(For attributions and sources, click here.)
My voice is different now. I’ve checked with people who’ve known me since before September 2019. They say I sound the same. But I can hear the difference. You could hear it too, if you were inside my head, working my chest while I talk. But after I eat, when I haven’t drunk enough water… making my speech sound normal requires effort. It’s like trying to yell in a dream. My voice feels all phlegmy. I have to struggle to cut through it with nothing but sound.
But it wasn’t always this way.
— intro theme —
This is One Story Today. I’m Dan Shick. On each episode of One Story Today I do what it says on the tin: I tell a story, from my own life, all gussied up for your audio enjoyment. Today’s story in five parts: My New Voice.
— unlock sound —
I unlock and open the door to my fifth-floor Berlin apartment. That way the paramedics won’t have to kick it down. Then I sit down on the couch and take a deep, ragged breath. I’ve been running around for the last 15 minutes doing everything I can to handle the allergic reaction I seem to be having so that I don’t die alone: running from my desk, where i started feeling strange, to the mirror, seeing my face getting puffy, to the medicine cabinet, grabbing and gulping two Benadryl through my swollen throat, to the phone, calling German 911 and telling them the news in my increasingly weird, phlegmy voice.
And now the couch.
Oh, it feels so good to sit down. —doorbell— The doorbell rings. It’s the EMTs wanting to be let in downstairs. Luckily, the building’s front door latch is always broken, because after all my panicked running around I do not have the energy to get back up and buzz them in.
But it turns out all this running around is one of the last times I’ll stand up on my own for a couple of weeks.
I really get along well with the Germans. In fact, I like them so much I decided to move to Germany. Living here carries with it a long list of benefits that make American politicians mad: affordable and mandatory health care, lots more vacation, and an informed population that actually pays attention to politics outside of presidential elections. Well, chancellorial elections.
But I’ll tell you this: some things make no sense.
Sure, the Germans would say the same thing about us: they’d complain about our scalding hot espresso drinks, or how we often pretend tall buildings don’t have a thirteenth floor.
But OK, here’s one about the Germans: they can’t stand cold air in motion. Whatever you do, don’t open all the windows in an apartment; if you do, you better close all the doors. Otherwise, the Germans will tell you, you’re gonna create a draft and give every human being present a nasty cold. They will say this in grave earnest, looking you in the eye, even on the hottest day of summer. Twenty years ago, German supermarkets and movie theatres didn’t even have air conditioning, or if they did, they never turned it on.
And this is still the case in so many places: subways, office buildings… hospitals.
—sound of men grunting and sneakering down stairwell—
I’m strapped to a medical transport chair. Four beefy paramedics are struggling to carry me down the stairs of my apartment building, muttering and swearing in German. I get it – I’m a big guy anyway. And before we began the trek downstairs, they gave me a face mask full of adrenaline gas. It tasted awful, like half-sweetened disinfectant spray. Now I’m just dead weight. Adrenaline’s supposed to counteract the allergic reaction I reported on the phone, but what it’s mostly doing right now is making me feel like a boneless lump. A jittery boneless lump.
On the ambulance ride a paramedic gives me another lungful of disinfectant and asks me how I feel. As best I can, I say “no difference”. He answers back indignantly, “That’s pure adrenaline I gave you!” What can I say? I can’t argue. I don’t have the strength. But somewhere in my buzzing brain I’m starting to feel like something’s off.
—busy hospital noise w/beeping—
I spend 12 hours in the emergency intake room of the hospital, watching people getting brought in, diagnosed, and brought back out again. Nobody knows what to do with me except give me more adrenaline and wait. Hours later, in spite of my bursting bladder, my groin muscles lose their ability to pee on command. One of the nurses apologetically catheterizes me.
—just beeping now—
At last night falls. A new doctor comes on and immediately sees what others haven’t. She places her hand on my throat and feeds me a corner of a bread roll. I chew it up as small and gooey as I can and try to swallow it. I fail utterly. In German I say, “I can’t complete the swallowing process.” The doctor laughs a little. That’s enough for her. Thanks in part to my overconfident initial report, I’ve been misdiagnosed. My symptoms are neurological.
I feel a huge wave of relief, for the first time since I sat down on the couch waiting to get my ass saved. Fuck adrenaline!
After Donald Trump got elected in 2016, the IT job I had with the United States government stopped being my idealistic dream and was about to become a living nightmare.
—clip of Donald Trump’s address to the CIA in 2017—
Everyone I knew was dreading inauguration day 2017. The Hamilton electors had failed us, and Inauguration Day inevitably came. The next day, the photos of Obama and Biden vanished from the lobby of the San Francisco Federal Building. It was the new order. My co-workers and I kept expecting two dreaded orange and white faces to appear in those ugly metal frames, but they stayed empty for a good long while, through spring at least. I don’t know about after that, because spring is when I gave notice.
I was living in Portland, Oregon. I came out of a therapy session and made the decision right then and there, in a parking lot on East Burnside, my bicycle and I bathed in sunlight.
Suddenly I’d dialed the number and had my boss on the line, and before I could stop myself I told her I wouldn’t stay on. It felt awful. It felt like I’d saved a prized possession from the flames of a house fire, but when I tried to touch it, it crumbled to ash.
My boss was super cool about it. She got it. She wasn’t hurrying me out the door, she’d just hold it open for me when I wanted to go. When I think about it, I couldn’t have been the first body on the floor since the inauguration, not even in her team. I was far from the only one who felt like the Trump administration had somehow co-opted us, that our idealistic work would now just serve as good PR for an evil person.
But after it felt awful, it started to feel all right. For the first time in a while, I felt a wave of relief. Even the warm springtime sun hadn’t given me that. So I got on my bike and sped home… to start packing for Germany.
It’s 3 o’clock in the deep dark warm summer morning. I’m looking up at the trees. I smell cigarette smoke. It’s getting breathed out by the crowd of silent men standing nearby. On the orders of the doctor who correctly diagnosed me, these men have driven me through the night to a new hospital. Now they’re waiting for the right time to bring me into the building.
They’re not in a hurry. Neither am I, really. I’m snug as a bug on my gurney. The adrenaline has long since worn off, and I’m an exhausted ragdoll.
When they finally wheel me inside, I’m perfectly happy to spend the next couple of hours staring at the ceiling, parked in a dimly lit hospital corridor next to a flickering exit sign.
Eventually the admitting doctor calls for me, and someone rolls me in before her. The doctor runs a little spiked wheel over the sole of each of my feet and asks me some questions. Having someone to talk to feels great, even given the extenuating circumstances: it’s five in the morning, the doctor is extremely cranky, and my voice is all phlegmy and ragged. I eagerly answer all her questions, but I also tell her I really need some water, as she’s gotta be able to hear from my voice.
She looks at me sideways, as if I already know everything. She says, “You know that’s not why you’re having trouble speaking, right?”
But in my state I’m immune to hints. Like most people who’ve never been hospitalized before, I’m still confidently maintaining my image of my previous healthy self. I respond, “Sure, whatever you say.”
All I really want is some water in my mouth. Some water, maybe a burger and fries. I’m pretty sure that and a good night’s sleep is all I need to put me right.
The doctor’s finished with me now. She admits me. She’s saved me from the smoking dudes who would have to take me back to the crappy hospital.
And why does she admit me? Because at long last, I’ve been correctly and fully diagnosed: I’ve had a stroke.
—weird hospital noise—
Diagnostician Christina: Horner’s syndrome, also known as oculosympathetic paresis, is a set of symptoms caused by damage to a group of nerves known as the sympathetic trunk. Patients with Horner’s syndrome typically display a constricted pupil, a weak, droopy eyelid, decreased sweating and/or an inset eyeball. The symptoms all occur on the same side of the body.
Wallenberg’s syndrome is a neurological condition caused by a stroke in the vertebral or posterior inferior cerebellar artery of the brain stem. Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, dizziness, nausea & vomiting, rapid involuntary movements of the eyes, and problems with balance and walking. Some people with Wallenberg’s syndrome report that the world seems to be tilted in an unsettling way, which makes it difficult to keep their balance when they walk.
Dan: Part four.
—hospital noise continues—
The morning has arrived, and it’s shining full blast. The sun’s been up for hours, and now it’s drenching the world in bright and beautiful yellow light. Birds and insects are happily flitting between flower and branch.
I can see it all from a room’s length away, lying in my new comfy adjustable bed on the intensive care station of the stroke ward.
—birds and outside noises—
From my oddly comfortable bed everything kind of seems like it’s on TV. Even the tiny ceiling-mounted TV seems like it’s on TV. For no reason I understand yet, I feel deeply and imperturbably relaxed…. even when the nurse apologetically grabs my nose and shoves a feeding tube down into my stomach. She does this because I still can’t swallow. I’m totally relaxed.
I look around me and see my three elderly roommates, who like me are surrounded by sixteen million devices, beeping and flashing. I see one of them, Herr Schmidt, disconnecting his wires and tubes.
I watch him attempt a hopeless, shuffling, slow-motion escape. One of the nurses outside the room, a young man named Martin, intercepts him with zero effort. They speak, in German.
M: “Herr Schmidt, you need to stay in bed.”
HS, urgently: “But I need to go to the basement!”
M: “No, I promise you, you don’t.”
On his way back out of the room I hear Martin mutter to himself, “Not yet, anyway.” Word to the wise: the basement is where the morgue is.
—bird noises out—
The ward’s physical therapist stops by. He’s a Berliner, a vital, jovial dad type with brown plastic-framed glasses. He has me sit up in bed and hang my legs off the side. Suddenly the entire room feels like it’s sloping off to the right, and my tired body goes with it, back down onto the comfy bed. I heat the therapist say: “Okay! Enough for today. Bye!” By the time I’m sitting up in bed again he’s gone.
I pass a peaceful weekend on the intensive care ward. The EMTs didn’t bring my bag with my phone in it, but I manage to contact some friends, and they come to visit, bringing me my bag, laptop, clothes, books and more. At last! Soon I’m text chatting in real time with a couple dozen of my supportive and horrified friends and family across the globe. No need to use my voice to stay in touch! Everything is fine.
On Monday, the department head physician stops by with his assistant in tow and gives me a preliminary diagnosis, good news first. Normally I hate good news first, at least when there’s bad news, but today it doesn’t bother me. The good news is that it was a very small stroke, and some of the big effects like my weakness and tendency to slump to the right will likely go away completely. My motor capabilities are already visibly improving after only three days in the hospital.
And the bad news? It’s no big deal, just that my ability to swallow on purpose, and my clear voice, might take months or years to return.
Seems fine to me! In fact it barely even registers. I gratefully thank the doctor, whose practiced smile, like mine, has not cracked once during this flawlessly executed bedside visit. I also thank his assistant.
She looks at me with beautiful, sympathetic, sad eyes. She’s clearly new here. She lends me her green ballpoint pen to sign some kind of document saying I understand my diagnosis. She doesn’t even ask for it back! But as they leave she does glance back from the door frame to check on me. Sad eyes.
—sad music stops abruptly—
Awesome. Free pen! Time for more beige fluid through the feeding tube!
I’m really good at pretending everything’s all right. If you don’t believe me, you can ask both my ex-wives. Or my high school drama teacher.
—Movie opening music: The Man Who Came to Dinner—
In high school, it seemed like my emotions were under glass. I was an excellent actor in high school, because I could walk up on stage and do the same thing I did all day every day, just as a different character. They loved me.
—more movie music—
Though I didn’t know much about the mindset and daily concerns of a spoiled, cranky theatre critic stranded in Ohio, that didn’t stop me being an excellent Sheridan Whiteside.
—Monty Woolley’s character Sheridan Whiteside being super misogynist in the aforementioned movie—
The play was The Man Who Came to Dinner, and back in the mid-eighties I uncritically but accurately reproduced its awful cultural takes from 1939. At the time I was very proud of my bombastic performance. Looking back, I think I was learning to feel my real emotions by acting like I already could.
What I learned in the hospital was something simple, but important: acting like things are okay doesn’t make them okay.
—movie finale music—
Ten days after entering the hospital, the straight-talking, no-filter speech therapist finally comes back from vacation. Right after my liquid breakfast & pills, she appears at the foot of my bed to give me a once-over. And that she does.
She ends up pretty sure I’ll need a long-term feeding tube inserted surgically through the wall of my stomach. On her way out the door, she grimly hands me a sheaf of exercises for my swallowing muscles… for me to perform every day for the next several weeks or months. She says she’ll return the next day to gauge my progress. She frowns and leaves.
At last someone has punctured my invulnerable good mood. I sit there in bed completely deflated. For the first time I’m not sure what my life is gonna look like after the hospital. I feel alone and sad.
In that moment my physical therapist stops by. The previous day we played soccer in the hall with a rubber ball the size of a dog’s head. I tired quickly but kept my balance, and he’d said I was doing great. Today he comes in, takes one look at me and, for the very first time, asks me if I’m okay. I don’t know if I responded.
We skip therapy that day.
Then I take the sheaf of papers, sit there in bed and do every exercise without a pause. A million times. No chat groups, no screwing around on the slow internet. Just hours of exercises. That’s all I can think to do. Uncharacteristically, I fall asleep that night in the middle of the exercises.
—sad music fades—
I wake up feeling hoarse and miserable. An hour later the speech therapist returns. I’m haggard and nervous… but I’m happy to say I blow her mind.
—weirdly happy music—
Suddenly, for the first time since I was carried out of my apartment, I can swallow: Jell-O, cream of wheat, even a crumbled-up wafer cookie.
The speech therapist has never seen such a quick recovery. She has no filter so I know what she’s telling me is true. She says, “It just must be the way you’re built!” The next day she rips the tape off my nose and yanks out the feeding tube.
No food in the world could ever taste as good as lunch that day, the first lunch in two weeks that I eat using my mouth: mashed potatoes, pureed turkey, pureed carrots.
—happy music finishes—
—guitar music: Unexpected Hoedown—
I’m discharged a few days later. Suddenly I’m back in the real world, and all my parts work. More or less.
I get a lot of help in the ensuing days and weeks: my sister and, later, my ex-wife come to take care of me and make sure I can eat and swallow safely. A couple weeks later, I somehow move into and furnish a new apartment, my first ever solo apartment in Berlin.
On November 11, just over a month after I leave the hospital, I unlock my bicycle and push it out onto the sidewalk of my new, quiet neighborhood. It’s 3 in the afternoon and local traffic is quiet. I struggle up onto my bike and carefully ride around the block. I notice my tendency to steer in the direction I’m looking, which includes when I check approaching traffic over my shoulder. I compensate.
And I don’t fall once, even when I discover that half of my short route is paved in round, bumpy cobblestones and my bike has no shock absorbers whatsoever.
When I return to my front door I feel exhilarated. If I can ride my bike, I’m gonna be okay. Really.
But I keep the green ballpoint pen, so I’ll always remember.
—guitar music out—
—Sleeper Hit podcast intro music—
Earlier I told you my voice was different but that my friends say I sound the same. That’s as may be: You be the judge.
In 2016 I appeared on my friend Meryl’s podcast, The Sleeper Hit. Take a listen:
We talk about beer.
—podcast sample about beer—
We talk about Steven Universe.
—podcast sample about Steven Universe—
I sound so happy and unconcerned.
In my real life, this recording session from early October 2016 coincides with a period of deep depression. It was the year that my partner and I of over a decade split up. I was starting to think Trump’s chances of winning were better than the polls let on. I was alone in a rainy town. I was dating like a madman but unwilling to touch others or let them touch me.
But do you hear any of that in my voice from back then? I sure don’t.
—podcast sample about romantic love—
You can hear me now. You can understand me. That’s good enough for me.
—guitar music: Unexpected Hoedown—
And the feelings I’ve been telling you about, the feelings I had, that I’m still having?: they’re real. I’m trying not to put on a brave face any more. I guess that’s my new voice.
This has been One Story Today: My New Voice. I produced this episode in May 2021 with the kind assistance of my girlfriend, Christina, who also provided the diagnostic voice between parts three and four. I’d like to thank Ben Lorch for the inspiration and guidance. Pierce Murphy provided the title music, Heraklion Strut, and Doctor Turtle made the piece you’re hearing now, Unexpected Hoedown in Bagging Area. Thanks also to the the free music archive for helping me find them. Full attribution for all the music and sounds I use in this episode can be found in the show notes at my website, onestory dot today. Thanks for listening.
Attributions and sources
This podcast bears a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.
- Intro: Pierce Murphy: Heraklion Strut, provided under a CC BY 4.0 license. I used only a short excerpt of the beginning of the track and modified its volume but did not otherwise modify it.
- Outro: Doctor Turtle: Unexpected Hoedown in Bagging Area, provided under a CC BY 4.0 license. I used only the beginning of the track and modified its volume but did not otherwise modify it.
- Bavarian: reinsamba: traditional bavarian folk music
- Sad assistant: Jon Watts: Fields Overflowing, provided under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. I used only a small excerpt from the track and did not otherwise modify it.
- Vulnerable good mood: arseniiv: s piano loop
- Happy: Upbeat Whistle from Compositions 3 on the Free Music Archive
- Doorbell: Garuda1982: door bell sound effect
- Walking down stairs:
- Busy hospital:
- kyles: market int busy spanish voices2 Oaxaca, Mexico
- alaskarobotics: 700Hz beeps & 4000Hz beeps
- Crickets: Defelozedd94: Crickets at night – clean sound
- Corridor fluorescents: Daphne in Wonderland: Fluorescent lamps in hospital
- Cars on Burnside: G. Lamont: Traffic on a Busy Street
- Hospital noises under diagnosis: kyles: hospital prenatal room beeps…
- Birds and insects: BurghRecords: Birds in Spring (Scotland)
- Internet Archive: The Man Who Came to Dinner, intro & finale music and Monty Woolley snip (fair use)
- The Washington Post: Trump’s speech to the CIA (fair use)
- Meryl Williams-Clark: The Sleeper Hit podcast episode 20 (used with permission)