I am PQd

October 8th, 2001

"You'd better start now. That way you'll have a few months to figure out how to get through all the stuff that's going to go wrong."
- Tony explaining the USAP's PQ process to me.

I think I'll stop calling these diary entries, because they're really not. I'm writing this about 4 months after it happened. If this were a diary entry it would be filled with tales of fear and loathing, of extravagant and unnecessary expenditures, of strong drink and criminal hangovers, friends true and blue, the moment of epiphany when you discover what life is all about, and how quickly it all dissolves back to the bogosity of corporate living.

In order to go to Antarctica you need to be cleared medically. That is: they want to be sure your body isn't going to fail and create an incident that shows up on CNN. Those kinds of things endanger a lot of people as well as provide for unwanted publicity. If you want to stay over for the winter, you also have to pass a psychological examination. The process of passing all the NSF's physical qualifications is called, oddly enough, Physical Qualification, or PQ.

As far as I can tell the term "PQ" is most often used as a verb. A person PQs. I've not heard anyone say, "I got my PQ." Rather they say, "Did you PQ?" "You bet I PQed."

My PQ process took nearly two months. It involved some medical procedures which under normal circumstances would be routine and boring. Of course, this could not be the case for me.

Here's what happens. Raytheon Polar Services sends you a two-inch thick brick of shrink-wrapped paper. There is also a box with a bunch of vials. You take the box to the lab and the lab people put your blood and urine into the vials and then express mail them to a lab (more about this later). Part of the brick is a professionally produced manual that explains why you shouldn't bring stuff in aerosol cans to Antarctica (the ozone hole is already big enough), why you need to separate your trash when you're there (everything including human effluent is recycled and sent back to the states), why you shouldn't take more than one shower per week even if you stink (all water has to be melted from snow or seawater put through expensive reverse-osmosis), and why you shouldn't go places without telling anyone or leave marked trails (frigid arctic hurricanes can arise in a moments notice and you could die, or you could fall into a crevasse and become an artifact for future archeologists to discover).

The rest of the brick of paper are forms. Some are in quadruplicate. Some are double-sided pages. All need to be filled out by someone--you, a doctor, a dentist, the person to whom the remains will be returned.

I got the forms and filled out all the ones I could by myself. I read the 79 page book and learned what I needed to know about not bringing too much deodorant because I was worried about not showering. Beards are de rigueur for males. No need to bring nasty razors and shaving cream. Leave your hair on your face. Easier to bring it home, then. Then I turned to the forms I needed medical assistance to handle.

My usual doctor is a cardiologist and is so booked up sending Californians for bypasses there was no time to do my Antarctic checkup. So, I found a local GP who said he'd be happy to do it. Two visits later and I had my forms filled out. Happily I sent them in to Raytheon Polar Services, who handles the PQ process to the NSF.

The GP couldn't draw the blood for me, and suggested a lab down the street. By the way, he had some additional tests he wanted to do, so I should use HIS lab, not the one RPS wanted me to use.

So I went to that lab with my box of vials plus a prescription for some other tests this GP I had never seen before wanted to establish a baseline on me. The lab people were slightly confused and dismayed about filling vials for the RPS lab. But, for money people will do anything. So, they agreed to charge me to fill the vials only, and then send them out. She poked me in the arm and filled the 6 RPS vials plus the 4 that were necessary for the tests the GP wanted. Then she made me pee in a little cup. Then I went home figuring everything was done and all I would need to do was to get my clean bill of dental health and I'd be done.

While I was awaiting my dental appt. I got a call from a very nice and patient woman at RPS who said: "Joe, the doctor wants your latest EKG results." As I'm over 40, I get an EKG every time I get a checkup. Unfortunately, the GP I'd gone to couldn't do EKG's, but luckily, I'd just had one done at my cardiologist the prior month. I got a copy and sent it in.

The nice nurse from RPS called two days later: "Joe, the doctor wants to see a treadmill test."

Lucky for me I'm in a high-risk category for heart failure. That's why I exercise like an animal every week. I'm in good shape, but they have to keep testing me because people in good shape often drop dead for reasons nobody can explain. I have a treadmill test every year so if I die they'll know the cause wasn't anything they could see on a treadmill test. I'd had one two months earlier. I called my cardiologist, got the results of that test, and faxed them over to RPS. I figured I was home free after the dental checkup.

A few days later the nice lady from RPS called me up: "Joe, your cholesterol is a little high, but it's within limits so it's okay..." which I knew. I take powerful drugs for this. My cholesterol is driven by my genetics to turn my blood to high-viscosity motor oil. I am assured I will be dead before my children graduate high-school if I don't take drugs for it. So I do. The drugs keep my cholesterol to marginally obscene levels.

None of this bothered me.

Then she said: "And the doctor thinks you should talk to someone about your future. The blood tests show you have a serious case of (a fatal blood disorder--not named here). We can probably PQ you with (the fatal blood disorder), but as you may not live very long after you get back, you may want to get your affairs in order..." or something like that. That's what I remember, though.

That bothered me.

Again, what I heard: "You have high cholesterol and a fatal disease. Don't sweat the cholesterol."

Yikes. Suddenly I didn't want to go to Antarctica anymore. Suddenly I wanted to quit my job and spend all my time driving my kids to school and helping my wife go grocery shopping. I wanted to finish my book.

I thought a lot about dying, but without any symptoms it seemed like a fictional concept. I was in great health. I felt great. What was going on?

The GP said: "let's not believe the tests that phony lab got--use MY lab. Here, have these tests done." He gave me a prescription for another battery of tests.

My usual doctor, the cardiologist said: "let's not believe the tests that phony lab got--here use MY lab and go see this specialist."

So I went and had a lot more blood drawn. Living on pins and needles for the next two days while the results were in process put powerful thoughts into my mind. Better buy that new synthesizer I want now, I might not be here next year. Better get that writing done. Better see if I can talk to John Edward so he can contact my dead father and tell him I'll be there soon.

When the test results came back it was all bad news. Positive. Yes, you have this horrible disease. Yes, it's possible you could die from it.

"Let's see how bad this is," the GP said, and ordered another battery of blood tests. I asked him how the hell I could have gotten this disease. He mentioned a bunch of activities, any of which would have improved the entertainment value of my life but alas, none of which I had ever done.

"You're in denial," he told me. He said a few things that made me believe he thought I was lying.

"Doc, I'm a nerd," I pled my case. "I have never done ANYTHING as interesting as what you suggest I'd have had to have done to get this. If I had, I wouldn't lie. What good would lying do if I'm going to die, for pete's sake?"

"You have it. Get used to the idea. Maybe you'll remember something next week. Maybe a month from now," he said. I noticed he didn't say, "A year from now..."

Now I was getting mad. Had I forgotten a life I'd led as an international playboy? Had I forgotten I'd been a heroin addict? I can see forgetting time during the addiction--but how could I forget the year of detox and why didn't it show up on my paycheck? Why couldn't any of these people tell me what was going on?

"Did you see the specialist?" the cardiologist said. Truth was, I hadn't made the appointment because I expected all the tests to come out negative. I made the appointment.

More trips to the lab. Lots more blood taken. Three, four vials every two days or so. My arms were beginning to look like I'd been partying with Janis Joplin or John Belushi from all the errant jabs.

And then the tests started coming back negative. If I had this disease it was very weak, or a very recent infection. It was around then I went to see the specialist. I pled my case to her and she said: "What are these people thinking? Are they out of their minds? You obviously don't have this disease. The problem is they don't want to order the test to prove it because its expensive."

What did I have to lose? "Please do the test."

"Ok," she says, "but don't go to any of those bogus labs. Go to MY lab..." as if I hadn't heard it before.

At the specialist's lab they didn't know what the test was they were doing. They took a few vials of blood and labeled them "Joseph Mastroianni: test unknown". I phoned the specialist who sounded very perturbed I would suggest her lab wouldn't know what test to perform.

"It said, 'unknown,'" I told her. "They looked confused. They rolled their eyes and asked me if I knew if the sample had to be cenrifuged or refrigerated. I told them I didn't."

"I'll take care of it. Don't worry."

It took two weeks for those tests to come back. During that time I selected a burial preference and told my wife about it.

"Burn me and flush me down the toilet," I suggested. "If it makes you feel better, play a Dave Matthew's CD while you're doing it."

She said the only thing a sane person is allowed to say when confronted with such stupidity: "Very funny."

Two and a half weeks went by and the specialist never called. In the meantime, Tony sent me a spreadsheet from RPS that said I had passed the medical portion of my PQ. All I could think was that I was going to die and it probably made sense to see Antarctica before that happened--but that I might not be able to accompany him next year. I wondered if sprinkling any of my ashes around Antarctica would cause an international incident. Bits of ash might get into the water supply. The ghost of me might inhabit McMurdo plumbing for years.

"Have you heard from the specialist?" someone asked. And I hadn't. She'd told me NOT to call her. She would call me when she got the results and it would take a few weeks. Don't call. She said it firmly, as if being around potentially dying people would be a big problem for her. So I didn't call.

Then I couldn't stand it anymore. I called.

"Oh, Joe. Sorry I didn't get to you but I was busy with sick people, of which you are not one. This test shows conclusively you have NONE of this thing in your blood. The other test is showing a false positive. By the way, did anyone ever tell you those tests read a false positive on 10% of the entire population? I guess not. Anyway, you have nothing and you should tell them that. See ya."

And there you have it. One of every ten people will be told they have this disease when they don't. If they don't want to pay for the expensive test insurance won't cover, they'll wander around for the rest of their lives thinking they're going to die at any minute.

Which may not be a bad, thing, by the way.

As for me, twelve seconds after she told me I didn't have the disease I fell back into my old patterns. And as I write these words I realize I never sent those test results to RPS. What's the difference? They PQ'ed me anyway. Why screw things up with good results? I could get de-PQed.

And then my dental appointment came up. My dentist filled out the forms and I had to send in a bunch of dental x-rays. The nice lady called me and said: "The dentist wants to see more x-rays. More pictures of number 3 and number 15. All contacts open."

"Can you tell me what that means?" I asked.

"Not really," she said. "Just say those things to your dentist. He'll do the right thing."

I said those words to my dentist and he pulled out the x-ray machine. My dentist is a modern dentist. He uses lasers to drill my teeth. He uses lasers to fix my gums and he has a digital x-ray machine that lets you see the pictures one second after the x-ray is taken.

"Bite this," he says, shoving a piece of plastic into my mouth the size of a Great Dane's paw. It has a wire coming out of it. The wire is connected to his desktop computer. There's also a foot-long metal rod coming out of it. A circular guide about 6 inches in diameter is bolted to the metal rod. This is used to line up the x-ray unit.

All of these wires and rods are coming out of your mouth. They create leverage that causes the plastic sensor to grate against the soft tissues of your mouth. This is modern dentistry.

He runs out of the room and pushes the x-ray button. Zap. Zap. Zap. "Hmm," says my dentist. "This is going to be harder than I thought." Meanwhile, my airway is blocked and I'm trying to keep myself from passing out or killing myself by aspirating my own puke.

"Wait, bite more to the front. Can you stick your jaw out further?" He twists and wedges the plastic so that my right tonsil is pressed against my spinal cord. I'm seeing stars. Saliva is running out of my mouth. The drool is pouring onto my shirt and the dark splotch is growing.

"Now don't move," he says, and runs out. Zap. "Hmmm...let's see. Can you possibly move your tongue so that you can hold the sharp end against your cheek? Here..."

He twists the metal rod and my uvula is tangled on the sensor wire. I'm gagging on spit. My jaw and neck are saturated as if I were two years old and teething. My reflexes have me trying to swallow the sensor and I'm gulping big bubbles of air that smell like burning plastic. I don't even notice him running away and zapping. I'm trying to keep my lunch in my stomach and it's hardly working.

"I think I've got it now. One more time..."

If this weren't for a trip to Antarctica I'd bite the thing in half.

He grabs the rod and pulls the sensor out of my mouth, nearly taking a filling with it.

"Heh heh. Well I could spend all day on this and it's not going to get any better. If they want something different, they're going to have to come here and show me how to do it."

He prints the x-rays on his computer printer and puts them in a manila envelope. "Can you send me something from Antarctica? Do they sell stamps there?" he says and smiles.

I promise to send him a card so he can have something with the post mark. The bleeding in my cheek has nearly stopped but my shirt is still saturated in sweat and spit. I leave the office looking like I've been wrestling a rabid German Shepherd.

Two days after express mailing the pictures to RPS I get a call from Tony, who knows everything I've been through. He plays it to the hilt.

"Joe I hate to tell you this..." pregnant pause. After all this, they're going to deny me for some reason. They don't believe I'm well. The wisdom teeth I had removed when I was 18 have grown back and I've been disqualified until I can have an oral surgeon remove the reincarnated versions (you can't go to Antarctica with wisdom teeth--it's a wisdom tooth free region).

"You're PQed," Tony says, and laughs.

"How about that?" is all I can say.

And so it was done.