I’d been in the hospital since before Halloween. I was on Percodan, a powerful morphine-related pain med, and in sterile condition—had to be completely nude in my private room for the first two weeks. Why did this make me think of sex, to have attractive young nurses coming into my room when I was in both a clothing and consciousness-related compromised condition?
Nevertheless, I was trying to deal with second and third-degree burns that were now infected and would require numerous grafting operations. Lest I be too distant and intellectual about this, let me tell you on many levels it really sucked. There are so many levels of pain, for starters. We’ll just skip that part. This is a recollection, and we’re not supposed to be able to remember pain. And please, why would we want to? Right? You have yours. There is no hierarchy. It’s meant to unhinge us, each in our own appointed way, I so believe. So agree, this is a reference point. We have no need of going there.
But this one particular night was Thanksgiving. A candy-striper LPN had a crush on me that I hadn’t even noticed. She was so shy and I was so out of it I didn’t even register her yet. Until Regan, an older nurse who was her friend came in to convey Ginger’s invitation for me to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family. It would have to be about getting a pass and her taking responsibility for my care, and despite my initial reluctance, Regan persuaded me this was very important to do—and she stressed—for this young woman.
Now there you have the Catholic guilt, which can be a theme for many of us “recoverings.” OK. Sure, I’ll go spend Thanksgiving with Ginger and her family, although I totally didn’t want to.
And a sumptuous repast it was. What, seven courses? Antipasta to Pasta Fagoul and animated conversation with brother—and his new bride, and sister, her husband and one-year-old nephew, father and mother. Ginger largely was silent. Except to blush and say “Shut up, Ma,” when her mother said how much Ginger had been talking about me.
We got through it, but I was toast. By nine or so she dropped me off back at Norwalk Hospital, Bedford 5.
Now my first roommate—after my first operation I got to live out of sterile technique and have clothes and another person in my room—my first roommate was this 19 or 20 year old guy who had broken his back in a car wreck. The girl who’d been driving broke her jaw and it was all very traumatic, but no one was killed, thankfully. He attracted all kinds of interested females, nurses from several floors. He was young, smart, tragic, handsome, and, going to recover—the patient of every nurse’s dreams. We had fun till some moron friend brought him some pot which they smoked in the john one afternoon. The pot reacted with his meds and he went down in a heap in the corner of the bathroom, his elbow catching the emergency alert cord which looped by the toilet wall, just in case a patient had trouble in the bathroom. Orderly and duty nurses were there in a flash and the pot smell was obvious. More to the alarm of everyone was the possible damage to the spine or recovery potential of this young man in a body cast who had just slammed to the floor in an unconscious slump.
He was fine it turned out, and got out of the hospital before me. But that day they changed our rooms. They knew we were having too much fun.
So soon thereafter I met my new roommate, Phil. Phil was a man in his early 70s who had lived hard. He had a younger wife who visited every day and several previous wives who also visited frequently. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversations, and I was concerned for Phil, because he didn’t seem too with-it. He was very random and desultory. Didn’t seem able to converse rationally. The nurse-doctor conversations I overheard gave me even more trepidation.
So when I returned from Thanksgiving dinner with Ginger and her family, as I was coming past the nurse’s station on Bedford 5, Bennet stopped me and told me Phil had had a hard day. Low and behold, Phil was in restraints — tied to the elevated stainless steel sides of his bed — room dark, just my mirror fluorescent on. He started repeating as soon as he saw me come into the room, “Please, please, untie me Dave.” He said this several times as I undressed for bed, carefully removing my heavily bandaged arm and leg from the day-to-day clothing. I was into joking lightly about misfortune; I guess I felt I’d earned that much, or maybe it was denial, whatever. “So Phil, what’d you do today that they tied you up?”
“Please, Dave. Please untie me.”
“Well Phil, I’d like to do that, but I think they got you fastened here for a reason. What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was bad.”
“So they tied you down, but it’s no big deal. Hell it’s bed-time anyway. I’m tired, Phil. I’d like to go to sleep.”
Then he let out a pathetic wail and begged me.
“Oh please, please can’t you just untie me Dave?”
“My name’s not Dave, Phil.”
“Well David then.”
Even today this makes me laugh.
I tried an EST guided relaxation monologue I’d learned as an exercise for an acting class in college.
I remembered lying on those blue gym mats, 20 of us, polished fir floor, rolling hills and misty redwoods outside; first letting our toes go completely limp, completely relaxed, then our feet, our heels, the muscles of our lower legs, completely and totally and deeply relaxed; as relaxed as they’ve ever been, totally light, totally weightless—on up through the entire body and then even added in the third eye, hoping to give Phil a little preparation for what I was convinced would be his very proximate death.
He was completely quiet now. Totally at peace. Peaceful and relaxed.
Then in an instant he was awake.
“This is awful. I can’t live like this. I want to die. Please, you’ve got to help me—please please untie me Dave.”
I buzzed the nurse’s station . “I can’t handle him He’s driving me nuts. Is there another room I can go in—something… a broom closet? Anything?
In a few minutes they found Phil another room. Those beautiful angels.
And within a few minutes more my stomach was churning. All that pasta, incredible dessert, all the day’s draining excitement moving me in a most peculiar way. Not that good now.
Back in college I’d hopped some freight trains and a few times run into hobos and bums. Once I’d asked a fellow “What do you do when you get sick?” My privileged upbringing had never acquainted me with this degree of self-reliance or risk. “Whenever I get a stomach ache, I drink lots of fresh water,” this guy told me.
This was the time for lots of fresh water I thought, and pouring out a tall glass from the stainless bedside pitcher, I’d finished half of it before the odd taste coincided with me registering that the color was that of Cepacol, the yellow mouthwash they distributed to us everyday.
About that same color, but not the taste. Half the glass, at least. I rang the nurse’s station again and Bennett gave me antacid—nearly burst trying not to laugh as she told me urine is sterile and though she knew I’d be totally grossed out, I’d be fine. Honest.
So ok. What the fuck. What a bizarre day. Now if I can finally get some sleep. Stomach, oddly is now fine. Lie back. It’s quiet. I watch car headlights out on 95. It used to be a sunroom up on the fifth floor until overcrowding, when they converted it for more beds. It was probably the nicest room in the hospital. Except my pulse-rate is increasing and I’d never experienced anything like this before.
You may or may not have heard of the shaman of the Siberian tundra who do schrooms? The wild mushrooms they use in their ceremonies don’t grow throughout the winter months, so in order to continue their psilocybin induced hallucinatory trance ceremonies, they save their urine because the psychotropic neurochemicals remain active and can be used to trigger physiological and psychological response over and over again.
And Phil, in addition to his cirrhosis, was also a heart patient.
When my pulse hit what seemed like a really, really scary rate—and still climbing—I rang the nurse’s buzzer again.
We got the BP cuff on and quickly documented 140 BPM. I was scared, but relieved to watch it dropping gradually. I swear to god, it was already dropping when they got the cuff and monitor on.
So the bastard had been wandering around the room, pulling his IV out—the fluid totally infiltrated his forearm. Then he’d pissed in my water jug, though at that time both the pee-pans and water pitchers were stainless steel. So you can picture him staggering around the room, chasing the nurses, looking for whatever had some vague familiarity to his ravaged consciousness
Phil got out of the hospital two weeks later, to his present and past wives’ relief. I stuck around past Christmas. Past New Year’s.