Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Waiting for Sunrise

A cancer center has to be a devastatingly difficult place to work.  I wondered how many people the staff had watched die.  How many never left my floor alive.  How many of my fellow patients, at that moment, were breathing their last breaths.  It must be enough to numb the soul.  I can understand why some people simply shut down and refuse to recognize their patients as people.  No sense getting attached when they'll be gone before long.

I pondered that as I was stuck with yet another needle.  One of so many I barely even felt them any longer.  They had me on steroids to reduce the swelling in my brain, which in turn threatened my blood sugar levels.  Finger sticks became as common as giving my name.  I was handed small cups of pills and told to swallow.  No one explained to me what I was taking, or why, or what the side effects might be.  The only time I got any sort of explanation was when I noticed an unusual-looking pill among the others, and asked if it was the correct medication.  It was, just a different brand.  I only noticed because I was aware of my surroundings and thinking with relative clarity.  What about patients who were not so lucky?  Those without the capacity to ask?  Must a brain surgery patient be so responsible for his own care even in the hospital?

The sound of alarms seared itself into my brain.  For a week after I left the hospital, I could hear that same repetitive buzzing in any white noise, especially that of an air conditioner.  Everything in that hospital began to beep wildly when it stopped working, or was about to, and everything in that hospital broke frequently and spontaneously.  It was so common there was not a single instant I could not hear an alarm somewhere.  The nurses did not seem to notice or care, possibly too common an occurrence to address.  They did not care if the noise bothered me.  I was not a person.  I was a chart.

That night, that awful night, one nurse placed a pair of sleeves over my legs, the sort that would inflate and deflate regularly to prevent blood clots.  It worked for about ten minutes, then promptly stopped and began to emit a loud, repeating tone.  I called for a nurse.  Twenty minutes later, no one had come.  Still it was beeping.  I called again, and informed the nurse that if someone did not come in and handle the situation, I would smash the device on the floor.  It was removed from my room within two minutes.

I couldn't even try to sleep during that night.  Every hour someone was in to inject something into me, or have me take some pills, or otherwise disturb my attempts at rest.  I begged for something to help knock me out but they could offer nothing, as they needed my mind to be clear, so they could monitor me for any abnormalities.  My lungs were weak and a chronic cough became constant.  They gave me a lozenge, but only one.  I was informed that if I somehow got a bag of them from outside I could have as many as I pleased, but the hospital could only give me one every two hours, as if it were just as strong as the morphine I was no longer receiving.  They left lights on.  They left the door open.  They laughed and chatted in the hallway. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Liver groaned.  Frequently, loudly and in agony.  His daughter was spending the night with him.  I can understand his pain.  I can understand her desire to be with her father in his last hours, though it may have been nice if someone had informed me I'd be spending the night with an unfamiliar woman in my room.  I had slept only about an hour in the previous day, only an hour since awakening from brain surgery, and I was running out of sympathy.  I did not understand how anyone could be expected to recover under such conditions, or if they weren't actively harming my brain as it struggled to repair itself.

Then came the high point of my stay.  As I mentioned I'd been coughing a lot, and had taken to spitting whatever I could produce into a paper cup.  It was one of many, the others stacked upside-down beside it, clean and unused.  Yet when the night nurse came to give me some pills, that was the cup he chose.  I didn't notice until I felt a wad of my own spit slide into my mouth, to which I responded, "this is the very wrong cup."

He chastised me.  He told me that I should have torn the edge of the cup, as though he would have noticed that in the darkness, as if that were the universal symbol for, "spit cup: do not use."  It was my fault that he'd made me drink my own spit.

I suspect he later gave me the wrong medication as well.  I was feeling slightly nauseous and asked for some Zofran, which had calmed my stomach quickly and effectively throughout my stay to that point.  He gave me a pill and claimed that was what it was, yet its familiar effects never came.  Not until the following day, when another nurse gave me another Zofran. 

Though I saw it only as a subtle and growing brightening of my room, the light of dawn was never so beautiful.

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