Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Angel of Death Visits the ICU

The third day after my heart surgery was the hardest day. It was the day I was to be moved from the ICU to the heart ward. I hadn't slept in two days, and my overnight nurse made sure to get me up and into a chair before she left at 7:30 a.m. Then what happened was perhaps a combination of nightmare and the morphine-based pain killers wearing off, as I started refusing pain medication that morning. There had been this male nurse floating around the first two days, and I heard him in the halls talking to the nurses. On a few occasions he had drifted into my room to continue a conversation he was having with one of the other nurses. And I immediately felt a palpable sense of malevolence and hatred emanating from him towards me. I've had that feeling before, as I believe most of you have, and it's unmistakable. Someone has taken an instant hatred to you, and you have no idea why. My concern rose to the level of terror when he came into my room at 7:30 and wrote his name on my dry erase board as my nurse for the day. What made it worse was every other day I was in the hospital I had two, even three nurses looking in on me throughout the shift, but this day, for some reason, he was the only one.

I had this immediate and crystal clear intuition that he was NOT going to come and check in on me. Breakfast arrived. I could barely eat. I wobbled back forth in my chair, too exhausted and weak to do anything but remain in my near fear coma, hoping someone, anyone, would intervene. For some reason I had this grim determination I was never going to press the button to summon a nurse, even if I died right there in that chair waiting. An hour, two hours, nearly three hours went by, and no one came to check on me. Around me I heard some of the most heart-wrenching wails of sorrow going on as a young mother had died in the next room and her children were brought to see her. It devastated me, but in my core I knew I had to set it aside and concentrate on my own survival, which now seemed in doubt because of what I had come to consider the angel of death.

I never feared the surgery. I knew my surgeon was cracker jack. But one scenario I had feared was exactly what was happening to me: an angel of death nurse deciding I didn't deserve to live. Every nightmare story I had heard over the years of a hospital worker murdering patients was coming to pass. 

Finally Jenny showed up. At 10:30. For three hours I had sat there in a chair, unattended, with a nurse who apparently had no concern whether I lived or died. I knew I was saved because Jenny would never allow them to ignore me. And she didn't. She stormed into the hall and demanded someone attend me. I was saved. But it wasn't over yet. Not by a longshot. At the hospital you are privy to everything that happens in the halls. You hear it all. The nurses' relationship problems, the other patients crying out in pain or arguing with the nurses, how short on staff they are. This day I heard perhaps the most frightening thing I could imagine: the angel of death nurse was going to remove my tubes. The very person who had refused to come to my room while I was suffering was now going to be trusted with what amounted to minor surgery. I was furious, but resigned myself to say nothing. I was going to accept my fate. 

I knew I had one factor, and one factor only mitigating in my favor: this person was being entrusted with a procedure he would never want to mess up lest he never get to do it again. And I got the distinct feeling he really wanted to do it. he laid the instruments out on the table I was eating on, unsterilized, and set in. First removing the needle in my neck. Then the tubes in my chest. I refused to look or acknowledge his presence. Jenny watched him like a hawk, asking questions about each step. Then finally, the huge tubes that started in my stomach and went to my heart were pulled. The initial yank is a combination of pain and shock, as the tubes are at the base of your heart. Most people will probably never feel their heart actually touched, let alone yanked on, in waking reality, but that's what happens. He finished pulling all the tubes and needles, cutting the stitches, and Jenny had to go. I had survived this round with the angel of death. I now waited for a wheelchair to take me to the heart recovery ward. I waited another two hours for a room to become available. Then another round of what I can fairly describe as a descent into hell happened.

The angel of death re-appeared. With a wheelchair. The aura of white-hot hatred had not dissipated at all. If I made it out of the ICU and into the heart ward I was saved. But I wasn't there yet. he started pushing the wheelchair, and a wave of terror possessed me. I envisioned this unreasonable, but perfectly plausible scenario where he pushed me into a boiler room and left me there to die. It was like a scene from the movie Jacob's Ladder as he pushed me through the back halls, I started to see less and less people, the air seemed to get colder, and I really started to believe he wasn't taking me to the heart ward. One elevator. Two elevators. We seemed to be getting farther and farther away from where I knew I was supposed to be. This was it. Forty-four years on the planet and now my fate was going to be decided by one person who had developed an irrational hatred for me. 

Hell, no, I resigned myself as we entered the third elevator. You can wheel me though Hell itself, buddy, but you'll never, ever, outlast me. Forty-four years of working, dreaming, striving, failing, and persevering on this planet to get to this place I have the life I always wanted, and you think you're going to be the one who decides whether I get to continue living or not... fuck you. I outlasted the angel of death. I made it to the heart recovery ward eventually. I survived. 

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