HICCUP RUNNETH OVER

FOR 17 MONTHS, NOTHING STOPPED THE RELENTLESS SPASMS THAT DROVE HIM CRAZY. NOT SPOONFULS OF SUGAR, NOT ACUPUNCTURE, NOT EVEN A VETERINARY LASER BEAM.

On Christmas Eve 1992, at the advanced age of 64, Carlos Contreras hiccupped for the first time in his life.

Sixteen months, four dozen doctor visits, thousands of dollars in medical bills and more than two and a half million hiccups later, the retired Phoenix postal service employee was still going strong. "Looking back, I don't know how I ever got through it," says Contreras, who finally beat his strange problem last June. "It was unreal. This is something I wouldn't wish on anyone."

Although most people have suffered through short-term hiccupping bouts that can seem to drag on for eternity, mercifully few will ever experience a long-term siege lasting months or years, like the torturous ordeal that drove Carlos Contreras to the brink of suicide and tossed his life into limbo for a year and a half. But Contreras was a lot luckier than the late Charles Osborne, an Iowa farmer whose lifelong hiccupping jag earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. In 1922, at the age of 28, Osborne was butchering a hog when he inexplicably began hiccupping at the rate of 40 times a minute. Just as inexplicably, he stopped hiccupping in 1990, nearly 70 years later. After enjoying one hiccup-free year of life, the twice-married father of eight died in 1991.

Called intractable hiccups, this mysterious malady occurs so rarely that the medical community has no formal way to track the frequency of the ailment. Even were such numbers available, low as they'd be, some observers suspect the figure would almost certainly be overreported: In their quest for relief, career hiccuppers often see more than a dozen different doctors and specialists. Like Carlos Contreras, they've probably also resorted to every folk remedy under the sun.

"Hell, if I heard about anything that might work, I'd try it," explains Contreras. Having exhausted all the usual "cures" (breathing into a paper bag, gulping spoonfuls of sugar, swallowing dry bread), the retiree even subjected himself to a few treatments that wouldn't be out of place in a fraternity hazing ceremony--like wrapping his stomach in hot olive oil and plastic, and zapping himself with a laser ray used by horse doctors.

Explaining how he once even fired ice cold water up his nostrils with a plastic syringe, Contreras smiles. "You get desperate," he says. Now 66, but looking almost a full decade younger thanks to his rigorous fitness regime, the otherwise healthy Contreras was forced to virtually put his life on hold for a year and a half. With the exception of his frequent medical appointments, the tennis enthusiast rarely left the comfortable tennis-court patio home he shares with wife Barbara.

"I was desperate, just desperate," says Contreras, a second-generation Phoenician who headed up the training department for the greater Phoenix postal system before retiring several years ago. "Whatever I was doing that might have triggered the hiccups, I stopped doing. I stopped drinking, I stopped taking vitamins and I even changed my high-blood-pressure medicine. I even tried acupuncture and transcendental meditation. Nothing helped." Contreras hiccupped so frequently and so violently--his hics clocked in at the rate of once every 15 seconds--that he had trouble eating, losing 20 pounds in the process. At night, his hiccups actually shook the bed, forcing him to take refuge on the sofa out of concern for his wife.

"I was hiccupping so much I couldn't even finish a sentence," explains the loquacious Contreras, who is finally back to his old chatty self. "My temperament was, at best, terrible. I had a short fuse--and a long explosion."

Contreras' wife of 47 years smiles weakly. "He didn't handle this well at all," says Barbara Contreras. "He's an A-type personality, and I'm not. I'm more laid-back. And it's a good thing, too. If we'd both been A-types, we'd have both gone up the wall over this thing."

Prescription sedatives brought temporary relief, but at a cost. "He was almost like a zombie," remembers Contreras' wife, an employee in Phoenix College's alumni relations office. "He'd sit in that chair and just stare into space. He was so lethargic, he couldn't function. He couldn't play tennis, he couldn't even carry on a conversation. And, remember, this is a man who had always been very outgoing all of his life."

The hiccups from hell left a bad taste in Carlos Contreras' mouth in more ways than one. "Every time I'd hiccup, it'd send up this horrible gas into my mouth," reports Contreras. "It was awful."

The same description could probably be applied to his initial attempts at lovemaking after he began hiccupping. In the midst of whispering some intimate endearment, he went on one of his hiccupping jags, causing his wife to burst out laughing. "What a sight!" says Contreras, recalling how the "buck naked" pair collapsed in hilarity over the ridiculous situation. "I went completely limp." Although Contreras claims he was eventually able to work around his hiccup-related boudoir problems, the chronic hiccupper was not nearly as successful in adapting to other aspects of day-to-day life. That inability to cope was to some extent the result of nervous exhaustion and trouble focusing his thoughts, side effects commonly experienced by sleep-deprived hiccuppers.

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