On Disappearing And Connecting

     |    Wednesday December 19th, 2012

Sorry for the radio silence, folks. For ten days, ending a week ago, this was my home, a bed in St. Eloi Hospital here in Montpellier, France. I’d been experiencing shortness of breath, and my doctor ordered me to the hospital. I had no idea it’d take so long to get them to discharge me.


You can read all about it here, but the reason I bring it up in the context of this particular blog is that there was one aspect of the experience that fits what I’ve been writing about here. As you can read in my other blog post, while I was waiting to be assigned a room and having my initial tests, one of the young medical students offered to contact friends of mine, and the only ones who were close enough at hand were unlisted in the phone book. I asked him if the hospital had wi-fi (I know some of them do) and he just laughed. “A public hospital in France? I don’t think so!” And he was right.


And, as you can also read, until my unlisted friends serendipitously found me on Saturday night, nobody much knew where I was or in what condition. And, with as much time as I had to think about stuff, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t always have been like that. Back before ubiquitous e-mail and text messaging and stuff, it actually would have been easier for me to get a message out to the rest of the world. I wracked my brains: whose phone number did I know these days? Nobody came to mind. After all, I can reach just about anybody I need to these days by e-mail, which they can read and reply to on their own time. No more “Hey, is this a good time to talk?”


Of course, that function’s been taken over by text-messaging, or what we no longer (to my great relief) call “chat.” This is something I rarely engage in, but then I’m so old-fashioned that I rarely carry my cell-phone anywhere unless I’m travelling: I have a whole separate SIM card for the U.S., where pay-as-you-go cell-phone plans are a lot more reasonable — and more easily figured out — than they are in France. But the carnage on America’s highways pays testament to the amount of texting that goes on at all times. I’m kind of happy not to live the kind of life where messages carry such urgency.


But boy, when you’re in a hospital room with nothing to read, no glasses, no way to get someone into your apartment to pick up the glasses and reading material, you scheme, let me tell you. After a couple of days, it actually does get urgent. And for me, I figured the thing to do was simply to figure out how to get in touch with one of my networks and get the word out. Easier said than done. A social worker came to see me, and I was ready with five e-mail addresses I was absolutely sure of. (After all, my computer usually does that work for me: I type in a few letters and it fills in the rest or presents me with some options). I wrote a short text and gave it to her with the addresses. There, I thought. Now people will know I’m okay.


Except as far as I can tell the message never went out.


Meanwhile, people were trying to get in. This was somewhat difficult: I hadn’t signed up for phone service, figuring I didn’t have any phone numbers for anyone I wanted to talk to, and not considering that they might have been able to get to me from outside. But there is, essentially, only one hospital in Montpellier, and one central registry of patients, so that whether someone is near death or giving birth, their location can be found right away. And, unsurprisingly, it was someone very experienced in networking who found me. Or, rather helped find me.


I’ve written about the Well here before, when it was being sold by Salon. I’ve been a member for almost twelve years, and it’s a great community of folks. The sudden disappearance of someone sets off comments, and in fact I’d mentioned my shortness of breath and impending doctor’s visit there, so as the concern mounted as people noticed that had been the last thing I’d posted, one guy realized he was in touch with someone he’d worked with in Montpellier some years back. That person was now in Paris, but that was a lot closer to me than Berkeley was, so the guy shot off an e-mail. And, a few days into my stay, the Parisian guy, an utter stranger, called me on the phone in my hospital room. I told him what was what, and the message got back to the guy in Berkeley.


From there, the word spread around the Well, but there were others who weren’t in that particular network who needed to know. The folks here at realeyz.tv, for one: I’d missed my deadline with no comment, and wasn’t answering e-mails. Their route to me was far more circuitous, and relied on one person remembering that someone we both knew lived in Philadelphia, where my sister lives. That particular trail wound up in Paris, again, in the hands of yet another person I’ve never met, to wit the sister of my brother-in-law’s cousin (there is no word for her relationship to me in English, although I’m assured there is one in Russian, and come to think of it, she’s also a cousin of his, but at least I’ve met her sister; take notes because there’ll be a quiz after this blog-post). She called, was told I was asleep and doing well, and word got back to Philly.


I didn’t know any of this until my friends showed up in person on Saturday night, and didn’t actually know the whole story until I returned to my apartment, where my computer was on and I had umpty-zillion e-mails to sort through.


So the news got out, eventually, and so did I. I now have a local friend’s business card in my wallet for emergencies, although I don’t anticipate this particular one happening again. (Do get up and walk around when you fly, folks, if you can). That it took so long in these days of ubiquitous networks and computing is a cautionary tale: even with all the info and chatter out there, people can disappear. I almost did.


But I’m back, and hope to be here for many a long year. Even back here at the Ward Report, so tune in again next week.