My chest tubes were removed, and, as a nurse named Ely had assured me, my back didn’t hurt anymore. One immediate consequence of my pain-free state were my thrice-daily prowls down the hospital corridors, strolls which began as convalescent shuffles but progressively increased in vigor and extendedness. No other patients seemed to be out there. The “walking track” was apparently all mine.
The first thing I noticed were the hospital’s formidable wall decorations – large, framed prints of classic paintings by the world’s most famous artists – Picasso, Monet, Lautrec, as well as current artists I never heard of, but they had to be big, or they wouldn’t be up there with the other guys. Had these paintings been the originals, I’d be touring the finest art museum on the planet. Fortunately, the hospital knew its priorities and invested its real money in medical equipment. Prints or no, the pictures were soul nourishing. Much better than a wall plastered with x-rays or MRI results.
During my hallway walks, I also noticed other things. Such as the large poster announcing:
“06 Days – No Falls.”
I immediately felt proud. My hospital had a six-day record of nobody falling. But I also felt the heavy weight of responsibility. I was from then on determined to remain upright, for myself, but more importantly, or myself, but for my team, not wanting it never be said, “We were at ‘06’, but we dropped back to ‘00’, when Earl took a tumble.”
TRUE TO FORM
Inexplicably, at least to me, was the fact that while the rooms were kept at normal temperature, the corridors were freezing. I was glad I had brought along my bathrobe; otherwise I would very likely have contracted pneumonia during one of my health-restoring walks.
On one walk, I noticed an attractive, female hospital worker pushing a gurney, wearing a scarf wrapped around her head. I thought that was extreme and I unsolicitedly said so:
“It’s not that cold,” I “cleverly” remarked.
The woman looked at me strangely.
And then she moved on.
After which, it came to me. The female hospital worker wasn’t cold. She was Muslim.
It was instructive to know that Open-heart Surgery hadn’t robbed me of my ability to embarrass myself in front of strangers.
THE SCARY ROOM
At the hallway’s elbow, where it perpendiculared from one corridor to another, I noticed this room with a sign beside the door that read, “Advanced Heart Failure.” In contrast to the wall art, this sign was an unquestionable “downer.” I considered how a patient must feel, reading that sign as they were ushered into that room?
“Advanced Heart Failure. That can’t be good.”
Couldn’t the hospital come up with a more encouraging room identifier? How ‘bout no sign at all? The room already had a number; the doctors could easily find it. I just couldn’t understand who was the sign was for? Certainly not the entering patients.
“Do you think reminding me I have “Advanced Heart Failure” is really going to improve my outlook?”
I’m not a doctor, but I can’t believe that sign’s doing anybody any good.
My last walk before leaving the hospital took place on October 31st. Among the “necessities” collected to take to the hospital, Anna had included a cardboard Indian headdress, boasting a “chief-sized” array of colored feathers. On that Hallowe’en morning, I proudly donned my ersatz war bonnet and went out for my walk.
What I quickly noticed was that the degree of enthusiasm for my costume varied in inverse proportion to the staff member’s status in the hospital’s hierarchy. The lower they were on the Totem Pole (sorry about that), the more they enjoyed it. Not one doctor cracked a smile. (“This is a hospital!” their reactions seemed to say. “We’re here to save lives, and make money!”) On the other hand, the orderlies ate it up.
“A chief on Hallowe’en! Oh, man!”
I feared for those orderlies. They’d never move up if they refused to take my silliness seriously.
THE FINAL INDIGNITY
In an institution where you’re required to wear gowns that are open in the back, and no underwear, the concept of “dignity” is pretty much out the window. But, come on. There are limits.
It’s noontime, Hallowe’en Day. I’ve been told my release from the hospital was imminent. It was is now just a matter of signing some paperwork and getting a list of prescribed medicines we needed to pick up at our pharmacy. I feel beansily excited. I am already out of my hospital gown, dressed my “street clothes”, perched impatiently on the side of my bed, waiting to be sprung.
I am confident nothing can impede my liberation. I had passed what I’d been told was the determining test: Demonstrating adequate breatheability, I had successfully suspended the three balls in the air ten times in a row. It looked like clear sailing to the exit.
Not so fast.
The doctor’s assistant arrives with my paperwork, and one, highly personal, question.
“Did you poop yet?”
Incapable of doing otherwise, I tell the truth.
“I did not.”
The doctor’s assistant then tells me the truth:
“You can’t leave until you poop.”
This is the reason I hate hospitals, and all other institutions. They make the rules. I have absolutely no control. The hospital alone holds the key to my freedom. And the key is…
I have to poop.
And then tell them, or, who knows, show them, that I did.
And with that go my last remnants of dignity.
I try to handle the problem “in house.” Take care of the situation myself. But between the anesthetic for the surgery and my aggressive pain-killing regimen…
There was nobody home.
You know how in westerns, the bad guys cut the telegraph wires, so the messages can’t get through? It felt something like that.
Woe was me. I was as doomed as doomed could be. Send my mail to the hospital. I was moving in forever!
During the next forty-five minutes, I try everything that’s reputed to help. Chocolate. Coffee. Milk of Magnesia. Heated prune juice. And a procedure I will not go into, administered by a (nurse) man named Jesse whom I had only recently met.
I was officially released from the hospital.
I was wheel-chaired to the parking lot.
I got in the car.
And we headed for home.
First, and most importantly, Dr. M., who was there for me every step of the way. Followed closely by Rachel and Anna, both towers of strength, encouragement, entertainment and support.
The surgeon? Low on “people skills”, but exemplary in the skills that ultimately mattered.
The hospital and its hardworking staff? Thank you.
Family, friends and blog readers who offered good wishes and prayers? They all helped make me feel stronger facing the challenge, and less alone.
Julian, whoever you are. Thank you for fixing my mess-ups on “The Best of Earl.” The assistance of strangers. Quite a concept.
I don’t know what happened. I got sick, I got first class medical help, and now, I’m on the mend. Throughout the experience, there was just one moment of, “Why me?” And as the words flashed into my consciousness, I found myself smiling, because I knew the answer.
“Why not me?”
I plan to write two more illness-related posts. After that, I’ll return my focus to what really matters.
Writing about half-hour comedy.
Thank you all for your patience, and for sticking around. Hopefully, I’ll be here for a while.