by JIM KNIPFEL
April 22, 2018
“You better take very good care of her,” I half-warned the nurse as she led me from the pre-surgical area back toward the waiting room. At the doorway, she passed me off to Diane, the floor’s managing nurse.
“I’m just going to sit you down here by the desk,” she said as she backed me into a chair. Wherever I go—doctor’s office, airport, jury duty—they always sit the blind guy in a chair next to the main desk. If there’s a desk in the room, they’ll park me next to it, making sure I’m in clear view. My guess is they’re afraid I might wander away and get into trouble resulting in some sort of lawsuit. Better to keep a close eye on me. “You need anything at all, just let me know,” she said before stepping away. They always say that, too.
“I will,” I assured her, as I opened my bag and reached inside, before remembering I had no idea what I was reaching for. I pulled my arm back out of the bag, closed it, and tried not to think about what was going on.
“You want me to go back there and talk to them?” An old man sitting next to me asked his wife.
“No, forget about it,” she snapped back. “You wouldn’t understand what they were talking about anyway, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Waste of time.”
“Okay,” he agreed.
Across the aisle, three sisters were complaining about everyone else in their family. On the television, which was blaring a little too loudly as it always was in such places, what purported to be a news show consisted of nothing but interviews with supposed celebrities I’d never heard of.
In the movies, people waiting to find out about friends or loved ones undergoing major surgery are always dumped together in these small, barren rooms with ratty furniture and tile floors, everyone pacing and sweating and chain-smoking. This felt more like the waiting room at a dermatologist’s office.
“I removed as much as I could from around the nerve bundle,” a doctor was explaining to a man nearby. “But there were bits I couldn’t get without possibly causing more damage. So I left them there. I don’t know if she’ll be able to walk, and it might grow back.”
Okay, so scratch that last thought about the dermatologist’s office.
Two nurses were debating the pros and cons of letting their husbands and young sons watch professional wrestling. The general consensus was that wrestling was pretty stupid.
“See,” another man was explaining to someone, “I have no feeling in the right arm, so this thing keeps falling off.”
Every few minutes the elevator doors slid open with a “ting!,” a new patient, often with a spouse or extended family in tow, checked in at the desk, then took a seat to wait for a nurse to call his or her name. Now and again another door swung open, a name was called, and someone else was led away. There was a sign on the wall kindly requesting people refrain from using cell phones and eating, the latter out of deference to those patients who’d been fasting since midnight. It didn’t prevent anyone from doing either or both, often at the same time—watching funny Internet videos while happily munching potato chips.
I’m not sure how I can recall all this now, given at the time it was just a gray hum and blur. I’d been told it would take an hour or hour and a half. Three months of frustrated waiting and stress had now boiled down to an hour or hour and a half of heavily amplified frustrated waiting and stress. At least everyone we’d dealt with that morning had been pleasant. Better still, they all seemed competent. Things were moving along in accordance with the schedule we’d been promised: show up by eight, and she’d go in at nine-thirty. It was nine-forty, and she’d been taken into the operating room. I wanted to take simple efficiency as a good sign.
“James?” A nurse called from across the room. I half stood from my chair.
“No, another one,” the nurse said. I had no idea how she could have known I wasn’t the James she was looking for, but nevertheless sat back down. “Demanchek?” She called again. “James Demanchek?” I started to wonder if maybe that was just the worst mispronunciation of my name I’d ever heard.
“I think it’s the guy in the gray sweatshirt,” one of the nurses behind the desk told her. “He’s wearing headphones.”
“Oh!” I heard a kid say from the corner, sounding a bit startled. “Sorry.”
During a routine annual checkup in early January, Morgan had been told she had a large, though in all likelihood benign abdominal mass. Benign or not, it was growing fast, and the doctor insisted it was imperative it come out as soon as possible, otherwise it could cause very serious problems.
After that things quickly became maddeningly complicated, with a string of tests, screenings, and other doctor’s appointments, which in turn required more tests and screenings. We had a surgery date scheduled a week and a half after that initial diagnosis, and had to fit everything in beforehand. Then at the last minute, thanks to some useless medical industry technicalities and bureaucratic bungling, the originally-scheduled surgery date had to be pushed back to some as-yet-undetermined date in the future. “Probably a few months at least,” we were told. It wasn’t terribly comforting, especially after the doctor had been using terms like “urgent emergency surgery.”
So we waited, tried to be careful, tried not to panic, and hoped for the best. Three months passed. Once we did get a new tentative date, things once again became maddeningly complicated, though in the exact same way as that first time. Given the repetition of appointments and tests, we were starting to worry that at the very last minute we’d be bumped again, same as that last time. Thankfully we weren’t, but that meant she actually had to undergo major surgery.
A door on the far side of the waiting room opened, and a young man carrying something large made his way to the front desk. I’m not sure what it was. It might have been a sandwich, or some balloons, or a life-saving bit of medical technology. “Is Ray here?” He asked.
“Ray who?” one of the nurses responded.
I heard a crinkle of paper. “Um, I don’t know,” the man said.
“What address are you looking for?”
“Umm . . . ” There was more crinkling.
“Is it two-sixty-two?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Two-Six-two.”
“Then you’re in the wrong building. You need to go downstairs, step outside, take a left, and follow it around the block.”
Keeping that sign about eating in mind, I quietly reached into my bag and surreptitiously pulled out a small plastic pouch before slipping it into my coat pocket. I had no fucking clue what it was, just some mystery snack I’d grabbed randomly at the bodega and dropped in the bag, having no idea how long I’d be waiting for news. Better to have a little something to eat on hand, I figured. Hoping no one would notice, I tore open one corner of the plastic bag and piece by piece slowly consumed what turned out to be extremely salty trail mix. So it was a small hunk of chopped apricot, then a seed of some kind, then lord knows what, then another bit of apricot. It wasn’t very satisfying, but it kept me distracted.
An hour passed. Another lost delivery man showed up, this one looking for Jenny. He was in the wrong building too. I guess that happens a lot. “These people show up looking for Jenny,” one of the nurses said to no one in particular after the deliveryman left. “As if there’s only one Jenny in the world. This is a damned hospital!”
In the pre-surgical consultation beforehand, the doctor explained that while she expected everything to be fine. There were always possible complications, which she laid out in fairly graphic detail. In the midst of it she offhandedly dropped in an anecdote about extracting a teratoma from one patient that contained a fully-formed jawbone.
“But that’s only happened once in nineteen years,” she clarified.
The television was still blaring. I was still wearing my coat and was getting warm, but didn’t dare take it off in case I needed to run.
The woman from the bickering couple next to me was called into the back room to prepare for whatever kind of operation she was having, and neither she nor her husband said a word to each other as she left.
“Yeah,” said a guy who was checking in at the front desk. “This is the fourth time I’m getting surgery for this.”
An hour and a half passed, and still nothing. I reminded myself that it was an inexact science, there was prep work and cleanup to deal with, that it didn’t necessarily mean there’d been complications or that anything had gone tragically wrong. I tried not to think about the concern the doctors had about how her heart might react to the anesthesia. Offering exact times for things like this was just guesswork is all.
I thought I heard the doctor paged over the intercom, but I couldn’t be sure.
One of the nurses touched my shoulder, and I let out a yip. “When it’s over the doctor will come down and explain how it went,” she confirmed. “Then after letting your wife rest a bit someone will take you back to see her.”
“Great. Thanks. I’m getting a little antsy here, I gotta admit.” I mean, they all seemed so nice. Would they even tell me if something had happened, or just leave me sitting there?
Two hours passed and still nothing. I wanted to ask, but guessed they’d already told me everything they could. I didn’t want to be a pain in the ass. More important, for as long as possible I wanted to hang onto the belief that everything would be okay. As more time passed with no word, however, that was becoming more difficult.
Ten minutes later, Diane leaned over the side of the desk. “Your wife is in recovery now,” she said.
”How is she?”
“The doctor will explain everything when she comes down to see you, and after that we’ll take you back to see her.”
Why did that suddenly sound so ominous?
More minutes passed, and no doctor arrived. Eventually a nurse did.
“I can take you back to see your wife now.”
“How did things go?”
“Didn’t the doctor explain it to you?”
“No, she never showed up.”
“She didn’t? Well, that’s strange,” she said. “I’ll see if I can get her to come down, but let me take you to your wife first.”
That sounded more ominous than I would have liked, too. And there was something else that had me a little worried. She’d been under general anesthesia for the very first time, and I had no idea how she’d react afterward. When my dad came around after open heart surgery, he was a wild man. He was paranoid and delirious, and no matter how many tranquilizers they pumped into him he refused to sleep for three days. He didn’t recognize my mom or sister, and at one point tore all of the IVs out of his arms, crawled out of bed and went on a rampage down the corridor. When my sister, whose as upbeat a person as you’d ever want to meet, came around after a hysterectomy, she seemed to be auditioning for the lead in a stage production of The Exorcist, calling my mom a string of filthy names before throwing my parents out of the room.
I had no idea how the operation went, what kind of shape she was in, what kind of recovery we were looking at or what I should expect when I saw her in a few seconds. That ever-present tension of the past three months wasn’t going anywhere.
The nurse led me around a few corners and through a few doorways before stopping. “Here she is,” she told me.
Morgan was sitting up in bed drinking a cup of apple juice. “Hey, baby,” she said.
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