Why did you say that about Elvis?” I asked my wife Stephanie, who was standing beside me at Sgt. Floyd’s monument.1 “Just before my surgery.”
She didn’t remember saying anything about Elvis before my surgery, which shouldn’t have been a surprise since it was over 20 years ago.
“What I remember,” she added, “is that you thought it was the prune kolache.”2
That was true. That was, in fact, the first thing I recalled telling the elderly doctor at the rural clinic. “This is probably just the prune kolache I ate this morning,” I told him, dismissively, because what I really needed to do was get back to trying (and failing) to write my dissertation, which was way overdue. [End Page 129] The doctor pressed down on my abdomen, released, and a pain shot through my side so intense I actually yelped.
“No, I don’t believe this is the kolache,” he said and walked over to a large wall poster portraying the human digestive tract, placing his finger on it. “I think it’s your appendix.”3
I had to lean forward to see what he was pointing at. Far from threatening, it looked like a puppy’s tail or a child’s thumb or a spring worm emerging from the dank soil of the large intestine.4
“No one really knows what the appendix does, except cause serious health problems,” he added.5 “To be safe, I want you to see a surgeon immediately. Do you feel well enough to drive?”
The regional hospital was over an hour away, and I drove there in one of those freak March snowstorms that can occur suddenly in Iowa. The snow blew unobstructed across the fields and rural roadways, often blinding me. Why risk my life for a little indigestion? I wondered. Aside from the abdominal pain, I didn’t have any of the symptoms listed by the clinic doctor: fever, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite. I was a 28-year-old grad student in peak health.6 The doctor wanted to play it safe, he said, but was this safe? As the [End Page 130] car crawled through the increasingly violent storm, I cursed myself for eating all those pastries, still not believing I was destined for the knife.
“Believe it,” the surgeon pronounced after a quick examination. “What’s worse, I think your appendix is retrocecal, which means the little devil is hiding behind the intestine.”7 His prominent eyebrows lowered, as if steeling himself for battle with an ancient, sentient adversary. “Yes. That would explain the minimal symptoms and the rebound pain—they’re tricky that way. And dangerous. Unfortunately for you, this means we can’t go low-invasive; I’m going to have to open you up for a little search and destroy.8 Nurse Heinrichs, are there any interns around who want to see some old-fashioned gut surgery? Well, call them in and get this young man a phone; he’ll want to contact family.”
I called Stephanie at the rural school where she was teaching and supporting me through grad school.9 She got on the phone just as they were sticking the IV in my hand and placing my clothes in a plastic bag, like they do for traffic fatalities.
“I’m not sure about this,” I told her. “I ate a lot of those prune kolache, so maybe I should get a second opinion. This guy seems a little eager.”
And that’s when she said it.
“Don’t risk it. That’s how Elvis died.”10 [End Page 131]
“What? Elvis didn’t die because of his appendix.” These were my final words before the surgical nurse took the phone away and let me ride the unspoken question into nothingness: Why Elvis?
During the intervening decades, Steph has been unable to answer that question to my satisfaction. Not that I’ve asked very often. Come to think of it, this may have been the first time, standing there at the base of Sgt. Floyd’s monument. That’s another mystery, the reasons why I felt compelled to return to...