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Picture of Health 

There are myriad stories out there, leaping off the Halls of Heroism, about people maintaining their human dignity in the face of incredible deprivation.

So rife are these tales emphasizing the heroic value of dignity that they have fueled in me a renewed determination to preserve some of that very quality as I move into the most dignity-threatening scenario this side of the Hanoi Hilton or a marriage of convenience. I refer, of course, to a short stay in a modern American hospital.

Here is how that renewed determination was circumvented, mocked, shattered, in the space of one minor surgery and 10 shift changes. Welcome to your expanded health-care facility; abandon all dignity, ye who enter here. ...

• Start with the slip-on gown, which fastens up the back, which no self-respecting male would admit knowing how to do anyhow, and which comes off more frequently and with less effort than any gown of Christina Aguilera's.

• Then proceed to the silken boxer shorts with the Mona Lisa design intended to provide back-up to the hospital gown. These are the pride of the wardrobe and are reserved for weddings, successions and hospital stays, so I didn't appreciate the large number of hospital staff who found reasons to come into the room, order me to roll on my side, and giggled endlessly. However, that was ultra-dignified compared to being stripped of Mona Lisa at the doors of the operating room and being forced henceforth to contemplate her enigmatic smile from a plastic bag in the corner of the room. It also changed the nature and tempo of calls for me to roll onto my side. ...

• Why is everyone who goes to work for a hospital, including elevator repairmen and topiary consultants, outfitted with a thermometer and blood-pressure monitor? Why, you silly boy. So there will never be one single moment from admission to discharge when someone is not taking your vital signs. ...

• With such an all-out assault on your bodily fluids underway at all times, is it really necessary for them to chastise you for your lack of blood after they've taken approximately three-and-a-half gallons since Sunday night?

• This one's got "dignity" written all over it: one sheet, one two-ply blanket, fits all sizes, ages 10-12.

• Assigned to every shift is at least one individual who, under the guise of motivation, constantly reminds you of how previous victims of your type of surgery have recovered, thus setting the bar impossibly high and making your failure even more humiliating: e.g. "The last lady with that operation was back playing in her volleyball league the next night. And she was 10 years older than you."

• It looks undignified because it is undignified: The prongs-up-your-nose oxygen tube.

• The first law of dignity involves hunger; it's hard to act dignified when you're starving. Gandhi tried it, but I have it on good authority that he had access to Cheez-Weez and Raisinets in unlimited amounts. At some points, I am limited to ice chips, and those must be verbally requested at least twice. I wish I had Gandhi's access. ...

• The hospital volunteer who brought my ice chips this morning is a walking rebuke to my self-justifications of ailments-per-age. The volunteer claimed that Chester A. Arthur was the best president in his life.

•Dignity? When at least 37 patches of your body hair are attached to wires leading nowhere and Scotch tape, suitable for pulling anytime.

• Oh yeah. You have to keep track of your urinations and BMs, and report the number and specifications. Not even the Maoists in the apex of their Self-Criticism went this far. ... • So there you lay, tethered to an electronic tree-horn dripping Dextrose and Sodium Chloride, and suddenly it's emitting a noise like the chasing click of balls rolling around a snooker table ... non-stop. If you call the nurse's station and plead, they may send someone to stop the beeping. For another hour, anyway. ... • Before the actual operation, you are subject to demeaning tests like the EKG, where you can see your body do gross things, and the Carotoid Doppler, where you can hear your body do gross things.

• After the actual operation, you may well be rewarded with an official Operating Room photo, which will show you a side of yourself you'll wish you'd never seen. Yes, that scrofulous empanada was your gall bladder, and there is some evidence of hemorrhagic fever, likely the result of a VX nerve agent. ...

• Also after the operation comes sessions with the Airlite Inhaler, presided over by smirking young men whose only job is to prod your inhalations to lift a button. All the while, they are saying you won't live out the month. They are using non-verbal communication to say this. Some women claim deep understandings with their favorite Polish Lowland Sheepdogs using this method. ...

A shred of dignity. A shred is all I ask, I told myself as I rose on unsteady legs and headed for the mirror. It was time to leave the hospital, and I wanted wildly to escape with a shred.

"How do I look?" I asked the wheelchair attendant. "About like I expected," she replied. "Ha-ha-ha-ha."

I peered into the mirror. There, where my fly should have been, was a space about as wide and open as the Berlin Corridor. ...

Like I said, just a shred. Was that too much to ask?

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