Dondrie Burnham

Writer. Creator. Shapeshifter.

Volume Four: Mount Sinai *The Climax*

I arrive in the Observation Unit and am startled by its brightness.  It’s a large white room directly across from the nurse’s station.  When I arrive I am alone and I am exceedingly grateful.  I know that it’s only a matter of time before I am confronted with some new horror.   They tell me that TV is free in this room and assure me that I’m in good hands.  I’m weak and labeled a fall risk.  I’m supposed to ring for a nurse whenever I need to go to the bathroom but I’m not having it.  I use the IV pole for balance and I slowly drag my weak ass to the bathroom.  It’s minuscule, the trash is overflowing and my elbows touch the walls as I squat.  It feels like 4am at a dive bar. 

I slow drag to my bed and attempt to get some rest.  A few seconds later they wheel in Gloria, a Latinx lady in her mid 40’s.  She is followed by her two teenage children and her daughter’s boyfriend.  Gloria is in for a vicious asthma attack.   She’s very popular and there’s a lot of ruckus for 2am.  I decide I like Gloria but I want her to hush.  I like a lot of people who I’d love to hush.  Her children will eventually leave and she will receive a multitude of phone calls that will keep us both awake for the hours to come.  I would be a hater but she must be a pretty cool lady if so many people are worried about her.  Besides, the nurses outside are cackling and fighting amongst each other anyway.  There’s no chance either of us are getting more than a couple of winks.

They come in for our 5am stick and poke and turn on the overhead lights.  Thanks dicks.  Shortly after, they wheel in Jessica.  Jessica is white, late 20’s or early 30’s and what the medical community calls ‘Morbidly Obese’.  I hate this term because it makes her sound more like a circus animal than a human being.  Though the mistreatment of circus animals will always draw more ire from the general public.  She walks with two canes and she’s clearly in agony.  She’s been admitted for severe digestive issues and upon arrival hasn’t eaten in 12 days.   She has a devastating energy and throughout the four days I remain in that room, she doesn’t receive a single visitor or a phone call. The next day, Gloria is moved to another room. Jessica takes her place and then there were two.   They take Jessica for testing and I’m alone once more.  I attempt to create some art out of the mini studio Hibbs has brought me.  Enter the Sandman.  Just Kidding.  Enter the random hospital employee who bleaches the entire room.  The fumes are overwhelming and to solve this problem he brings in an oxygen tank, which he turns on in the middle of the room?  Chile.  My eyes are burning, I’m coughing and I’m vaguely wondering what’s the point of bleaching the room when my urine sample has been sitting in the same windowsill for three days.

Jessica returns and seconds later, they wheel is Diana.  Diana is in her early 60’s, Latinx and stoic. She stares at me from across the room.  She doesn’t speak but I can tell she’s in pain.  She looks confused and angry.  She makes me uncomfortable.  She is reflective.  I want to know her story.  I quickly realize she doesn’t speak English.  None of the on duty staff speaks Spanish.  They cycle in and out and try to explain and investigate through tenth grade Spanglish.   It’s heartbreaking.  I would be confused and silent too.  I stare back at her.  I will someone to come for her.  The next evening her daughter arrives and I explain what’s been going on.  I explain that she needs to advocate.  I tell her where to find the shower and who to ask for toiletries and that she hasn’t eaten. I learn that she has cancer and a blood clot in her arm.  This is her third bout and she’s old hat at this.  She barely grimaces through the pain.  She looks grateful to me and her daughter explains that she stares at me because I look so young.  For some reason, this makes me cry.  I cry for all the mothers and grandmothers who carry their pain and ours.  I cry, knowing she deserves better and she never stood a chance.

Jessica is taken back and forth for a series of tests.  Her digestive track is rebelling and she still can’t consume anything.  Unlike Gloria, she winces constantly.  I will someone to come for her but my magic fails. She is alone.  The nurses tell me that I’ve finally gotten a bed.  Only took 96 hours.  Ms. Jones, my resident angel and most frequent visitor has brought me tea and jerky.  She helps me pack all the wonderful gifts I’ve received and notices that I’m short of breath.  She says I seem weaker and makes me promise I’ll mention it to my doctor.  I assume it’s a side effect of the bleach and I wonder how many times the folk in this hospital will force me to duel with death.  I’m tired and I want to be worshipped and fed grapes. 

While I’m waiting to be moved upstairs, Jessica’s doctor and her meek ass assistant come to tell her they haven’t found the cause of the blockage in her intestines and they’re sending her for more tests.  20 minutes later the assistant comes back and tells her she’s being discharged.  She panics.

Jessica:  What? How?  I haven’t eaten in three weeks!  You can’t.

MA Assistant:  The doctor doesn’t think there is anything we can do.

Jessica:  She just said there was another test.  I’m not going.  I don’t have anywhere to go.  I’m living in a hotel. What if I fall?  What if I can’t get back?  You can’t.

MA Assistant: I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.

My heart breaks. 

I try to take a deep breath but its shallow and fragmented.  I close my eyes and for a second, I’m a little girl again.  I’m staring at the ceiling and I’m willing myself to heal her.  I’m willing myself to absorb her pain.  I’m willing myself to save her.  She calls for her hospital advocate.

Jessica: (Right in front of the I don’t trust her.  My doctor said she was doing more tests and now she’s telling me I’m being discharged.  They can’t do this.  I don’t like the hospital; I’m not trying to stay here. I don’t have anyone!  I’m alone.  I broke my back last year and I couldn’t work.  I got behind on rent.  I stayed on friend’s couches for a while. I don’t have any family.  I can’t leave.  How much are hotels near here?  Where’s the nearest hotel?  I can’t leave. I can’t eat. I can’t leave.

Advocate: Don’t worry.  Me won’t let you go.  I’ll make sure.

The broken pieces of my heart shatter.

They’ve come for me.  On my way out I close my eyes and send them as much love as I have in me.  I feel like a tiny earthquake.    I’m taken upstairs to a lovely room and have visitors within five minutes.  I struggle to stay awake and my voice quivers in a corner.  I don’t want to let on how insane I feel.  My visitors are men and men tend to panic when you peel back the curtain.  Besides, I’m scheduled to be discharged in the morning.  After my visitors leave, I decide to take a shower and got a good nights sleep.  On my way to the shower I notice that every step and every breath is a struggle.  The tiny earthquake is building but I decide not to mention this insanity to my doctors as long as I feel good in the morning. 

In the morning, I learn that my roomies name is Eliza.  She has several phone calls and I’m slightly concerned that she’s a Trump supporter.  I decide that she’s not.  It’s better for the vibes in the room.  We get very familiar very quickly because she uses the bathroom bedside and the privacy curtain is in over its head.  She has to call the nurses to help her and each time she apologizes.  Her voice clutches at her dignity and she tries to finish as quickly as possible.  There’s a special kind of intimacy to this.  I haven’t found the word in English. 

I make my morning trip to the bathroom and it feels like hiking.   By the time I reach the door, I feel faint.  Perhaps, I should mention it.   My Rheumatologist is waiting when I come out.  She notices my struggle and expresses concern.   She’s gonna rat me out to the others.  My breakfast arrives and I’m hungry.  I grab the fork and my hands start to tremble.  I try to grab the eggs and I spill them all over my gown.  I try again and I drop them on the plate.  I’m the Swedish Chef.  Now I’m afraid.  What the hell is happening to me?  I call my nurse and ask her to get the doctor.  It’s my doctor’s day off so they send some new dude.  New Dude says that the tremors don’t make sense and he can’t understand why I’m having them.  My voice is shrunken and lodged in my throat, but since he doesn’t know me he can’t tell.  He tells me they are going to keep me another day to do some tests.

They take me for ultrasounds and x-rays and they take lots of blood.  They send a lady in with a sinister black case.  She pulls out what appears to be a retractable wand.  She tells me to relax and she sticks it up my nose. I think I’m offended-she asks me to swallow-I know I’m offended.  It crawls down my nose into my esophagus.  There’s a flashlight attached and she climbs in after it.   She’s down there poking around and I feel like she owes me money.  She pulls out and tells me that my throat is inflamed by the acid fountain my medicine has created.  Hot.   That’s just for my information and has nothing to do with why I can’t eek out a sound. The medicine is necessary to trick my body into thinking it’s not trippin' so damn the long-term consequences.  Hot. I shimmy and shake for the rest of the day and it alarms me that the overall sentiment is a general shrug.

I learn that Eliza has cancer and she too has a blood clot in her arm.   Its been getting increasingly more difficult for her to move and she’s beginning to swell.  Her appetite has waned and each time she moves her IV alarms until the nurses come to adjust it.  Each time she shifts her remote falls to the floor.   Each time her remote falls to floor I get up and retrieve it for her.  There are so few comforts here.  The privacy curtain has called it quits.  The IV alarm will go off approximately every 12 minutes for the rest of the night.  I’ve developed scabs in my ears from my headphones but physical pain trumps the pain of the psyche.

The following morning I’m scheduled for discharge.  I’m still quaking but my insurance is only valid for two more days and they can’t seem to find the fault lines.  I don’t sleep that night because Donald Trump has just instituted a travel ban and I’m seething.   I am helpless and outraged and my skin is buzzing with wishes.  But, if wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets and if wishes were horses than beggars would ride.   I have not yet secured my own mask; I cannot help secure those around me.   All I can do from here is rant on Facebook and send thoughts of love and protection. I plug in my headphones, wince and finish Luke Cage.  

The sun is up and I’ve already been drained and drugged.   The remote hits the ground and as I round the curtain, something feels off.  Eliza’s skin is waxy and her eyes are lifeless.  Her light is dim and I wonder if she’s in pain.  The nurse comes in to check on her and notices that she doesn’t look right.   I go back to my side of the curtain.  She calls her name repeatedly.  She asks her to say her name and asks if she knows where she is.  There’s an exhale of sounds.  The nurse calls for backup.  I go for a walk because I have to be able to make a lap before they will release me.  I realize I’m in the cancer ward.  When I return there is another nurse and a doctor with her.   I’m starting to worry.  They keep asking her questions and she isn’t responding.  I sit in a chair outside the room and I cry.  My doctor comes for another check up, notices me and tells me I’m a good person for being concerned.  She tells me that Eliza will be fine but I should stay one more night since my walking is still Wobbles McFarland.

I return to my bed and text everyone that I’m still a captive.  Another nurse comes in to check on Eliza and things quickly escalate.   The sound of footsteps…many footsteps… Loud beeps and thuds…the curtain wafts towards me and my bed is pushed against the wall.  The room is suddenly claustrophobic and I’m surrounded.  It’s surreal.  Before my brain can register what I’m seeing:





 Eliza!  Eliza can you hear me?



 I’m holding my breath.  There’s a nurse on my side of the curtain and we’re staring at each other.  She’s holding her breath too.  














The nurse and I are still staring at each other.   Some of the feet exit the room.  There is blood on the floor.  One of my doctors come to my side of the curtain and asks me if I’m ok.   The nurse hasn’t peeled her eyes away and she grabs my hand and we walk silently to the ‘family room’.  This room has chairs lining the wall, a bookshelf and a window.  I think it’s supposed to be a place to gather your wits but it looks like a waiting room for a principal’s office.  The nurse tells me that it was her first code.  I ask her if she’s ok.   She tells me she’s supposed to be asking me that.   I ask her again.  She says it was intense.  I ask her again.  She says no.  I tell her that I’m ok and that she can leave me and be alone.  She looks at me tenderly and considers arguing. She doesn’t.

I call T and tell her what happen.  I’m pragmatic at first but the lid falls off.  I start to sob and I can’t get my words out.  I cover my mouth and stuff the sorrow back in.  I screw the lid on tighter and I may have heard a crack.  Better not to think about it now.  I text Na and tell her I need her.  I berate her a bit and tell her all the things I’ve been holding on to.   Sorrow seeps from the crack and the fault lines glow bright red.  I’m coming undone. I’ve never learned self comfort though I excel in indulgence.  I channel the quake into a call and I text everyone I can think of.  I tell them about Eliza and I ask them to do something special just for themselves.   Somehow, the thought of handing out fuck-its for the day feels good. 

I return to the room and am immediately taken for more tests.  When I come back Na is waiting.  I tell her she looks great and berate her some more.  It’s great to see her.  My doctor comes in to check on me.  She tells me that Eliza is in the ICU but she’s ok.  I ask her if she’ll give me updates.  She agrees.  She also tells me that my lungs are clear but there’s a lesion on my liver.  Its small and dense and she tells me its nothing to worry about but something to monitor.  How does one monitor a lesion on one’s own liver?  The world may never know.

A few minutes later my new roommate arrives.  I had hoped I’d get a reprieve to process the day. No dice.  Maude is in her late 70’s or early 80’s.  She is very petite, frail and surrounded by family.  It’s after visitor’s hours so I assume the entourage is going to settle her in and call it a night.  No dice.  My roommate turns into three.  Maude is to have surgery tomorrow and she’s in agonizing pain.  I know this because she mewls and whimpers throughout the night.  The sound of her pain is so stifling that it’s paralyzing.  I stab the headphones into my ears and try to meditate.  Tears are streaming and my chest is tight.  I haven’t slept in 36 hours and Mr. Sandman is #unbothered.   I stare at the ceiling and I’m willing myself to sleep.  I’m willing Maude’s pain to subside.  I’m willing Donald Trump’s heart to grow three sizes. 

By morning, Maude’s mewls have become wails.  She’s constantly asking when she’ll have her surgery.  The posse-whom I assume are her daughters-attempt to comfort her.  There is no comfort.  My nurse brings my discharge papers.  I am dismissed.   T comes to bust me out and she surprises me with my sweet Barbara!  Barbara is love personified.  She’s never met a stranger and she’s generous to a fault. She’s in town from NOLA and I feel like she’s been sent to me.  I sign my release papers and breathe the freedom in.  I smile at Maude’s daughters and I wish them luck.   It’s snowing and I feel blessed.  On the car ride I berate Barbara about living her dreams.  My gratitude has morphed into a megaphone.  I’m on a soapbox for living.  

Over the next few weeks I apply for and am denied benefits, fellowships and residencies.   I separate from the great love of my life and I move out of the first place I’ve truly called home.   I lose my hair, my body, my face and sometimes my spirit.  I gain weight, a moustache, social anxiety and guilt.  My body is a series of side effects.  I take walks and post pictures of trees and sunsets.  I will the trees to cool my anxiety and the sun to light my guilt on fire.  I hide behind screens and I angle myself away from the cameras.   Catch me if you can. I weigh anger against gratitude and I try to tip the scales.   I weigh life against death and I try to tip to scales.  I look up at the ceiling and I’m a little girl again willing myself to survive.