My husband, Ed, recently had an angioplasty at Tucson Medical Center.
It was during Valentine's week, which was also Grammy Awards week and the week after Mubarak stepped down. Locally speaking, it was the week when every mesquite, responding to a run of daily highs near 80, dropped the stems that bore last year's leaves with an almost audible whump.
Time takes on a weirdly spatial quality when you've got someone in the hospital.
The procedure was "outpatient." (This word, it seems, now has a special, counterintuitive insurance-world inflection, because they fully planned to keep Ed overnight, and did.) It was not a big deal as cardiac tinkering goes, and he was beautifully cared for. But the hospital is the hospital, and, for me and mine, TMC is THE hospital. (Motto: "Still under construction." Alternative motto: "Physician parking only." The parking thing is annoying until you stop and think, "Would I really want my doctor out circling the lot, looking for a spot?")
Hanging around hospitals is both nerve-wracking and fantastically boring. You arrive before dawn and wait hours for the absolute minimum to occur (if you're lucky), and then you wait some more. Your time is not remotely part of the hospital's working equation.
Every hospital is an intense little world unto itself, a tightly orchestrated system characterized by extreme expertise, remarkable technology, fantastic exchanges of capital and abject biological need. As a patient, or as the family member of one, you're helpless—cared for, but helpless—while a complex human machine about which you don't have the first clue hums all around you.
For all the name badges and the whiteboards telling you who's on duty, figuring out who's who is always a problem. The cast is new at every shift change; they're all in a hurry and prone to vanishing behind the scenes; and everyone has the same baggy-scrubs-and-running-shoes ensemble. (A forgivably unrealistic aspect of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie—terrific, by the way—is Edie Falco's wardrobe of flatteringly tailored "scrubs.") The registered nurse who can get the morphine pump running again may be 40 years younger than the aide who's only allowed to take temperatures and fill water pitchers, but they're wearing the same outfit. None of the usual visual clues pertain; at a glance, you can't tell a neurosurgeon from a guy whose job is pushing gurneys.
The little you do thoroughly understand is unlikely to make you feel better. My husband's first roommate had congestive heart failure and could only breathe, barely, while sitting up on the edge of his bed. Mercifully, the nurses moved him to a private room. Later, another poor old guy was brought in. He was already paralyzed on one side from a stroke, and that morning, he'd had a heart attack. He was able to speak clearly, and begged to go back to the nursing facility he'd come from, but was told by his doctor that he was in for bypass surgery. (All of this happened after I had left, and Ed overheard it. There's no not-eavesdropping in hospital rooms.) Unless you find comfort in contemplating the misfortunes of others, the hospital is not calming.
Loitering uselessly among those endless corridors—something I've done a fair amount of over the years—I've learned to a) stay hydrated, and b) keep myself distracted. Newspapers, a book or two, a half-done needlepoint—these are all good. Even better is Angry Birds on the iPod Touch. Say what you will about the time-sucking evil of video games, but they're blessed neural candy for situations in which what you need is for time to pass. I whiled away three hours in the surgery waiting area trying to get past demonic level 5-17 (the black trench with the strangely resilient scaffolding). I failed, again and again and again, and it was absolutely horrible for all the overused gristly bits of my right shoulder, wrist and thumb—but who cared? It kept some primitive part of my nervous system happily clicking and clacking until the cardiologist came out and said that all was well.
Then I bought a small bag of Cheetos out of a machine—my inveterate hospital-leaving ritual—and, after saying hey to Ed, went home to check on the dog, who was waiting. He didn't want a Cheeto. (Wise animal.) He only wanted to know what in the hell I'd done with his master.