I was admitted to Babies Hospital at around 3 P.M. on a Wednesday: Room 811, Bed 1. The last time I had spent a night in that hospital, or any hospital, was almost 18 years ago when I was born in Babies Hospital. I met my roommate, a 13-year-old boy named Ryan recovering from chest surgery. He wasn’t strong enough yet to get out of bed by himself. Both his parents were there when I was admitted, and a team of doctors visited him often. I overheard that the doctors had drilled into his sternum and moved around something I couldn’t hear, and that he had numerous internal stitches, which would dissolve in time.
I was in for something entirely different. I needed to be treated with an IV antibiotic called Unasyn, a broad-spectrum drug used to treat common infections, and Tylenol with codeine, which put me right to sleep. I was 17 years old and in terrible pain.
“I think those piercing places should be shot,” my aunt, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, had told me two weeks before as she had clamped needle-nose pliers on the metal stud earring embedded in the cartilage of my tender left ear. After a few tries, she pulled the earring out, releasing some of the pressure as I gritted my teeth and braced myself on the armrests of a dining room chair. My aunt told me there was a chance that it was not infected, that I had reacted to the base metal in the stud, so she replaced the original stud with a gold-plated post, struggling to snap it onto the ear because it was so swollen. But my ear only got worse, turning crimson with infection, swollen enough to erase all the significant landmarks that a normal ear possesses. It reminded me of a child’s first baseball glove-big, dull, pink and shapeless. And it reverberated with every step I took.
I got the earring in Boston, on a trip to visit friends. At a piercing shop at a Harvard Square mall called “The Garage,” a man in fishnet stockings and a skirt punched a cheap metal stud into the upper part of my ear with a piercer’s gun. I could have paid $40 for him to do it with a needle and put a hoop in, but on my budget, $8.35 seemed more appropriate. Besides, everyone in the world has earrings-my girlfriend has seven (five in the left, two in the right)-and nobody ever seems to get infected.
The earring was supposed to be a subtle addition to my look-something to distinguish me from other Manhattan teenage boys. (Sadly, after the piercing I discovered that I was not the first teenage boy to fall upon the cartilage-piercing trend.) Maybe the addition was too subtle; my father discovered the earring trying to brush what he thought was lint out of my ear. Soon the earring became almost invisible, embedded in the swollen flesh, swallowed up in inflammation. That’s when I went to my doctor, who removed the gold-plated post my aunt had put in, and put me on an antibiotic called Augmentin. But the pain just got worse.
It was so bad, it reminded me of an old Anacin ad I had seen in a documentary on the early forms of advertising-the one where a hammer is pounding on a person’s skull until the Anacin kicks in. I had no Anacin, and even the Tylenol with codeine that my doctor prescribed, which I could take every six hours, gave me only about two hours of relief. Home and in agony, I rented Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now to distract me.
The next morning, I went back to my doctor. He told me to go home and pack an overnight bag because he wanted me to see an ear, nose and throat specialist at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, and I might have to stay overnight.
And there I was, with my mother, in the Pediatrics Ward at Babies Hospital, sitting in the waiting room while the four other patients, all under the age of 5, yelled and played bumper cars with the foot-powered Playskool cars. I was relieved to meet my two doctors, Dr. Joseph Haddad and Dr. Jason Newman. They seemed to know what to do.
They sat me in a dentist chair and after two quick pricks of a local anesthetic, lanced the upper part of my ear and squeezed to drain it, causing the most excruciating pain I had ever felt. All the colors of the rainbow blended together in a silent scream. The doctors stuffed a clothlike packing material called a wick into the incision to drain it.
My next three days in the hospital are a blur. I watched a lot of television and I didn’t touch the hospital food-my doting mother brought me all my meals. My first roommate, Ryan, was discharged and replaced by a boy named Wilbin who had crashed his bike rolling over a soda bottle he thought was empty but was full of ice. Wilbin was discharged and replaced with a 15-year-old boy named Angel who had a blood clot in his thigh. For one of the days, Angel and I relaxed in our beds and enjoyed six straight hours of the Disney channel, which had that day the all-star lineup of Flubber , Hercules and Kazaam . My doctors came twice a day to check up on me, drain my ear and replace the wick. Three times during my stay a young E.N.T. doctor came to tell me, “I told you so” (even though he had told me nothing before the piercing because we had never met before) and that I was going to have serious ear distortion. I was scheduled for surgery, to go under general anesthesia so they could lance the back of my ear to match the front lancing. But my doctors decided against it at the last minute when I showed a slight improvement after switching to the antibiotic Cipro.
I was discharged at 5 P.M. on a Saturday and took the downtown No. 9 train back home, a thick gauze pad crudely taped to the side of my face to cover my still-swollen ear and the wick. After a couple days at home, I felt much better. When I went back for a checkup, I visited Angel and brought him two Snickers bars. I wanted to bring something for everyone who had helped me-excluding the E.N.T. doctor who taunted me in my weakened condition-but I didn’t know what to bring, and I didn’t want to leave anybody out. My father joked with me later that I should have brought them each a pound of cow tongues to prepare them for my tongue pierce. I have no plans for a tongue pierce and didn’t appreciate his humor.
Two weeks after going to the hospital, I was still on antibiotics, but I was down to my last wick. I could not get my hair cut or take showers because it could have reinflamed the infection. So I took baths and washed my hair in a sink with a shower cap covering my ear. Now the swelling is down, my ear is almost back to normal, except for a slight droop in the top where the cartilage has deteriorated. That doesn’t bother me, though, because at least my mom has stopped calling me Howdy Doody.