Yellow and Blue in the House of Pain

Dave Palmer

On Saturday, April 15, I developed what appeared to be mild flu-like symptoms: muscle aches, headache, slight fever, that sort of thing. I thought it odd, since we're more or less out of flu season, but I took some aspirin and took it easy, and by Sunday night, I was feeling not too bad.

Monday morning, I almost didn't wake up. I barely had the strength or the will to sit up, and when I finally dragged my butt into the bathroom, found I had a temperature of 103.8. Like a fool, I started getting dressed to go to work anyway, but after it took me some 15 minutes just to pull on my pants, I decided that going to work would NOT be an optimal strategy at this time. I collapsed back into bed and spent most of the next couple days sleeping.

I'd decided I was going to break down and go to the doctor if things hadn't improved by Tuesday, and sure enough, Tuesday morning the fever started to drop dramatically, so I went back to bed. By the afternoon, the fever was back. I also had no appetite at all, and was not eating any solid food, other than large quantities of aspirin.

Wednesday was the same deal, the fever started to come down, but I decided not to get fooled this time, and went ahead and got an urgent appointment with my doctor. He poked and prodded me, and then prescribed an oral anti-flu inhalant. He also took a blood sample. I tried the inhaler, and it left sort of a tickle in my throat. After the second dose some time later, the tickle was worse, and I looked in my mouth to find a lovely shotgun- pattern rash in the back of my throat. I discontinued the inhalant.

Thursday morning, my doctor called me and said "um, OK, we kinda need to get you into the hospital right now."

It seems that my liver and kidneys had essentially shut down, and I was approaching death pretty quickly. Found out later I was just a couple hours away from needing dialysis.

So I drove myself down to the hospital ("Bah! 'tis merely a flesh wound. I've had worse..."), and sat there in the admission office trying not to fall over while they filled out interminable forms. They fixed a plastic ID band around my right wrist, which was to become my official identity, right or wrong, for the length of my stay. Couldn't help but notice that it listed my name once, but my doctor's name twice. Eventually, they sent me upstairs. They said they could get a wheelchair, but I decided to be macho about it and walk. Big mistake. I barely made it. I was dizzy and sweating by the time I finally got to the room and sat down on the bed.

Soon, they began the process of changing my identity from person to patient. My clothes were taken away, and I was given one of those ludicrous peek-a-boo hospital gowns. They plugged an IV line into my left hand and started pumping salt water into me.

THEN the bloodsuckers started showing up. For the first couple of days, it seems they were taking blood three or four times a day, sometimes in alarming quantities. One guy showed up with a handful of what looked like Tabasco Sauce bottles and said "we need a LITTLE blood." and then proceeded to fill up every bottle. Yo, Sparky, I need SOME of that to live.

It turns out that they can't take blood from the same arm as the IV line, so all this was happening from the same tiny little patch on my right arm, and it got mighty tender mighty fast. You'd be amazed at how much one of those teensy little needles can hurt.

Next, they stuck me in a wheelchair and trundled me downstairs to the "Healing Arts Gallery," where we stopped off in every little room along the corridor to take a different type of picture of my innards. Ultrasound, x-ray, ...I lost track.

By Friday or so, the bilirubin had backed up in my pipes enough where my skin and even my eyes were a lovely Homer Simpson shade of yellow.

It seems that my case was unusual enough that doctors were coming out of the woodwork to get their names attached to it. Eventually, I wound up with no less than three doctors who would come in for a couple minutes at various hours, and each would poke and prod me the same way, and ask the same questions. In my weakened state, it got to be REALLY tedious telling the same story over and over and over. Can't these guys take NOTES, fercryinoutloud? Actually, it turns out they were. I later managed a peek at this voluminous patient info binder they were compiling on me, and there was stuff in there I never remember telling anybody.

Apparently, they're not keen on the patients seeing these things, either. Normally, when I was being wheeled around, they had me hold the binder in my lap. Late in my internment, I was sitting there "parked" in a hallway waiting for a guy to push me back to my room, and I started thumbing through the binder. Out of nowhere, my pusher showed up and said, "hey, let me get this out of your way for you," and snatched it from me, produced a cloth bag from somewhere, put the binder in the bag, and then that into a pouch on the back of the wheelchair. Hmmmm....

And so began the daily routine. The first thing I found out is that the night staff hasn't quite grasped the concept that there are people who actually SLEEP during the night hours...or try to, anyway. As far as I could tell, they made absolutely NO concessions at two in the morning to the possibility that sick people were trying to sleep. Friday night...well, Saturday morning, actually, the lights came on at about two in the morning. And these are BRIGHT lights, too. A janitor came clanging in with metal buckets and mops, and started scrubbing down the space next to mine, which had been vacated much earlier that day. I thought that maybe they were about to move somebody new in right away, but they didn't. He just did his business and then shut off the lights and left.

This turned out to be typical. I don't think there was a night I was there that SOMEbody didn't come barging in in the middle of the night. One of my many doctors apparently only had the time to drop by at about three in the morning every day.

One night late in my stay, the lights came on at some ungodly hour, and a couple of people came in to take out the then-empty bed next to me. They were talking at a normal volume, and apparently made no attempt to get the bed out quietly...moot at that point, really. When they left, they left the lights on. Well, I thought. They're taking the bed to transfer a new patient in, and they'll be back soon. There's no way they would be THAT rude to just leave the lights on. Yeah, OK, so my brain wasn't firing on all cylinders yet at this point. After about 20 minutes, I began to suspect that they weren't coming back.

Well, at this point, I had two options if I wanted the lights out. I could hit the nurse call button. That would result in a 5-40 minute wait until somebody finally came on the intercom, and said in an annoyed voice, "Yes?" And then it would be another 5 minutes-2 hours before somebody finally came around. I am NOT making this up.

The other option was to do it myself. In order to go across the room and turn out the lights, what I had to do was disentangle the wires of my heart monitor and hang the little telemetry unit around my neck. Then I had to ease out of bed, trying not to rip the IV line out of my hand, and then reach to the back of my bed to unplug the electrical cord to the IV pump, all the while trying the keep too much of my butt from hanging out of the gown. Then, I had to wrap up the cord to the pump, navigate the IV stand through the narrow maze along the side of the bed (all the while punching the "alarm silence" button periodically because the battery on the unit wouldn't hold a charge), and then finally walk the ten feet to the light switch and shut the damn things off.

THEN I had to do everything in reverse, and try to get back to sleep before the NEXT interruption.

I remember seeing many years ago a cartoon of a nurse shaking a sleeping patient and saying, "wake up, sir. It's time for your sleeping pill." I no longer see the humor in that.

By the way, mentioning the alarm silence button, the other thing you quickly grow to hate in a hospital is beeps. EVERY SINGLE STINKING PIECE OF EQUIPMENT is beeping all the time for no good reason. There was a Monty Python bit about a hospital administrator who was so pleased that his hospital had acquired a machine that goes "ping!" I no longer see the humor in THAT, either.

Every morning at six, the blood lady came. EVERY morning. She was always very apologetic, but ruthless nonetheless. "Morning, sir. Sorry sir, I have to take a small blood sample, sir. A little prick, sir" "HEY! Waitaminnit! I'm sick, OK? There's no call for...Oh. Sorry. Never mind."

Next, sometime around seven, the food guy would come around with breakfast. All that first week, and about into Monday or so of the next, I had absolutely no appetite at all; solid food just didn't hold any attraction for me whatsoever. Yet huge trays of food kept coming three times a day from the cafeteria. At first, I just sent them all back. Eventually, Lunch Lady Doris came up from the depths of the cafeteria and yelled at me, so I started ordering stuff I felt I could get down and possibly keep down. Every morning, you go a menu to mark up for the following day. Every day, I would mark the few things I thought I might actually be able to eat, some juice, some fruit, that sort of thing. Then I would wait to see how close they actually came to getting my order right. Some days, I would get precisely what I ordered, and not a thing more or less. Other days, I would find that somebody had marked lots and lots of extra food on the menu, and I got huge trays of stuff that never got eaten.

By Monday or Tuesday, my appetite had started to come back, and so I had to start dealing with the new issue of figuring out which things on the menu you just DIDN'T want showing up on your plate. The chicken rice soup was actually pretty tasty. The vegetable soup taught me something I didn't know: it's possible to boil vegetables in water for an extended time and STILL come out with something that tastes like plain water, though not as flavorful.

Sometime around 7-7:30, the Nurse du Jour would make an entrance and introduce herself. This was one of the oddest, most irrational policies I encountered in this crazy place. I NEVER had the same nurse twice. Not ever, in a full week. Sure, they have some people who work 12-hour shifts and fewer days than others, but you would just think that there would be SOME sort of regularity.

I don't claim to be any sort of medical authority, but the advantages of assigning a particular nurse to a patient just seem to be self-evident to me. By observing the same patient over several days, the nurse could anticipate the patent's needs, and provide the doctors with valuable feedback about the patient's condition. The patient would get at least a small sense of normality, seeing a familiar face every day.

On the other hand, I suppose there's a tradeoff: if you happened to get stuck with a bad nurse, it would make things worse. Some of the nurses I had did just enough to fulfill their minimum job requirements. Others seemed incredibly dedicated to their jobs, and went out of their way to make sure I was as comfortable as the system would allow.

I had a few visitors and many phone calls over the days. In the early days of my stay, that was kind of a double-edged sword; it was good to have some company or hear a familiar voice, but it really sapped my energy to try and engage in normal conversation, or even hold the telephone up to my ear.

The rest of an average day was mostly just boredom. Although I had some books, I just never worked up the will to read for any length of time. Sometimes I could catch some catnaps if I was lucky, and I didn't have a noisy neighbor.

Ah, the neighbors. Let me speak of the neighbors.

There is ZERO privacy in a hospital room. Such rooms are called "semi-private," but they are "semi-private" in much the same sense that you can be called "semi-nude" if you're standing there buck nekkid, because the soles of your feet are not showing. You get to hear every yummy detail of your neighbor's medical condition as he describes it to the endless stream of doctors and nurses ("..and you've been bleeding from the rectum for how many days now?"). You get to hear all the private minutia of the person's life as they talk with visitors. You get to experience every disgusting noise and smell they make. It is not meeting people at their best.

I like things quiet and tranquil even when I'm not sick. I don't expect to get that for free, so I tend to be considerate of my neighbors in everyday life. I don't crank up my stereo or TV at midnight, stuff like that. My first neighbor was a very quiet, considerate chap. So OF COURSE they moved him right out Friday night. He was replaced Saturday afternoon by "Mr. Cranky." The first clue I had that this was not going to be a match made in heaven was when they turned on his bed. Yes, I said turned it on. This guy had just had some sort of fairly minor surgery, but he required a special air mattress to lay on. So this bed had something resembling a jet engine strapped to it.

When they first turned it on, the hospital's main power was off. They were running on the auxiliary generators, and I thought the noise was coming from some big fan blowing air through the corridors; I thought maybe the main air conditioner system was down or something. Eventually, it dawned on me that this noise was coming from the guy's bed, and that I would have to listen to it 24 HOURS A DAY for as long as he was there.

The other thing I had to listen to was this guy's attitude. He wanted out of the hospital BAD, and he didn't care who knew it. Every time his wife came around to visit, he was ragging on her to get him out of this #$%@! Place RIGHT NOW. He said he couldn't stand another night there, yada yada yada...One day, the wife brought his two teenage-sounding granddaughters to visit. That's the other thing: although you hear everything, you see nothing. They were going on in your typical teener blather, "and so she goes...and I'm all like I'm so sure." Finally, Mr. Cranky (actually, speaking for ALL of us in this particular case) piped up and said "what makes you think I want to hear all this crap?" His wife said "hey they're just trying to make things seem normal and familiar for you," and then he launches into his canned "get me the hell out of here" rant. Sweet guy. About the only thing that would shut him up for any length of time is when his wife would switch on a ball game (too loudly, of course) on the TV.

Monday the 24th, for no apparent reason, they suddenly moved the both of us to a new room. They also switched my IV to the other hand, something they have to do every few days. The IV in my left hand had been annoying, but not really uncomfortable. Not so with the new one, it ached from the start, and a week after getting out of the hospital, I STILL have a residual ache up my right arm. The gift that keeps on giving...

On the other hand (literally!), the new IV meant that they would now be taking blood from a reasonably fresh arm that hadn't been reduced to ground chuck by an endless series of "just a little stick now..."

Monday afternoon, Mr. C had finally worn enough people down where his doctor was considering discharging him. They'd finally gotten wise and doped him up pretty good, but the doctor wanted to be sure that the reason he was near-catatonic was the dope and not some other problem, so they gave him some anti-dope, and the wait began. They guy's wife kept hollering in his ear that if he would just wake up enough, he could go home. I was on the other side of the curtain rooting for cattle prods and Jolt Cola enemas. Eventually, the golden moment came, and they hustled his miserable ass out of my life. They DID wait another half hour to shut off the jet engine on the bed, however.

This act alone made me feel ever so much better, and by Tuesday, I was actually starting to feel nearly normal. I was beginning to eat again, and all my internal organs were making at least a valiant effort to work properly.

So I'm lying there Tuesday minding my own business, when they wheel an empty bed into the room. OK, they just needed someplace to put it, I think. Sometime later, they start bringing in the trays and other patient accoutrements. OK, so I'm gonna get a new roommate, more or less unavoidable. Then I hear a woman's voice out in the hallway, a voice that sounds chillingly like Mr. Cranky's wife. "Yes, we're back," the voice says.

Then I had to chuckle to myself. Nawwwwww, see, THAT would be just like dying and going to hell, I think. There's NO WAY that he'd be back and they'd put him back in MY FRIGGING ROOM. DAVE! WAKE UP! YOU'RE HAVING A TERRIBLE NIGHTMARE.There's no place like home, there's no place like home...

Well, it got real enough when they switched the jet engine back on.

Mr. Cranky was back, and in worse shape. Seems he was really in no condition to go home in the first place, and they'd aggravated his condition. Now, I don't know how long it really was, maybe only a couple of hours. But when you're screaming at the top of your lungs in your head, the time just seems to flow like molasses in December in Alaska. But somebody was looking out for me, and saved me the trouble of strangling the SOB with his own IV line. They decided that he was just TOO sick, and so they moved him, jet engine and all, to the CCU.

My next roomie was considerably quieter (though he snored like the very gates of hell), but his wife was the hysterical one, and regularly went ballistic on the nurses and staff. In fairness, it was understandable. The family was not exactly going through a golden age at the moment. Dad was just checked into the hospital for rectal bleeding. One of the daughters had just gotten out of the hospital for cancer surgery. Another daughter had some bad knee injury. AND the dog had recently bitten dad.

One evening, the guy's priest, Father Feelgood came around to see him, and spent a nauseating half-hour reassuring the guy that "God was with him." Yow. Can you imagine how screwed he'd be if God was pissed at him?

By this time, they began to get a glimmer of what was wrong with me. Turns out it was hepatitis A... and something else, still unknown. The thing is, hep A isnít supposed to affect the kidneys, but mine had shut down. Man, I lost track of the number of times I had to answer the same list of questions. No, I havenít eaten any raw shellfish, no, no homosexual contact. No, no IV drug use. And so on. These guys write this stuff down when I answer, what was their plan, that Iíd break down and confess having sushi if they kept at me enough?

And in the whole week there, I was never actually TREATED for anything. Yes, they had a constant salt water drip going into me, sometimes with vitamins, and they also gave me the occasional anti-indigestion pill (even when I wasnít eating anything), but that was pretty much it.

Wellll, except for the potassium. Somebody along the way decided I needed a little potassium added to my diet, so the nurse came around with this effervescent tablet that dissolved in water to create a "delicious, fruit-flavored supplement." That crap was some of the NASTIEST-tasting stuff Iíd ever had in my mouth. A few days later, when they came around to give me more (around midnight, I might add), I asked if there was ANY other form I could take this stuff in. The nurse looked me square in the eye and said, "no this is all we have," and then handed me a cupful of water that had a POWDER dissolved in it that, while not the nectar of the gods, was reasonably drinkable. THEN she handed me a horse-sized pill and said, "and this is a potassium supplement pill." they donít have it in any other forms, just three. Yeah.

Wednesday the 26th--which was also my birthday--my regular doctor FINALLY used the golden "D" word. "If your numbers continue to come down," he said, we'll look at **discharging** you today or tomorrow. The GI specialist on the case said something similar, but I don't recall Dr. Three-in-the-Morning rendering an opinion. I may have actually been sleeping, though that's dubious. From that moment, I made sure that every nurse and staff member who crossed my path knew that I was due to be sprung soon. Just in case, I secretly saved a dinner roll to use to tunnel under the wall if I had to bust out. Who SAYS hospital food isn't good for anything?

By Thursday morning, I was actually feeling nearly normal. Still a little tired, and I was achy from that Clive Barker torture rack they called a "bed," but I was eating, and starting to get VERY anxious to get the hell out. Actually, my first clue that I was getting better was when I started noticing the nurses ;-)

They'd come around every day with a basin of warm soapy water and some towels, but you can only really give yourself a superficial cleaning that way, and I was getting mighty grungy. I wanted a long, hot shower BAD. In the morning, the GI doc came around and said "OK, things are looking good, we're going to discharge you today." Not "maybe," not "we'll see." At two in the afternoon (I noted the time on the wall clock), my regular doctor came around and said the same thing. YEE HA. Get me my walking shoes, mamma, I am SO outta here.

Well, not quite. There's PROCEDURE, you see. As my doctor left the room, I heard him tell the nurse, "OK, let's discharge him now." I sat there, waiting. And waiting.finally at 2:30 (you better durn well believe I was watching the clock NOW...), my nurse came in and I reminded her that I was paroled. She sounded like it was the first she's heard of it, but said, "Oh, I'll go pull your chart." Yeah, you DO that.

AN HOUR later, she finally came back and told me that she's had to get permission from Dr. Three-in-the-Morning. Yeah, EVERYBODY's got to get their little grunt of authority in. But he'd said it was OK (right, like he knew...), and it was finally time. She said something like, "so, I guess you're all set, then." OK, picture this. I was sitting up in bed, still wearing the butt-hanging-out hospital gown, still with electrodes glued to my chest hairs, and still with an IV needle stuck in me and taped down. I held up my IV hand in her face, and she suddenly got the picture. Oh BOY was it a treat as she ripped that permabond hospital tape off my hairy arms. But anyway, I finally had real clothes on for the first time in a week, and I was SET. I got an enormous amount of satisfaction in whipping out my pocket knife and cutting that miserable ID band off.

All of the hell I'd been through, organs shutting down, fever, not eating, the constant mental abuse...and I still walked out of the hospital like a MAN.

OK, so I was wheeled out by a little old lady like some invalid whussy. But still...

I was finally on my way out of the door of my hospital room, when my nurse made an out-of-character appearance. "Oh, are we ready to go? I'll call for a volunteer with a wheelchair," she beams. Wheelchair my rosy butt. I rose up to my full stature and beamed my most withering glare between her eyes. "I suppose that's MANDATORY?" I said. Her expression left no doubt. You DON'T screw with hospital procedure.

So, I'm standing there in the hallway waiting. And waiting. I keep eying the exits, thinking I might slip out while nobody's looking. But the notion that they might send a couple of goons after me to drag me back just so I can be wheeled out just doesn't sound THAT ludicrous at this point. Now I only live about five minutes away from the hospital, but I'm still standing there 15 minutes later, when finally this little old lady volunteer, who must have been all of 1/3 my weight shows up with a wheelchair. I say "you here for Palmer?" She says, "yes, that's me, and pushes the chair right past me and into the hospital room. A heavy sigh, a long pause. "Uh...dear? Over here?"

It's her very first day on the job, and she doesn't really know how to work all the levers and things on the wheelchair. My legs wind up in this grotesque position that looks like I've just had a horrific skiing accident, and she starts muscling me down the hall to the elevators, which appear to be not stopping on this floor temporarily, just to cheese me off a bit more. Finally we get a car, and we make it down to the ground floor, and out the front door. Well, at this point, she doesn't really know what she's supposed to do, and seems to think she should wheel me all the way to my car. I shamelessly take advantage of her confusion and bolt.

Well, I found that I was still a whole lot weaker than I thought, but I made it home OK, and spent a lot of time in the shower trying to wash the stink of the place off me. Unclean, unclean! Out, OUT damned spot...actually, a week later, some of the tape adhesive has STILL not washed completely out of my arm hairs.

And for many days thereafter, when I would wake in the middle of the night, needing to go to the john or something, I would STILL lie there for a bit and try and think about how to unhook myself from the bed.

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