A Peek Behind the Privacy Curtain: Volume One
As 5pm approaches, I’m consumed with feelings of dread. My body feels tethered to the center of the earth, like floating underwater with my ankles wrapped in seaweed. You’ve seen this scene in every movie; the beautiful white girl lies dead in the bottom of the river, lake, ocean etc., or the beautiful white girl has visions of herself lying at the bottom of the river, lake, or ocean while she writes her poetry and stares Margo/Madison/Sara-ly out the window. Her pallid skin glows slightly green. She looks light. She feels heavy.
I attempt to shower and my feet are cemented to the floor. I’m up 45lbs of fluid and I feel every ounce. I contemplate an outfit. I visualize myself in the front of the room. I am staring in a fun house mirror and I’m slightly swaying from side to side. The vision seizes my throat and I’m gripped by panic. How can I give of myself when I can’t even find me? I shall not be moved. I cannot go. I send the same obligatory “I’m a giant flake and you probably didn’t even expect to come” text. I’m surprised my RSVP’s don’t just autocorrect. I sink back into the couch and that night I dream of karaoke, karaoke and me.
The next day I procrastinate. My doctor has suggested I check myself into the hospital. I really don’t want to go but I can’t live another day under water. I waddle out of a cab, approach the sliding doors and take my place in line. There are two security guards and a lonely information desk built for two. I give my ID and name to an admin guy. He makes it immediately clear that he does not care what my ailment is. He’s just the ID guy. He does not care that I’m in pain, or someone’s child or that I’m in front of him. He’s there to confirm the details on my ID and type them into the computer. He does not look up or make any eye contact. He’s just the ID guy.
Once I’ve passed the ID guy, I shuffle a foot and a half over and confirm what the ID guy has just typed with a nurse. She prints a temporary hospital bracelet. This bracelet has a name and a barcode. I am now a barcode. This barcode will be how drugs are dispensed. I know this because at one point later in this story someone will give me a bracelet with someone else’s barcode on it. I will be a 56-year-old male named Stanley. One of the nurses will catch her co-workers mistake before I am murdered. But that comes later.
The nurse asks what my ailment is. She types it into the computer. She does not make eye contact. She listens to my lungs and she tells me to go through the doors and wait to be called. My girlfriend T and I walk through and there are long white hallways. We have no idea where we are supposed to go. We walk through a second set of sliding doors and take a seat. It’s packed. There are two patients for every partition, one in front and one in back. I can’t even see that yet because there is also a labyrinth of hallways lined with chairs.
T goes to ask one of the people behind the desk where we are supposed to be. He says they’ll call my name. About 20 minutes later two nurses come in calling my name. One of them takes my vitals and wants to confirm that I’m there for leg swelling. I tell her its full body swelling and that I’m up over 40lbs. I tell her that I can’t walk a city block without becoming short of breath or sleep lying down. I tell her that my body is so tight and full of water that I am in a constant state of discomfort. She types ‘leg swelling’ and ‘shortness of breath’ and sends me back into the previous waiting room. I’m not sure how much time passes before they call my name again.
I’m taken to my partition and given a gown. There are over 100 people in here. The doctors and nurses that come to attend to me all look me in the eye. They all ask intelligent questions. They all listen. Although I’m in this ER for over 17 hours, I feel taken care of. Eventually I send T home because the sun is coming up and we’re in a faraway land. She’s trying to wait until I’m admitted but judging by the amount of people in here, there’s no reasonable ETA.
I’m taken upstairs a little after 7am. I don’t yet have a bed so I’m deemed a ‘hallway patient’. I’m wheeled between two rooms, across from the nursing station and I’m given a ‘privacy’ screen. This screen covers half of the top of the gurney. It’s got a wonky wheel and it stands firm in its frivolity.
Intake Nurse: I have to ask you a few questions as part of the intake process.
IN: Does anyone you live with hit you?
Me: Whoa, bud. No.
(The privacy screen is smug as fuck)
IN: Are you ever afraid at home?
IN: Have you ever been assaulted?
IN: Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?
Me: I’m having them right now. J/K. Yes. Not currently.
IN: Have you been the victim of sexual assault?
Me: **wonders what this has to do with my kidneys** Yes
(The privacy screen clutches its pearls)
IN: Have you been more forgetful than usual?
Me: Not really.
IN: Have you been behaving erratically?
Me: Not that I know of.
(The privacy screen looks for Mariska Hargitay.)
IN: Thank you. We’re going to try to make you as comfortable as possible. After the electrician is done doing some construction, we can take you to a more private area. I’m sorry for all the people.
(The privacy screen covers it’s shoulders)
I should mention that as she’s doing the intake, no less than 73 people either walk by or congregate in the area. About an hour later, they wheel me further down the hall, between two other rooms. It’s towards the end of a hallway and it has a giant window with a view of the park. Even the privacy screen is bucked.
I’m in this hallway for three of my eight days. In this time, I become familiar with the people inside the rooms. I never see them so I only have voices in my head. The woman in front of me sounds like an elderly Faith Prince. For y’all that don’t have the patience to Google, that’s the redhead from The Last Dragon. For those of you that don’t know The Last Dragon, what are you doing with your life? Elderly Faith Prince will henceforth be referred to as The Complainer, for reasons, which will become abundantly clear.
TC: Nurse! Nurse!
She’s pressed the nurse station button. I know this because each time she presses it, a little green light taunts me from above
Patient Nurse: Yes, dear.
TC: They moved my bed. I can’t see the TV. I deserve respect. People need to listen to me.
I assume she adjusts the bed.
An hour later…
TC: Nurse! Nurse! I have to go to the bathroom
PN: Ok, dear. Just wait, let me adjust you so it’s comfortable.
TC: Stop! I know how to do this. I know what I’m doing. You better show me some respect. Ooh! Ooh! Uh oh!
PN: That’s ok. Let me get you changed and change your bed. Hold on one minute it’s ok.
TC: Oh god! Oh god!
The nurse goes to get backup and they change her bed.
About an hour later…
TC: (On the phone) No one in here has any fucking respect. No one. They don’t listen. NO! NO! They don’t listen. Fuck you Raphael. I’m not gonna be nice. They need to listen to me! I deserve respect! Fuck you! (She hangs up) Nurse! Nurse! These pillows are not comfortable and I need to eat.
PN: Ok. Lunch should be here soon. Let me adjust your pillows.
TC: Ouch! Ouch! What the hell are you doing? No! No! Not like that.
I wonder what kind of jail time is involved when a nurse slaps the dog shit out of a patient. I also wonder how many black women are caring for sacks of contempt at this very moment.
I have to pee and I’m afraid to wake the beast in front of me. I opt for the room behind me. I open the bathroom door and am confronted with an elderly white woman surrounded by sacks of fluid looking utterly confused. I apologize, back out of the room and enter the belly of the beast. This bathroom is filled with bloody urine. I clean it cause I have to pee and I can’t look at it. I toss another pit in the air and return to my bed. Though I’ll never sleep with all this overhead lighting, its ok because they check your vitals every three hours anyway.
The next day they move in a new patient behind me. This poor lady screams each time she wakes. She thinks she’s at her sister’s house. When the nurses try to help her she fights them because she thinks they are trying to kill her.
Poor Confused Lady: Get the fuck away from me! I’ll fucking kill you!
Super Sweet Nurse: It’s ok sweetie. It’s ok. You’re in the hospital. You’ve sweat through your sheets. We just want to make you comfortable.
PCL: If you touch me I’ll fucking kill you. Where’s my sister? This is her house. Where is she?
SSN: Sweetie, you’re in the hospital. This is Mount Sinai Hospital. Do you know your name? What year is it?
PCL: I know my motherfucking name. I know this ain’t no fucking hospital. Where’s my sister?
SSN: Your sister is not here. Is there someone you would like me to call? I’ll be happy to call, but first lets get you out of these wet clothes and sheets. Let’s get you more comfortable.
I hear wrestling and a struggle.
PCL: Help! Help! They trying to kill me. Bitch, I’ll break your face.
TC: Nurse! Nurse! It’s hot in here. Where the hell is everyone? Nurse!
Sleep: (laughs and points) AAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH
I’m moved to a room on the other end of the hall. My roommate has been married for 47 years. I know this because her two beautiful, brown doting sons are they and they tell everyone who will listen. They feed her and fuss over her. They brush her hair and watch TV with her. She fades in and out of consciousness and they try and keep her awake because her sleeping brings fear to their eyes. I should mention that these men look like all the boys of Bed-Stuy and Harlem. They look like purse clutches and would be hashtags. They look like they might not comply. They look like they might say some slick shit to me in the streets. But in this moment, in this space, it’s all quite sweet. Eventually, her husband arrives and the boys take leave. He talks and talks to her and I’m so filled with love and sweetness my pit gets a little smaller.
A few hours later I’m moved to another room. I have no idea why. It’s close to midnight and my new roommate is sleeping. This room has a large window and a view, a strange view. I look across the street and I see a shirtless man walking around and cradling a baby. I wonder if he can see us too? If he can, how does it feel to live so high up and look down at ailing people all day?
Now that I’m settled in, I try to get a little sleep since I know by now that they start taking vitals and blood at 5am. There is nothing quite like waking up to a needle every day. I learn that my roommate’s name is Olga. Her son comes to visit her daily. He brings flowers and he brushes her hair. His wife is a nurse in Sunnyside and he asks all the right questions. Olga had been in a rehab facility and was doing well. He’s concerned but he has a good poker face. He asks the nurse to help him with the hair tie; he says he can never quite get it right. Over the next few days Olga’s health will decline. I will listen and watch as her eyes go from reflective and smiling to vacant and searching. Her skin will become waxy and bloated. She will be unable to eat and need to be fed with a tube. They will have trouble getting the tube in and she will go a couple of days without eating. The lack of nutrition will directly influence her decline. I will be a silent witness to her descent and I will feel helpless and stupid.
I have an influx of visitors this week and I feel loved. Everyone is concerned. Notifications are supercharged. I feel guilty for craving silence and it’s an impossible dream. I’m shedding water, so I have to pee every 10–15 minutes. I check on Olga each time to see how her eyes are doing.
Over the next few days I lose about 30lbs. I can sleep lying down! My legs don’t feel like weights and I can see bones in my feet. I feel ok but my throat is sore and my voice is hoarse. I sound like I’m dying. I sound frail. Everyone is calling and texting and I don’t want to talk. I don’t want them to hear me like this.
The following Wednesday, eight days post admittance, I’m discharged. I still don’t have the biopsy results but my blood work looks good. The nurse who comes to rescue me is new. She’s young, blonde and lacking in personality. She goes over the discharge process and tells me she’s going to give me all my meds to take so that I don’t have to go straight to the pharmacy. As soon as I take the meds, I feel insane. I’m dizzy and my vision is a little hazy. She’s reading the discharge document aloud and my eyes are crossing. I assume that I feel this way because these meds are generally distributed throughout the day. I’m excited to claim my freedom so I take T’s arm and she guides me down to sip the fresh air.
I’m fairly weak and I can’t talk too much. I arrive home and I’m greeted by my own smell. Every home has its own smell. Sometimes it’s soup. Sometimes it’s cat. My home smells like Palo Santo and brown girl. Many people say that hospitals smell sterile but I disagree. They smell like disinfectant and decay. They smell like a cover up.
It’s only 3pm but I feel like I’ve been working on a chain gang. I sink into my old spot on the couch and I sleep for hours. When I awake I feel dizzy again. I assume its because I’ve slept too long. I grasp the walls as I walk to the restroom and I hope that this goes away soon. I know that I have a follow up in a week so I decide to take stock of this and keep a list for the doc. Over the course of the next few days, I get progressively worse. I can’t hold my head up. I can’t read or complete thoughts well. The dizziness worsens and every time I have to get from one place to another it feels like I’m on a tiny ship in choppy waters.
My follow up appointment is on Wednesday, January 25th. On the eve of my appointment, I wake in the wee hours. My heartbeat is accelerated. My breathing is shallow. I am seeing bursts of lights and am suddenly a bit blind. I cannot stand. I am dying. I can feel it. My brain is moving rapidly.
Brain: You are dying.
Heart: Fuck, I’m dying. I’m not done yet.
Brain: You are dying. T will wake up next to you and find you dead. That’s traumatic. You should move.
Heart: I love her. I don’t want her to find me like that.
Brain: Roll out of bed. Crawl to the living room. Try to make it to the couch. Try to maintain dignity. Even in death, you can be considerate.
My breath is getting fainter. My heart is beating ever so fast.
Heart: It’s too soon. I’m not ready.
I crawl to the kitchen and it’s as far as I can go. I don’t have the energy to crawl properly so I’m doing that thing babies do where they just use an arm to pull themselves along. I’ve always made fun of them when they do that. The absurdity of that is pleasing in the moment. I realize that I cannot make it to the couch and I feel the heat coming from the vent in the kitchen.
Brain: Lie in front of the vent. Maybe the heat will keep you alive longer.
Spirit: We are not done. You must keep breathing.
Heart: We are not done. You must keep breathing.
Brain: Breathe deeply. Close your eyes and slow your heart down. You can do this.
I lie on my back. I close my eyes and I focus on my breathing. My soul prays for me because I don’t have the words. I give myself over to my breathing and suddenly meditation clicks. I finally get it. I’m radiating all of my energy, my very core, into my life force. I am, quite literally, willing myself into existence. I am blessed to see the sun come up. When I can see and feel again, I drag myself back to bed.