Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Pain Pill…I Tried to be Nice…by Robert M. Katzman

by Robert M. Katzman © 2004

                        While I was visiting my sister, Bonnie, in 1981 in a hospital where she was recovering from thyroid gland cancer surgery, I happened to pass her endocrinologist in the hall.  We had met before in her room, and he recognized me and greeted me in the distinctively charming way doctors do when they stumble across some one who has some slight imperfection in their appearance.  He said to me:

“Why don’t you fix your face?”

            Perhaps some other person might have been offended by that comment.  Or, maybe all other people would have been offended by that comment.  But after having so many operations all over me in the previous thirty-two years of my life, I had long since learned that in order to receive a medical degree and perhaps make a fortune, many potential young doctors had to agree, apparently, to give up some other vital parts of their personalities.  The parts that are sensitive to other people’s feelings. Common courtesy to people who are not doctors and a blindness to these slight imperfections in themselves.

            I’m not suggesting that they made a deal with the Devil so that they could pass all their final exams, but how could it be that so many, many physicians and surgeons that I would meet casually at parties or in my store or just any place, would ask me with no hesitation at all, or self-consciousness, either,

“What happened to your face?” or “Do you have Bell’s palsy?” or “Did you have a stroke?”

            Complete strangers to me, but, I guess, privileged to say whatever they chose to say, to whomever they want, whenever they wanted because they were: doctors.

            Well, I wasn’t offended.  After a while, a person can get used to anything, somehow.  But I did stop this particular doctor in the hall, that day, and asked him what he meant.  Politely, but with the firm intention of being answered.

            To my surprise, the man was really serious, and told me about some new and pioneering micro vascular surgical procedures being done at the University of Chicago Hospitals that he felt might be helpful in reconstructing my face in a positive way.  He then gave me a name of the surgeon who was the head of the team doing the groundbreaking work there and advised me to check it out.  Then he wished me well and walked away down another hallway.

            I guess the endocrinologist felt he was being friendly, and helpful to me. Inviting me to contemplate my having major surgery for cosmetic reasons only, the way some other person would suggest my checking out a new restaurant or hit movie.

            Well, I always liked the University of Chicago.  I was born there, went to high school there, had many relationships with people there, so I decided to go visit the surgeon he recommended and maybe give the hospital a little business.

            However, this story is not really about all the many events that preceded and followed the twelve-hour operation that I finally had about a year later. By now, in 2004, I’ve had twenty-eight operations of many kinds, from foot surgery to brain surgery. So while that particular operation, although very complicated and almost completely successful, was my most significant transformation ever, up to that point, by now twenty-two years later, it has become just one more operation.

            No, reader, this story is about what happened when I reached a certain age and decided what was and wasn’t acceptable in my recovery phase and how I stood up for myself when I wasn’t willing to let someone else decide how much pain I was supposed to be able to endure.

            In August 1982, I was recovering from the surgery that transplanted one of my ribs from the left side of my rib cage to form a new jaw on the left side of my face where there had been nothing there before, to give my face a more symmetrical appearance.  I had another operation at the same time, at my request, to smooth out the top part of my left hip that had been used to form a jaw in a previous, but unsuccessful operation in 1971.  I figured I was going to be laid up for a long time anyway, so why not do everything at the same time.  There was no quantity discount policy for multiple surgeries, however, although I did ask about that.

            I was treated very well, in general, and my recovery was coming along slowly, but periodically, there was an intense pain on the side of my face, like a nail being pounded into my left temple.

            During the day, if the pain was too much to endure, I would ring a nurse and he or she would bring me whatever level of narcotic was necessary to quell my suffering.  But as I had long ago learned in many different hospitals all over Chicago, the night shift…is different.  Less accommodating.  Less English spoken as a first, or even as a second language.  Less alternatives to capricious behavior by frequently irritable personnel.

            Like the night I rang for a nurse to please bring me a cup of water when I was immobile, and while waiting the long period after that request, I fell asleep. When the nurse finally came, she shined a very bright flashlight in my face and I was very startled and must have cried out in my shock at the bright light.  The nurse, miffed at my response to her, made some comment to me expressing unhappiness with my reaction, then turned around, with my cup of water, and left my room.  She never returned, all night, despite repeated rings on my part.  She did tell me, over the intercom, that she would not put up with being yelled at by a patient.

            So after that and other incidents like it at night, I knew that, in a way, it was every man for himself against the nightshift.

            Late one night, in 1982, I was in terrible pain.  I rang for a nurse to bring me a pain pill, as I was used to doing during the day.  I was thirty-two, very polite to everybody, and only wanted to recover and get out of there.

            About twenty minutes later, a tall young man in a white uniform walked slowly into my room.  He asked me what my problem was, and I told him that I needed a pain pill as soon as possible.  That the pain was intense.

            He didn’t respond, but instead looked at my chart and then after a few minutes informed me that it said I was to be weaned off the pain medication so that I didn’t become addicted to the drug.  He then told me that I would have to wait until 7 a.m. for a pill.  It was one ‘clock at night when he told me this unwelcome news.

            I then again told him how bad the pain was, politely, and that I couldn’t wait that long.  He turned to leave the room and said over his shoulder as he left that I should take the matter of the dosage up with my doctor, in the morning.  And then, he was gone.

            No one had told me about the order to change my medication. I was rational and worthy of knowing information like that.  It was hard enough for me to communicate at all as it was, since my mouth was wired shut and speaking intelligibly was slow and exasperating. I decided that I didn’t like his answer to me.

            At that point in my recovery, I had drain tubes coming out of my neck near the incision, and an IV in my arm attached to a tall metal pole on wheels that had bags hanging from it.  Where I went, the pole went.  I also had a large dressing on my hip where the incision for that work had been done, and there were many stitches holding me  together where my rib had been removed on the left side of my rib cage. I could go to the bathroom by myself, but walking was very slow.

            But at the same time, from the difficult physical work I’d done all my life, including carpentry, I was quite fit, strong, and very resilient.  That particular night in my hospital bed, you could add unhappy and unwilling to stay that way to the assets column.

            About a half an hour after the young man left my room, with my slow-motion determination, I painfully slid out of bed, found my slippers, and a robe to cover my ass.  Then I grabbed the pole, my faithful companion, and shuffled out of my room.

            I looked both ways when I was standing in the chilly hallway, and then I saw that my tormentor  was way far away to my right, sitting at a desk, reading a newspaper.  He looked bored.  I decided to go visit him.

            Pulling my metal pole along with me, with my tubes waving as I moved jerkily down that long corridor, I could hear my slippers quietly scraping on the dark tile floor.  The gentleman at the desk did not look up.  He didn’t hear me approaching him, and the hallway wasn’t all that well lit.  But I just kept on, fueled by resolve.  My head was splitting.  It was simply too much for me to bear.

            About forty-five minutes later, I finally arrived at the young man’s desk. He had seen me coming at some point, but must not have felt it was worthy of a response from him.  I certainly couldn’t yell out my unhappiness to him.  But here I was, at last.  He remained seated, and looked up at me, wordlessly, from his newspaper.  To his left were three tall grey metal clothes lockers, like you would find in any high school hallway.

            Taking some deep breaths, tired from the long walk, I made an effort to speak as clearly as I could to the young man.

“Sir, ken I hev a pen pill, pleze?” I squeezed out the words, one at a time.

Looking annoyed at my interruption of his reading, or maybe it was my seemingly inability to accept his clear explanation of when I would be allowed to have my next pain medication, he slowly shook his head negatively and said to me,

“Hey man, I already told you, before.  No more pain pills until morning.  Now go back to your room. I don’t make the rules around here.”

            Then he returned to reading his newspaper, dismissing me.  I stood there, absorbing this bad news, and considered my options.  It was now after two o’ clock in the morning.  After about a minute, I slowly turned left, as if to turn around and go back to my bed, but instead I kept moving left until I stood in front of the tall grey metal clothes lockers.  My friend in the white uniform didn’t look up.  It was time for me to make my point.

            Taking a deep breath and with all my strength, I pounded on the metal lockers with my fists, and also with my metal pole, kicking the lockers with my slippered feet as well, making as much noise as I possibly could, which it turned out was a lot, in that quiet hallway.

            The young man looked to me as if he was having a heart attack. I guess I had finally captured his attention.  He rushed over to me, trying to restrain me without knocking me over at the same time. When he grabbed one arm, I kept pounding on the lockers with the other arm.  I was not at all happy with him.  He eyes were opened so wide, the whites so bright in the gloom, I thought that he might be ready to reconsider his position.

            I stopped pounding and kicking the lockers, and still holding my pole, turned to face him.  Looking him in the eyes to see if he got the message, I hissed at him:


            He dropped his hand from my arm, and positively raced to the room where the drugs were kept, knocking his newspaper to the floor as he spun past his desk. In moments he was back, with two small white paper cups.  One cup, with my pill.  The other cup, filled with water.

            Holding on to my pole to keep from falling down, I took the pain pill in my fingers and squeezed it through a small gap in the wires on my teeth.  Then I took the paper cup with the water and tried to drink it all, with half of it spilling, as usual, on my thin hospital gown. I wiped my mouth dry with the back of my free hand, and looked up at my new friend, the man in the white uniform. Then I said to him, quietly, calmly,

“Thenk you.”

            He stared at me, wordlessly, but I was already shuffling back down the long hallway, to my room.  I stopped once to catch my breath, and looked back at him.  He was still standing there, watching me, the lunatic patient, with the pages of his newspaper scattered all around his feet.  Eventually, I made my way back to my room, and with the terrible pain beginning to subside, I finally fell asleep.

In the morning, when the warm yellow light of the sun on my face woke me up, I rang the nurse’s desk and asked to speak to my doctor.  After a while, when he showed up, we quietly resolved the misunderstanding about how much pain was reasonable for me to tolerate, and he corrected the dosage, and the timings on my chart.  I thanked him.

The next night, there were no problems.  The same young man from the night before brought me my magic little pill, and I slept without pain.

                       He was nice about it, too.


It is one of my favorite stories, because it shows that a determined person, no matter how weakened by a particular circumstance, can still mount an effective offensive in seeking what is best for themselves. I never lost control, never doubted that he would be shocked and knew that my apparent “wildness” would strip away his indifference to me as a person. Essentially, he didn’t give a damn and never dreamed a guy like me would come along and challenge the status quo. It may be 40 years ago by now, but a person has to believe in themselves, or suffer the consequence of being reduced to a number.


Comment by Herb Berman

August 12, 2019 @ 7:22 pm

OMG! Bob. What torture. I don’t know how you survived.

Comment by Don Larson

August 12, 2019 @ 7:52 pm

Hi Bob,

Good for you!

Warmest regards,


Comment by Marilyn

August 12, 2019 @ 8:42 pm

Oy vey 🙁 Been there wayyyyy tooooo mannnnnny times. Today I celebrated 69 years of life…. or better stated the beginning of a new birth year! 14 and one half years ago my only child, Mara shared a lobe of her liver with me. She Selected to save my life. We were both sliced and diced! Initially percodan was given to me. Two days later they switched to Tylenol. Effective? Yes…….if one is dead and feels no pain! The same crap……do not become addicted! I had only one desire: Find a knife and begin cutting any person wearing a white or gray coat! (Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 2005). Gratitude is my name. HOWEVER…….NO ONE has the right to decide another persons pain!!!!!! Seriously. Anti-rejection drugs have stolen my immune system. I from time to time get pneumonia. But……gravely ill pneumonia. Once, at Evanston Hospital, my temp was 105. The nurse told me to chill and leave her alone. I requested an ice pack. She did not walk into my room and hand it to me……the -itch stood at the doorway and with an under arm pitch threw 4 ice packs at me. Now, I am a nice person….but! Fired was her payback. FIGHT!

Comment by Janet

August 12, 2019 @ 9:39 pm

sad story-that is repeated all to often . My sister in laws pain med was just reduce .[ Infected knee surgery ] Dang druggies have now ruined it for many older folks who need it and now we all suffer . I am sorry for you that you had to have so many operations. G D bless you for you strength
and courage

Comment by Brad Dechter

August 13, 2019 @ 5:10 am

Do as I used to- ask for 2 pills, pocket 1.
As someone who had been hooked on pain pills due to a multitude of surgeries myself, it is a fine line some of these doctors with a conscience walk- a line between pain relief and addiction.
My last surgery, I planned my whole pain med experience down to the hour and day I took what pills and how many to reduce the chances of getting rehooked- and I did just fine.
Good for you in sticking up for yourself! Go Guzundt.

Comment by Brad Dechter

June 28, 2022 @ 7:54 am

You are such a pill! (Wink.)
Reading it the second time was less painful than the first.
I now schedule my pain meds in advance of any surgery so I can trim down to zero meds methodically and not based on some Docs whim.
Good to know you won the battle!

Comment by Janis

June 29, 2022 @ 2:46 pm

Amen !!! Had severe pain many times in my life an have been treated the same way ! Good for you ! Praying you are in Wonderful Health today !

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