Of Road Trips and Journeys

So there I was, hauling along about 80 or so, northbound on I35 a few miles south of Waxahachie, when suddenly there was a “bang,” followed by a sharp drop in speed and a loud, rhythmic popping sound at a rapid tempo, which dropped from prestissimo to andante as I decelerated. Instantly, multiple warning lights flashed red alert.

My first coherent thought after a moment of total confusion was: “Blown-out spark plug.” I eased to a stop in the grass a good distance off the shoulder to test this hypothesis. A quick visual exam of the engine showed all plugs to be in their proper places. But a plume of smoke was rising from the exhaust header, the result of a rivulet of oil dripping from cylinder number 4. This could be a blown head gasket. Lovely.

State Farm dispatched a wrecker with an ETA of 120 minutes, a minor eternity when you are dead in the water on a really hot day by the side of a busy freeway.

I had been on my way to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a consultation. Following the principle of lemons-lemonade, I had elected to drive there, rather than fly, because I happen to enjoy road trips, and because I had never seen that part of the country before from the ground. This was a majorly inauspicious development. Which should have been a clue.

There was no getting around it; this was a pretty bad fix. I floundered about for a solution, trying not to panic. I really, REALLY did not want to miss this appointment, a golden opportunity that might not come again. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to leave a day earlier than I otherwise might have, to allow for unanticipated delays. This gave some wiggle room. A small consolation but a consolation nonetheless.

It was already over 100 outside, and probably 20 degrees more than that inside the car. My hands were sweating so profusely that it interfered with the touch function of the phone, causing random malfunctions and making every action an exercise in patience. With effort, I queried Google for “rental cars near me” which produced a disappointingly short list of businesses, all of which were closed for the weekend. I thought: This cannot possibly be right.

I needed reinforcements. I called Carolyn, who went right to work. After a few minutes she found Thrifty Car Rental at Love Field in Dallas, about 40 miles away. The phone continued useless for all online activity, so I was going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, by dealing with actual live humans. The contact number Carolyn provided connected to a call center somewhere on the other side of the globe, staffed by people with English-language skills ranging between sort-of and barely. Between my lousy hearing, the overpowering road noise, the thick accents, and the language barrier, it just wasn’t happening. So I gave up and asked Carolyn to set it up for me from her end. A few minutes later there was a rental car reserved in my name at a facility across the boulevard from Love Field, available until midnight. All I had to do was get there sometime before then.

In due time the wrecker driver showed up. I told him about the problem and invited him to take a listen. His initial reaction was exactly the same as mine had been: blown-out spark plug. Hmmm. Perhaps I needed to take another look, maybe lay hands on the plugs to see if one was loose in its socket. I zeroed in on number 4, and sure enough, when I tugged on the plug wire, the plug came with it. Well, well, well. That’s your problem right there.

This discovery also explained the worrisome oil leak. Subaru uses an uncommon boxer-style engine, with horizontally opposed cylinder banks. Their valve-train covers always leak a little after a few years, and the oil collects in the spark plug wells, which are canted slightly upward for better access, and therefore do not drain. The fuel/air mix blasting out the spark plug hole had apparently pushed the collected oil out of the plug well and onto the valve cover, where it had drained onto the exhaust pipe.

OK, maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. If luck was with me then maybe the threads hadn’t stripped during the forced expulsion, and maybe the plug could be screwed back into place without a problem.

I had no tools, though, and the Firestone shop where they towed the car had no availability that afternoon. Neither could they promise to be able to fix the thing if, as was realistically pretty likely, the threads of the spark plug hole had, in fact, stripped. Time was of the essence, so I had to keep moving. Rent car it is. The rest could be dealt with later.

State Farm offered a $30 discount on a Lyft ride. So I downloaded and installed their app, and instantly went down a rabbit hole of serial glitches, culminating maybe forty minutes later with the dreaded “Your account has been locked” message. Another forty frustrating minutes followed with customer support, conducted at glacial speed entirely by text. The last communication was: We have submitted your case for review. The end. No timetable for resolution. Well I guess it’s gonna be that other ride-share service after all. So I downloaded and installed the Uber app, and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with the message “Welcome back, Scott.” Some years prior I had apparently set up an account but never used it, and had therefore forgotten about it. But Uber had not. In ten minutes I had a ride. Thirty five minutes after that I was standing in front of the Thrifty rental desk.

After a five-hour delay, I resumed my northward journey in a nearly new Toyota Corolla. Not the full-sized car I had been promised, and for which I had paid. But it was clean and had comfy seats, the latest in driver-assist technology, and good air-conditioning. As an added bonus the car got fabulous mileage, averaging a consistent 42 miles per gallon at 80-plus miles per hour, far better than my Subaru, which gets around 25 with a tailwind, downhill. At around $3.60 per gallon, the savings on gas would take a pretty good chunk out of the rental cost. Eager to make up for lost time, I drove until blurry vision set in around 1:30 am. I stopped for what was left of the night in a blink-and-you-miss-it burg a couple of miles off the Kansas turnpike.

The remainder of the trip was blessedly routine. The driver-assist features were quite advanced. With all features turned on the car steered itself, kept a steady distance from cars ahead of you, applied brakes and throttle as necessary, and warned you of any obstructions. Very little was required of the driver. Which was fine with me; that much more bandwidth available for thinking and observing the passing landscape. The car was close to being able to drive itself, at least on the highway, but it didn’t allow that option. If you took your hands off the wheel, fifteen seconds later you would get a warning. If you ignored the warning, the assist feature shut off, an alert sounded, and the cruise control was disconnected.

The Toyota also had some irritating nanny-ish features, a reminder of the general wussification of our society in recent years. For example, you couldn’t use cruise control without every single driver-assist feature being enabled. This took a minute to figure out. The car locked all doors with an emphatic, final-sounding clunk, like a cell door slamming closed, the instant you put it in gear, and kept it that way. And if you tried to drive even a hundred feet with your seatbelt off, say from the motel office to your room across the parking lot, an alarm would sound, impossible to ignore, which quit only when you PUT the DAMNED BELT ON ALREADY for GODSAKE or slid the gearshift into “park.”

Some people are bored to tears by road trips. They don’t know what they’re missing. For me it’s practically therapy. You have unlimited time to think, plus an endlessly changing view. Introvert heaven.

On this particular route, while there isn’t any scenery that you might describe as “grand,” there is plenty to keep you interested if you’re willing to adjust your expectations. There are the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma, a geologically complex formation with a history dating deep into the pre-Cambrian, that incomprehensibly ancient, alien era when the land was barren, the sea and air were poisonous, and the most advanced life forms on the planet were primitive, single-celled prokaryotes. Next up are the Flint Hills of Kansas, with thirty-mile views across short-grass prairie; the last remaining stands of it, in fact, all others having been driven to extinction by grazing and the plow. At the far edge of the Sunflower State are the Missouri Breaks, a densely forested warren of scarps, canyons, and promontories flanking the broad Missouri, a natural refuge continuously occupied by aboriginal Americans for a thousand generations.

A little farther along are the glacial outwash plains of southern Iowa, laid down just fifteen thousand years ago by veritable Mississippis of meltwater spilling from the great continental glaciers as they retreated northward. Beyond these are the limitless cornfields of central Iowa, the world’s granary. Hundreds of thousands of precisely spaced rows, each containing hundreds of thousands of precisely spaced, virtually identical individuals, each individual an exemplar of precision botanical engineering, optimally designed for the conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into high-grade sustenance with maximum efficiency.

Beyond that are the Big Woods, that primeval web of towering, old-growth, maples and red oaks and sweet gums, with a summer canopy so dense that even at high noon the forest floor is shrouded in permanent twilight. As I near my destination these begin to to give way to the boreal forests of the far north, a thousand-mile deep expanse of spruce, birch, and pines, reaching all the way to the high arctic, unbroken but for a narrow, man-made, corridor marking the imaginary line that separates the imaginary Canadian and American political entities.

Somewhere along the way, a friend calls me to ask how the journey is going. Fine for now, I say. But after we hang up, my inner hair-splitter gets hung up on the word “journey,” which seems evocative of something greater than a plain old road trip. A proper journey, by definition, is long, serious of purpose, and transformative. You face a challenge or series of them, which if met lead to learning and growth. You encounter setbacks and false starts and wrong turns. But in successfully passing from origin to destination you are raised from a lower state of being to a higher one. Although I have described this excursion to others in casual terms, and in my own mind pretend that it is a little more than a diversion, in truth it is a dead-serious thing. It will not be pleasant. It’s outcome will almost certainly affect the rest of my life. So after some reflection, I concur that my friend’s categorization is accurate.

Yet despite its serious purpose, I thoroughly enjoy this voyage, and take a moment to wonder “why?” What is it about transiting from a known Point A to unknown Point B that appeals? Around this time my inner pedant chimes in with psychobabble explanations. Symbolic of our life journey blah blah blah, timeless quest for adventure blah blah blah central theme of our cultural yore blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I shush it and start over. After a bit of reflection it occurs to me that at some deeper level we instinctively equate changing our physical location with changing ourselves. Don’t like your particular status quo? Change it. Exchange a mundane and  problematic “here” for an exotic and idyllic “there.” Problem solved. Never mind that, as a wise man once observed, wherever you go, there you are.

It further occurs to me that if you were to look at it as a business proposition, this “journey” thing would be a pretty hard sell. You leave Home, that place of comfort and safety, predictability and familiarity, where you well and truly belong, where everybody knows your name, to go god knows where and face god knows what. Hardship is pretty much a given, danger or injury or death a real possibility. It’s loaded with unknowns, especially unknown unknowns, the worst kind. What thinking creature in its right mind would ever willingly submit to such a thing?

Yet the urge to wander, to explore, to see what’s out there, to take a chance, is universal among our kind, and possibly unique. It might be feature or it might be a bug. For every spectacular, celebrated success, there might be a thousand dismal, forgotten failures. But it’s what we do. And because of it, despite some very real downsides, at this moment in history we humans are pretty much rocking it.

Rochester is a lovely, well laid-out town in southern Minnesota that exists for the sole purpose of serving the Mayo Clinic. Of its 120,000 citizens, fully one-third work at the Clinic, and at least half the remaining serve it in some support capacity. Like many Midwestern cities, it uses the street-avenue, north-south-east-west system, so even without a map you know where you are just by looking at the nearest street sign.

Like a tourist town, Rochester is a Destination, only without the price-gouging. Food, drink, and lodging are more than reasonable, everywhere. Everyone is nice to you, everywhere. The vibe is overwhelmingly “Welcome. How can we help?”

For decades, the Mayo clinic has been the gold standard of healthcare. Almost every ranking of medical institutions places it first, ahead of such world-leading facilities as Cedars-Sinai, Johns Hopkins, Stanford Medical, and the Cleveland Clinic. The Mayo began modestly, when in 1878 a diminutive, energetic, English immigrant by the name of William Worral Mayo, described as “feisty” by contemporaries, settled in Rochester at the insistence of his wife, who had grown weary of the itinerant life of a traveling doctor.

The practice of medicine in the 19th century bore little resemblance to our modern version. At that time, doctoring was more of a trade than a profession, an art not a science. You needed no certification or formal training to practice medicine. There were no governing organizations. A would-be doctor typically apprenticed with an established one for a few years before going out on his own. Or not; some just hung out a shingle and took whomever showed up. You learned on the job, the hard way, and kept what you learned to yourself; trade secrets and all that. A visit to the doctor was as likely to kill or cripple as heal you.

But by the close of that century, medicine had begun to change, and William Mayo figured large in that transformation. He was among the first to apply scientific principles to medicine. He accepted the Germ Theory of disease, and understood the importance of cleanliness. He was also dedicated to the idea of service: “The patient’s needs come first.” At one point he and his wife mortgaged their house to buy a cutting-edge microscope for their practice. He was among the first to cultivate an ethos of openness; whatever was learned was shared.

A breakthrough of sorts occurred when Mayo came to realize the importance of skilled care in speeding the recovery process. In the aftermath of a devastating tornado in 1883, the agnostic Mayo partnered with the sisters of Saint Francis, a nearby convent, to open Saint Mary’s Hospital. At that time, hospitals weren’t known as healing institutions; they were dismal places where you went to die. Saint Mary’s Hospital was among the first to be devoted to healing the sick, not comforting the dying. The intelligent and dedicated sisters of Saint Francis, accustomed to the discipline of convent life, took naturally to the new, science-based regimen, guided by the philosophy of treating every patient as one would treat Jesus.

The Mayos had four children. From the time they could walk and talk, Mayo’s sons William James and Charles Horace were a part of the Mayo medical practice. They accompanied their father on his rounds, swept the offices, helped in myriad small ways, gradually learning the healing craft from the ground up. They turned out to be naturals. By the time they were young adults, the Mayo brothers were widely known for their skill and innovation. Doctors from around the country, and eventually from around the world, flocked to the rapidly growing institution to learn from the masters. In 1921, the Mayo Clinic was officially founded as a non-profit center for healing and teaching.

Carolyn arrived by plane at about 1 pm on Monday at the Rochester airport, quite possibly the smallest jet-capable airport you will ever encounter. Virtually everyone who passes through it is connected somehow with the Clinic, either a patient or companion to one, a doctor, or some kind of Clinic official. You do not go to Rochester for the fun of it.

The Clinic itself is a paragon of order, it’s superb management evident in every detail. The online patient portal lays out your appointment schedule to the minute. Each appointment begins with a check-in at a service desk. Twenty seconds later, you are all set. Ten minutes after that, someone comes out a door and calls your name. At no point do you wait for more than a few minutes. Everything runs right on schedule. If you show up early, they can almost always fit you in. There are five or six clinical buildings at the downtown campus, where most cases are handled. All are interconnected by elevated “skyways” and underground “subways,” which spare you from having to endure the fierce chill of a Minnesota winter.

Everywhere are reminders of the Mayo’s long and distinguished history. Memorials, honoraria, and testaments line the corridors. There is a museum of the Clinic’s history near the public entrance of the main building, another in the Plummer Building right across the way. You cannot help but realize how very many great persons have come together over the years to make this place what it is.

Thoughtful touches abound. Volunteers linger all over the place, ready to answer any questions. Stand there for a second or two looking lost and someone is guaranteed to walk up to you and offer assistance. Numerous grand pianos are scattered about, open to anyone to play. If no one does, sooner or later some official volunteer will show up to play a few selections from her songbook, providing welcome diversion for anyone within earshot. Giant windows are everywhere, lined with comfy chairs that face outward so that you may enjoy the view. Signage is strategically placed and absolutely clear.

Each and every day Mayo serves thousands of patients. Some like me are ambulatory, with no obvious problems. You’ll see a couple and wonder which of them is the patient. Others require no such guesswork. As we waited for my first appointment, just across the narrow aisle, almost close enough to touch, was a woman somewhere in her forties, confined to a wheelchair, daughter by her side. To look at her was to witness torment. Pale and withdrawn, all but done with life, she wore the thousand-yard stare of someone who had lost all hope. It was gut-wrenching to behold, and we both breathed a sigh of guilty relief when her name was called and she was wheeled away.

Over two days there were to be an initial assessment, a blood draw, a CT scan, an EKG, a fluoroscopic X-ray, and finally an endoscopic exam followed by a consultation with my assigned surgeon, a fellow by the name of Robert Cima.

The moment Doctor Cima walked into the room, it was obvious that something was off. He waived the endoscopic exam, and after a brief intro got right to the point: I can do what you want but there’s not much to work with, and you would probably not be happy with the results. I cannot scope you because it would cause an infection. By nightfall you’d be sick to the point of needing hospitalization.

But that wasn’t the real problem. A series of surgical errors had caused major complications. There was, of course, the damage caused by the failed sutures of the original resection. But the surgery to correct that damage had caused even more. Now there was “tethering” (adhesion) of the large bowel to the abdominal wall, a too-tight coiling of the small bowel, and a stubborn, chronic infection. And it had all been avoidable. Worst of all, the latest round of problems, if not corrected, would, not might, would eventually cause Really Bad Things to happen: a fistula, necrosis, erosion of the abdominal wall, bone infection, death. More or less in that order. With steadily escalating levels of pain and infirmity that would eventually have me begging for the sweet release of death. The timetable wasn’t clear, but the outcome absolutely was. Major surgery would be required to clean up the mess, on a par with the emergency procedure I had endured after the original one went bad, which was godawful. Days in hospital, weeks or months of recovery. Possibly a month in Rochester before it would be possible to travel.

Not exactly what I had wanted to hear.

As he relayed all this, Cima projected something like disgust, as though he couldn’t believe this thing had been so badly handled.

Throughout this ordeal I have maintained a forgiving attitude: Just make me whole again and it’s all good. With this bombshell, that attitude has vanished. Where once was respect there now is deep disappointment. I hate what I now am compelled to do.

Ultimately, it’s probably going to turn out OK. Probably. The Mayo Clinic is the best of the best of the best in every way. Doctor Cima is among the best in the world at his craft. He is also obviously an ethical and caring person, as is every single person who works at Mayo, where they don’t hire you just for your superior skill, but also for your humanity.

Some major thinking and re-assessing are clearly in order. We will probably seek to schedule surgery for October or November. I will pause, or maybe even close, this business, and Carolyn will put her law practice on the back burner for the duration.

There was one small victory. Against all odds the spark plug threads had not stripped. The plug had probably not been fully tightened by whoever installed it, and had gradually worked its way loose. So the repair wasn’t even a repair. The shop replaced all plugs and wires and charged me a very reasonable fee. I had meant to replace them anyway, so now do not have to.

Props where due: Firestone declined the repair, so I had the car towed to Christian Brothers Automotive across town. They went right to work and had it done in about three hours, updating me with text messages at every step. As you would expect they also dangled a bunch of minor elective repairs, oil change, transmission fluid change, AC maintenance, that sort of thing, which I declined.

Amid the slew of bad news is some good. In no minor way this was a stroke of good fortune. Because had I not gone to Mayo, I would have remained ignorant about the time bomb ticking away in my gut. Until, that is, one dark day it all went horribly wrong.

While inevitably, there is a feeling of “why me?” I know that in truth I am lucky, because I have learned of this very serious problem in time to deal with it, and because by the grace of Providence I live in an age of astounding plenty and technological achievement. On a moment’s notice I can climb into a glass and metal conveyance, turn a key and with ease travel in a day a distance that would not long ago have required a month’s hard slog. In the unlikely event that this conveyance should fail me en route, I can pull from my pocket a device not much larger than a deck of cards, costing no more than a day’s wage, with more computational power than existed in the entire world the day I was born, and use it to summon assistance. The Institution that was my destination is stuffed with diagnostic machinery having capabilities that would have been considered magical only a few generations ago, which can peer into every nook and cranny of this body and take its measure. The experts who interpret these findings will be the very best there are.

Furthermore, thanks to Father Time I have just recently reached that golden age, and now have Medicare. Between it and supplemental insurance I likely won’t owe a penny beyond a small deductible. And finally, I really like Rochester. It’s a lovely place, and it will be a pleasure to see it decked out in fall colors, if only from a hospital bed.

© 2023 by Scott P. Snell

Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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One Comment

  1. Did you ever read Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dillema”?

    My dr reccomended it me aver twenty years ago. I didn’t know he had written both a short story and a book, which had nothing in common, by that name.

    Man may scape both rope and gun
    Nay, some may outlive the doctor’s pill

    So McHeath sang whilst waiting to be hanged

    I have a HP 4100DTXand a Xerox phaser 8560 which don’t work. Do you ever travel near Patterson Park and the old airport?

    David Potter

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