me who has the authority to requisition the medical devices I’m squeaking about. The nice lady at the desk informs me I should have gotten the recommendation already in the mail from a previous visit many months ago.

While we’re conversing, the young doctorish person who thinks I’m an idiot asks the nice lady at the desk for directions to a bodega where the other staff had bought lunch. I know which bodega she means and mentally think out the directions. Then I revel in not helping her. Minutes later, someone else gives directions and solves her problem. My petty revenge falls flat as all petty things eventually do.

At home, going through the old mail I find informational letters about the services my government health insurance provides. They have pictures and words in different languages. Except, I notice a trend. There seems to be a lot of Spanish. I had been assuming they sent duplicates of all information in both English and Spanish, I do live in Southern California, but now, to my frustrated surprise, I discover my letters are all completely in Espanol. I do not speak Espanol. So, yeah, that’s helpful. Faced with learning a new language or trying to poke through a bureaucracy to correct the mistake, I decide to sign up for an account on Duolingo.

Twenty minutes and two failed language quizzes later, I give up on Spanish (for now).

Digging through the documents, I find a phone number that appears useful for correcting account errors. Except, my voice is hard to hear over the phone, so this is not a call I can readily make on my own. Luckily, I have friends who help me out. Throughout this and other journeys, I’ve relied on a casual network of women to make phone calls for me when I need them made. Some of these women have even pretended to be my sister. Why is it just women who help me? I don’t know but I’m not complaining. Homer sought help from the muses. The friend who helps me make the call happens to speak Spanish and is a nurse but that’s not relevant. Epics are full of not relevant details and now we both know this.

After getting transferred to another department and then given a new number to call a different branch of the Empire (the insurance company), the language issue is fixed. The letters will now arrive in English and everything should be copacetic.

Days later, I go to my second appointment. This time I’m seeing the real doctor. The doctor whose name is on my papers. The big cheese. Unfortunately, he’s not at the office five blocks from my home. He’s at the office in a neighboring town. Voyaging the twenty-minute drive there (with traffic), I arrive at a one-story building that has a dilapidated charm with a cramped, gravel parking lot in the back. This is in stark contrast to the office near my home which is part of a healthcare complex that looks like newly-built university housing.  Because of the tangle I had with the last medical professional, I storm up to the entrance of the squat, dusty office ready for battle. War.

I prepare to be rude.

Because sometimes you have to really assert yourself in these situations and that means being a little rude. In order for me to do that, I have to step outside the usual polite demeanor ingrained by my mother through Masterpiece Theatre and fear. Feeling like this is life or death (it’s not but that’s how it feels), I practice my hot-tempered speech on the march in.

What do I want? A prescription. Why do I want it? Well, with a prescription for the oxygen machine, I can pay out of pocket to have a technician repair mine thus bypassing the insurance roadblocks. When do I want it? Right the Tuck now.

I reach the front. The glass door swings open from my overzealous yank. Strutting into the waiting room, I’m ready to throw down like it’s Wrestlemania, my entrance theme thundering in my head. But at the sight of the interior of the charmingly dilapidated building, I become aware once again that the world is so much bigger than me.

Divided in half by the placement of worn chairs, the office looks like a pharmacy in a bad neighborhood with thick-walled glass windows providing the only access to the nice ladies behind their desks. Has this place seen action? Adding to that fish out of water (but somehow still taking the time to notice his surroundings instead of trying to get back into the water) feeling are the multitude of health posters adorning the walls. Like the letters from my insurance, these too are in Spanish.

Recognizing a few words and using the symbols as context clues, I piece together that many of these posters are for people without any resources to get the basic kind of healthcare everyone needs. It’s a humbling experience for someone who’s often used to doing the humbling. By that I mean, I’m usually the one on the struggle bus but here I’m the errant colonizer trying to seize vital commodities. My stoked rage dissipates. I question if I should even be here at all. This spiraling self-reflection doesn’t last long.

I’m called through the security door to the back room.

The exam room is small and the posters here are in both English and Spanish. They feature anatomical organs. You know the type. Let’s be glad they’re not scratch ‘n’ sniff. The doctor enters shortly. We talk. He agrees to sign a prescription for an oxygen machine. He also puts in the orders to my insurance for a specialist referral. The letter should be in English this time. With the immediate problem close to being solved, I leave feeling like I’ve accomplished something.

I go to CVS and buy snacks.

Technicians arrive the next day to fix my oxygen machine. Wiley fellows, they saunter through my apartment admiring the decor. The main technician (or the one who does the talking) opens the back of the machine ignoring the warning signs that tell you not to do that. He unscrews a thing, rubs it a few times, and screws it back in. Fixed? When the machine is turned on, it runs fine. They take the machine with them to run further tests and leave me with a rental.

Roughly ten days after the first orange light started this adventure, I have a working oxygen machine again.

Next Monday, the technicians return with my machine. Fixed. They take their rental back and I regain a bottom chunk of Mazlow’s pyramid. Exhausted by the endeavor, I relax into the notion that from here on out everything will be easy victories and smooth sailing. But like Achilles after a night of dragging Hector around town, there’s a sneaking suspicion that the gods aren’t done with me yet.

Two days later, I wake to find the orange light is back on. No bueno.

The Iliad is over. The Odyssey awaits.

The epic concludes next month.

Published inNon-fiction


  1. Linda Parker McGuire Linda Parker McGuire

    Cannot wait to read the sequel!

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