In the hospital, many devices make noise. They are, presumably, speaking a language that is meaningful to doctors and nurses, although not so much to patients. I lie in bed wondering how many of them refer to me, the patient in room 1008.
It’s a great room, by the way. It’s a single, so there are no other sick people in the room. That’s good, because I hate being around sick people, even when I am one. Especially when I am one. I also dislike tourists and old people.
Every so often, I hear “crash cart to room 705 immediately” or “Code Blue in room 917.” Every time I hear that it’s not my room number, I relax. Because, you know, I think I’m rational, but I’m also in the hospital. I could be crashing without knowing it. I could also be hallucinating. I’ve been given drugs, but are they the good drugs? I wonder.
Also, the room has a big window with a great view of the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, I can’t see the view from my bed. I am wired tightly to faintly throbbing machines by my bed. I have a large plastic container for urine, but I’ve been denied water since 4:30 this afternoon, so my need for the container has been overstated.
It is 1:45 in the morning. No one is awake except Rose, the brisk but kindly night nurse who has apparently seen everything, and I’m in there right around nothing. I am sentient, can form complete sentences, and seem unlikely to die. For Rose, that’s a win-win. For me too. I am happy to be a patient of only marginal concern.
The beeps continue. Wires lead from my body back behind the bed. Every so often, the blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm, like a more knowledgeable friend guiding me through a crowd.
I long for sleep.
Yeah, well, not so fast
Tracy and I arrived at the emergency room in late afternoon. We were there because I was feeling like crap. I did not have a theory about what was wrong with me.
Because I was nauseated and in pain, the nurses on duty decided it would be useful to weigh me. Also, they needed answers to many questions read off a list of many questions. One of them wanted to know whether I’d experienced heartburn during my pregnancy.
Then they found me a bed, asked me take of my clothes, and cuffed me. It was only a blood pressure cuff, but still.
Time passed. That’s what mostly happens in an emergency room. “It’s a quiet night,” I said to a nurse. “That’s cursing,” he said. “We don’t allow cursing in the emergency room.” Not that these handmaidens of science are superstitious. It’s just that one careless word about how peaceful it is can cause 14 infarcations, seven gunshot wounds and horrendous accident on 880 to happen simultaneously.
Then the lady from the office came in. She wanted to explain certain things, like how much the hospital would cost each day. (This is Kaiser, so the amount was ridiculously small). Of course, everything else is pricey. The backless gown I’m wearing: $1081. The chips of ice they will finally give me: $878. The Kleenex I will need before the night is out: $403. I made those numbers up, but I think they are indicative of a larger problem. If Trump gets his way, that backless gown will cost $5603 — and there will be no guarantee that it’s backless.
Then there came a confusing conversation about my end-of-life preferences. I have an end-of-life directive, although not with me. I asked if there was any particular reason why I should have it with me. “Oh my no,” she laughed. “Ha ha well, just routine.” I was bored, so I thought I’d be provocative. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I think keeping me alive no matter what would be the best idea. Call me crazy, but I like living.”
“Oh, you don’t want that. They have to crack your ribs and massage your heart, and if your blood flow stops, well, vegetable.”
Her suggestion, as I understand it: Just hang out and wait until death comes along. The old “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” theory. Why do emergency rooms make me think of Emily Dickinson? She heard a fly buzz when she died; I imagine I’ll hear many beeps, in many different modes and tones. Sigh.
Thanks, but I’m washing my hair that night
My nurse in the emergency room was Francis. He was cheerful and amusing. “You’re a really good nurse,” I said. “You’re a really good patient,” he said. See: validation.
In the beginning, my tiny emergency roomlet was busier than anything. Then it was just boring. I sent Tracy home at 11; I was in good hands. She was glad to go. Every 20 minutes or so, someone would pop in and say my room was getting cleaned. But then…how long does it take to clean a room? But I’m not seeing the big picture. The big picture: Many people sicker than me. Plus, people are coding. That’s hospital-speak for “dying.”
So I should count my blessings. Plenty of time: 1,2,3,12, 18, 36, 104…or less. I may have repeated “bacon” and “sexual relations.”
This is the part of the column where I should tell you what’s wrong with me. I would go into clinical detail, describing the spleen or the pancreas or the thymus. I would come up with two fun facts about the gastro-intestinal tract. I might even dwell on the fragility of life, and the comfort I take from my family.
But no. It’s my privacy screen, and I can choose what things I put behind it. Let’s say, because I know you worry, that my condition was neither infectious or chronic, which, in the muted language of the cagey journalist, means not a heart attack, not a stroke and not cancer. (Nor am I embarrassed. Penile yeast infections are a hidden killer, or at least wounder. Everyone should be aware of the 3 warning signs.)
I’m not going to die, although of course I am old, so I may die of something entirely unrelated. We all have a fatal disease. Or, we all have an unimaginably wonderful gift with one large string attached.
Life: Whaddya gonna do?
Too many wires and noise-making machines
It’s dark in my room, the only sound the beeping and the occasional murmuring of crepe soles in the hallway. I am thinking about death. This is not unusual; I’ve been thinking about death since I turned 60. I hate the thought that I will miss things in my children’s lives. I had my kids real young, so my oldest is almost 51. I have seen the movies of their lives play out, and I am endlessly fascinated, and I don’t want life to end.
Then there’s Tracy. I mean, well, you know. Forty-one years of working on our marriage; I hate to lose that after I’ve invested all the energy. And money. If I die, I’m out a whole bunch of moolah.
Finally, there’s the absence of me. That’s a bummer. No longer will I get to see the sunrise, any sunrise. I can see where promises of an afterlife would be comforting, but I don’t believe them. So this is my one life. Better get out of the hospital quickly.
I will die. But not today.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Help on other confusing stuff: Michelle Mizera
Just to be clear what the stakes are