“He’s effectively dead.”
The guy on the other side of the curtain was talking about me. He was wrong. The Yankees, on the other hand, were dead, and perhaps their demise was being reflected in my appearance. I’m a Yankees fan, and I had just come from recovery, where I had spent my time half-conscious watching the Red Sox win the game that would decide which team would take the next step toward playing in the World Series.
My roommate not only had faulty judgment, he had trouble getting to the toilet on time. To get there, he had to pass by the foot of my bed. More than once, he splattered poop along the way. Oddly, I was more judgmental about this than were the nurses and orderlies who immediately got down on the floor to clean it up and then washed him down in the bathroom. My view was that one accident would have been understandable, but the second time seemed more like negligence. What’s so hard about calling for help a little earlier in the urge?
I became more favorably disposed toward the guy after I did the same thing. (The narcotics caused constipation, which was countered by nuclear-powered laxatives and suppositories.) Not once did I observe the slightest impatience from the people who cleaned us up. It was always, “It’s all right. It happens. That’s what we’re here for.”
When signing admission papers, I asked wittily when I might expect my “incarceration” to end. It occurred to me immediately that the word was inappropriate and lacking in graciousness. These people were going to help me not punish me. Nevertheless, it turned out there was an element of imprisonment in what followed. There is always some loss of autonomy when you lie down and you’re surrounded by bright lights and a bunch of people you don’t know who are wearing funny costumes and one of them says, “you’re going to get very sleepy, now.” It suggests you are entering a pleasant floating stage like what entertained Michael Jackson, but in the many times I’ve been anesthetized, I’ve felt at the last instant of consciousness a little panic, a little bit of “hold on, I’m not so sure about this. I need a minute to think it over.”
And the next thing you know, you are groggily watching a ball game being lost by your favorite team and you’re not sure about anything. Then after a while, your roommate asks, “What are you in here for, prompting,” “Grand larceny, but I was framed.”
Despite the loving care of nurses and aides, the incarceration sense began to grow in small ways and large. When I told a woman taking my lunch order that I’d have macaroni and cheese (even a hospital would not be likely to mess that up), I was reminded it was not vegan and I had checked the vegan box on the form. I claimed a holiday exception. The second and third times I ordered something not vegan, her responses became a little edgy. Was I or was I not a vegan? Maybe I imagined her attitude, but it seemed like binary thinking still reigned supreme in this area of human activity. “Sort of vegan” or “sometimes vegan” were not on offer. Anyway, my point is that even in small ways, my autonomy had been left in the locker along with the pants I wore when I showed up.
As in every hospital, patients were encouraged not to get out of bed without help of an attendant. The Hospital for Special Surgery took encouragement a little further. Perhaps that’s because it’s located in New York City, where lawsuits are as common as kvetching. Patients at HSS are tethered to an alarm system, lest they get up alone and hurt themselves. The tether is soft material of some sort, a kinder gentler leg iron, but effectively the same thing. I didn’t even notice it until I set off the alarm. The guy on the other side of the curtain did it several times. (When he started asking when he could go back to “his room,” he was told, “This is your room.” That disappointed me.)
By about the third night, I was beginning to feel the inconvenience of not being able to get out of bed on my own. The catheters had activated a usually dormant prostate problem, and I was peeing with the frequency of shots from an automatic rifle. The time required to get an escort was not long, but the nurses were always busy (though never impatient). I tried using a urinal, but since the restraints did not allow even sitting up on the edge of the bed, it was a hit and (mostly) miss undertaking. I had not expected getting my spine whittled on to involve so much pee pee and doo doo, even though this was the fourth such procedure I had undergone.
I didn’t expect the crazy-quilt breakdown of common modesty rules, either. Patients wore standard-issue gowns open in the back. When out of bed, the patient’s minder would hold the sides together in a nod to the convention that going about showing one’s backside was frowned upon. It struck me as an odd attempt to make life inside seem like life outside. You can’t receive medical treatment for anything other than an extremity without showing your privates.
I couldn’t resist having a little fun with it. One time three nurses rolled my onto my side to check the condition of the incisions. When done, they reported that they looked good. I was glad to hear that, but to keep the conversation going, I said, “And what about that tush, huh?” No response. Was it like joking about a bomb at airport security?
On another occasion, I did get what I rated a proper response to a similar bit. A young woman, who I judged to have more than clinical experience of the human body, had taken me into the bathroom for routine cleaning. The room amounted to a brightly-lit tile box with a drain in the floor, suitable for fumigating and interrogating new prisoners. As I stood in the middle of the box and she sponged me off from top to bottom, I asked her a question. “Tell me the truth, Nurse. In your whole life, have you ever seen a naked man who looked this good?” She almost collapsed in laughter, and not, I hope, because the question was so far-fetched. It seemed to be a bonding experience. Thereafter, she, or someone, forgot to secure my tethers at bedtime. I had become a trusty of the cell block.
Joking aside about behavioral restraints and foibles of social interaction, the nurses exuded kindness. The care was almost sufficient to make me want to ask for an extra day or two. Pain varied from slight to tears-inducing, and it was always present. So was being helpless. Learning to deal with both and to be a good patient was a challenge. The floor nurses got me through it. I left the hospital hanging onto a walker and barely functional but renewed and determined to pass along some of the kindness I had experienced.
Almost two weeks have passed since the surgery. With the constant assistance of Ann, I’m making progress.