The volunteer workers at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses are given $90.00 a month to help pay for incidental expenses such as soap, toothpaste, shampoo, or supplemental foods they might enjoy. Three meals a day, a clean room, and a bed are provided for them. The money is also used to help bethelites get to meetings at their assigned congregations. Each trip to and from a meeting costs $3 for a passenger. Each passenger gives their money to the driver to help pay for gas and, in the case of the brothers who travel to Saugerties, the toll of the New York State Thruway. Since 90% of the brothers working at the Watchtower Farms do not have vehicles, this means that of the $90.00 allowance given each month, around $24.00 of that is spent just on travel to the congregations. That’s not including any other trips to go out in field service on Saturdays or get togethers with their local brothers.
There was also a running account for each Bethel member. If a person needed glasses, the lenses would be crafted and the frames would be fitted at cost. James bought his glasses for $15.00 total. But that amount is put on one’s account. If a brother or sister wanted to wash their car, or have a headlight replaced, it was all provided for, and then charged to one’s account. Even small things like notebook paper, pens, bandages, etc. were all charged and at the end of the month there is a bill… and that bill is deducted from one’s allowance. Some brothers find they are left with no money at all after just one weekend causing the dynamic of people working at the World Headquarters of the one true God, Jehovah to act like more like 18th century London street urchins than the dignified workers they were constantly told they were.
The idea is to seclude the workers off from the extraneous by keeping them unable to experience anything on the outside. In rare occasions like James and Aaron, parents would provide some sort of supplemental help either through checks or with a credit card. Care packages like those sent from Amber and the twins would always include goodies to eat, fun things to read, and a check. Checks could be cashed at Finance department service window during regular business hours. All the brothers in the computer department were on rotation to give tours to visitors and James eventually became a regular. At the end of each tour some of the brothers would shake his hand and slip him $40 or $60. Sometimes it was from one person, sometimes it was from multiple people. On occasion James would receive a phone number from a young sister’s father which always felt just as pimp/whorish as it sounds. Little old ladies were sweet, but they would only slip $5 or $10 at most, and somehow that seemed absurd to James. Still he smiled, and was thankful that each of them could spend all this money to come visit the Watchtower Farms in the middle of fucking no where, and still be generous enough to part with five fucking dollars.
And it is at that point James officially realizes how Bethel changes someone. He understood the mentality of having nothing and being dependent on a sole provider, allowing them to be your only source of financial support, fun, relaxation, spiritual growth, mental stimulation, and physical well being. He understood how it made a class of people eager for any handout, gift, or offering of food to the point where it becomes indigent neediness. There is an entitlement that grows from under the depths of the volunteer worker system at Bethel, and when it finally takes root, and it will take root, it becomes a vicious and demanding bitch.
The only person who didn’t seem affected by this phenomenon is Aaron.
Dependency in all of its forms can sometimes be contrived tricky maneuvering, especially when it comes to the matter of the health care system at Bethel. Injuries are divided into two categories: Work-Related Accident, or Non-Work Related Accident. The difference between the two is demoralizing.
Meeting #1 – The Day After
It looks like a doctor’s office. It smells like a doctor’s office. But it’s not a doctor’s office. Finally making it past the waiting room of people who bumped their head or were green with stomach aches, James now sits on an examination table waiting for the results of his x-rays. His knee is still hurting, but at least the swelling has subsided by an inch or so. There is no strength at the joint at all.
The Watchtower Farms do not have a full time doctor on staff. They have nurses and people who were assigned to the department much the same way James was assigned to computers or Aaron was assigned to mail sorting. He has already been given a speech about the cost of the x-rays that are now billed on his account.
James puts his head in his hands, This is so messed up, I know.
The medical worker comes in. She is a robust woman, a little taller than James, with short bobbed hair and a very plain, simple look about her wearing a white coat and holding a clipboard.
James, I have some bad news.
What is it?
The doctor looked at your x-rays and you seem to have loose cartilage floating around in your knee.
That was something James could tell from just trying to bend the damn thing, but he let her continue.
What happened was your knee cap came off, and popped back in. With that, it tore up a lot of cartilage and may have even damaged a tendon. We won’t know unless we get an MRI scan.
Good. There is a process in place. He feels relieved. Okay, let’s do it.
Get an MRI scan.
Well, because this is a non-work related injury, you are going to have to pay for it yourself.
I understand that. But I am in a lot of pain right now and would like to get this taken care of promptly.
James, I don’t think you understand. An MRI at cost is about $500.00. It may eventually lead to an operation… just to remove loose cartilage.
That’s fine. When do I schedule?
The sister looks at James with the most unbelievable face of disbelief and amusement before half laughing, You’re a bethelite. You can’t afford that.
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. There is path to recovery, to freedom from this constant pain. This sister is suggesting that because bethelites are poor, the best thing is to not know what’s going on in the knee. It takes a full thirty seconds for him to comprehend that her responses are serious… she really believes this and the end result is that she isn’t going to help him… at all.
Listen, sister… bethelite or not, my health doesn’t work off ninety dollars a month. I have parents, I can ask them for the money. I have a credit card in my wallet that has that much on it if we wanted to do this right now just please schedule an MRI.
The sister was a little taken aback by intensity of the plea, but she looked at her clipboard and back up at James. Well, we have to schedule this with an outside company. It’s going to take some time.
Please. I am in a tremendous amount of pain.
For the pain I have 300mg of Vicodin for you.
Okay, and for the MRI?
For the MRI you are going to have to put in a requisition using the form found in the various lobbies. I believe we have some in the waiting room, in fact.
In the meantime, I’m going to pass you off to Sister Wallace in Physical Therapy. Hopefully she can help you with some exercises that will reduce the swelling and help keep that knee flexible. She might fit you up with some rubber bands for stretching. You’re going to have to pay for those but they’re pretty inexpensive.
He could not grasp what he was hearing. I’m confused. Physical Therapy? You just said I may need to get this operated on.
Again, you would need an MRI before even thinking about surgery.
Which I am okay with. So let’s get the MRI.
And I’m trying to tell you, you need to put in a requisition first, and if they approve you, you can get an MRI scheduled. It will be at least six weeks.
It is like being caught underwater five inches from the surface, unable to reach fresh air. The seriousness of the situation was turning to mud sliding down the crevices of what was once structure and strength. She really didn’t understand the extent of the injury and now she is trying to move things along so she can give more faulty medical advice to the next victim.
Six weeks? I’m kind of in an emergency situation here.
Oh, come on. I wouldn’t call it an emergency. But listen, I will put in my own recommendation that you get that knee scanned. We will get you an appointment with an orthopedic specialist we refer bethelites to… and you have the Vicodin.
How long will I be out of work?
She is again amused by him. Out of work? As soon as we get that thing wrapped up and get you some crutches, you can get back to work today, hopefully.
Meeting #2 – Physical Therapy
The physical therapy area looks like a first grade classroom. There are brightly colored balls and bands, different kinds of rubber and plastic instruments of mobility all set around a large, round wood veneer table and small wooden chairs with very little cushion. Sister Wallace is a peppy middle-aged woman with shoulder-length reddish-blond hair and is pseudo-charming, somewhere on the annoyance level of Strawberry Shortcake.
James swallows a Vicodin without any water.
Good news! She says as she enters the room. I got you approved for these… She reaches into the closet and pulls out a pair of crutches. That way, you can get back to work for this afternoon. Now, these are just borrowed. If you want to purchase them you have to put in a request. But you won’t be needing them for that long, and this way it doesn’t cost you any money.
What about the MRI to see what’s going on with my knee?
Sister Wallace tried to be as comforting as possible in her limited version of genuine sweetness. We know what’s going on with your knee. You have some loose cartilage It will settle. So as long as we keep that knee moving, you won’t get any of that loose cartilage stuck in some crevice that would prevent your knee from moving smoothly.
Wait, sister. That makes sense with the the front and side, but you can’t tell me that the pain I’m feeling in the back of my leg is just a bit of loose cartilage.
Well, it might be worse. But with the therapy we’ll be able to see what happens once the swelling goes down and the cartilage settles, okay?
Not really. I would prefer to have my injury scanned in full color and checked out by an orthopedic specialist. Today, if possible.
The sister moves closer to James and puts her hand on his back and tries to talk softly. James, and MRI is expensive, as is the specialist visit. We are talking anywhere in the area of $700.00 for the consultation, the scan… and you will have to pay for a taxi ride to get there if you don’t have your own car. The price can add up.
The sincerity in her voice was almost too much and he couldn’t have this argument anymore, with anyone. It was a trap and it was pointless. Money isn’t as much of an issue as walking around with my knee like this.
I will let my overseers know you are interested in the scan, but you still need to fill out a requisition. Now, in the meantime I have gotten you approved for these rubber bands, you will have to pay for them of course. There are three of them in three bright colors for three different levels of resistance…
Sister Wallace then proceeded to demonstrate using the exercise bands tied around the middle of an office chair and wrapped around the ankle. From this position one could do several leg exercises, both extension to the front, and off to the side. One could also stand up and pull one’s leg backward. It was suggested James starts with the lowest resistance (yellow) and work his way up.
He didn’t go to work that day. He made the trek across the road back to the room on his new used crutches. He didn’t know how to respond to any of this and emotionally he felt helpless and lost. He called his parents. Like everything else regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their solution is “listen to what the Organization tells you.” No matter what the problem is, the solution is always “listen to what the Organization tells you.” James knows that phrase makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy because it frees the burden of responsibility to someone else for your spiritual well being… but in this case there is a physical injury being made worse with neglect and “listen to what the Organization tells you” isn’t the advice he needed because the Organization was wrong.
The next morning he wakes up to excruciating pain. He takes a Vicodin and wraps his leg tight. He barely makes it to the required breakfast. A little later on he is trying to do stretching exercises at his desk. It is almost unbearable but he tries to the point of tears. He puts his elbows on the desk and places his face in his hands. He wants to cry. He wants to weep. He wants to scream in frustration until everyone in the complex stops what they are doing so he can find one… just one person to stand up and say “Hey, I think this guy needs to see a real doctor!”
But instead he just breathes quietly.
Oscar comes up to the cubicle. Hey chief, what’s going on?
James lifts his head and realizes he probably looks like a red-faced mess with a large exercise rubber band tied around his right ankle almost in tears… instead of the cool, collected computer programmer who normally sits at this desk. Not much, Oscar. I’m just doing what the doctor prescribed… popping pain pills and making my knee worse.
I don’t get it.
James explained the situation as calmly as he could, starting with the accident itself the day before.
You said this happened yesterday?
Ah, that’s why. It wasn’t a work-related accident. Any additional medical services will have to be requested with a requisition.
So I keep being told.
Well, I hope you feel better soon. I know it’s hard to focus when you’re in pain.
That’s why I have these. James shakes the bottle of Vicodin.
Oscar laughs and goes back to his desk. James continues to attempt to do the exercises, but it finally becomes too much. Instead he just moves his knee around to make sure none of the cartilage lands where it shouldn’t. It still didn’t explain the inability to stand on the leg itself from the stabbing pain in the back of the knee.
Meeting #3 – Three weeks later
James has been able to get around using only one crutch for about a week. The leg is tightly wrapped, but there is still no strength in it. Today he is sitting at a leg weight machine attempting to make it move… and finds it impossible to extend the foot out while there is any weight resistance. So he is just staring at the machine… watching nothing happen.
Sister Wallace bounces in and looks surprisingly at James not moving the weights on the machine.
What’s going on here, James?
Sister, it’s been three weeks and it’s getting worse.
James was coming down off the Vicodin and was irritable. No it’s not. I have not had my knee properly taken care of. And now it’s getting worse.
James, just breathe for a second. I know that it seems like it’s getting worse, but it’s actually getting better. Already you’re moving about with only one crutch.
Sister, I am in more pain then ever. It takes me two hours of icing down my leg when I get up in the mornings. I’ve already been talked to twice for missing breakfast but not missing work, and I got talked to by the touring department because I’m parking too close to the building and taking up visitor parking spaces. And the entire time I just want to scream because I’m in so much pain.
Okay, okay. I know the healing process can be frustrating. I’m going to make sure we up your pain medication as well. But James, if this becomes a problem for you to perform your Bethel service, you might consider going home to take care of this.
The last part of the sentence didn’t sink in right away. Nothing did much anymore. With the constant supply of Vicodin James wasn’t really sure what was real and what was implied. He needed people to speak specifically. And when the pills wore off, every sadness he had ever felt came crashing on his head in such burdensome layers of misery, it was impossible not to react manically. And at this moment there was nothing more manic than having to go home and leave Aaron behind. That was not an option.
What you are telling me, is that with a non-work related accident, even though everyone knows what should be done, even though I agree to pay for everything, Bethel will still drag it’s feet, delaying medical treatment and, if in the process it becomes a problem to my Bethel service, I have to go home?
Does that make sense to you?
Bethel isn’t suggesting you go home, James. I’m just saying it may come to that somewhere down the road. Later.
Well thank you for the warning, but you said I could get a scan and consultation done if I paid for it myself.
Which is impossible. No bethelite has that amount of money.
Sister, please do not assume anything.
Okay, Okay. Next week we will have a brother who lives near Patterson visiting us for the day. Once a month he makes the rounds to each of the facilities. He’s a real doctor who works with joints and such, and you can talk with him. I will put you on his list. There are other bothers with work-related accidents that come first, however.
Each time James visits the infirmary it feels like he’s having the same conversation with the same wooden marionettes, all with the memory of goldfish. It seemed illogical that any one person would put such minimal importance on one’s health, but to have and entire organization working contrary to any productive solution was disheartening. He doubts this doctor will be any different.
James leaves the physical therapy area and stops at the infirmary to fill out another requisition… for the third time.
Meeting #4 – One Month After
It looks like a doctor’s office. It smells like a doctor’s office. And unlike the first time he was in this room it will be functioning like doctor’s office. The medication has him so confused sometimes. It isn’t so much that he isn’t aware of what is going on, but that there are vast amounts of emotion that are starting to build and release at unspecified moments without warning. So far he has yelled at Jake once and Aaron twice, even throwing a crutch in anger. And for what? Nothing. It was emotion that comes out of no where and for no reason… then it disappears. Afterward, a wave of shame and guilt as if he murdered an innocent child would hit. These are all feeling he has felt before, but the potency of their volume and their proportion to the situation was completely uncontrollable.
He was yelling at people because no one would do what he wanted them to do. So the question is asked, what is it that he wanted them to do? James couldn’t answer. It was frustrating. The emotions of everyone around him became intense, as if a magnifying glass had been placed in front of everyone… and he would respond with the magnitude shown by the enlarged projection, NOT the actual level of emotion the person was expressing. And with each misstep came a constant anger of failure. He knew he had better control over his emotions than this. He was able to handle the world of Feathers and the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses simultaneously and still go through the heartbreak with Ollie and now… now he’s going to throw a temper tantrum because Aaron is going to go spend the weekend with a family in Saugerties instead of being stuck in a room all weekend with a bipolar patient who can’t seem to control his emotions.
And James didn’t blame him. In fact… he was jealous. James wanted to escape whoever he was himself. Sometimes he would be in mid-temper tantrum before he even knew what he was temper tantruming about. Other times he would space out completely and come to, thinking to himself Wait, how did I get here? Other times he would blank out, and when he refocused, he had a full arsenal of emotions ready to go without knowing what he should be emotional about. The inability to understand sentiment without context and ferocity without motivation is so much worse than the physical pangs of the knee injury.
The doctor enters the room. He is tall, well built man, looks to be in his 40s. Hello, James.
I took a look at your x-rays, the ones from a month ago and the ones from today.
I know, I know… I have to pay for them.
He pauses for a second and tries to give James a comforting smile. I’m guessing that the finances of this situation is not as critical as the situation itself.
James looked at the doctor in the eyes. It was the most wonderful sentence he had heard in a month. Finally. The air in the room deflated and James lowered his head. That’s what I’ve been trying to say for the past month, and no one seems to be listening to me.
The doctor signs a little and attempts to talk in an empathetic tone. I am a professional. I do this for a living. These brothers and sisters here… they have your best interest at heart. But they are not always as informed as they need to be.
For the past month since this happened, I have been hopped up on Vicodin… which I’m now at… what, 750mg twice a day? Three times a day? I can’t remember, I just take them when it starts to hurt. I’ve been icing my knee for two hours every morning. I have to ice it down again at lunch at my desk. I keep trying to do these stupid rubber band exercises all day to make sure I keep the knee moving…
Stop. What rubber bands?
You know… those stretch bands, they come in different colors and you use them for muscle resistance. I had to pay for them myself, but the physical therapist gave me these exercises… James demonstrates.
The doctor looks disturbed and shocked. Oh Jehovah, help me. He gets up and walks out of the room.
James didn’t know what to think. This could be good, it could be bad. It didn’t matter anymore, it was fucked up and it was going to remain fucked up for the rest of his life. He started to feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of this weighing on him for decades to come. He tried to focus. Come on, James. Keep it together. You seem to finally have someone on your side. Don’t have a mental breakdown now.
The doctor returns with the same robust sister (still sporting the same bobbed hair) that he saw his first day at the infirmity and two sets of x-rays in his hand. He places the x-rays on the light box and turns it on. Sister, James tells me that he has been in physical therapy for the past month.
Yes, he has been working with Sister Wallace, as prescribed by the doctor.
The doctor picks up the file he had previously left on the counter. No where in here does it say anything about rubber band stretching exercises.
He wrote down “physical therapy”.
Which could mean anything. I want you to see this. He motions her over to the light board displaying the x-rays and starts pointing. This is James’s knee a month ago. This is James’s knee a few hours ago. You see that right there?
Yes. It’s a little notch out.
Exactly. A notch out, if you will. That is bone, not cartilage. James’s knee is getting worse, and no one is doing anything about it. He turns his attention to James, catching him off guard, but not without its comfort. Stop all exercises now. Keep that leg wrapped up tight and ice it down as much as you can. Cut back on the Vicodin. James, it’s going to be tough and painful, but it needs to be done. This is only until the specialist can be scheduled.
Is this something that you can handle while you are here? The sister asked, nervously.
Sister, I cannot legally practice medicine in the state of New York. I come here to help out where I can, but he needs a local specialist as soon as possible. So if you could please do me a favor and go out there and schedule an appointment with whatever specialist you use. Thank you.
The sister is quite taken aback and nods her head before rushing off, closing the door behind her.
James doesn’t know how to react. He wants to hug the brother. He wants to cry. There was light at the end of this tunnel and it was him walking with full mobility. Someone with voice, someone with authority finally stood up and made things happen. It is so refreshing. Thank you.
I’m sorry James, but this is crazy. A month of physical therapy? I’m going to have to talk with these brothers again. James… Go to the doctor, he will schedule and MRI. After the scan you’re going to have some choices to make. I visit here once a month so come by and keep me posted, okay?
Okay. He says it with smile that he didn’t know he had in him. It had been a month since he smiled and meant it. It had been a month since he felt appreciation and thankfulness. Now he feels it. And he doesn’t stop smiling.
Meeting #5 – Six Weeks After
Two weeks after the doctor from Patterson visited, Bethel was nice enough to give James transportation to a local orthopedic specialist. He was a short, loud man, older, spunky.
You mean to tell me you’ve been like this for six weeks?
It took me two weeks just to get this appointment.
James, I hate to tell you this, but you not only still have loose cartilage… I can feel it when I rotate your knee… but there’s something wrong with your tendon. That’s why you’re having that sharp pain behind your knee.
I’m ordering an MRI immediately and we need to get you into surgery.
Doctor, look. The people at the Farm will delay and drag their feet. It will be another month before I even get an MRI.
You don’t have a month. This needs to be done in a matter of days.
Then please promise me you will let them know the seriousness of this or else I will never get this taken care of.
The doctor looked blankly at James, almost as if he were talking in a different language. No, no, no, no,no, that can’t happen.
Meeting #6 – Two Months After
One of the brothers who eats breakfast with James in the mornings is Brother Friar, a tall, black, gentle man with soft eyes and a kind laugh. He also works in the infirmity administration and has been communicating with James in the mornings about the slowness of the requisition process.
Two weeks after James’s visit to the outside doctor, Brother Friar calls him to the infirmary to talk. James is walking with a cane at this point, still in pain, trying to live without the Vicodin and without knowing how to deal with the resulting mania that comes from not taking it. He knocks on the door and enters the office.
James! Good morning. Why don’t we sit on the couch here.
James sits and Brother Friar grabs a file and places himself on the opposite side of the couch.
When can I get my MRI?
Well, James… I’ve been talking with Brooklyn Bethel and other brothers around here trying to see what we can do. We all feel that since this was not a work-related accident, it would be best if you handled this yourself and just asked for the time off.
You have got to be kidding me.
I wish I was, but it’s not something we want to handle. There are a few good hospitals in the area. The Kingston hospital is very good, as is the one in Middletown.
But I have no insurance. How am I… James could feel the wave of uncontrollable panic knocking at the gate. He stops and takes a few deep breaths. Is everyone wanting me to go home?
Brother Friar looks at his file and then sympathetically back at James. There has been some issues with you and your performance in the computer department, and there seems to be an issue with you and your roommate.
I can’t work well, because I’m in pain.
And you said that you haven’t been taking your pain medication.
Because it’s addictive and the doctor I saw in your office said to cut back.
Still, pain killers are for pain, and if you don’t take them, that is your decision. If the result is you missing breakfast or not able to perform at work because of pain, we cannot help you with that.
I don’t believe this. What is the issue with my roommate?
They didn’t give me any information about that. It only says you two miss a lot of meetings together.
He was frustrated. Well, we’re roommates. We get sick at the same time.
I’m just telling you what I found out. (Pause.) James, can I offer you a suggestion?
I would suggest you handle this at home and not here.
That means I have to write a letter that I’m leaving Bethel and then wait 30 days before I can leave.
It would still be faster than waiting on us and easier than trying to get this taken care of around here.
Brother Friar could see it on his face… the loss, the hopelessness, the empty air that exited his soul through his eyes. This is it. He is leaving Bethel. He is heading back home because he has an injury no one wants to get involved with and it took them two months to say it.
He has to leave Bethel.
Even worse… he has to leave Aaron.
James P. Perez © 2013