Friday, October 14, 2011


Usually when a nurse spoke to me, it was either to give an instruction (sit up, swallow these, lift your arm) to administer care, or to go through a series of rote and uninteresting questions (what's your birthday, what is today's date, where are you) to gauge my mental state.

On July 3rd, my usual nurse - about whom I have no complaints whatsoever - was taking a much-deserved day off.  Let's call her replacement Sally.

Sally was young and pretty, and while she sounded a bit like a "Valley Girl" she was obviously intelligent and performed her duties - including getting me ready for dismissal - with skill and efficiency.  She also seemed to actually care who I was.  Hers were not the usual questions about the setting of my own personal drama.  Instead she asked me what I did for a living.  My title is long and far more impressive than it ought to be (to be honest I could never remember it without reading it off my own business card), and caught her interest, so she asked me to explain my work (I write reports analyzing market opportunities in the aerospace and defense industry, and no, I'm 100% civilian with no security clearance of any form).  She complimented my hair, which at the time made me look like an extra from Mad Max: still as long as ever but rather messy, save the part they shaved for the surgery and the resulting incision, which was sutured with 45 metallic staples.  She asked me where I lived.  If I had a girlfriend. 

It was the first time in days anyone had really acknowledged that I was not a disease, and that I did have a life beyond the hospital, one to which I would return.  Two weeks prior to that moment, I had no idea I had cancer.  I had hopes and dreams for my future.  Not ambitious ones but you take what you can get.  A 401k.  I thank Sally, deeply and sincerely, for remembering that, and I admire the tremendous amount of strength it must require.

Unfortunately not all of my nurses were quite so courteous that day.  They didn't want to dismiss me until they got a clear blood test, and as I've mentioned my platelets have a tendency to clump.  They drew my blood four times, even after my doctor confirmed that yes, my blood does that, and no, you don't have to keep jabbing the patient.  Each nurse assumed the previous one had done it wrong, or missed, or didn't get proper suction on the vial.  One in particular scolded me for having "bad veins," yanked my bed away from the wall, and stabbed the butterfly directly into my left wrist without the slightest warning.  I had never had blood taken from my wrist, and he did it with such little regard that it hurt more and healed slower than any of the IVs. 

The next nurse apologized for his co-worker's behavior, and sadly said that yes, sometimes nurses do forget that their patients are people.

Then he drew my blood again.

They finally did release me from the hospital.  They didn't even give me a wheelchair.  Three days where I couldn't even stand up without a nurse present, then they just give me a pat on the back and send me on my way.  They also gave me a scrip for oxycontin, which was nice of them I suppose but I really didn't need it and never filled it. 

As a side note, the hospital did send me a survey about my stay.  My response included an additional three type-written pages, including all of the complaints I've recounted here along with a handful of others too minor or mundane to make for a good story.  A few weeks later I received a letter in return, the address hand-written.  In response to my experience, a patient care advocate had launched an official investigation.  I'm still waiting on the results.

As I put my clothes back on, they felt strange.  So different from the hospital gown, and I had to be so very cautious putting them on.  I needed help with my shirt as I couldn't see my sutures.  Socks were an ordeal since I was forbidden to bend over; too much pressure could have caused a brain hemorrhage.  Fastening my belt felt like an odd triumph, like a buckle was somehow the clearest of all indicators that yes, I was wearing real people clothes again, and yes, if I had the uniform of a real person I could go be a real person. 

Even with my new-found freedom, I had to move slowly and intentionally.  I was still weak, and while I never felt unstable I was acutely aware of what might happen if I fell and hit my head. 

As we started the drive home we had to contend with the usual traffic, exceptionally dense and moving at a fair clip.  Minutes from the hospital, my mother decided to change lanes early to make sure she got in the proper lane for an upcoming exit.  Seconds later, there was a six-car accident in the lane we had just occupied, the lead car slamming on his breaks to avoid hitting some debris, the cars behind him left with no room to stop.  I saw it happen right outside my window.  There was no doubt in my mind that had we been in that accident, I would have ended up right back in the hospital or just plain dead.

My parents and I had decided it would be best were I to stay with them until I was confident I could live on my own again.  Never before had a bed looked so inviting.

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