August 2009

Faint glory

By David Feela

“It’s not so difficult to feel like a fool when you actually behave like one.” — from “Faintly Coherent” (a book I still intend to write)

My mother marched the three of us into the doctor’s office and ordered us to behave. After she’d filled out a stack of papers, the doctor called us in for our immunizations. At the time, I didn’t know what a shot was and I don’t think I would have liked the sound of it, but luckily my mother used the bigger word, Immunizations. When the doctor asked which of us would volunteer to be first, I stepped forward and declared, “I’m not afraid.”

He swabbed my arm with alcohol and stuck the needle into me. When he finished I turned toward my quivering siblings and proudly announced, “There, that didn’t hurt” — then promptly passed out. Supposedly the screams from my terrorized brother and sister were enough to shut that office down for 10 full minutes while my mother shushed them and shooed them out the door. I can’t account for the details of this melee, because those minutes were taken from me, melded into a blur I now refer to as down time.

Since then I have passed out dozens of times. Each occasion embarrasses me, but none more so than the time I held my cat for his distemper shot and I keeled over backward, smashing my skull on the doorknob. The cat went flying, and after the vet put his eyes back into his head, he ministered to me as I returned to the conscious world. “Where am I?” I reportedly asked. “You are on the floor,” replied the vet, “and your cat ran out the door.” It could be that my state of disorientation transported me for an instant into a Dr. Seuss book.

Once in the 1970s during a swine-flu scare, I went over onto a mattress that had been arranged on the armory floor to collect the falling bodies. Not only did I land on the mattress, but I found myself positioned between the softest parts of a very buxom woman who had sprawled there before me. The encounter would have been even more embarrassing than my usual faint except that the woman was more out of it than I was, and I managed to regain my stature before she could regain her composure.

These days I disclose to medical professionals my likelihood to faint, or, as one doctor put it, to engage my hyperactive vagal nerve. Supposedly, the vagal response is a leftover instinct from primitive times, when fear sent a high-powered jolt of adrenaline through the body so the just getting- on-their feet homo sapiens could outrun, say, a tiger looking for some not-so-fast food. When the adrenalin kicks in, blood pressure drops, which prompts me to drop. Supposedly, wrestling the tiger would put the wasted adrenalin to work and save me the embarrassment of fainting, but I’m not sure which would be worse.

Nowadays, I try to avoid situations where I might conk out, like volunteering to be a blood donor or running down to the supermarket to pick up a dozen eggs and a shingles vaccination, but I know the possibility will remain with me for the rest of my life. It may even prove to be my death. Last year I flat-lined after a colonoscopy procedure, and a few months ago a toothache knocked me out cold on my own bathroom floor at 3 in the morn ing. I have scars on my face to prove it.

I know I’m not the only person suffering with this condition. I should form a group, Vagals Anonymous, so others can share their experiences and come to terms with the fear and shame of slipping uncontrollably into the unconscious world. I’m afraid, however, that at the first meeting I’d stand up, state my name, and immediately pass out.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.