The morphine left me, like love gone cold. Its soothing caress transformed into a claw, angrily snatching away tufts of the pink cotton candy that swaddled my nerves. Naked, these nerves began to howl a message from the lower left side of my back, just beside my spine, where a fresh, deep, two-inch incision trickled blood.
Within minutes, the pain was paralyzing. The smallest shift of body weight was immediately and harshly reprimanded by a jolt of agony. I noted a blossoming sympathy for dogs forced to wear electric shock collars. Longingly, I gazed upon the call button, though I knew it would do me no good. The head nurse had been adamant the last time she spiked my vein--one more dose of the sweet stuff, then I'd have to get lucid and deal with my situation, which was this:
I was in a bed in a room on the recovery floor in the Barrow Neurological Institute wing of St. Joseph's Hospital (I was reminded of this every 30 minutes when a nurse whisked in and asked me if I knew where I was and if I could remember my name; a scary business, as it implied a reasonable chance I could not).
Furthermore, I was crashing with the grace of Icarus, the wound in my back felt like a flaming charcoal briquette, my left hand ached from a heavy-gauge intravenous needle, taped in place; a matching pain throbbed in the crook of my right arm, where the morning before a nurse trainee had tried to take blood, missed my vein four times in a row (asking anxiously, "Am I hurting you?") before blowing the vein out; and there was a scratch down the back of my throat, which puzzled me until I realized it was probably from a breathing tube, inserted just before I was sliced open.
Early that morning, I had been admitted to St. Joe's for a lumbar discectomy, a two-hour procedure in which a neurosurgeon had attempted to repair the damage from a ruptured disc between my pelvis and the last vertebra in my spine. I remembered being wheeled into the operating room, then dreaming of Teletubbies and snowboarding, then coming back to life, wearing an oxygen mask, with a male nurse asking me to describe my pain on a scale of 1 to 10.
I had searched the mist in my head for the pain he was talking about. It found me first, and grabbed hold with such shocking force I had trouble getting my tongue to move.
"Nine-point-five," I squeaked through the mask.
The nurse already had the shot of dope ready.
"Just a few more seconds," he said. "Hang in there."
The cotton candy began to wrap me in a protective cocoon, and my grimace relaxed into a slack smile. All was A-OK in the universe.
Looking between my feet, I watched a dude across the room--he looked like he'd spent more than one Saturday in July tubin' the Salt River with Ozzy blasting--surface from the depths of general anesthesia, promptly freak out, and flail wildly at his bedside nurses, yelling about how his head hurt like hell. One nurse held his IV arm with both hands as the other pushed down on his shoulders. My nurse sprinted over and helped subdue the patient with calming murmurs and a stiff arm lock.
I got another shot, and time derailed. At some point, the oxygen mask came off. At some point, I had to recall my name and location for the first of many times. Then at some point, an orderly arrived to wheel me out of the surgery area and up three floors to my assigned room.
Let it be said that riding in an elevator, strapped prone to a gurney and high on morphine, is a profoundly strange experience. I entertained the thought for a moment that I had died, and was happy to find I was floating up instead of down.
Once I was established in my recovery-floor crash pad, the nurses--angels?--served me vanilla ice cream and more drugs, furthering the illusion of heaven.
Eden fell to grief, though, as soon as the morphine ran out. I lay as still as I could, trying to compartmentalize the pain, and eavesdropped on voices murmuring on the other side of a curtain pulled to my right.
"Now, I have to go home and rest, so you're just going to have to behave yourself. The last two people who shared this room with you have complained. That one man yesterday asked to be moved to another room."
"You simply must learn to be patient, all right?"
I heard a grumbled response that sounded less than affirmative, then footsteps, and an old, tired woman with a kind smile peeked around the curtain.
"If he gives you any trouble tonight, you call the nurses, okay?"
I nodded--what else was I going to do?--and she left. There was more grumbling on the other side of the curtain. A nurse entered the room, asked me if I knew my name, then, "Have you met your roommate?"
I shook my head, and she peeled back the curtain. Sitting upright in the bed next to mine was a skinny guy who looked to be in his 70s, with crazy shocks of white hair, electrified at all angles, wearing a bib and a plastic contraption fitted over his head like shoulder pads, supporting four metal rods which in turn were connected to four screws sticking from the guy's skull.
Self-pity was vanquished. I looked at the guy with the skull screws. The guy with the skull screws looked at me. Then he spoke:
"These beds are shit! I slept in goddamn foxholes in the goddamn son-of-a-bitch war that were more comfortable!"
I nodded--what else could I do?--as the nurse closed the curtain. I never caught the guy's name, so I decided to call him Sarge, in honor of his service record and seasoned command of salty verbiage.
The evening proceeded smoothly at first. After dinner--Salisbury steak smothered in gravy, mashed potatoes with butter, mushy carrots with butter and bread with butter, easily the most unhealthful meal I'd had in years--Sarge and I watched the Knicks drop game four to the Spurs. The curtain stayed closed.
Then, just after the game ended, a night nurse came in (the shift had changed at 7 p.m.) and issued an ultimatum to Sarge and me: We had 90 minutes to fill the plastic containers on our bed trays with urine.
Otherwise, she said, "I'll just go ahead and empty your bladder for you."
That threw me for a minute. How would she do that? Then it struck me.
A catheter! Oh, please, God, no.
Self-pity was back in the house. I felt like a condemned man, my last meal already consumed. Immediately, I hit the call button on my bed/television remote control. The nurse station for the floor was directly across the hall from my room, and I heard the ding!, followed by a nurse's voice, simultaneously coming from the station desk across the hall and the speaker above my head.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I need, like, a pitcher of water."
She brought one, grinning with either amusement or sympathy. I chugged it, then waited, eyeing every revolution of the minute hand on the clock. Thirty minutes went by. Forty-five. One hour.
Christ, I only had a half-hour left.
Finally, I sensed nature's gentle call, a string line dancing atop the resounding bass note of pain.
Okay, now what? I was flat on my back, after all.
Nonetheless determined to escape my grim fate, I fit the nozzle of the plastic piss container into position, and then lay there, frightened and feeling ridiculous, for 15 minutes. Gravity laughed in my face.
With 10 minutes to go, I came to grips with the devil's bargain before me. I felt like the guy in Mad Max who gets handcuffed to a car with a time bomb attached to its fuel tank, then handed a hacksaw, and given a choice: He can cut off his own hand, or he can get blown to charred pieces.
Me, I could violate my doctor's one direct order and try to stand up, or I could submit to the big C.
I stared at the ceiling, deliberating. Nine minutes remained.
No way do I want that woman's hand between my legs. No way do I want anything going in my out hole. I've had enough goddamn plastic tubes inside me for one goddamn son-of-a-bitch day.
Inch by nasty inch, I raised my upper torso, sweating and grinding my teeth. It felt like the incision in my back would tear apart any moment and my spine would come flapping out. Finally, feeling like I had just stepped onto the summit of Everest, I stood beside my bed, hunchbacked.
"Rushing water," I muttered to myself. "Rushing water, rushing water."
It worked, and I swear I saw a shadow of disappointment cross over the night nurse's visage when she came around the curtain, two minutes early, to find me back in bed, proudly proffering my jar of lemonade.
"Good job!" she commended me, then went to check on Sarge.
"Looks like you still need a little help, huh?" I heard her say. "Don't worry, it'll just take a minute."
I pictured myself stumbling out of the jungle, fatigued and battle-torn, sadly fixing on the searching gazes of my fellow grunts.
Sarge didn't make it, guys. They got him.
"Now, you may feel an urge to reach out and grab me," the nurse told Sarge.
I heard ominous rustling on the other side of the curtain, then Sarge. "Ow, you goddamn bastard!" he cried.
It struck me that Sarge hadn't figured out what "empty your bladder for you" meant until just that moment.
The nurse's voice again: "Okay, I want you to clasp your hands and put them behind your neck. There we go. Now just relax."
"Jesus goddamned Christ!" Sarge shouted. "Oh, Lord, what are you doing to me, you bitch?"
After that, he just moaned, as the nurse cooed, "There, there, there, there."
Soon after she left, the lights went out. It was after midnight, and I was exhausted, yet Sarge made sleep impossible. Not that I blamed him.
"Oh, fuck," he chanted to himself, "I can't take this goddamned pain. Oh, fuck. I can't take this goddamned pain."
He rang his call button.
The voice came, in synch, from across the hall and the intercom overhead: "Can I help you?"
"Nurse, I can't take this goddamned pain anymore."
A minute later, a nurse brought Sarge two Percodan. Hip to his move, I demanded two as well. The pills smoothed the night's edges nicely, and I settled into my role as captive observer as events took a bizarre and vengeful turn.
The nurse made a mistake in removing Sarge's catheter. Once the Percodan kicked in, it was payback time.
I heard Sarge get out of bed, followed by the unmistakable sound of him pissing all over his side of the room. The air grew pungent with the stench of urine, and I was even more thankful for the opiates.
Sarge rang his call button.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes, nurse, I've had an accident."
The nurse came in. "Oh, your sheets are all wet."
"Yeah," Sarge replied. "And the floor and the chair, there. Will you clean it up, please?"
The nurse had no choice. Once she was finished, she said, "Next time you need to go to the bathroom, ring us, okay? We'll help you get in there."
"Okay," Sarge said. Then he asked for water.
A diabolical genius. Why did his other roomies complain about this guy? He's a one-man floor show.
I heard the nurses in the hall discussing whether they should just stick a catheter in Sarge, but they were confounded by his doctor's order, which was to catheterize Sarge only if he couldn't urinate on his own, which obviously wasn't the case.
An hour later, Sarge went on another pissing spree. Once finished, he rang the call button.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes, nurse, I need to go to the bathroom."
"Okay, someone will be right in."
Minutes later, a nurse entered, and asked, "What happened?"
"I couldn't wait," Sarge replied.
I floated into a light sleep, punctuated with Ding!s and "Can I help you?"s.
Sarge wanted a blanket. Sarge wanted his pillow fluffed. Sarge wanted more pain meds. Sarge wanted water. Sarge pissed again.
So it went until morning, and the 7 a.m. shift change. A catfight erupted in the hall among four nurses, arguing loudly over who was supposed to work with whom, for 30 minutes. Evidently, Sandy was scheduled to work with JoAnne, but insisted it was her turn to work with Cynthia, to which JoAnne took great offense, as did Betty, who would have to change floors if Sandy and JoAnne weren't teamed up. All the while, my breakfast--bacon and eggs--grew clammy and the grease congealed.
My surgeon, making his rounds, came by and asked how I was doing. I told him if he really wanted me to rest, he should get me the hell out of the hospital as soon as possible. He said he would.
A nurse trainee who looked disturbingly like a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome victim with drooping, expressionless eyes came into the room to check my blood pressure, wrapped the wide, black Velcro strap around my left arm, and was about to pump me up.
"Whoa, whoa," I said. "Are you supposed to put that on the same arm as my IV?"
"Oops." She giggled. "It probably would have blown up."
How amusing. I began to feel like the bedridden novelist in Misery, and cringed when the giggling trainee went to remove the needle from my hand. I was relieved when she pulled it out smoothly, then alarmed anew when she promptly left the room and blood began leaking from the hole.
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I applied pressure for a few minutes until another nurse, passing by, saw my predicament and bandaged the hand.
My papers came through half an hour later. It took me 10 minutes to dress myself in street clothes. Before I got in the wheelchair--hospital policy, and I wasn't arguing--I gave Sarge a thumbs up and wished him luck.
"Shit," he said. "I need it."
Outside the hospital, it was hot, but the sun had never felt so fine.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: email@example.com