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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Wait for me

I am home, after ten days in the hospital.

Already my memories of the place are fading. They wake you at all hours for medications and blood draws, so the days are not distinct from one another and one is no longer certain who said or did what.

Somehow I did track visitors. I had fifty-one, not including repeat offenders. [grin] I brought home some nice plants, cards, a teddy bear, and a little laughing buddha (Ho-Tei). My "big sister" brought him to me, just as the gurney came to take me to the OR, and I managed to rub his tummy for luck before I rolled away.

Nurses are fabulous people. For relatively low pay, considering the professional preparation they've had to do, they dedicate their lives to your well-being. One wonders if they've been trained to jump in front of buses to save you. They have that glowing pride that firefighters have, of willingly facing danger in the line of duty, that duty being to help others.

The medical schools train them a lot, but there are gaps. They don't, for example, know much about transpeople.

"May I ask a .. um ... personal question?"


Patients are anything but patient, and nurses have to deal with a lot of grumps. Hospital time, my dears, is our golden opportunity. Show a little interest in what the nurses, CNAs and housekeepers do, and in them personally, and thank them for every little thing, right down to the twentieth blood draw. They'll warm up to you. They'll ask about your kids, your work, and you. Now you are a human being, and, by extension, others like you are human too. This may affect their vote the next time they are asked to deny you your civil rights for being born different.

I lost my bowels, so to speak, and had to ask for bed changes. The nurses could have left it to the CNAs, but I never saw anyone pull rank. I would get out of bed, IV and all, and help stretch the sheets across the mattress. Two girls making the bed, chatting.

One of them was new. Her preceptor turned her loose to relocate my IV and she spent a long time setting up for it.

"It's OK," I told her. "Practice on me, because I'm in a good place right now and if we miss we'll just try again." She got it right, after much deep breathing and centering down, and we proudly showed off her handiwork to the older RN. I asked her to sign her work and she did. We became great buddies.

Another one had an even harder time. Her preceptor was a sterner sort and hung close, watching, and as a result the younger nurse missed a vein. They had to switch places. I looked up into the young one's face as the older one worked, and realized she was getting faint.

"Breathe," I said. "There's really not that much going on, and she's not hurting me. It just looks scary."

"I always had trouble with this. In school we had do to each other and I was paired up with another fainty girl. We didn't do very well."

"All I had was the oranges," remarked the RN. "And I've never had an IV done on me." She popped the applicator into the right place in seconds, withdrew the sharp, and was taping me before she finished the remark. The LPN's hands shook and she gripped my blanket a bit. I hoped the RN wasn't watching her.

"A vein is just like a little rubber hose that's been dipped in oil," I lectured. "Put the applicator at just a little bit steeper angle than you expect, then go to a shallower angle right after it penetrates. You can feel resistance all the way around if you roll it a bit, but nothing in the middle; that's how you'll know you're in the right place."

"How do you know this stuff?" asked the RN.

"I worked in a primate center in Atlanta. I was an OR tech. I had to keep the chimps sleepy."

"What did you have?"

"Sernylan in the IV and a syringe of Nembutal in case she woke up."


"Discontinued on people in the 60s. Used on animals till '78. It caused nightmares. You'd know it as angel dust -- phencyclidine."

"It sounds mean."

"It was. I got out of there."

They packed up their gear.

"Thank you. You're full of surprises," offered the RN.

Maybe so.

"Thank you both. That was very nicely done." And to the LPN, sotto voce, who lingered just long enough to hear it alone: "you're going to be fine."

"And how do you know that?"

"Because I can tell that you care."


The doctor would come, peel my mask off, and back the packing out of the wound a bit. He had left a big safety pin dangling from the end of the gauze, which was his handle for this work, and I became known as "the girl with the safety pin in her neck." He would hum to himself, and slowly he warmed up to my little jokes and would converse a bit.

I told one of the nurses I found him distant but improving, and surprisingly sweet and childlike on closer inspection. I opined that his mother must have had a time with him. She grinned.

Under persistent questioning, he looked up the lab report and finally, after six days, could give me a name for my stalker.

"I actually had never heard of it myself. It's relatively rare. The bad news is it's kind of nasty. The good news is it responds to everything. If you had been able to hold down the pills, we could have let you go days ago."

What had hit me was streptococcus milleri group, a family of commensals that lives in your body all the time and only attacks you when you're unusually vulnerable, such as under job-related stress and such. It's fond of forming abscesses, most often in the dental area (I was hit in the salivary glands), but possible anywhere -- such as lungs or brain. It spreads fast ... deadly if untreated. Occasionally they do lose someone. So I guess it was life-threatening.


They kept me so long because I kept throwing up oral meds and had to have an IV. After the first few days, the IVs only took half an hour at a time and so they would disconnect me and I could roam the halls at will. Nurses, housekeepers and volunteers in other areas became familiar with the sight of the mousy creature darting about the corridors, dodging gurneys and flocks of doctors. They would compliment my chili-pepper socks and ask how I was doing. I would praise their peers in Third Main, Unit Two.

Patients on the other hand were very private and would avert their eyes as I went by. I only got to know one of them the whole time.

One of the nights, I passed several visitors standing in the corridor outside a room about six doors down from mine. A medium-young woman in a Jackie Kennedy sort of smooth coiffure stood demurely pecking at the corners of her eyes with a small handkerchief, while a couple of conservatively dressed men consoled her. From the corner of my eye, as I went past, I could see that seven or eight chairs had been brought in, and people were sitting in them. On the bed an impossibly frail figure reposed, very emaciated, very still -- and making a peculiar wheezing sound. A death watch was in progress.

The next morning the room was closed off, and none of these people were anywhere about. On the door there was a sign to the effect that it was not to be used until thoroughly cleaned.

Someone had just died, in closer proximity to me than anyone else has ever done.

I wanted to spend a little time alone, thinking about all these things, but it was not to be. Everyone seemed to have my phone number or sought out my room. The nurses could tell I was being run a bit ragged, but I hate to turn anyone away -- so many years I had not had friends. Now I have them, and they bring me joy. So I promised myself a little alone time at home.

Beloved, knowing that the swarm was on, took to calling ahead so that I could chase people away and give her some quality time. It was beginning to be a little unnerving to her, the silence in the house, the lack of a coffee companion in the mornings. She would come and sit on the side of the bed, in the dark, as I lay half-awake and dreamy-eyed, just to hold my hand.

Finally, on Thursday, they turned me out. Beloved made three trips to the car with plants, stuffed animals, laptops, and clothing. I was rolled out in triumph and found myself bedazzled and confused by the sunshine. All the way home I stared at the supposedly familiar as if at scenes in a foreign country.

Beloved built a nest for me in the living room, centered on a recliner with a night table and a reading lamp. I snuggled into the blankets, and she handed me the new teddy bear. I smiled at her.

"This is Ted."

"Hello, Ted. You have an unusual name."

Well, the French Lop bunny has a fancier one, if you like."

"Which is?"

"Eli. For Eli Whitney."


"Because he has mass-produced ears."

With that, I turned over, and slept for twelve hours.


This morning I got a call from someone whose voice I did not immediately remember, wanting to talk with me about my medical records. I acted cagey until I understood who it was -- Dr. Harold Reed, my SRS surgeon-to-be. In person!! Angel with a Bronx accent. It was my intake interview -- the paperwork must have arrived from my doctor's office.

First, I explained, as best I could, my recent illness and its similarity to a near-fatal episode in the early nineties. Then we talked family history, medical history, mental health history, counselors, and current medications. It was clear Dr. Reed was taking his notes longhand, and for some reason I found this charming. He's very gentlemanly in the New York manner; undoubtedly fits in very well in Miami.

After we hung up I got up from my sickbed and danced a jig all the way round the house, singing. "Nah, nah, ne nah nah hunh! Nah, nah, ne nah nah hunh! Chah-chi-chah pooka-pooka pah hah, picki wicki wah hah boo!" and the like. Then stepped out into the yard and ate five plums, three tomatoes, a handful of snow peas and an ear of corn, raw.

A flock of geese streaked by, low, talking softly among themselves.

Goin' south, girls? Goin' south! Wait for me there, 'k?

-- risa b


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