Or read it yourself below! (either way – scroll to the bottom to see Silvère’s illustration in full.)
The Night Nurse
In a 2005 interview, the cartoonist R Crumb, announced, “I’m 61. That’s old age…once you pass 60 you can’t call yourself middle aged anymore.” So, according to the author of Despair Comics (my bible in college), I am now well ensconced in old age at 71, with its attendant, clichéd talk of ailments and operations. This, one can always downplay by using the term “medical procedure”. “I’m having a little procedure”, I say nonchalantly. Adjectives like “minor” and “practically drive-thru” are tossed about. But what is going on in my mind is dread and loathing (usually at 3 in the morning) at what no doubt is the beginning of the end.
I was scheduled to have an ablation for atrial fibrillation in the spring of 2021. I had been dragging my feet about this for a few years but nothing else was working, so on the morning of May 11th, and fully vaccinated against covid 19, off I went to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. My husband was driving, so my time in the passenger seat was spent doing my anti-anxiety breathing exercises and trying for a cosmic perspective. Well, I thought (inhale) – I had been born in a Philadelphia hospital so (hold breath), it would be fitting (keep holding) to die in one (exhale). An old boyfriend had once complained “You make such a big deal out of everything”. But I believe it’s just part of my vivid imagination blended with the “positive power of negative thinking” that I tend to embrace.
After we finally found parking and speed-walked the several blocks to the hospital (elevating my heart rate to code red), we advanced through the board game squares of hospital admission; filling out forms, signing my name electronically, getting the plastic ID bracelet that was scanned numerous times, as I was repeatedly asked my name, birthdate and what procedure I was having. At first, I thought they were testing me for senility and wondered when we’d get to “Can you tell me what day it is?” and “Who is the current U.S. president?” I was working up several answers to this last one, deciding that “a functioning adult, hallelujah!” was best left unsaid as I wanted everyone connected to my well-being to like me, and you just never know, do you? We swiftly made it to the combination pre- and post-op area, which was a maze of mismatched curtained cubicles, like they had fitted up bed sheets from The Brady Bunch onto aluminum frames. To the left of me was a woman who had just been wheeled in from some operation and not yet fully awake. They kept badgering her with questions about who they needed to call for her ride home. She groggily tried to answer between loud snoring, like a wino propped up in an alley. “It’s my daughter Kia…or my other one, Kelly – yeah, Kelly….no Kia will come…yes, that’s it, just call Kel…zzzz.” I was hoping they would reach Kia/Kelly soon (who could maybe take me away with them?). No, no, I had to do this. The dice were in my hand, ready to throw so I could move my gurney the required number of spaces. On the other side of me was a young woman (I guessed early 30s) who was having the battery of her pacemaker replaced. Jeez I thought – a pacemaker at 30! I soon gathered (due to the lack of privacy from the kittens-at-play-with-balls-of-yarn printed curtain) that her heart had suffered due to drug abuse. When asked to verify that she was not wearing any jewelry, she said “well I have to wear this ankle bracelet. I was arrested for driving, on stupid drugs. But I haven’t shot up in over 2 years.” I was riveted. One of the nurses pointed to the needle marks on her arm and asked, “what do you call those?” (Was this a senility test as well?) Her response was immediate, “Pricks”, she said. “Good answer!” I thought. Another nurse continued to explain everything they were doing. “Now, Carol Ann, we are going to insert the port for your anesthesia.” This made Carol Ann protest that (a) she didn’t handle anesthesia well and (b) she was extremely anxious about that needle going into her arm. I wondered about this contradictory fear of needles by an IV drug user, but then it made sense. For someone who had gotten clean after damaging herself to the point of needing a pacemaker, anything that resembled that former behavior could cause enormous anguish. I listened to this anguish play out as she demanded her hand to be held “I’m freakin’ out, I’m really freakin’ out” – then “no, no let go of my hand – stop!” My heart would have gone out to her but she probably wouldn’t have wanted it, it being out of rhythm and all. “Get your hiccoughing heart away from me, you old bat! – I’m freakin’ out!” Me and my heart were forced to comply as it was finally our turn. This was it. I was wheeled onto a long hallway behind other gurneys, like planes on a runway waiting for take-off.
Then, whoosh! there we were in the…what…operating theater?, where an opening act of nurses and doctor’s assistants went through their standup comedy routines as they prepped, shaved and exposed me, while chatting away merrily until…darkness fell. When I came to, yet another person (hopefully a hospital staff member and not a rogue, terrorist kidnapper) was somewhat recklessly navigating me up to my room, conjuring memories of bumper cars in an amusement park. Upon reaching the room, more nurses transferred me to my bed with the speed and efficiency of magicians – one, two, THREE! Now my job was to stay completely still for the next several hours, a discreet catheter collecting all the pee, as I listened to David Rakoff’s essay “Half Empty” on my iPhone. I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, so after the endless game of horizontal statue was over, the night nurse came in. Her name was Meghan with an “h” (Irish? I wondered… Welsh?).
She was tall with straight, dark hair, stylish black framed nerd glasses and thin as a tongue depressor. She told me the kitchen was closed but she could rustle up a chicken pot pie for me and stick it in the microwave. This I paired with cranberry juice mixed with ginger ale and it was divine. Meghan looked upon the mushy pot pie dubiously but then resumed her job with calm efficiency as vital sign checker, bed adjuster, cater waiter, trash collector, pee monitor.
The evening progressed and then it was time for me to get up and start moving. Meghan walked beside me and complimented me on my steadiness, as we started down the dimly lit, nearly empty hallway. A hospital at night can give off a creepy vibe with the faint beeping of machines, rapid but muffled footsteps and the occasional nursely reprimands “you have to turn down the T.V. Mr. Perrotti, people are trying to sleep!” – “trying” being the operative word because who can sleep in a hospital without heavy sedation? Anyway, there we were – me and Meghan with an “h”, traveling down the spooky corridor looking left and right like children in a Grimm’s fairy tale. “It’s like Night of the Living Dead here”, I remarked. Meghan jumped on the analogy. “I know!” she said “Sometimes, on the night shift, I feel like I’m in that movie, Halloween – you know, with Jamie Lee Curtis?” I told her I hadn’t seen it because I can’t watch horror movies as they have just too much…horror. Then I proceeded to tell her how I had seen the film Psycho on the big screen when it first came out in 1960 when I was 10. Women were screaming and fainting and being carried out of the Colonial Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey. Later that night in our twin bedroom, my sister, Julie and I slept together in her bed with the lights on and the door open. We clung to each other, as she watched the shower curtain in the adjacent bathroom, the breeze from the window causing it to quiver slightly while I kept my eye on what looked like a peep hole above the closet. I was scarred for life.
Meghan and I made our way back to my room probably faster than was recommended for post op. When I got into bed, I noticed the mattress would, unprompted, start randomly doing a kind of rolling massage. I pointed this out to Meghan who said “Oh these are brand new beds. No one is sure how all the features work yet. But don’t worry, it’s probably helping your circulation. Well, good night!” And off she went, the soundtrack from Jaws in her wake. Now I was alone with memories of Linda Blair’s bed, bucking and roiling in that other horror classic, The Exorcist – which I had seen at a Drive-In somewhere in the backwoods of Pennsylvania (along with what might have been the cast from Mare of Easttown in the surrounding cars).
To get my mind off all this, I decided to take a peek at my “procedure” site, where they had jabbed 2 catheters up me, one on each side of my groin in order to get to my heart – not exactly an ass backwards approach but pretty close. I was shockingly black and blue down there and it was then that I experienced an even more disturbing thought – what if I now had to wear an old lady bathing suit – the kind with an ample, little skirt and a Brunhilde style armature holding up the bosom. I thought back to my mother complaining about the indignities of getting old, and the specter of that skirted one piece bathing costume made me burn with empathy for her. At that point, I really wanted my mommy… just not her swimwear.
Catheters up the groin, tiny camera down the esophagus, fashion shaming. Horror was now mashed up with Sci-Fi in the genre fluid movie of my life. Oh, the reprehensible indignity of it all. “I’m freakin’ out” I thought, channeling Carol Ann and “I need a drink”, channeling myself. So, I pushed the button to summon sensible, cheerful Meghan with an “h”, my night nurse and have her bring me another ginger ale/cranberry juice cocktail…with a twist.