Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon — screenwriters of “The Big Sick” — arrive at the March Los Angeles premiere of “Kong: Skull Island.” (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/File)
“Paging Dr. Candyhands — Dr. Candyhands to the ICU.”
That’s what Emily Gordon remembers from her weeks in a medically induced coma — when her subconscious, filtered through the haze of drugs, registered the sticky tape on her wrists and arms anchoring the tubes that were delivering antibiotics to her body.
“I could hear people around me — I knew they were there,” she says. “But my brain came up with all of these weird scenarios to make sense of things.”
Gordon’s ordeal — she nearly died after being misdiagnosed with a lung infection that turned out to be an autoimmune disease — is addressed in the hilarious and touching movie “The Big Sick.”
She co-wrote it with her now-husband, actor Kumail Nanjiani (TV’s “Silicon Valley”), who at the time was her boyfriend — and at the top of her blacklist.
The movie playfully recounts a tumultuous stage in their courtship — centered on Nanjiani, a Pakistani-born Muslim who conceals his relationship with Gordon, an American, from his religious family and hides from Gordon the fact that he doesn’t have the courage to tell his family about her.
These issues coalesce just as she’s rushed to the hospital, with Nanjiani thrust into the position of taking charge of her care. All of this occurred about 10 years ago.
Today, asked how his folks, who live in New Jersey, feel about the union, Nanjiani says, “Things are great. They really love Emily, and they warmed to her very quickly. They were able to separate the issue they had with me marrying someone outside the culture from the person.”
“I wasn’t trying to lure him away,” Gordon says.
Nanjiani says, “Even though they were initially disappointed, they knew Emily wasn’t the cause of the disappointment. “That was me,” he says laughing.
Nanjiani, who in addition to acting still works as a comedian, says a lot of his stand-up material addresses the idea of American-ness, and how he fits in as a naturalized citizen of Muslim heritage.
“I write to the thing in my life that I’m trying to figure out, and that’s what I’m thinking about — what group I belong to,” he says. “Part of me is like, I don’t know what it means to be an American. If part of being an American is telling me I’m not one, then maybe I don’t need to feel American.”
Gordon says, “But that impulse is American, that sense that you don’t need other people to validate you. That independence — that is American.”
All of this might make “The Big Sick” sound political, but it isn’t. Produced by Judd Apatow, it filters everything through a comic sensibility as it follows Nanjiani as he flits back and forth from the hospital to his stand-up gigs.
Gordon’s father, played by Ray Romano, bonds with Nanjiani during the long weeks of caring for Gordon, played in the film by Zoe Kazan. “The Big Sick” is about folks warming up to one another under difficult circumstances — which reflects the best and truest spirit of the country, says Nanjiani.
“I think America is an experiment, and I like to say that, while it’s not perfect, it’s the experiment that’s furthest along,” he adds. “It’s a truly international country, a melting pot in a very true sense, and it’s mostly people trying to negotiate how to live with people who have different points of view.”
The movie also gives sideways insights into health care. Gordon was changing jobs at the time she was hospitalized and, on a whim, bought short-term bridge insurance to carry her through to her next job. That may have saved her from being bankrupted by medical costs. Even so, her bill after insurance payouts was $200,000.
Gordon laughs. “I was billed for using an out-of-network anesthesiologist. The procedure was covered, but the anesthesiologist was not. And I’m trying to explain to them (that) I was literally not in a position to choose, I was in a coma. They said, ‘We’ll take that into consideration.’ ”
Nanjiani checked the Yelp rating of Gordon’s hospital and argued with her parents (her mother is played by Holly Hunter) about whether to move her to a place with a higher rating.
“My parents were raised to be very (trusting) of doctors,” Gordon says. “When I was in a coma it was really Kumail who was questioning everything.”
“Yeah, because I was raised in a place were authority was not to be trusted,” Nanjiani says. “I was the one saying, ‘Guys, maybe this hospital isn’t the best.’ ”
It was also Nanjiani who provided the physicians with tiny clues — seemingly incidental lapses in Gordon’s motor skills — that led to her correct diagnosis and successful treatment.
A decade later, Gordon is in excellent health. “I still have a little trouble dealing with the concept that my body betrayed me — that, in a weird way, it turned on itself. And I feel like my (autoimmune disease) is always this dragon that I try not to wake up. But I’m good.”