Random Thoughts

A hospital is no place for a sick person

... patience, the only answer

by Jackie Wattenberg

The following story was originally published in the Melrose Free Press on August 20, 2009, and is reprinted here by permission.

"A hospital is no place for a sick person.” So a doctor told me, and so I’ve learned from spending a little time in our Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. It’s great if you’ve broken an arm, have it reset and go back home. If they make you stay, you may find it interesting to stay awake until 4 or 5 a.m.

Once you’re stuck in the emergency room, it’s a learning experience — you learn that a whole fleet of nurses, aides and technicians, and one doctor can move nimbly and chat as if it’s 11:25 a.m.

On your arrival, how can you protest when someone who looks like a high school junior comes in to draw your blood? Or when he decides he has to establish an IV so that if you need something injected into you, you’re ready? So what if sticking a huge needle into your hand causes great pain? You’re in a hospital, for God’s sake, and pain is what it’s all about!

Once you’ve had seven EKG’s of your heart matched nicely with seven blood counts stuck painfully from your arm, you wait patiently until you have the great moment comparable to the election of President Obama — the arrival of the one lonely doctor on duty! At the stroke of midnight, here he comes in his undeniably emergency room casual blues and he is wide-awake and handsome! Yes, Virginia, there really is a doctor on duty, and a stethoscope hanging on his chest proves he is a real doctor and he will see what’s wrong, place a pill in your mouth and send you home to your gorgeous bed!

But he has seen the EKG tests and the murderous blood samples taken from you and he states, plainly with no chance of retrial, that you will stay overnight and see another doctor tomorrow. Okay, you have to accept this, he’s a doctor. Now it’s simple: Just wait for that wonderful room “upstairs” — after all, you hardly ever stay up after 10 p.m., and what does the big clock overhead say? It is now 12:43 a.m. and you’ve been meeting charming nurses and aides since 7:33 p.m. — it won’t be long now!

“How soon will I be able to go to my room?” That’s the question du jour, but whom can I ask? Nobody has come in since the doctor left at 12:22 a.m., 30 minutes ago — ah, someone is walking by and I call out, “Hi! Hi, there!” The tall form passes by quickly. What about that cluster of young women sitting and laughing right across my bed, partly visible through my half-drawn curtain — but they’re so absorbed in amusing chit-chat, how can I disturb them?

Finally, at 1:25 a.m. someone is coming — that nice young man who wants one more blood sample — now is my chance to blurt it out, “How soon can I go up to my room?”

“As soon as your room is ready up there,” he says with a smile as he ties a rubber band tight around my arm. “Now, just a little pinch,” he coos; they always say “a little pinch!” when they mean “just a little stab!” “How long will it be before my room is ready?” I dare to ask. “Not very long, probably,” he says cheerily.

He leaves and I try to sleep but I am in the epicenter of the emergency room, and those nurses across from me are still charmingly amused at the story the new arrival is recounting, and I don’t dare to complain although it is now 10 minutes past 2 a.m. and I am not only exhausted but getting hungry, a new affliction — why am I getting hungry at 2 in the morning? An interesting new worry and nobody to ask about it since all of those healthy, happy people passing before my half-drawn curtain are in too much of a hurry to bother. A baby cries, a man’s deep voice coughs close by … so there are other captives here after all, and I must be patient — after all, that’s what I am …

At 26 minutes after 2 a.m., a sturdy woman comes in and tells me, “We’re taking you upstairs as soon as your paperwork is done,” and turns to leave. “How soon?” I call out, but she’s gone. But now I have hope, there really is a nice bed upstairs that I can soon fall into and sleep! Well, not very soon, since the big clock on the wall now says 2:47 a.m. Ah, here come someone, a smiling woman with pad and pen … she asks me a few questions, I sign something, and she’s off. It won’t be long now, I tell myself, and it’s only 31 minutes later when two big cheery men come to push me and my bed out of that room with smiles and “How are you’s?”

An exciting ride down the patient-filled hall to an elevator, and actually onto a quiet floor and down through a dozen doors to someplace with a big yellow door and a bed inside. The nice men leave and a slender young nurse’s assistant gets me settled and shows me the dials on the bed’s side … I don’t care what they are, I’m falling asleep as she mutters something I hardly hear, “The nurse will be in soon to interview you.” I’m dozing off as a smiling nurse rushes in and sits on the foot of the bed, tapping my feet for attention.

“I have to ask you a few questions,” she announces imperiously. “Right now? I’m so sleepy —“ my eyes are closing. “Yes right now,” she laughs and begins a series of questions with thankfully easy answers that I have already given in the emergency room. So I am still alive, if half asleep, and the clock on the wall now says 3:47 a.m.. I try to make my answers sharp and indisputable, but she is not to be fooled and insists that my answers make sense — just what medicines do I take? When? Where was I born? (a tricky one), How do I like Sarah Palin? What is the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Eisenhower warned us about? How do you spell cock-a-mamie?

Finally, after 26 minutes, she leaves. I go back to sleep. Soon a cheery soprano voice calls out, “Hi, honey, what can I do for you?” I squint and see that the voice of fine clarity comes from my neighboring room, separated by a wall with door clearly outlined but not soundproofed. Their problem solved, I drop into sleep again, only to be awakened by a cheery woman with a standing machine — 5 a.m. blood pressure time!

Blood pressure incredibly normal … back to sleep — first get up to close that big yellow door — it has weird double duty: barricades your sink and toilet, or blocks off the hall. But good grief, it is heavy! Solid iron and stuck — but I almost get it shut when a frowning face confronts me — “What are you doing?” We have to have that door open so we can see you when we walk by.” Okay, you’re stronger that I am, leave it open.

Back in bed, I could use a sleeping pill, but they’re not allowed after 2 a.m., when I seem to recall that I was in the emergency room. Finally, back to sleep when a clamor of happy voices announce the arrival of the new shift of nurses starting at 6 a.m. Well, of course the old and new shifts have to greet each other with tales of fun and frolic, even boisterous laughter — dare I beseech them to laugh softer.

The man behind the outlined door has his TV on, saving me the need to turn on my own, way up there somewhere. Anyway, I’m still hungry, so I phone a wonderfully cheerful woman named Chris in the kitchen who will send me anything I see on a nice big menu. So, morning has broken. My nurse Grace, a lovely, intelligent woman who has seen the brutal defiance of the yellow door, comes in to get acquainted, introducing a woman I think is named Ellen, who comes in every hour to take my blood pressure with an apology and unfailing gentleness.

Then, the thrill of my whole visit — a quiet man named Hooberman comes to take a blood sample — a coward, I turn aside and hold out my arm … I wait, ask “When are you going to take it?” “I just took it,” he says softly. Yep, there’s the little bandage, and I didn’t even feel a “pinch!” An unsung hero!

Tests proved okay; I was discharged. Only a month later, my doctor says that when he came to see me I had been discharged!

Sure, a few questions could arise — why such a long wait in the emergency room? Why only one doctor? That crazy yellow door! Why not rules about restrained voices while patients — remember patients? — are desperate for sleep? Why not have Hooberman teach all of the blood takers how to do it painlessly?

But my doctor was right — the hospital is no place for a sick person.

Jackie Wattenberg is a Melrose resident and is the arts correspondent for the Free Press, as well as a frequent contributor to the Melrose Mirror.

September 4, 2009

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