Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Here's a bit of personal information about Marcus Cicero.

Today is a milestone anniversary for me. On July 21, 1992, I was gravely ill. A miracle saved my life. Please bear with me with this long explanation of my thirteenth anniversary from zero.

A few weeks before July 21st, I trotted down to San Francisco's New Chinatown to devour dim sum. My favorite establishment had a storefront window sporting mounds of pork bao and other steaming delights. I veered in, filling up on shu mai and har gow. I love those hollow sesame balls, so I had some of those. But I passed on the chicken feet.

Later in the day, my stomach bloated and ached, which was clearly more than just full. That night I had a high fever. For five days I had all the symptoms of food poisoning, with vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration. Even hallucinations.

If it were just Montezuma's revenge, I might have gotten through all the misery and fully recovered. By my sixth day I was feeling somewhat better, though weak with a mild fever. I remember that day. The fog was rolling in, and it was about 4:00 in the afternoon. My temperature was 99°. Not bad, having come down from 105°. I went upstairs for an afternoon nap, to continue my recovery.

I will never forget that nap, which took me to another world. It was like passing through a gateway. In my fever dream I was on an incline covered with grass, trying to roll up hill a boulder in front of me. I remember pushing and pushing, and feeling the boulder bare down on me. I was losing the battle. In the dream I thought, "If only I had the strength. My arms are too weak!"

Then I woke up bathed in salty sweat, partially paralyzed.

My roommates were downstairs. I thought I would get out of bed, but it wasn't easy. One side of my body was paralyzed, and the other half way useless. I don't know how long it took -- it seemed like eternity -- but I slowly crawled across the floor of the bedroom, outside to the corridor. Amazingly I somehow rolled downstairs. At some point my housemates noticed me, and I said one word: "Help."

Then I collapsed.

I later learned that my complexion was gray, and I looked like the living dead. We took a cab to the hospital, by now it was 9:00 or so. I was propped-up on a chair in the waiting room, and patiently waited my turn. I was called in and looked over by the nurse. I found myself in the hospital ward surrounded by concerned faces.

I had no medical insurance. This became known at one point when the attending physician suggested that I be sent home. But I was lucky. My death sentence was rescinded with a changing of the guard at the hospital. The new physician took one look at me and had me sent to San Francisco General, the county hospital. County hospitals are where the indigent cases go -- the uninsured and the uninsurable; the hard luck cases, and the druggies. And me.

For a number of days I descended into full paralysis. Even my hearing was going. Everything sounded like I had two long cans attached to my ears. I was cross-eyed and couldn't focus. I could hardly speak. I couldn't move, and found blinking laboriously difficult. I would keep my eyes shut just to leave them that way, to avoid blinking, and the harsh brightening lights. I remember being in a receiving ward with lots of beds and having to sign something. They put a pen in my hand, with the clipboard and form held beneath, and I just looked at it like it wasn't my hand. My dad was there, and I heard him say, "He can sign that. I'll do it."

After this point, I began to slip in and out of consciousness. There's only impressions of this phase left to me. I remember two nuns from Mother Teresa's order holding my still hands and praying. I remember my friends ringing my bed, wringing their hands. I remember weak smiles on their long faces; their attempts at comfort convinced me that I was dying. I remember a spinal tap; blood tests; the IV. I recall mystified doctors, having not a clue what was wrong with me.

But the most enduring memory of my illness haunts me the most. I think about it every day, not a few times. I have kept this largely to myself, so here's the revelation: Something about my condition of paralysis -- being the floating mind -- gave me the overwhelming impression that there was someone else inside of me. Like a dark force -- a presence. I felt like I had a living, breathing visitor within me. We didn't talk to each other, but I felt his gaze. It was a feeling like this 'Visitor' was there to take me somewhere. I have since imagined that the Visitor was a gatekeeper. I have no image of this individual other than an overwhelming, powerful feeling. I'll never forget it.

Feeding tubes down my nose. That damned catheter. "Bed logs" -- those rolls of towels to reposition my motionless body. The ICU sounds, made tinny. Feeling damp, cold, and dizzy. Feeling nothing.

The county hospital was a world of the ailing down-and-out. Among the druggies and homeless of 1992 San Francisco, there were a disproportionate number of AIDS patients at the county hospital. And because of that, a disproportionate number of immunologists. I remember I had about five of them poking and prodding at my numb body. They were professionals, and as such, my case was curiouser and curiouser. What was wrong with this fellow? I was tested for AIDS, spinal meningitis, tumors, even polio. It was none of those.

The miracle? Dr. Simon.

Eventually, one enterprising immunologist, Dr. Simon -- a name I will never forget -- had an idea. He did some fact checking, and conferred with his colleagues. I was facing an iron lung.

On July 21st 1992, Dr. Simon called a meeting with my parents. I wasn't there, but it probably went something like this, as it has since been reported to me:

"I think your son has an atypical case of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I think he's rapidly declining, and we must act fast. I've read about an experimental treatment in Japan involving massive infusions of gammoglobulin. If I was you, I would authorize trying this technique."

My dad said to proceed.

Guillain-Barré causes a patient's defense system of antibodies and white blood cells to trigger into damaging the nerve insulating covering or myelin, leading to weakness and abnormal sensation. The causes of this illness are still unknown. Intravenous immunoglobulins somehow help offset the damage in some cases, though there are risks with this therapy.

In my case, the gammoglobulin did the trick. It took time, but the first improvement was my speech coming back. And then my hearing and eyesight. The longer the nerves from my cerebral cortex, the longer the recovery. Next came my hands, and better breathing. Last to recover were my legs and feet. It was like a slow recovery from cerebral palsy. During the recovery, the Visitor faded away, like he slipped out of a back door.

My recovery was considered fast, but for me, it was a slow process. My nerves came back, bit by bit. I can tell you that nerves do not turn back on without sensation. And that sensation is burning fire. For a while, I thought it was better when I was the floating brain in a numb body. That was relatively painless. But getting your nerves back? It's searing, constant pain -- all while having to learn to walk and move again.

So, July 21st is the day I went to the bottom of the cold sea. It's the day I almost slipped away, where the Visitor would've taken my hand and led me into oblivion. It was the quietest day of my life. Quiet like the grave under a starry winter sky. July 21st was also the beginning of my recovery. I'm convinced that a normal hospital might have misdiagnosed my illness. I am blessed.

Near death experiences change people. It changed me.

The fact is, I'm not fully recovered. You wouldn't know it if you knew me, because I make do. I'm well enough. I can tire easily, and I have storms of twitches and cramps. I've never felt the same, as though I was 100 years old once, and pulled out of it. But I came out of this experience renewed, with a fresh mission. I'll call it Cicero's Imperatives:

Living matters. Life matters. Adding something positive to the world is imperative. Do not squander life.

Everyday I ask myself: Am I wasting time? Is what I'm doing making a difference? Will it matter? Will it heal? Am I building something better?

You wouldn't believe the sad cases I met at the county hospital, and then at the recovery ward. I met lifers who had the most horrible stories you could imagine. Like the guy who was in a wheelchair, a hospital resident for 22 years. His brothers beat him up for botching up a drug deal in 1970. I also remember the church services on Sundays at the hospital, being interrupted multiple times by yells and groans. For all I know, people literally died during the service. I remember thinking, "I've got to walk, and get the hell out of here."

I'm walking. I got out the hell out of there.

I think our culture's survival and evolution is imperative. Right now I believe that finding common ground is the answer. But history is harsh; it doesn't always reward the righteous and the well-intentioned. Power ploughs the fields of history, it seems to me. There are abundant historical examples of how might makes right. I wonder if now we're betting the farm that right will make might. I hope it does, but you know history. No guarantees.

One thing I want to make sure I can add to this blog are Cicero's Imperatives. We must make a difference.

Sometimes, I think I have let down my end here. I'm not a historian, or an Arabic expert, or a military genius. I can't come up with half the witticisms that effortlessly flow from Mark Steyn's pen. I'm not a quick thinker -- my reasoning is slowly crafted, but well-considered. There's always room for doubt, and additional brooding. In the end, I'm just some guy who escaped death back in 1992. Everything since has been cream.

But I am seized by these restless, spiraling times. I've seen the world slip away before, into a haze. I've felt the cold breath of Darkness deep within me. Perhaps that was a sickness-induced delusion; but its grip on me is eternal. It left me yearning for warm places.

Blogs aren't always the warm places I would like them to be. And that's fine. There's a long way to go. I will keep asking questions, and looking for answers. It's great to be here, and to have made it this far.

And yes -- I still eat dim sum. But not the chicken feet.