First, the obvious: no one enters a hospital voluntarily on holidays, and if even the employees—from the security guards to the doctors–would all rather be at a party, who could blame them? But if you have to be there, you want the staff to give it their best, even if it’s Christmas or Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or New Year’s Eve. Hey, you’d do it for them, even if you didn’t feel like working late on the eve of the holiday to cut their hair or sell them the last Harry Potter game in the store.
The problem started before Christmas. If I ran up the stairs, I was panting by the time I reached the top. If I tried to climb a hill, panting. If I tried to run a short distance with the dog, panting. It didn’t seem logical that there would be anything wrong with the pacemaker. It is relatively new, but it didn’t seem to be telling the heart to get off its duff and pump a little blood down there. It was behaving the way a tired old pacemaker does when it feels the battery going, going . . .
Diagnosis: pacemaker lead was wearing out. http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/pacemaker+lead. Signals were leaving the pacemaker, but the heart’s answer to, “Can you hear me now?” was “No.” Not life-threatening, the cardiologist said. Maybe not, but also not your top choice for a Christmas affliction. Holidays are not a time to be slowed to half your usual pace. Still, we would celebrate as best we could.
Christmas came and went. The discarded gift wrap—is there anything sadder than holiday wrapping paper all crumpled into a big black plastic bag?—was tucked into the trash and Greta had savored the last of her special sweet potato biscuits. We drove her out to the kennel and set out at half-past dark the next morning for University of Maryland Medical Center.
Tale #1, Inpatient Indifference
The operating staff was prompt, efficient, courteous—whisked off my clothes, whisked in an IV and whisked me into the operating center. Mike barely had time to crack a few bad jokes. I don’t know what time it was when I woke up. Anesthesia is like being abducted by aliens. Time slips off and you don’t know it.
So, where’s the indifference? It didn’t happen until that night, when I was in a good bit of pain, not all of it traceable to my roommate’s preference for TV shows where some woman has been in a relationship with two men at the same time and just wants to identify the biological father so she can sue for child support. The nurse offered hydrocodone, oxycodone, Tylenol 3, all drugs that my stomach will prevent me from ever becoming addicted to, but she had nothing I could tolerate. She finally suggested an ice pack.
The ice pack worked until it leaked. The nurse took away the melted, leaky bag, and never returned. The pad was wet. So was the sheet. So was the open-down-the-back gown they had left me in. I knew it was uncomfortable, knew something should be done, but couldn’t quite put my thoughts together enough to find the call button. I finally managed to wrap myself with the blanket under and over me and fall into exhausted sleep. The bedding was still wet in the morning. No nurse had come to check or change it.
Tale #2, Not in Top 50,000
Left the hospital with lots of instructions on not raising arm above head, no swimming for a month, no showers for a week, etc. I thought the shortness of breath would get better. It didn’t.
Two days after discharge from UM, it became so bad I didn’t know whether I would be able to walk Greta. Our usual route around the subdivision was becoming a challenge of hills that, not so long ago, I would’ve walked up without a second thought.
I couldn’t lie down to rest. Had to prop myself into a semi-sitting position. On Friday afternoon, the start of the New Year’s weekend, I reached the cardiologist who had the bad luck to be on call.
“If you’re that short of breath, you need to go to the emergency room,” he said. He asked if I wanted to come down to UM, but I wasn’t sure I could make the hour-long drive. I said I would try the Carroll Hospital Center Emergency Department.
“Each year, our emergency department medical professionals provide expert care to more than 50,000 patients,” the hospital website says. http://www.carrollhospitalcenter.org/emergency And what kind of care do the patients not in the top 50,000 get?
I met Nurse Ineptia after the preliminary “Can we see your insurance cards?” She was young and perky as only twenty somethings can be. In the course of obtaining blood, she left the vein in the crook of my arm so mangled that it was still sore two days later.
“Now I’m going to start an IV,” she said at the end of the initial mangling.
“In case we need to give you some medicine later.”
“Well, why don’t we wait until later to see if that contingency occurs?”
Ineptia warned me that if I needed intravenous medicine, she would stick me again. Given her technique, that was not a threat to be taken lightly. She disappeared.
I had an ekg and a chest x-ray, and then, nothing. When you’re behind a curtain in a cubicle, lying on a stretcher with the side bars up, the only visual entertainment is feet. Feet, and about 13 inches of leg. Some of the feet wear hospital clogs. Some, sneakers. Speed varies. None stop. When the entertainment of the feet paled after about an hour, I got out of the stretcher bed and pulled back the curtain.
Feeling ratty can make you self-centered. What I really wanted to know was, what’s going on with my situation? I also wanted to use the restroom, but neither an update nor a potty was on Ineptia’s agenda.
Beyond my cubicle, doctors, nurses and technicians ranged around a horseshoe-shaped bar topped with computers. Some were busy at the computers; others were busy discussing who was usually the designated driver when they went out. Ineptia was on the far side, complaining to a technician about something. She avoided my gaze.
The emergency room (yes, I know it’s called a department now, but the change in terminology doesn’t seem to improved patient care) physician at last came in to tell me everything was fine—ekg, fine; chest x-ray showed pacemaker and leads right where they should be. But I still couldn’t breathe. He did not have an answer to that, and the UM cardiologist had not returned his call.
“Then I may as well go home,” I said. “I can be short of breath at home just as well as in here.”
“Oh, we can treat you here,” said Nurse Ineptia, who reappeared after the doctor departed.
“Not if you don’t know what’s wrong,” I said.
Ineptia stared as if she had just met an alien creature. She left the cubicle. I went home.
(to be continued)
© 2012 by Donna Engle