It’s crazy how quickly life can change.
In just a few days, I’d gone from feeling good to falling apart again. I had worked so hard before the tour to build up my stamina, and now, hours after the final show, I was struggling just to breathe. I didn’t need to wait for the test results to know what they would reveal. My body was rejecting my new liver, which had started to fail.
The condition of my relationship with Nick was less clear. For awhile, I’d thought that was failing, too. But then he had kissed me – in front of the other guys. It was a small gesture, but it held such huge weight. If Nick could overcome his insecurity over the way he felt about me, then we had a fighting chance at making this work, in spite of the fact that he was still in love with Lauren. That one kiss left me feeling a lot better than before.
It’s crazy how quickly life can change.
I thought about that as I lay on my back in the emergency room, watching my handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired doctor get ready to drain the fluid from my belly. Dr. Ross had brought a portable ultrasound machine into my room, and as he smeared some gel on my stomach and started moving the transducer around, I said to Nick, “This reminds me of going with Leigh to get a sonogram when she was pregnant.”
I could picture her lying in a bed like this, her shirt pulled up, laughing as the doctor slathered that stuff all over her baby bump. She had always been ticklish. I’d held her hand as we’d both turned our heads toward the monitor, watching our son squirm inside her. I remembered being there the first time we’d heard the baby’s heartbeat, the incredible feeling of seeing a flicker of life on the black-and-white screen.
Nick wrinkled his nose. “Well, you do sort of look pregnant, but unless we’re living in one of those fan fiction stories with guys giving birth, there ain’t no baby in there.”
I gave him a weird look. “What the hell have you been reading?”
His face reddened. “I don’t read them! I’ve just heard about them.”
“Yeah, sure, Nick,” I said sarcastically, grinning at him. “Whatever you say.”
“I don’t!” Nick insisted, his face still bright red.
Dr. Ross chuckled. “Don’t worry, fellas, there’s definitely no baby. But there is a decent-sized pocket of fluid right here,” he said, pointing out a black void on the screen.
Definitely no baby. My memories of feeling happy and hopeful as I’d looked at Leigh’s sonograms suddenly seemed far away, as if they were from another lifetime. And in a way, they were. In this new life, in which I was the one lying on the bed, I just felt sad and scared. I wished Nick would take my hand and squeeze it and tell me it was going to be all right, but I knew he wouldn’t, not in front of the doctor. Still, the fact that he had stayed, even though I knew it made him uncomfortable, meant the world to me. I tried to find hope in that.
“See that white shape? That’s your liver,” added Dr. Ross, looking at the ultrasound monitor.
“How does it look?” I asked hoarsely. My throat suddenly felt dry. I swallowed hard as I waited for his answer.
“Slightly enlarged,” he said. “I’m still waiting on your test results, but it’s looking like you’re going to need a liver biopsy.”
Nick gave me a worried glance, but I just nodded, not surprised by that news.
“I’m gonna go ahead and drain all the fluid so they can do a needle biopsy,” Dr. Ross continued. “Otherwise they’ll want to go in through your neck.”
I laughed, thinking he was just joking, until I looked at his face and saw that he was serious. “That sounds awful, so… yes, drain away,” I said, trying to keep my voice light so I didn’t sound as uneasy as I felt. Nick was still sitting there, nervously licking his lips, and I didn’t want to scare him away.
Dr. Ross drew an X on my stomach with a marker. “X marks the spot,” he said, smiling. He had such a charming smile that, for a few seconds, I almost forgot what he was about to do to me. Then he started explaining the procedure as he set up his equipment on a tray. “First I’m going to inject you with a local anesthetic to numb the area. Then I’ll thread a catheter into that fluid pocket we found, and in a few minutes, you’ll feel a little lighter and be breathing a lot easier.”
“Should I stay in here, or-?” Nick asked uncertainly, shifting in his chair.
“You’re welcome to stay if Howie here doesn’t mind,” said the doctor, glancing from him to me.
“I don’t mind,” I said quickly, smiling at Nick. “Don’t you wanna see what it looks like? I bet it’s gonna be gross.”
Nick made a face, but no move to leave his seat. Whether it was genuine compassion for me or just morbid curiosity, something made him stay.
“I will need you to wear a surgical mask and gown if you’re going to stay,” Dr. Ross said to Nick. “We need to maintain a sterile field because once we put a hole in his belly, we don’t want any germs getting in. An infection is the last thing he needs, especially with his immune system already suppressed.”
“Yeah, no Nick Plague,” I joked, winking at Nick as I watched him put on a blue garment over his clothes and a mask that matched the one Dr. Ross was now wearing. The two of them made an attractive team.
“Dr. Carter, here to assist,” Nick announced. I couldn’t see his mouth anymore because of the mask, but I could tell by his eyes that he was wearing a mischievous grin underneath it.
“Dr. Carter, here to observe,” I corrected quickly.
That made Dr. Ross chuckle, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners. The warmth in them was reassuring. “I used to work with a Dr. Carter,” he said randomly, as he painted my skin with a brown antiseptic. Then he covered my stomach with a sterile drape. “You’re gonna feel a slight pinch as I inject the local.”
I nodded, looking away as he got the syringe ready. I focused on Nick’s face instead. The pale blue of the gown and mask brought out the beautiful color of his eyes. “Thanks for staying with me,” I whispered to him, wincing as I felt the needle go in.
Nick just nodded. He didn’t say anything until Dr. Ross raised a larger syringe filled with pale, yellow liquid that he’d sucked out of my stomach. “That looks like piss,” Nick declared, his nose wrinkling.
Dr. Ross laughed. “Indeed, it does. But that’s the color it should be – no signs of blood, which is good. I’ll send this sample to the lab to be tested for bacteria, just in case.”
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Oh no… now comes the fun part.” He took a length of tubing and hooked it up to a clear, glass bottle. As soon as he connected the other end to the catheter he’d put in my belly, I could see the same, yellow-colored fluid start running through it into the bottle.
“Dude… that is disgusting,” Nick said, his eyes wide as he watched the bottle fill so fast, there was actually foam on top.
“Now it looks more like the beer you were drinking the other night,” I added, laughing as Nick gagged and turned away. After all the gross practical jokes he’d played on me over the years, I got a sick sense of pleasure out of making him squeamish.
By the time he was done, Dr. Ross had drained two liters of fluid from my belly – which, according to him, was nowhere near a record. “I think the most I’ve taken out of a patient was ten liters,” he told me, as he took out the catheter and covered the hole with a band-aid. “You won’t believe how bad it can get. It’s a good thing you came in when you did.”
I felt slightly embarrassed, but physically better – less bloated and short of breath. My oxygen level had improved, so Dr. Ross took me off the supplemental oxygen. “I’m going to get this to the lab and see if your other test results are in,” he said, holding up the sample of fluid he’d taken. “I’ll be back to check on you soon.”
Once he was gone, I glanced at Nick. He was still looking a little green. “See why I don’t want you to screw up your liver?” I said. “This sucks.”
“I believe you,” Nick replied, letting out a shaky sigh. “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know if he was apologizing for his behavior at Kevin’s birthday dinner or just feeling sorry for me, but I decided it didn’t matter. If watching me go through this made Nick take his own health more seriously, then at least one good thing would come from it.
It was after three in the morning by the time Dr. Ross came back, accompanied by a woman in a white coat. “Well, Howie, after looking at your test results, I’ve got good news and bad,” he said. “The good news is that there are no signs of infection in your blood or abdominal fluid. The bad news is that you failed your liver function tests. Your labs indicate acute rejection of your liver graft, but you’ll need a biopsy to confirm it.”
I nodded, my heart sinking. The news wasn’t surprising. It was just as I’d feared.
“This is my colleague, Dr. Bond,” he went on to introduce the woman who was with him. “She’s a hepatologist who specializes in liver transplants. I’ve asked her to consult on your case.”
“Does that mean I’m going to need another transplant?” I asked hesitantly, almost afraid to hear the answer. I didn’t know if I could go through all that again.
“Not if I can help it,” answered the woman with a grim smile. She spoke with a British accent, and I got a kick out of the fact that her name tag said J. Bond.
Bond… James Bond, I thought. I was so tired by that point that random, stupid things like that struck me as funny, even though I didn’t feel much like laughing.
“Most cases of acute rejection are reversible,” Dr. Bond explained. “We’ll treat you with high-dose steroids, which should suppress the immune response to what your body sees as a foreign object. Unfortunately, you’ll need to be admitted to hospital for at least a few days so can we administer the drugs intravenously and see how you respond.”
“Is there any way I could fly back to L.A. first and be treated there?” I asked, thinking of Nick and the other guys, who were no doubt ready to go home. I didn’t know if they would leave Seattle once they found out I’d be hospitalized there the rest of the week.
“I don’t think it would be wise for you to delay treatment,” said Dr. Bond. “You’re already showing signs of liver failure, which means this isn’t just a mild case of rejection. The further we allow it to progress, the more difficult it will become to treat. I’ve left a message with your transplant surgeon in L.A. and will of course consult with him on your treatment plan, but I think it would be best for you to stay in Seattle until your rejection is under control.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“We have a great program here,” Dr. Ross added. “My wife’s a transplant coordinator at this hospital, so I know you’ll be in good hands.” He gave me an encouraging smile. “I’ll get started on your admission paperwork, and someone should be in soon to take you to your room. Best of luck,” he said, shaking my hand before he left.
Once they were both gone, I looked over at Nick. He was bleary-eyed and disheveled from dozing in his chair while we waited. “Go back to the hotel, Nick,” I told him. “Get some sleep, and I’ll try to get some, too. God knows we both need it.”
“No, I’m okay,” Nick insisted. “I told you, I’m not leaving.”
I shook my head. “Don’t be stubborn. I don’t know if they’ll even let you stay once I’m in a regular room. I mean, it’s not like we’re married or anything. As far as they know, we’re just friends.” I winked, and Nick’s face reddened. “Besides, I don’t want you to get sick, too,” I added. “I know your CD4 count looked good at your last appointment, but you can’t be too careful. Who knows what kind of bugs you can pick up hanging around a hospital.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Seriously? They’re talking about knocking out your immune system, and you’re worried about mine? I’ll be fine.”
“So will I,” I said firmly. “Get out of here. You look like hell.”
He sighed. “You sure?”
“I’m not just sure. I’m HIV-positive,” I said, winking. See what I mean about stupid things seeming funny?
Nick snorted and shook his head. “You stole that from South Park.”
“Did I?” I wouldn’t know; I only watched that show when I was with Nick.
“Yeah, dude. Besides, it’s too soon. Way too soon.” He stood up, folding his arms and frowning at me.
For a second, I thought he was serious. “I’m sorry…” I started to apologize for my insensitivity, but Nick interrupted me.
“It’s only been a year. If you’re such a South Park fan, you should know that it takes 22.3 years for something tragic to become funny. That means we need to wait another 21.3 to joke about AIDS with each other.” He winked back. Then he put his hand up to the side of his mouth and stage-whispered, “That’s from South Park, too.”
I laughed. “I love you,” I said without hesitation, wondering if, under the circumstances, he would finally be able to say the words back to me.
But all Nick said was, “I know.”
“You stole that from Star Wars,” I said, as he started to walk away.
Stopping in the doorway, Nick flashed a tired version of his trademark smirk. “I know.”