Putting out a Firecracker

Ever since my cross-country road trip, since I’d eaten steak at a truck stop a month ago, I’d fought an upset stomach. Ever the optimist, I figured I was well enough to meet up in Toronto for a weekend with my long-distance boyfriend.

Ken and I spent Friday visiting marinas along Lake Ontario. I liked speedboats. He liked trawlers, with an eye toward buying island property in the Salish Sea off Western Canada. Not on the island proper, but a square foot of vertical sheer to secure an eye bolt, tie off a boat, and live far from all people. I told him I liked civilization myself. We went and looked at the pretty boats anyway before speeding back to Toronto for dinner with friends.

Every bump, every jut and rut in the road sent jabbing pain through my right side. Surely it was just trapped gas.

Ken had reserved a hotel room downtown with a view of the skyline, CN Tower, Toronto Harbour. I tried to drum up some enthusiasm, but I felt puny and nauseous as I readied for our date. I slid into a fitted silk dress — and slid back out of it because of the pressure on my belly. Same with the black slacks.

Ken yelled from the bedroom, “I don’t want to be late. Could you hurry up?”

I presented myself in a loose-fitting cotton dress.

“I thought you were wearing the dress I bought you,” he said.

I shrugged. “I know, but — I’m ready when you are.”

Every stop on the busy elevator jarred me, and I was sure I was going to throw up. Out of the file marked “Obvious” a voice in my head screamed, “Go to bed!” I convinced Ken this was a very good idea.

He left to meet his friends, and I headed back to our room. Desperate to change into a nightgown, but not before ordering dinner on a busy Friday evening, the night of the Olympics opening ceremony, I called room service.

“Hi. What’s your soup of the day?”

“Sweet potato potage,” a woman informed me.

I swallowed some bile and said, “I have an upset stomach.”

She said, “How about some beef consommé?”

That sounded safe. “Yes please. And I see you have chicken teriyaki.”

“Would you like an order?”

“May I have just the steamed rice?” I asked, struggling to sit up and remain coherent.

“No chicken?”

“No.”

“No vegetables?”

“No.”

The kitchen was busy, but she assured me dinner would arrive in 30 minutes.

My mantra — “Stay awake. Stay dressed. Watch the Olympics ceremony.” — kept me going for an hour. As a fever kicked in and my appetite waned, I called the kitchen again.

“We had an accident in the kitchen,” a woman explained. “Twenty minutes, tops.”

Hold on. Get something in you and go to sleep. Ken will be back soon.

I turned the volume up on the TV.

The Olympics were being held in Atlanta, and the opening ceremonies kicked off with some sort of gargantuan butterfly invasion and Old Man River depicted by a mass of people carrying giant, white gossamer-winged puppets that soared over their heads. The Greek Olympics were reenacted by contestants who were back-lit, their silhouettes thrown onto 50-foot high sheets. They flared up and out of the TV screen like undulating heat waves. Maybe that was the fever.

The waiter arrived with my rice and broth. He dawdled while setting up my tray, hoping to catch a glimpse of his fellow Canadians as the team entered the stadium. That’s probably what the accident had been in the kitchen: someone accidentally turned on the TV and they all accidentally started watching the Olympics. Usually an accommodating soul, I waved him out of the room.

The broth was good. I slurped it down faster than if I’d used a straw. The rice was dry, hard to swallow, but I ate it because my brain told me I must be hungry. I expected every mouthful going down to come back up.

I managed to set the dinner tray in the hallway without locking myself out of the room, and at long last I changed into my nightgown. I’d been cold for days, but now I couldn’t bear the heat coming off my body. Lying between the sheets, I could feel every cotton fiber rubbing against my feverish skin. God, I hurt.

I came out of my stupor in time to see Muhammad Ali raise the flame to light the Olympic torch, his left hand shaking with palsy.

I cried.

The frequent urge to urinate, with nothing to pee but pain, had me headed to the bathroom when Ken returned. He decided I didn’t “look so pretty good” and called his friends to find out the name of a local doctor, so when I finally admitted I was sick — sometime around dawn — we knew where to go. While Ken parked the car at the hospital I headed into the emergency room, or “Emerge” as Canadians call it.

A kindly-faced woman listened to me explain that I was in horrible pain. As she helped me onto an exam table, she asked me, the Florida girl, “Are you always this pale?”

Dr. Ferrere arrived to examine me, ask questions, take a urine sample. Peeing in that cup felt as if I’d lit a firecracker up my privates.

An orderly came in and moved me to a room bright enough for a spaceship to land. I was mildly surprised when an alien named Karen walked in. She had shaved her head except for three plugs of three-inch long hair — braided and beaded and dyed yellow, purple, and green. Karen strapped a rubber tube around my upper arm and, persistently, tried to get blood from my wasted veins. She stabbed the left arm, then the right, then the left, over and over. I was so dehydrated I took half an hour to fill the tiny vial.

Karen said, “That’ll do for starters,” and left the room as a baby came in. Well — a full-grown child. Okay. The ER resident, Dr. Demetriopolis. He did not exude TV-doctor confidence. Instead, he exuded sleep. After he asked me the same question three times, staring at me through glazed eyes, I realized I’d better watch him if he approached me with any instrument sharper than his elbow.

Another nurse joined us, and she and our young resident decided a pelvic exam was in order — and heck, while we’re down there, how about a rectal too? As if the firecracker could use some company.

Every doctor who can claim that most intimate of approaches with a woman has always sidled up to the task, leaving the patient with some dignity. Dr. Demetriopolis’s approach was nothing short of direct.

Not only did the doctor have a good long stare, the nurse did too. They looked at me, they looked at each other, they chatted, we all chatted. Nothing wrong that they could see with the naked eye.

They rolled me onto my side and our fine young resident pulled hard on my leg, as if he were deboning a chicken.

I screamed.

“Hmmm,” he said. He tugged again.

I screamed again.

For the first time he appeared fully awake. He asked, “Have you had a poo?”

“A POO?” Thinking this was a medical acronym, I asked, “Is that like a PAP?”

He looked puzzled.

I caught on. “Oh. No.”

I had no idea how long I’d been lying there. I had no idea where Ken was or if he knew where I was. The fever made time expand and contract.

Dr. Ferrere returned. He said the staff was still examining my urine, convinced that because my hip hurt when Dr. Demetriopolis pulled on it that I had appendicitis and would be cut open very soon. (Everybody sing: “Your right leg’s connected to your appendix . . . .”) Surgery seemed to elicit great excitement for everyone but me and Dr. Ferrere. He was convinced I had a kidney infection due to a bout of E. coli and would undergo heavy-duty antibiotics involving an intense, three-day tango with an IV drip in a hospital bed.

Too bad that would put me out on the street two days after my flight left, but it beat the idea of leaving behind one of my still-healthy body parts.

Karen, my blood-letting nurse, returned bearing a pile of heated blankets, because I was shivering with cold. She talked to me while she poked and poked and poked until the needle struck blood and she could fill two more vials. She said, “You’re in a teaching hospital.”

That explained the stream of students coming into my room, asking me the same questions, performing the same exams, and making a general nuisance of themselves.

She hounded the learning — I mean learned — staff to start me on saline before the fever dried up what little fluid was left in me. She also shut off the banks of lights and brought Ken in to see me. He’d enjoyed a lovely two-hour nap in the waiting room. He read the paper while she tried to jab an IV needle into my shriveled-up arm. So much for the left wrist. Let’s try the right one. Whoops. Hit a nerve. So sorry.

Next I was sent for X-rays. Ken followed along, looking as if he’d like to be any place but. Me too, except I’d become attached to the place, thanks to the IV tube.

The X-ray tech seemed unaware that I was in excruciating pain as he instructed, “Okay. Hop up here on the table, press your overheated skin against this cold metal tray, and straighten your inflamed right side.”

I may have said something ugly.

Ken held me, propped me, turned away when I grimaced, stepped out of the room before his gonads got zapped, and came back to help me assume the next torturous position. We went through that rigmarole three or four times before my kidneys finally kicked in thanks to the saline and I two-stepped down the hall with my IV pole in one hand and flapping gown flaps in the other.

Back to the ER and yet another student doctor — at long last a woman, who unlike the Marquis de Sade in practice, upon seeing the first grimace of pain quit poking and prodding.

At some point, the X-rays having been examined and my pee having been fully discussed, one of the toddlers announced — with some disappointment, mind you — that I probably had a kidney infection and would not be undergoing the knife.

“They” would be running this diagnosis by the surgeons who might reverse the current decision. “They” would keep me posted.

Ken said, “So long as you’re okay, I’ll go back to the hotel for a nap and pack our stuff so I can leave for home tomorrow.”

“You’re leaving me?” I asked.

“If you were going into surgery I’d probably stay,” he reassured me, “but I have to go to work.”

I felt myself fall into a snit.

Karen, the angel of mercy who slid saline into my veins, had been relieved by a woman who looked like she’d be more comfortable scrubbing down dairy cow udders. Sometime that afternoon, Nurse Hilda stalked into my room, plunked a phone on my stomach, and said, “Call your boyfriend. He’s going on and on about your being in surgery. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Is there something specific I should tell him?” I was hoping someone would tell me something specific, as the committee hadn’t come back with a final decision.

“I don’t care what you tell him,” she informed me. “They don’t tell me anything. They just keep asking for things.” She was beginning to take her frustrations with the medical students out on the patients. Her tone of voice was short, her face tight and closed when she looked at me.

I called Ken, feeling more coherent now that I had fluids in me. I said, “They haven’t told me anything new. What have you heard?”

“I called to ask what room you’d been moved to. The person said you were in surgery, and then she hung up.”

“Nope. No surgery. I’m still in the ER.”

“Still? Have they given you any pain meds yet?”

“No. No pain meds.”

“I’ll see you when I can find you,” Ken said. “Love you.”

“Love you. Bye,” I said.

Nurse Hilda returned with a lunch tray, which she laid on my lap. She stacked my dress, shoes, underthings, and my purse on my feet and wheeled me into the corridor. Pushing the gurney up against a wall she said, “We need this room.”

The smell of egg salad coming off the tray made me gag, but I didn’t dare retch. Nurse Hilda might make me get down and clean it up.

There I lay, in the bowels of a teaching hospital, like so much flotsam. The end of the gurney partially blocked the staff room door, so the next doctor to come out shuffled me a few feet down the hall, only to leave me too close to the next doorway. So I was moved, again and again, down the wall, criss-crossing the hall, until I landed in the lobby of Emerge.

People in varying degrees of pain and ailment entered the swinging doors and stood next to my bed, next to the admittance desk. Curious, they stared at this wan-looking woman who peered up from under a pile of clothes and a hospital tray, my head canted at that awkward angle of a cot not raised high enough. I waved. Some waved back.

I spotted an eager puppy of an orderly who beamed when he saw me. I smiled back.

He said, “Hi, I’m Joe, your cabby. We thought we’d lost you. What have they been doing with you for nine hours?”

“Hi, Joe.”

He put his hands on the gurney rail, started pushing, and said, “So where are we going?”

I stopped smiling. “Don’t you know?”

“I’d better go ask.”

I went back to waiting, back to greeting more people as they entered the land of “Never Never Leave.”

Joe returned. “All right. We’re good now.”

Feeling like a deposed queen cruising the hospital halls on her garbage scow, I was delivered to a room on the eighth floor. While my friendly cabby unloaded my stuff into a cupboard I crawled to the bed. Not seeing a blanket anywhere about, I reached for one off the gurney, but Joe said, “Sorry. Those have to go back to Emerge.” He winked on his way out the door.

A nurse came in behind him, and I asked her, “May I have a blanket?”

“We’re all out.”

Brr. Shiver. Sigh.

I lay there, feeling pitiful, and decided now was a good time to call my mom.

You know that horrible quiet someone hears before the caller composes herself to deliver the news? I couldn’t speak past the sob stuck in my throat.

Alarmed, Mom asked, “Jane, what’s the matter?”

“I’m in the hospital.” Sob — gulp — cry.

“What?! What happened?”

“I have a ki-ki-kid-ney infection.” Unlike the professionals in Emerge, I was willing to go out on a limb and commit to a diagnosis.

“Oh no,” she said.

I was so relieved I cried some more. I was tired, I was cold, and I hurt all over, but I was better for talking to my mom.

Ken, looking refreshed from another nap and a shower, arrived with mums and a stuffed hedgehog. He’d tried to get a pair of shower shoes for me in the gift shop, since I hadn’t prepared very well for a hospital stay, but they didn’t carry any. He stowed my suitcase in the closet, confirming that he was heading home the next morning.

After he left I called the nurses’ station and asked, “Was pain relief prescribed for me?”

A nurse came in with two Tylenol.

That night when a headache kicked in from the kidney infection — I’d been warned it was inevitable and that it would be ferocious — pain squeezed tears past my closed eyes. I called and asked for something stronger.

The nurse said, “The doctor has prescribed Darvon for you.”

“Darvon makes me nauseous.”

“You’ll be fine.”

Into the IV it went.

I threw up.

I cried and fell asleep.

Come Sunday morning, bed sheets soaked and clammy cold with fever sweat, a nurse rescued me. She hung a second gown over my shoulders as a robe and sent me off in the direction of the washroom. To my dismay I discovered Ken hadn’t packed my shower bag, and my hygiene nosedive ended with a belly flop into grossness. I slathered myself with the hospital’s soap, which was mostly lanolin, thus adding a layer of wool wax to my grime.

With no toothbrush, I used my finger to scrub my teeth — lanolin tastes funny — and I took care of the nooks and crannies with a wad of paper towels. Upon looking around for the trash can (or more preferably an incinerator), I noticed the deep gray of old dirt on the baseboards, around the toilet, in the corners.

Feeling oh so refreshed, my IV pole and I boogied back to bed where I called the nurses’ station.

“Yes?” came the squawk box.

I explained that my saline drip was empty and blood was backing into the tube. An hour later a woman showed up. She tried to remove a cap off the needle she was going to use to flush blood out of the tube, but it was stuck. She whacked it against the wall until the plastic broke and the contraption fell on the floor — needle and all. Apparently still annoyed upon her return, she shoved a syringe into the IV connector — and WHAM — pushed that saline into my vein for all she was worth.

I saw stars.

In between getting calls from Mom and Ken and the rest of my family, a group of medical students strolled in. One woman, presumably a real, live doctor, said, “I understand you’re an American on holiday?”

“Yes.”

“I understand you missed your flight?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll be sure to write a letter for you to give to your airlines, so they don’t charge you.”

“Thank you. AWK!” I squawked.

While she and I were chatting, one of the students was prodding my right side. My armpits poured hot-and-cold running pain sweat and my breath ran ragged. He headed in for a second feel, but she stopped him. “You saw her wince. That’s enough.”

“Thank you,” I told her as she left me with a kind smile.

That night, restless, feeling stronger, I went for a stroll down the long corridor where I came across a fellow patient. She was pale gray, thin, maybe 30. Strapped to her own dance partner of an IV pole, the lung-cancer patient was just coming back from a smoke. She was too weak to get the pole wheels over the metal strip in the doorway.

I gripped the pole and lifted it over. She thanked me. I said, “You’re welcome.”

Exhausted, I went back to bed.

Monday morning a male nurse gave me fresh sheets and a blanket. He informed me that my fever was down and — gently — removed the IV needle. Since they reported temperature in Celsius, I never knew how high the fever had gone, but the hallucinations indicated it had gone pretty damn high. He said, “The doctor will be on rounds shortly.”

Yippee!! She’ll tell me when I can go home!! Yippee!!

While I waited I washed my hair in lanolin again. I loved the tacky-gummy results, fashioning myself a quasi-Mohawk.

When the doctor arrived, she never touched my tender right side. She didn’t take my temperature. At 11:35 in the morning, she read the many students’ copious notes about yours truly and pronounced me well enough to go home.

My hopes soared. “When?”

“Why — now,” she said.

Now would be great! But first I had to find a flight and a cab ride to the airport. She okayed my staying in the room until I could figure out my travel plans. All excited, I packed my carry-on and my purse and called Mom to let her know I was okay and working on getting home. Next I called my travel agent for flight schedules, only to discover that getting from Toronto to Florida via the Olympics-induced frenzy in Atlanta was going to be virtually impossible for the next three days. Finally, I called my sister Susan who lived in Michigan, just because I needed to hear her friendly voice.

Determined not to leave me in Toronto for three days — perhaps my ulterior motive for calling her — my sister loaded up the car with kids, a dog, and a stack of blankets, and headed out on the six-hour trek to rescue me. Pre-GPS, she called the hospital for directions once she reached Toronto’s city limits. Her phone calls went something like:

“Can you give me directions from X and Y?”

“Just turn left.” Click.

And “I’m looking for the patient, Jane Harkins.”

“She’s left already.” Click.

She found me by dint of will and called me from the lobby.

“I’ll be down as soon as I’m released,” I told her, giddy with joy.

I buzzed the nurses’ station to tell them I was leaving. They sounded puzzled, either that I hadn’t left already or that I was telling them at all. As I towed my suitcase toward the elevator, a nurse at the station waved goodbye to me. An orderly was kind enough to cut the plastic name band off my wrist.

I found Susan waiting anxiously for me in the lobby. My niece Anna came out of the bathroom, wiping her hands on her pants.

“Mom, there wasn’t any soap, but I rinsed a lot,” she informed her mother.

“No soap?” Susan the nurse was horrified. “NO SOAP IN A HOSPITAL? CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? DO YOU KNOW THE INCREASED CHANCES OF INFECTION? WE’RE GETTING OUT OF HERE NOW!”

On our way home we stopped at McDonald’s, where I ate my first real food in weeks: a fish filet sandwich.

Ken called me at Susan’s house to ask me how I was doing. He told me he’d bought that square foot of island property. I said, “Congratulations,” then, figuring he wouldn’t have cell phone coverage on the Salish Sea, I used the call to break up with him.

A week later the hospital called to inform me that I hadn’t checked out properly. I apologized (even though I’d tried, really I did). I reviewed the statement when it arrived in the mail, and I believed wholeheartedly that the stay was worth $2,500 a day to cure me. Despite my paying my bill, the hospital was closed down a month later.

Published May 2012: www.cynicmag.com

© Copyright 2012, Jane Harkins. All Rights Reserved.

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