I'm Still Here
Inez Martinez as told to Erin McCoy ~
Editor's Note: Having just finished her first year of medical school, Erin McCoy became a summer intern for Pulse and embarked on a project to collect patient stories through interviews. One day, a family-medicine resident at a Bronx family health center told her about an interesting lady in Exam Room 8. "I go there," Erin says, "introduce myself and explain my mission. She agrees to speak to me, on one condition."
As long as you don't ask me how many drinks I have in a month.
I promise her that I won't, and press "record" on my iPhone.
I'm a survivor of 9/11. But I don't want to talk about that.
My whole life has been one giant health problem. When I was little, I had an appendectomy, and I got peritonitis. This was fifty-something years ago--I know I look beautiful, but I'm sixty. Medicine has drastically changed. When they closed me up, I developed all these lumps of pus, like these. (She shows me her abdomen; it's so scarred that I can't see her belly button.)
I had nine operations. I still remember these things; they're vivid in my head. I had all these operations here. (She points to her abdomen.) I was so scared. They were sewing this to this. (She points to one side of her abdomen, then the other.)
I was in and out of the hospital for four years. I didn't go to school. They would send me a tutor, but most of the time I was too sick. I used to love to read. I read a lot when I was in the hospital, dozens of books and magazines. After going back to school, I graduated at sixteen because I was put ahead a grade, I was so advanced.
During that course of time when I was sick, my hair fell out. I was almost bald, like a person on chemotherapy. My teeth grew out like this--(She bares her teeth; they are crooked and thin)--because I had no calcium in my body. I was like a little skeleton, all bent over. I walked like an old lady.
I believe that what happened when I was young is responsible for all the things that are wrong with my body right now. I had a massive heart attack, I had cervical cancer. One day I fell in the bathtub, and a week later I noticed that I couldn't hear out of one ear. When the doctor checked, the reason I couldn't hear is because I have a brain tumor. It just annoys me, because it makes my eye cry. (She wipes her eye with the tissues I bring her.)
My back is destroyed. I have scoliosis, I have deterioration of the spine, I have arthritis, I have about nine herniated discs. I go to pain management, and I wear patches, because without them I can't even get around. It hurts me every day. You know how your pain starts at zero out of ten? Mine starts at four. That could be the best, and I haven't been a four in a long time.
Then I had chest pains in March. I went to the hospital, and while I was there, they were doing a catheterization and a blood clot came out and it gave me a stroke. I'm still suffering from that, because my speech slurs sometimes.
And here we are. But you know what? I defeated it all. Except the brain tumor is still here, because that's a sixteen-hour operation. If they run into trouble in the operation, they can just take a piece of it. The tumor is more than three centimeters. If they can cut it down, then they could do radiation and maybe get rid of it.
If not, the tumor's going to kill me, but you know what? I'm going to kill it first. Trust and believe, I'm going to kill it first. I need to be around a little while longer, because my daughter hasn't given me a grandchild yet. I have things to look forward to. I'm enjoying my life. I don't have time to worry about what's bothering me. It hurts, but so what? I'm strong. I think you get that from being in so much pain from so young. That's good, but at the same time that's bad. By the time I get to the hospital with pain, it's a hot mess already.
And there it is. That's my life.
I ask her how the doctors treated her when she was younger.
It's very different from now. I think they treated me well, for what I knew then. One of the things they told me was, “You know that only a monkey has had this procedure?” I don't remember what it was that they were doing to me. I thought that was so funny at the time. I don't think that's funny now.
I was so sick. I remember that I was very tired, and I just wanted to go to sleep. (She speaks more slowly now, as if lost in thought.)
I almost had a nervous breakdown once. I'd been in there for so long. People go in, people go out, and I'm still there. My cousin came in my room. He was in the Air Force, and he looked so pretty in his uniform. And he asked me, “Inez, what do you want? What is one thing that you want?”
And I started telling him, “I want to go home. I want to go to my house, I want to go home!” (Her voice rises, getting louder.) And I started screaming and screaming, “Get me out of here!”
She cries for a while. This is the first time, as a medical student, that I tear up in front of a patient. I quickly sniff back my own emotions and keep recording.
I still remember that. It was hard. Four or five years, sick. I know people do longer--but I speak for myself. It was a very hard time. That's something you cannot get used to, being in a hospital.
And that's why when they give me those stupid papers--“Do you feel depressed?”--I say, “Yeah, sometimes!” (She laughs grimly, wiping away the tears.)
I do. I have dark moments, but I never think about killing myself. You know why? Because I fought so much for this life. For me to go and take it away from myself, that would never happen. I refuse to say how many drinks I've had in a year, because I don't know, I lost count! I have a cocktail sometimes because I feel so dark and so lonely. It's not even every week or every month, it's just sometimes.
And some people look at me and say, “Why does she need a home attendant?”
Nobody knows what nobody carries. You got to look at my body inside out, and then you would know.
About Inez Martinez:
Inez Martinez was born in New York. When she was four, her family moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side to the Bronx, where she has lived ever since. As an adult, Inez worked for US Customs, a part of the US Treasury Department. She divided her time between Newark Airport and 6 World Trade Center, which is where she was when the 9/11 attacks took place. (After 9/11, her agency became a part of Homeland Security.) Inez raised two children of her own and over the years became an informal parent to several dozen neighborhood teenagers. "I gave them what they didn't get at home--if they needed a meal, if they needed love, if they needed a scolding...." One of her protégés called Inez "the mayor of 199th Street." Last month, a number of these now-adults crowded into Inez's apartment to help her celebrate Thanksgiving.
About the Encounters Project:
In the summer of 2017, Pulse's Visuals Editor Sara Kohrt collaborated with two medical students from Albert Einstein College of Medicine to launch a project intended to add more patient voices to Pulse. Together with Sara, students Kristen Lee and Erin McCoy photographed and interviewed patients who were waiting to see their doctors at a Bronx family health center. The patients were asked to talk about their healthcare experiences, to share stories about their lives outside the clinic walls and to reflect on how these two worlds affect each other.