The Great White (6) North

It happens while I’m watching a Chinese acupuncturist pull needles out of my dad’s arms: My phone rings. It takes a few seconds for it to dawn on me that the voice on the other end of the line is weaker than usual. This is what is known as a distress call. We both hang up and dial 911.

My mother is alone and bad shape – and it falls on my shaky shoulders to break the news to my finally-relaxed (and previously needle-phobic) dad. There is no right way to tell him, at least not in the seconds after I hang up, grasping at straws. I already know he’ll take it badly. And we still have to hightail it to a hospital.

JpegWe pace the halls outside the ER for nearly 20 minutes before my mother arrives – chalking up the ambulance’s unreasonable delay to the driver’s pathetic navigational skills. My mother is finally wheeled in, alert, though in dire pain and pasty-looking. A momentary sigh of relief. Better than anticipated.

I suppose it’s a good sign that, notwithstanding her urgent predicament, she is rankled by the wrench that’s been thrown into her busy schedule. It’s easy to decipher the bubble monologue trailing above her head: Oy, I don’t have time for this! There’s so much I have to do… and I have plans for a play tonight, a concert tomorrow, and shopping and cooking to do before the holiday. How will it all get done?!

Triage happens – as do questions, needles, oxygen and paperwork. She ends up in a booth within view of passing nurses, orderlies, medical equipment, stretchers and a motley group of weary-looking relatives. Residents, medical students and finally a fully ordained physician who notes unusual presences in her gut (via ultrasound) make the same pronouncement. There’s much work to be done… But if you don’t mind and before you head off to the next patient, could you please give her a shot of morphine?!

Thus starts a journey – destination thus far unknown – into (and through) the obstacle-ridden, often-confusing, maze of hospitalization. What we hope to be one overnight in hospital morphs into a full week’s stay on 6 North. With me at her side, most of each day – and nearly every night. My mother is understandably farklempt.Jpeg

It is a no-man’s land, outside any concept of time and space. For that week, it’s as if the outside world comes to a grinding halt. Schedules are turned on their heads, appointments cancelled or postponed, priorities shifted, travels plans re-arranged, phone calls and texts whiz through the ether, looping around the east coast (still oh so chilly!) at the speed of ‘send.’

Life in a hospital carries a rhythm of its own. There is the weight of one day that flows into night and into the next day. The pain that ebbs and flows. The helplessness and inability to lift and move. The endless waiting – for nurses, doctors, the surgical team, orderlies, pain meds.

JpegScenes of relatives huddled around, conferring with specialists. Patients being wheeled, rolled, helped along. Televisions blaring. Alarms sounding. Doctors being paged. Code white on the psych ward.

Despite the endless waiting, or perhaps precisely because of it, I crave moments that bring a modicum of relief – thankfully, often with a comical twist.

A well-dressed woman in a white lab coat enters, passes me reclining on my ward-grade recliner, leans over my mother and greets her: “Hello Mrs. Shaw.” I’m aghast, although I should be relieved that she’s had enough sense to ask – before drawing blood or sticking an IV into the wrong patient’s veins. “Excuse me,” I interject, “Mrs Shaw is in the other bed.”

As far as roommates go, Mrs Shaw is in pretty bad shape too. One morning, she is keeled over her bed, shivering, in pain, and vomiting into a bed pan. I cover her partly-exposed back with a towel and watch her from nearby, ready to do more if needed. Another Blood Lady enters, peeks around the curtain and spots Mrs Shaw in a clearly distraught state. She smiles and asks: “Are you ok?” I bite my lip to stop myself from asking her if she’s a real vampire.Jpeg

Mrs Shaw and my mom make quite a pair. The night after her admission (post-surgery), Mrs Shaw is in such a bad state that her university-age daughter arrives to stay the night. With C in one bulky recliner and me in another, our mothers in distress, we could actually hold a hen party. Instead I show C the ropes, we dim the lights and hope for a somewhat restful night. No chance. We spend more time awake – in the room, in the emptied corridors, in the bathroom. At about 4 in the morning, my mom’s tray-on-wheels nearly topples onto me while I’m trying to straighten one of its errant wheels – which causes each of us to break into hysterical laughter. Chalk it up to things with wheels that will inevitably go bump in the night. What next?!

JpegBy the next morning, in an understandably quasi-hallucinatory state (with about 2.5 hours of sleep under my belt), our quartet is laughing at nothing and everything – until we’re all evacuated from the room: MRSA. An unpronounceable and not-so-funny virus was detected in the previous patient when he was discharged. The entire room and all contents are to be disinfected. Hence we are, for a number of hours, homeless. But that’s not the end of it. Moving back in comes with rules: green gloves and gowns. Every time I leave the room, which is approximately 5-20 times an hour, I need to disrobe. To walk back in, I must be in uniform. A quarantine measure, haphazardly applied (rarely respected by medical staff).

I want to ask the reluctant orderly to abide by the orders, but I give up. First off, he is now known as a P.A.B., which is nothing more than a fancy French acronym for orderly. He won’t do anything that isn’t in the union rule book. Him, and all the others – including the P.A.B. who is perpetually talking about when she is going on break. Either that, or talking about budget cuts.Jpeg

I can’t find any of my mom’s doctors or nurses. (Another sign of budget cuts?) So I venture over to the nurse’s station and ask the nurse to explain the results of the latest blood test. “You’ll have to speak to your doctor about that.. I mean, I understand what they mean, but I’m not allowed to tell you what they mean, so you should speak to your mom’s doctor..”

I don’t even know how to describe the kind of fatigue that I feel for the entire week; it transcends jet-lag by a factor of ten.

JpegAt the end of one of my brief sorties (home for a quick nap and shower), I return to discover that my recliner has been confiscated. Gone from the room. I learn that the nurse-sergeant walked in and became alarmed at the sight of two recliners, trays, chairs, bags and bouquets of flowers. She declared the room unfit and hazardous in case of emergency. Both recliners are gone. So is Mrs Shaw’s daughter. I go out and roll another one back in.

My mother is cranky. No wonder. She’s fasting… for days. I slip her a few more ice chips than the surgeon would permit. When Dr A.K. finally gives her the green light for liquids – he stipulates that only clear broth, juice and red jello are allowed. “No milk,” he pronounces strictly. A few hours later, a tray is delivered to her bedside – with a carton of milk. Cuts in the budget seem to extend also to a curtailing of communication. HJpegmmm.

Mom is also cranky because she can’t find her comfort zone. It’s a pillow thing. I arrange and re-arrange. Vertical, Horizontal. Nothing seems to work. I think back to my plush surroundings at Bangkok Hospital. There, I began my recovery amidst a thick sea of pillows gathered around me. I figured I could easily recreate that plump oasis of comfort for my mom. But being on the receiving end doesn’t translate into proficiency when arranging for others. I have no idea how to arrange the pillows for maximum comfort. Doesn’t seem like the motley crew of medical staff has any idea either.

Still, I manage to collect a fair number of pillows from carts parked all around 6 North. Mind you, my hogging isn’t limited to pillows; I make it a daily habit to help myself (stealthily) to as many pillowcases, towels, sheets and washcloths as I can. Just in case. As everyone on the floor reminds me, there are more budget cuts. Who knows when we’ll have to start schlepping towels and sheets from home…?

JpegOne morning, a beep is followed by a voice wafting over the air waves: “Natalie, I have a question.” I think, well I have a question or two as well – for the medical staff, the P.A.B.s and whomever has designed these godawful hospital gowns. Another day, another voice is heard on the system: “If anyone speaks Punjabi, please dial 0.” Perhaps I could broadcast some of my pressing questions on the airwaves too? “Where is the gastroenterologist we’ve been expecting? Where is the orderly that my mom asked to help her out yesterday? And where is the nutritionist we requested on Tuesday.. and it’s now Thursday?!”

My mother cringes from pain when the IV is changed. I ask the attending male nurse why. In a thick Romanian accent, he explains – with a hint of empathy and frustration – that the extension tube that is supposed to be attached to the intravenous needle – to minimize pain– is no longer available because each piece costs $1.Budget cuts. A student nurse laments that education is no longer being subsidized by the hospital. I look for apple juice in the fridge only to bump into another nurse who says “ha!” when I tell her what I’m looking for; “are you kidding? Until 3 months ago, it used to be a staple, we had bottles of juice here all the time. But now, there’s no money for juice.”

So I bring juice. And flowers. A radio. A fleece sweater. Warm socks. Cards. JpegHer phone hangs by a wire, charging its own juice.

A procedure is supposed to take place imminently. We hear this for days. Then we hear one excuse after another for the delay. She is discharged the day before a long weekend, with directions to return for the treatments after the holidays. Family gathers from afar and, less than 24 hours since her release, we celebrate freedom – personal, physical, religious and spiritual – and sit down to break (unleavened) bread with two dozen people and a dog named Charlie.