By Jeff Hodges
In 1971, I got my jaw broken in a melee on Second Avenue.
I was outside my apartment when I saw some guys beating up a hippie. I approached one of them and asked him to knock it off. His reply was to spin around and hit me solidly in the jaw. I didn’t even see it coming.
Just then the cops arrived. I said to one of them, “That guy just broke my jaw!” He said, “Well, you probably deserved it.”
It was hard to argue with that. So I walked uptown to Bellevue’s emergency room.
In those days Bellevue was a gothic fortress of indifference and ineptitude. After nursing my jaw for a couple of hours, I finally got to see a doctor. Discussing my medical history, we got into an argument about whether or not my father had suffered from a hernia or an ulcer. We agreed to disagree and I was sent for an X-ray. Sometime after midnight, the doctor told me my jaw was fine and pointed to the exit. “I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I can’t move my jaw.” But I was glad to get out of there.
As I was leaving, a nurse rushed up and grabbed me. “Where are you going?” she yelled. “You have a fractured skull!” They brought me back in. After a huddled discussion they told me I did have a broken jaw, and my X-ray had gotten mixed up with that of a guy who’d gotten beaned with a baseball bat.
“I’m glad you figured that out before you wired his jaw shut,” I said. Unamused, they admitted me for the night and gave me a shot of Demerol for the pain.
The next morning I woke up in a ward with a guy sitting on my bed with casts on both arms from his wrists to his elbows. “I don’t know why I did it,” he said. “Did what?” I inquired. He didn’t answer. Another guy stopped by; same casts. “I just got so sad,” he confided. I looked around. A lot of guys had these casts. “What the hell happened to everybody?” I asked a passing orderly. “Self-inflicted wounds,” he said.
Moving my jaw as little as possible, I spent the day commiserating with the distressed and disaffected and enjoying my occasional morphine fix.
After dinner we gathered in front of the TV set in the visitor’s room, watching “The Man With the X-ray Eyes.” In a narrative akin to our ward’s existential maladies, Dr. Xavier’s visual gift eventually alienates him from his surroundings and he plunges into despair. An orderly tried to get us to turn off the TV around bedtime but our collective rage prevailed and we watched the good doctor choose blindness in the end.
The next day they took me to get my jaw wired shut. They jammed metal wires between my teeth and pulled and twisted them with pliers until my broken jaw was wrenched into immobility. It was pretty painful.
When it was over, all I wanted was some Demerol. However, my nurse decided to park my wheelchair and gossip with a colleague, ignoring my lock-jawed entreaties to return me to my ward. So I took off, determined to find my own way back to my morphine.
I had no idea where my ward was but I took the elevator from floor to floor looking for my friends with the plaster casts. Finally, my nurse located me and, after a spirited billingsgate, wheeled me back to the blessed needle and oblivion.
The next morning was bright and beautiful and I was discharged with a six-pack of Ensure and a straw. And amazingly enough—by accident or on purpose—I never got a bill!
That was Bellevue.