“Don’t touch me!” the man in the wheelchair shouted to stop me from placing my hand on what used to be his left arm.
“I’m sorry — I was just — ”
“I know what you were doing,” he said calmly. “You were showing me you care. I get it. But you have no idea how much pain I’m in. Don’t feel bad. People are always touching me — and because my left arm is gone and most people are right-handed, well … Doctors, believe it or not, are the worst — always touching me there. You’d think they of all people would know better. But they don’t.” He laughed.
A few minutes earlier, I walked into this pharmacy to fill a prescription, annoyed at having to go. But my dentist said I had a gum infection and that I needed an antibacterial mouthwash. Damn, I thought, of all the things I needed to do today, now this.
The place was small, and this wheelchair-bound double amputee sat parked in front of a row of empty chairs. I decided to stand rather than navigate my way through the narrow space between the chairs, some people sitting near me and the guy in the wheelchair.
“Sir,” he said, motioning with his head to an empty seat, “You can sit here.”
In yet another addition to the growing list of brain-dead, things-I-wish-I-could-take-back-but-somehow-managed-to-escape-my-mouth, I responded half-truthfully: “No, thanks. I’ve been sitting all day.”
Did I just say to a guy sitting in a wheelchair that I’d rather stand because “I’ve been sitting all day?” Yes, I did. Now what? Well, at that point, I said to myself, I’m all in. I doubled down.
“But,” I added, “I suppose you’ve been sitting all day, too — so I think I will.”
To my great relief, he laughed — a real, down-home, full-throated laugh. The pharmacist watching the exchange laughed, too, as did the handful of customers waiting to have their prescriptions filled.
I sat down, and the man — whose name, I learned, was Michael — and I started talking.
“Did you have an accident?” I carefully asked.
The story was beyond tragic. Sixteen years earlier, he was riding his motorcycle when “an old lady fell asleep” and ran head-on into him. He lost his right leg and his left arm. More than a dozen surgeries later, he remains in constant pain. He was sucking on something that resembled a Tootsie Pop.
“It slowly releases a medication that gives me enough relief to handle the pain.”
He sued the old lady.
But she had neither insurance nor assets, and there was nothing to recover.
“Do you have health insurance?” I asked the 40-something-year-old bearded man.
He did, but his deductible left him owing $3.5 million — and counting.
“Do you have $3.5 million?” I asked.
“Does it look like it?” he laughed.
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