SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 29, 2012

Spinal Wars, Part II:  Hades Hospital

 

It was about one o’clock on Wednesday afternoon when the ambulance delivered me to a hospital not far from the local sewage treatment plant, and dumped me on a gurney in an emergency room already overflowing with the other doomed. I was feeling a bit out of my league, there among the gunshot victims, the lunatics in handcuffs, the destitute, the screaming, and the nearly dead. Me, my back hurt.

            Apparently the sparse and overstrained hospital staff felt the same way. After they collected a few quick vitals, a blood sample, and what little there was of my insurance information, they left me alone there along the wall with the screams and sobbing growing louder and closer. At least Morgan was there with me.

            “Every time they wheel someone in,” she said, “I think you get bumped down the list.”

            She was probably right, and they were probably justified, which is why I was both relieved and surprised two hours later when a man I sincerely hoped was an attendant materialized and began pushing my gurney down the hall.

            “Where are we going?” I asked. He said nothing in return. Well, at least we were going somewhere.

            It turned out we weren’t going “somewhere” so much as “elsewhere.” About twenty seconds after I’d started moving, he parked me against another wall and left. Morgan surveyed our new surroundings. Instead of being in the heart of the emergency room, we were now in some kind of wing of the emergency room. One apparently reserved for the out of control drunks.

            “Hey!” a slurring and bald Ukrainian shouted at a passing orderly. “How long I gotta wait here? When’s someone gonna see me?”

            “Just lay back down there, sir. It’s gonna be awhile.”

            I was wishing I’d thought to piss before the EMTs arrived. Of course the shape I was in, immobilized and all, that would’ve meant pissing the bed. Still, I wish I’d done it before the EMTs showed up. I was getting pretty uncomfortable on top of everything else.

            In between peeks around the corner to see if any doctors were headed our way (only to see a dozen people in identical cubby holes doing the same thing), Morgan and I chatted and listened to the drunks.

            “In the Navy . . . !” one started to sing.

            “Shut up, Harry!” someone shouted back.

            All in all though, at least it was quieter there. Almost disturbingly quiet. There was no one around. No one who could be of any help, anyway. It was like we’d just been shunted off here to make some room, then forgotten.

            A little after seven, just as I was coming to accept the idea that Morgan and I and my ruptured disc would be left alone there among the drunks until I healed naturally and skipped merrily out of the hospital by myself, a doctor appeared.

            She was a pleasant Russian woman who began by taking a medical history. This always takes some time, and apparently no one writes anything down, because I would be asked the same questions four or five times a day in the days to come. And it always culminated with the smoking and drinking question. As the doctor launched into her lecture about the dangers of smoking, all I could think was “Yeah, thanks a lot for reminding me I haven’t had a smoke or drink all day, dummy.”

            That out of the way, she decided to run a few simple tests to focus in on the real cause of the problem.

            To see if we were dealing with any serious nerve damage, she poked the soles of my feet. Then she scratched my calves and thighs. She did my hands and arms, too, and asked me if I could roll over on my side. It took a little doing, but I managed it. Then she poked a few more spots on my back. Then she stuck her finger deep into the nerve in question.

            Later, Morgan assured me that I didn’t scream, that all I did was hiss through my teeth, pound the wall next to me with my fist, and flail about a bit. All I recall thinking at that moment is that despite any fairy tales I might tell myself, I would not stand up well to torture.

            Worst thing was, the agonizing spasms pulsing from that fucking nerve ending returned again and again every few seconds for the next half hour.

            “Maybe I should go get him some morphine,” the doctor said.

            “Yeah, I think that might be an idea,” I gasped.

            An hour later she returned with a drip. The spasms hadn’t completely passed yet, but at least they weren’t as frequent. Now, though, they were random. Morgan tried to pull up one of my socks, and the nerve exploded. One of the drunks near us sneezed and it went off again. And now this doctor wanted to get a catheter into my arm.

            “Don’t move at all,” she warned me.

            “I’ll, uh, do what I can.”

            It took a few tries, but she finally got the needle and tube in, and a moment later I finally understood what all my junkie friends have been talking about all these years. Still the spasms continued, but at least they didn’t last as long.

            The doctor, meanwhile, began arranging for an X-Ray, a CAT scan, and an MRI. She also suggested admitting me to the hospital. It seemed I no longer had much of a choice.

            By ten that night, I was still sitting in that little side area among the drunks (most of whom had passed out by then) and still waiting for something to happen, but most of the spasms had passed. That was something, anyway.

            At four, another attendant arrived and began wheeling me down to the X-Ray room, where they would be taking X-Rays not only of my lower spine, but of damn near every other part of me as well for some reason. Guess they wanted to get their money’s worth.

            Once inside the room, the gurney was rolled up alongside the table, and the tech, being a man who had never studied the simple physics of how skeletons work, decided the best way to get me from one to the other was to grab my wrist and yank real hard.

            Again I did not scream, but I did manage to suggest (with some help from Morgan) that it might be best if I just did it myself.

            I was starting to have my doubts about this place, but amazingly, at about five-thirty Thursday morning, I finally found myself in a room. Not a nice room, particularly, but I couldn’t see it and by that point I didn’t really give a damn. I still had to pee.

            A small crew of attendants was waiting there with a new doctor.

            “First thing we need to do is weigh you,” she said.

            Oh Jesus Christ. “But I told you how much I weighed.”

            “We need it officially. And since you can’t stand, we need to use the hoist scale.”

            The hoist scale?!

            I heard the clinking of chains, and before I knew what was happening. the attendants were rolling me from side to side, and a moment later I was heaved off the table like a dead mackerel. I was sure that snap I’d heard was my spine.

            After they dropped me back on the bed, having confirmed that the weight I’d given was accurate, it occurred to me that everyone I’d met that day was in cahoots, from the EMTs to the doctors to every other goddamn rotten soul in that place. No matter what kind of shape you were in before you arrived at the hospital, they were going to make sure you needed to be admitted.

            The doctors finally left around six, and Morgan and I were alone again. She needed to be at work in a couple of hours. I was exhausted and in some mighty ugly pain I hadn’t been in the previous morning. That morphine drip had run out about eight hours earlier and was never replenished. And I really had to fucking pee.

            “Hey!” Morgan said holding up an old milk jug that had been on the table next to the bed. “You have your own pee bottle!”

 

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