Wendy Stories
Friday 13 December 1997

Christian's Big Fall

A True Story

When I first met Christian one warm autumn day at Asilomar, I was startled by his red hair and his earnestly polite yet utterly indecipherable sentences. This is my Christian story.

It begins in my 1973 <Chevy Nova>.

"Nova" means "no go" in Spanish. Someday my Nova will refuse to go. It is 23 years old. How long can an automobile live? But every morning it starts right up, and blows a little rust out the tailpipe. I am proud to drive an American classic. When Christian says he will rent a car for his DMV test, I offer him my Chevy Nova instead. We set out for a test drive on Halloween night.

Europeans drive on the wrong side of the road, so I plan to take Christian to an empty parking lot where he can practice safely. He asks, "You've never been to Germany? We drive on the right side of the road there!" I am embarrassed by my ignorance. I pull over and let Christian take the wheel. He puts on his glasses.

I later learn from Phoebe that it is only in England 
that cars drive on the wrong side of the road.
I should travel more.

Now, any good driving test needs a challenge.

Cindy says her parents made every child learn to drive on steep San Francisco streets, with the whole family in the car shouting instructions. Other people learn to drive with an egg on the dashboard. I took the DMV test in my par-ents' manual transmission Volkswagen Bus. Have you ever tried to parallel park a bus? Every driving test needs an obstacle to overcome.

There just happened to be an empty wine glass in the vehicle. It gives an odd impression. It was there by mistake. Never mind the reason, there was a wine glass in the car.

I had tested the wine glass on the dash-board. I knew that it was impossible to keep the wine glass in one place while driving. No matter how cautiously one turns, the wine glass rolls around the dashboard. It was the perfect test for an experienced driver like Christian, who had a car in Germany.

As he takes the wheel, I place the wine glass on the dash-board. "Christian, this is your test. When you drive, the wine glass must not move at all."

"Okay," says Christian, and off he drives.

We do not travel more than 50 feet before Christian enters a turn. The wine glass slams across the dashboard, impacts the window, and shatters across the front seat. Senseless tragedy! It was an omen of Christian's Big Fall.

<Another Big Mess>

Christian drives through stop-and-go rush-hour traffic for an hour. Conditions are less than ideal. We make our way back to the lab. It is dark and Christian is lost. "See there?" I ask. "There's the Emergency Room. Do you know where we are now?"

"No, not yet, but for sure I will need to know where the Emergency Room is one day," Christian laughs. Indeed, he would need to know that very night. It was another omen of Christian's Big Fall.

Back at the lab, I point out where my sequencing gel is drying, so he can lay it down on film for me later that night. Then we check the FPLC. All is well. We go our separate ways.

An hour later, the phone call from Kira.
"Christian fell down. He's in the emergency room."


Now Kira had been through hell to get my phone number. The janitors were waxing our floors that night. Everyone left the lab at 5:00 PM sharp, and cloth barriers were placed at each intersection and doorway. Kira, daring the wrath of the janitorial staff, leaped over the barriers, sneaked into B-137 and found my home number written on the wall.

"Christian says something about the FPLC and a gel drying? I checked the FPLC and it's not running. Is there a gel drying somewhere? I can't understand what Christian is saying. How can someone fall down and knock themselves out? I don't know what happened. Is there a gel drying somewhere? They're waxing the floors."

I spend thirty seconds considering the question of locked doors and waxed floors, and realize it will be easier for me to run over and put the damn gel down myself. There I was, comfortably reading at home in my pajamas, but there was no way around it: I would be going back to the lab that night.

So I get dressed, go to the lab  and put own damn sequencing gel down on film. I check the FPLC and program an end to the equilibration, saving Christian from disasterously "running the column dry." Then I stop in at the Fairchild to find out the scoop on Christian's Big Fall.

Kira shakes her head with wonder. How could someone knock themselves out with a fall? She is rather surly about the idea. I speculate that Christian's great height might add impact to a fall. Kira muses that he may have been running with momentum. I think he might suffer from malnourishment. She comments that it is still a very unusual occurrence, to knock oneself out in a fall.

Poor Christian, waiting with a concussion in the ER. I go to see him. He will need a ride home.

But where is the ER?
I have worked at Stanford for three years, and never been there. To my surprise, it is located near the ATM machines, a place I often visit.

Security walks me through a metal detector, finds a small pocket knife on my keychain, but allows me into the ER anyway. I tell the triage nurse that I am family, and she buzzes me into the back chambers.

There is Christian, victim of a Big Fall.

He has stitches on his eyebrow and a sling around his arm and he does not see me coming. He looks right at me while I wave to him but still he does not see me coming. Christian is clearly out of it.

Finally he notices me. He seems alert. He immediately informs me that he has considered the FPLC. With a flow rate of 0.25 ml/min, 300 ml buffer would easily last all night.

This conversation is eerie. It is surreal. It is Christian thinking about his work from a hospital bed. "Relax," I say. "Forget the FPLC. Everything is taken care of."

Christian relates the story of his Big Fall:

"I was running between Beckman and the Fairchild, and I tripped over a sprinkler and fell hard onto the cement. I stood up, blood running down my face. Some students saw me and shouted, 'Are you OK?' I waved them off. I was OK. Next thing I remember, I am waking up with my head in a medical student's lap to keep me off the dirt. They brought me here."

Perhaps they thought it was a Halloween prank at first -- a man staggering around covered with blood and speaking with a foreign accent.

The visit to the ER brings a good opportunity. I find Lidocaine on the table, along with bloody sutures and forceps and gauze. I pocket the Lidocaine. Why not? I enjoy the outdoors. There are many occa-sions to use Lidocaine on a back-packing trip.

Christian can not believe his eyes. He seems unaware of the value of Lidocaine and the minimal risk. Tell me truthfully: would you not take that Lidocaine, if you were lucky enough to be in my position?

Christian would not have taken the Lidocaine.
That's Christian.
So I do not tell him when I take the forceps as well.

Christian babbles about how really wonderful the ER staff is. But he has a concussion and is in no position to judge. They did bad work with the stitches. They took only five, where a facial surgeon would have used twenty.

The presidential election is near, and Christian is reading Primary Colors. We discuss the meaning of "family values" while waiting for another x-ray. I wander back into the waiting room and color a picture of a boy and a nurse. Christian gets his second x-ray. All is well inside. We wait and wait. Why will they not release him?

We wait some more.

Finally the nurse hands Christian instructions for the care of his aching head and wounds. She warns him that poor nourishment will lead to loss of consciousness when you stand up too quickly. She advises him to maintain a good diet. Take Advil for the pain, the head may hurt for a few days. Come back in seven days to have the stitches removed.

I have the feeling to this day that Christian is not eating right. But he says do not worry, he eats well.

We make our way to the Nova, the dependable 1973 Chevy Nova that Christian test-drove hours before. He is too dazed to even stop and pick up his backpack or his bike. We walk right past his bike.

I drive him home. Even in his altered condition, he is polite and invites me in for tea. I think he had better take care of himself, instead. He is nearly comatose, by my admittedly amateur evaluation.

He walks upstairs and that is the last anyone
sees of Christian for several days.

Christian was a character.

<Wanna see his picture?>  <Another Lab Story>

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