Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pictures of my insides

. A man came for me with a wheelchair shortly after noon. Leah had given me a yellow card to hand him, with various check-offs to describe my condition. I might be "comatose," "responsive," "alert," or "combative"; "cannot walk," "walks with assistance", or "ambulatory". I told the man he would find me to be ambulatory and alert, but potentially combative. He was pleased. By the way, employees of Beth Israel Hospital came color coded. In contrast to the physicians and nurses -- but like the people with the mops and trays and changes of bedding -- this man was dark brown.

He took me down in the elevator to a windowless basement somewhere with concrete walls and exposed plumbing. He parked me in a big drafty room like the front end of a warehouse, made some markings on my yellow card, and went away. I sat. I was not alone. In a neat line on either side of me were much sicker people. A young man, tall and once handsome, sat in a wheelchair beside me staring fixedly at the floor three feet before him. He never looked at me. He weighed no more than 90 pounds. This was during the AIDS plague years, before they had ARV treatment, and I'm pretty sure that's what was happening.

On the other side of me were two women lying on gurneys, one elderly, one close to my age, I would guess. It is hard to tell people's age when their vital spark burns so low. Both women made eye contact with me, and tried to smile, but noone spoke. What would you have said? It's not a social situation we have rules for -- women lying in bed, wearing only indecent smocks, confronting strange men. We were unattended. We waited. What if one of us had vagaled?

Finally a woman came and wheeled me down a long hall. She parked me outside a big steel door marked with red warning signs. She gave me a cup of BARO-CAT and ordered me to drink it. Stupidly, like a dog-bitten sheep, I complied, though I felt sick again. There were pictures for me to look at on the wall. "Scanning with the GE-2700" read the legend. They showed slices through the human body, from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet. I studied the abdominal slices for inspiration.

Some time later, the door opened and an old woman was pushed out through it in a wheelchair. A man came out after her and pushed me in. I told him that I couldn't drink any more of the barium muck because I had ileus, and, reluctantly, disapprovingly, he let me throw it away. The CT-scanner was a big white donut with a black padded bench that rode through it on tracks. There were hooks on the ceiling for IV bags. The man held my IV bag as I climbed up onto the bench -- an easy patient, ambulatory and alert. I looked up at little portholes with bright red lights shining out of them. They had tags reading "WARNING! Laser! Do not stare directly at laser light. May cause permanent eye damage!" I wasn't too worried, since I'd seen the same sign a million times at the supermarket checkout.

Anyway, the scan was indeed painless. The bench slid through the doughnut until its central plane passed through my groin. Then man told me to hold my breath; machinery whirred and clicked; then he would tell me to relax while the bench slid me a quarter of an inch further through the device, and we would repeat the ritual. It took about twenty minutes.

A woman took me back to the holding area, where I sat for at least half an hour. A different man sat to my left now, a very old man wearing an oxygen mask, just as emaciated and even more inert than the young man before him. While I waited, an orderly came for him. The orderly disconnected the man's oxygen mask from a fitting in the wall, then he fumbled unskillfully trying to reconnect it to a portable supply on the wheelchair. Only when the oxygen supply failed did the old man register any cognizance of the world. His head lifted from his chest and his eyes filled with panic; his chest moved perceptibly in what must have been, for him, a titanic struggle for breath. But that is all; he did not move his limbs or try to speak, and he seemed unaware of the cause of his distress. The orderly never spoke. Finally the orderly managed to restore the oxygen supply, and the old man's head sank down peacefully onto his chest again. The orderly wheeled the old man away.

Remember that I still had diarrhea. It had slowed down enough that I had been able to make it through the scan alright, but now I really wanted to find a toilet. There was an official in sight: a fat man wearing a yarmulke who sat behind a counter across the warehouse floor, transacting paperwork with the orderlies. I stood up and walked over to him, pushing my wheelchair to which I was leashed by the IV. He was talking with a woman and they gabbed away for a while, ignoring me standing right there. Finally I interrupted. I pointed out that I could easily get myself back to my room and indicated that I wished to do so. "Sit down," the fat man said, "someone will be along for you soon."


roger said...

so the fat man wouldn't have been the one to clean up after your diarrhea. how tempting it must have been to just let go right there.

"ambulatory and alert, but potentially combative." i like that. sounds a bit as tho you wandered into a kafka nightmare.

robin andrea said...

How can anyone recover and get well in places like this? Your description sounds straight out of those dystopic dreams of the bleak future. Nameless people in unfamiliar surroundings in varying stages of disease and disuse. Horrific.

kathy a. said...


C. Corax said...

I'm kind of wishing I hadn't asked how your story turned out. This is really depressing reading.