If the fifth floor of the hospital was a kind of relative paradise for chemo in-patients—big rooms, big beds, remote controls, specialty nurses—then the second floor was one step above a skid row methadone clinic.
A red-haired nurse who’s seen better days leads us out of the elevator and down a narrow hallway with, I kid you not, a flickering fluorescent light. The tiles in the hallway are cracked and breaking, green and white checkered, garbage cans are over flowing and puddles of water seem to be leaking out from the cracks in the walls. We pass a clock and I see that it’s just breaking 2:15 a.m. and is officially Christmas Eve.
My eyelids are getting heavy and my legs are feeling even heavier. I’m running on fumes, and when they lead me into the dark room, no one even bothers turning on a light. I lie down in bed, my wife covers me up, says something about coming back later, my eyes flicker, and she’s gone.
I wake up forty-five minutes later, lean over the side of the bed and puke into the garbage can, unsure of where the bathroom is. The cable connecting me to my IV, which they gave me in the E.R., cramps up and starts beeping. Nobody comes. I press the CALL button on my receiver but nobody comes. I press it again… and again . . . and again . . . but nobody comes. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP.
The thought of bubbles traveling down the tube into my veins doesn’t bother me so much as the actual noise of the blips. Each tone acts like an arrow through my skull. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP. It holds open my eyelids, slides a metal plate under my eyeball, shoves down, pops it out, disconnects my optic nerve with a hacksaw, and jams a white hot screwdriver into my brain.
I reach out into the darkness and push the machine as far away as I can, 3 or 4 feet. I push the CALL button again . . . and again . . . and again. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass. I look around and see a phone just out of my reach but don’t know whom I’d actually ring.
Suddenly, in the hallway, I hear footsteps approaching. A shadow begins to grace my narrow vision through the doorframe. Finally. Finally. Finally.
A nurse with dark skin and purple scrubs approaches . . . and continues on . . . heading somewhere else. I cough into my hand and shout, “HEY! EXCUSE ME! UH . . . MISS?!” The footsteps stop and I hear the soles of her shoes turn on the tile before they begin to grow louder again. She turns into the room and, seeming unsure, says, “Hi, how are you?” and I say, “This machine, it’s . . . I don’t know what’s—” gag— “wrong with it and—” gag— “can I get some nausea medication? I’m—” gag— “I have cancer and I—” gag— “sorry . . . I just need something for my stomach and I don’t think this call button works,” and the nurse says, “I’ll see what I can do about the medication. Your call button should work fine. I’ll get you some ice chips,” and she turns to leave just as I lose control of my stomach and vomit more blood into the trashcan.
Twenty minutes later a man enters and takes my blood. I puke again. I roll onto my side. I mash my face into the pillow. I turn on my other side. I can’t sleep. The sloshing sickness in my stomach is listlessly rolling through my entire body. My brain feels like it’s bleeding. My toenails hurt. My bones hurt. I try to sleep but am wide awake, alone, cold. Where is my medicine? I start to gag again and my stomach feels like someone is twisting a knife into it. I slam my thumb into the CALL button three times in a row before shouting, “HELLO?!” Nothing.
Another man enters and says he needs to take my blood. I tell him someone was just here forty minutes ago. He says he doesn’t know about that even though I show him the Band-Aid and the hole. He takes blood from my other arm. I tell him I need a nurse and he says he’ll fetch someone. Twenty minutes later the nurse shows back up. It’s 3-something-a.m. at this point and I feel as though I’m about to begin hallucinating with exhaustion. I ask about my nausea medicine and she says that she spoke to the pharmacy and they said I’d need a doctor’s prescription first.
This is how hospitals work. You have stage 4 cancer. You’re skin and bones. You’re a grown man who weighs 130 pounds. You’ve been admitted to the E.R. for vomiting up blood. You have a track record of various ailments and, at 3:30 in the morning, nobody will give you medicine to stop you from throwing up more blood because the doctor, who is asleep, can’t sign off on a form.
The nurse, in all of her wisdom, brings me enough aspirin to tame a mild headache. This is tantamount to trying to fix the World Trade Center with Elmer’s Glue. I would kick her in the teeth if only I had the energy. She tells me she’s trying to get a hold of the physician and I say, “Isn’t he asleep?” and she says, “Yes but . . . uh . . . we’re trying to reach him . . . ” and I say, “OK . . . please hurry.” The nausea is growing in me like a weed, choking out my life and energy, taking over all my thoughts.
The Useless Nurse leaves and the machine starts to beep again and the first man enters and takes my blood again, claiming that he didn’t get enough vials for all the tests. I tell him that a second man was already here and that he should have quite enough between the two of them and he tells me he doesn’t know of a second man. He pokes me in my arm, takes more vials and leaves, fetching the nurse. She returns, adjusts the machine and says that there’s still no word from the doctor.
It’s 4:30. I sit up in bed and stare at my feet, thinking about how I’m not even halfway through this process yet. Wondering if this is how death looks. Wondering if these will be my final memories. Not this moment exactly . . . but a collection of moments just like it—hospitals, nurses, beeping, cleaning solution, needles, blood, vomit, and stiff hospital sheets, crunchy with starch and dried urine. I puke again and the blood seems to be retreating, being replaced by yellow bile. That’s a good sign, I think to myself. I lie back down, place my forearm over my face, and try to force myself to cry. It sounds lame but sometimes a good cry is all you need.
Instead of crying, I puke again. My stomach is a war zone filled with corpses.
I stand up and make my way to the dark bathroom, the fluid from the IV bag washing through me and cleansing my kidneys from all the poison I’ve taken in. I am a junkie, drugs coursing through my veins, ruining my life.
I pee, crawl back into bed, and watch the sky start to turn gray. The clock reads 5:45 and I still haven’t slept. Still no word from the pharmacy. Still no aspirin or ice chips. This place is getting a bad Yelp review fer sher.
At 6:15, the second man enters my room again and says he needs to draw my blood. He says they had enough blood but forgot to do one test. Beaten, broken, destroyed, I say nothing. I just stick out my thrice-stabbed arms and let him take as much as he wants. I turn on my side, pull my knees to my chest and wonder where my wife is, where my mother is, where Sue is.
I press the call button. Nothing.
At 7 a.m. the Useless Nurse shows up with more Aspirin. I swallow it and puke it up. She says she’s still waiting to hear from the doctor. I don’t say anything. She leaves.
At 8:50 my wife shows up and I am so happy and hopeless and helpless that I finally do cry. I am so alone without her. I tell her everything and she says, “What? WHAT? WHAT?” and when the first man enters to take my blood a fourth time because someone just called in one more test, Jade says, “No. You’re not taking his blood. Get out. Get out of here,” and the man says, “But we—”and Jade says, “That’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Leave.” And the man turns and walks away.
The Useless Nurse enters, and before she can speak, Jade says, “He needs his nausea medication,” and the nurse says, “I know, he—” and Jade says, “No. You don’t know. He’s in here because he’s puking up blood and you give him, sorry, aspirin? ASPIRIN? Where did you go to school? His call button doesn’t work? Where are we? What is this place? You think ice chips are going to help him? He can’t eat. Did you call the doctor?” and the nurse says, “I . . . left him a message . . . ” and Jade says, “Where’s the pharmacy? I’ll go talk to them,” and, twenty minutes later, my wife, not an employee of the medical field, returns with good news. She says that someone will bring me a bag right away—not a pill, but a bag of medication so I can’t throw it up.
At 10:15 a.m. we ask if we can go and we’re told that the doctor wants to see us first. At 11:30, we ask where the doctor is and they say he’s making his rounds but will definitely be here before noon. At 12:45 we ask how much longer he’ll be, and they say he’s on his lunch break but will absolutely probably be here directly after that at some point. At 1:15 Jade leaves to get herself lunch. At 2:30, he still hasn’t shown up but somebody tells us that he’s on the fifth floor. At 3:45 people stop showing up to our room. At 4:15, there is still no sign of anyone. At 5:15, a male nurse walks by in the hallway and my wife grabs him and says, “Where is Dr. Manfred?” and the nurse says, “He should be here shortly,” and Jade says, “Can we leave whenever we want?” and the nurse says, “Yes . . . I mean . . . we can’t force you to stay but . . . a doctor should see you,” and Jade says, “You have 15 minutes to bring him here or we’re walking out this door.” At 5:30 Dr. Manfred shows up sporting an arm cast and says to me, “How you feeling?” I say, “Good.” He says, “Throwing up blood?” I say, “No. Not since last night.” He says, “Good. Call us if anything changes. You may leave.”
This is how hospitals work. Well-oiled machines of idiocy.