It could have been funny.
The PeaceHealth hospital where I’ve spent entirely too much of 2021 is overcrowded and understaffed, as are so many other hospitals all around the world. The COVID ward is full, and the other wards are feeling the pinch, too. Most of the rooms are set up to accommodate two beds. Normally there is only one patient in the room, which makes it much nicer. Privacy when you’re hospitalized is a great blessing.
That’s why I ended up in a room with another man named John. Overcrowding. I had been in my bed alone in the room for two days before they wheeled another man in, and wrote his name on the board as John.
You can see the comic possibilities, can’t you? Flowers arrive and are delivered to the wrong John, leading him to believe the beautiful redhead has fallen in love with him. Visitors are puzzled at how much their John has changed since his arrival. The nurses give the enema to the wrong John. Endless jokes are possible around mistaken identity. Like, they take the wrong John into the OR and give him a heart transplant. Okay, let’s call that one darkly humorous.
But there was nothing comic about my situation. You see, this second John was dying.
RECAP: My year so far: In February I had a heart attack, and on the 22nd I underwent a quadruple bypass. After a few more days in the hospital I was sent home to convalesce for a while, and in due time I began a series of tortures known as cardio rehab. Three times a week I went back in time to the ninth grade and was tortured by sadistic coaches in P.E. class. It was nice that the torturers this time were nurses and therapists, some of them quite pretty, all of them kind, but it was still P.E., the only class where I ever got less than an A. (It was a D. Coulda been an F, for all I cared.)
No sooner had I completed the course and was feeling much better and stronger, then I come down with COVID, even though I had both my shots. I was in the hospital briefly, then went home to recover and get stronger.
But that didn’t happen. I got worse and worse. No more coughing, but the shortness of breath got so bad that I couldn’t walk from one end of our modest ranch-style house to the other without gasping. I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and given an antibiotic.
It still just got worse. It got so bad that I went into the urgent care department of the Vancouver Clinic, and the doctor there didn’t think I could be trusted to drive myself to the hospital. He ordered an ambulance. I thought they would just drive me over, but they did the whole business of starting IVs and a lot of other stuff I thought not strictly necessary. And after all that, I didn’t even get to hear the siren and get a wild ride to PeaceHealth.
So … #1 Heart surgery. #2 COVID. #3 Pneumonia. And we’re just getting started. X-rays and a CAT scan revealed I had pleural effusion, fluid in the pleural space lining the lungs. This is symptomatic of congestive heart failure. That’s #4. I didn’t like that “failure” characterization at all. Why not something like BTS, for Bad Ticker Syndrome?
There are two ways of treating effusion from BTS. First is something called Lasix, a drug that causes you to shed excess water. You shed it the usual way, and I don’t mean sweat. After they shoot that shit into you, there better not be anyone standing between you and the toilet. The second treatment is to stick a needle into your side and siphon the fluid out. Not being a fan of big needles, I was happy to learn that they intended to try Lasix first.
Then John #2 arrived, and pretty soon I was wishing for the needle.
I don’t think John was actually aware of where he was the whole time we shared a room. He was out of it completely. Though only a curtain separated us physically, I could see him in the mirror on the wall I was facing. He lay there, mouth constantly sagging open, and snorted and snored almost 24/7. The only times he didn’t were when they cleaned him up, which they did at least twice a day because he was incontinent. Then … he howled. He cried out, in pain and/or fear. The nurses spoke reassuringly to him, but it did no good. This would have been bad enough in any circumstances, but it reminded me all too much of the sounds my mother made when people touched her, in her last days a year and a half ago.
I eventually came to a realization that was new to me. Hospitals can be the worst places in the world to get well. Back when I was young they had signs outside hospitals: QUIET! HOSPITAL ZONE! They wanted it quiet inside, too, as they did with libraries. There is no quiet in a modern hospital. There is always something going beep beep squeak clang zip boop boppety-bop-bop. Sometimes it’s from an infernal device in your room. Sometimes it’s from down the hall. Add to this the absolute necessity of having your vital signs taken every four hours, being awakened at 4 AM to have the blood pressure cuff wrapped around your arm, the oxygen monitor clamped to your finger, your temperature taken (under the tongue, John!), and your finger pricked for blood sugar testing. Even before John #2 arrived I wasn’t getting much sleep. After he got there I got almost none.
The days dragged on. Every day the doctors sounded guardedly optimistic that I could go home tomorrow, we just need to squeeze a little more fluid out of you. Then my hopes would be crushed again. I spent hours and hours in a semi-sleeping state. There was a limited selection of movies I could watch on the tiny screen that was on the end of an arm which would not adjust to be right in front of me, so I got a crick in my neck from watching to the side. Half of the offerings were total crap, most of the rest were movies I’d seen before. I got so desperate that I watched Godzilla vs. Kong, and almost understood it. I was half an hour into my twelfth (at least) viewing of West Side Story before I wondered “Why is Officer Krupke calling those Jets muchachos?” and realized this was the Spanish dubbed version.
John #2 continued to snort and wail. Neither of us were getting any better.
On the sixth day one of the nurses brought in a tablet, placed it in front of John #2, and set up a Skype call with his wife. It lasted well over an hour. I had to turn off the TV so it wouldn’t interfere with the “conversation,” which was actually a monologue unless you count John #2’s constant snorting and gasping, so I became an involuntary voyeur. It would break your heart to hear his wife’s side of the call. It broke mine.
She talked about all the things they would do when he got better and got his strength back. They would go on hikes together, like they used to. Or maybe it would just be walks around the neighborhood. There were long pauses, but she would gamely start talking again. His children missed him. His grandchildren missed him. His goddamn dog missed him, looking everywhere for him.
At first I wondered what is it with this woman? Can’t she see that he is not getting any of this? Then as the call went on, I realized, what else can she do? There are those who say that the sound of a familiar voice is perceived by an unconscious person, and has a positive effect on them. I don’t come down one way or the other on that idea, but I can say with some confidence that it couldn’t hurt.
The next day it was clear that she knew the score. She was allowed in, and spent hours tenderly moistening his lips, which must have been very dry after at least five days with his mouth wide open, with a tiny sponge on the end of a stick. I overheard conversations that concerned getting him out of the hospital and into hospice care. A hospice is a place to die, with palliative care only. It sounded like the best idea to me.
I never complained. I don’t think that under “normal” conditions John #2 would have been placed in a room with another patient. He would have had his own room. But there’s nothing normal in hospitals in these Days of the Plague. When I was finally being wheeled out to meet Lee on the ground floor, I got my first glimpse of John #2’s wife. She was gray-haired, in her 70s, like me and John #2. She was masked, as was everyone else, but her eyes were kindly, almost serene. She waved at me, and I waved back.
So I’m back home now. My final diagnosis, like a slap on the butt as I went out the door, was C.O.P.D. (That’s #5.) It stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. My guess is that it has something to do (ya think?) with over fifty years of a pack-and-a-half per day smoking habit, only recently terminated. Used to be, it was easy to find me at SF conventions. Just look for the very tall guy whose head was obscured by the smoke that encircled his head like a wreath. That was in the early days. More recently I could usually be found outside the hotel, huddled against the rain, the cold, and the howling gale with a couple other hopeless addicts.
I was sent home with a couple bottles of oxygen and an oxygen concentrator, but it’s possible I won’t need them after a while. Lee and I were enrolled in classes at something called the Transitional Care Clinic, TCC, a really smart and nice service of the Clinic where you record all your vital signs and come in weekly for consultation. I hate trailing the coiled tubing for the O2 all around the house, but so be it. I am able to do most things I always did, and get around in the car. I still tire quickly, but I don’t pant like an overheated hound dog.
Thanks again to all who sent money after my heart attack at the beginning of the year. I can’t tell you how much those dollars have helped take a heavy load off both our minds.
Very soon I expect to be back at work on my next novel, a re-write and near total alteration of the horrible second draft of my first unpublished novel, Gas Giant.
I have some ideas.