Waiting for my CT scan, I watched a bent old man wearing a worn brown sweater stroke the arm of his wife as she dozed in a gurney. His movements were patient, practiced, full of love. Nearby, a whistling maintenance man, yellow-and-black drill in hand, repaired the door to one of the scanning rooms; it wouldn’t shut all the way. In healing the world, we all have our jobs to do.
As I awoke after a solid night of sleep, I overheard a nurse speaking matter-of-factly on the house phone outside my room: “Would you tell security that we’re going to send that body down?” Then, a moment later, a corpse draped in a crisp white sheet ghosted past my door.
As we age, the stakes seem to rise with each hospitalization. Part of that feeling is wisdom, knowledge. Besides my own hospital stays, I’ve coped with one of my sons having two lung operations when he was a teenager, and then the autoimmune liver failure that nearly killed him. And my parents have been treated for metastatic cancers in the past couple years.
It’s a long way from the summer of 1969, when my sister and I had our tonsils out. Back then, surgery seemed a lark, something to brag about at school. Even when I spent six weeks in the hospital in 1984, as my entire colon shriveled and died, I never imagined that I wouldn’t return to health.
But now, whether patient or visitor, hospitals trigger in me a kind of post-traumatic stress. Those all-too-familiar rooms and hallways set off an uneasy blend of dread, resignation and defiance.
My latest diagnosis ended up vague: some kind of bacterial infection that the doctors said might have been some sort of cellulitis. The throwing of the antibiotic dart worked, though, the rash fading to possum-nose pink, and I was back at work two days later.
What sticks most in my mind about my stay, though, is this: As I waited to be admitted to the hospital, cool antibiotics already coursing through my veins, I listened to a little girl in the E.R. cubicle next to mine. Reassured by her mother, the child, under 10, I guessed, tried hard to be brave. But when a nurse arrived to insert her IV needle, the poor girl dissolved:
“No! No! I’m scared! But I’m scared!”
In her tears and fear I heard the weight of how being in the hospital bears down on the patient, no matter our age. How suddenly potential pain appears, how uncertainty settles on the soul like a carrion crow on a dead squirrel.
And in solidarity, and in my hard-earned wisdom, I couldn’t help but start sobbing, too.