Aetna: A Brief History
Ancient Sicilian city that various BCE invaders campaigned to conquer, not always with success. Today, Aetna is an insurance company that subscribers try to negotiate, not always with success.

Latin poem, written circa first century AD, describing how strong winds fuel subterranean fire (i.e., a volcano blowing its top). Poem ends with a story of finding justice in such events which, translated into the subject at hand, would not include that first comment—“I didn’t cross my side of the net”—after my knee snapped.

A Sicilian nymph who quelled real estate squabbles. Mount Aetna, probably named after her, was where Zeus had thunderbolts were produced so that one day he could launch them into my right knee.
Friday, April 24, 2009 • 7:00 am
The Tupperware container remains empty.

There's Carole, making all her usual motions to get ready for work, but now with an eye on my knee. Beside the pain still shooting through me, I don't want to be a burden but suspect I didn't pull a muscle that's going to heal on its own. Because I heard a snap. So, I get off the couch with my good leg and take a step on my bad leg, and the thing hyperextends again—backward, sci-fi space alien-like—and it hurts like hell. I sit back down. Carole won't go to work today.

Crutches borrowed from my landlord, whose back goes out on occasion; I hope it doesn't go out today because I don't feel like hopping. Last night in front of the emergency room I hopped from the car to the curb. And there was the curb, looming like Mount Everest. I sat down and pivoted and scooted a bit. Just then a middle-aged couple walked by, and one said, “Oh, my god. Are you okay?” When you see a guy sitting on the sidewalk in front of an emergency room, something must be wrong. The woman held my bag and the man held the door for me, and they wished me well. I'm not going to take out an ad on the back page of the Village Voice or a spot on “Missed Connections” in craigslist. Still: I'm grateful for the inherent kindness of strangers.

• 10:00 am
The first question of all receptionists in the medical profession throughout the land: “What insurance do you have?” You have to negotiate the insurance company's web site to find a doctor who takes your insurance. Within Aetna's insurance rubric are subsets of coverage categories. The web search for a medical professional—including choices for hospital affiliation, speciality, languages spoken, and gender—is a Rube Goldberg matrix that's absolutely awful if, say, your knee is throbbing. And then you have to hope that the closest doctor who matches your criteria is in that particular office on that particular day; most of them have multiple offices they circulate to during the week. Like safe houses for spies.

Dr. Issack's office is within crutch-walk distance of our apartment in Park Slope. It's a nice walk if you're not on crutches. Carole's OBGYN is in the same building. We've been there many times. Doc Issack matches all my criteria. His people made time for me. Carole's got Max in the stroller. I fill out five pages of paperwork. Set loose, Max weaves around all these people and their crutches in the waiting room. I see the look in their eyes: gratitude for his outgoing cuteness, for his ability to take them away from their orthopedic ailments until the cuteness returns to a state that only his parents continue to love.

They have trays of chocolate chip cookies in the waiting room. We don't touch them. We're on a diet.

• 1:00 pm
Max has been consistently cute for three hours. They took x-rays, and now I'm in an exam room, on a table with a 60-degree incline—not sitting up, not fully reclined; it's like Passover Seder seating for orthopedic patients. There's Doc Issack. Skin tone of southern India, voice of southern Bronx. Unflappably professional. He spends half an hour with us, detailing the probabilities, the options. He answers all my questions.

My x-ray shows no broken bones. That's the good news, he says. I say, “Well, the other good news is that I won the point for my volleyball team just before I went down.” He allows himself a smile. It's a quick, professional smile, and maybe we're wasting precious billable hours but my constitution needs to gauge both his expertise and his humanity. You can't exactly gauge humanity with a self-deprecating joke, but it's all I've got right now.

I try to absorb the flurry of new vocabulary. His best guess: a torn ACL and meniscus damage, maybe MCL, maybe LCL. Autograft vs. allograft. I take notes. He's recommending one or two surgeries.

His staff sets me up with a brace, aluminum crutches, and prescriptions for Vicodin, an MRI, and six weeks of physical therapy. We go home. I muddle back into the Aetna web matrix to find an MRI office.

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