Part One began when I rushed my wife to the ER at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. After midnight and a CAT scan, we were still waiting to hear what was wrong.
I happen to be reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which is about the death of her daughter Quintana two years after Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, had died. Didion writes in the new book that she titled it Blue Nights because “I could think of little other than the inevitable approach of darker days.”
It’s not the book to be thinking about when you’re in an ER, your wife’s in mysterious pain, and patients in the rooms around you are shouting, vomiting, or crying.
I couldn’t sleep. Around two a.m., I stood outside my wife’s door. Two other men were standing outside their wives’ doors. One man, short and in a long-sleeved T-Shirt that said USA and wearing a baseball cap turned backwards, looked at me in my suit coat, which I was still wearing from the play. “How long you been here?” he asked me.
“Since about nine-thirty,” I said.
“I been here since three. My wife’s been given a hospital room, but we’ve been waiting two hours for transportation.”
“I think they’re using Wankel engines,” I said, referring to a rotary engine, great in concept but notorious for problems. My brother had a Mazda RX-7 with a Wankel. The man laughed and said, “I fix engines—and I have to work at 8 a.m. I gotta get outta here.”
“So do we,” I said, and I returned to the nurses’ station. I learned that all the doctors and many nurses were in the operating room that I’d seen a team go into. Whatever my wife had wasn’t as bad as what that woman was having.
I tried sleeping again, this time turning out the light. In the background, I could hear a baby crying deeply, and then from another direction, a woman sobbed. The teenager soon started yelling, “I can’t breathe! Someone help me, I can’t breathe and you’re doing nothing--I’m serious I can’t breathe! Help me. The pot was laced with something and I can’t breathe!”
I female voice, perhaps a nurse, soothingly said, “Of course you can breathe, honey. You couldn’t talk if you can’t breathe.”
“I’m serious,” said the girl, “I can’t breathe,” and she made struggling-to-breathe noises.
“We’re going to have to restrain you if you can’t calm down.”
“The pot was laced!”
“The blood tests came in and there’s nothing.”
So the girl yelled as loud as she could that, “The pot was laced and I need oxygen! Oxygen!”
“We’ve got to restrain you,” said the calm voice, and then the girl cried and made those struggling-to-breathe sounds for about twenty minutes. I listened to my own easy breath in the dark, realizing if you’re relaxed, breathing is easy. That’s the trick in this life. Just breathe easy. I tried making my own struggling-to-breathe sounds, then heard my wife laugh in the dark. She said, “I can’t sleep, either.”
The next time I came out, a half hour later, the girl was asleep and unrestrained. Everything was quiet except for two monitors beeping out heart rates. I stood there listening to the music of that, trying to figure out was the one to my left faster or the one to the right? Every so many measures the beep would happen at the same instant.
I then could hear a doctor on a phone saying, “She has a mass on her kidney.”
Oh my god--was this about Ann?
“It’s terrible, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Nothing? Please, this can’t be Ann.
“Of course,” said the doctor into the phone, “this is typical with a long-time diabetic.”
Whew. That wasn’t Ann.
At 3 a.m., back in the dark, I was thinking about the last time I was up so late. It had been in the summer in a plane for Europe. This ER was like a plane punching into the night, I realized, with the nurses as the stewards and the doctors as the pilots, and we were all waiting for the promised touchdown. But there were no Heinikens here or great meals or movies on demand. No hot towels or a surprise ice cream snack.
And I had to teach in a couple of hours. Could I do it? Ah, the challenge.
When you’re up all night, time goes quickly. I’d thought it would be slow, but the night burned as a fast fuse. It made me realize how much I loved sleep, the magic of it. It’s like being in suspended animation in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You’re in one place, the darkness, and after what seems like a trip to Jupiter, you awaken to the light. You’ve been shuttled to a new place.
At 3:45, there was a knock on the door, and a silhouette entered. “May I turn on the light?”
“Please,” I said, and the overhead bank of brightness blinked on. Ann frowned as she was getting used to the light. Before us stood a different doctor. I didn’t catch his name, but he looked extremely young. I don’t feel old, but this guy could be my son. I asked where Dr. Mikhail was and learned she left at midnight when he came on. He reassured us he’d studied Ann’s case thoroughly. “The good news is it isn’t kidney stones, gall stones, diverticulitis, or any cancerous mass. The bad news is we don’t know what it is. Perhaps viral. I’d like to do a ultrasound of the lower abdomen.”
Ann said, “My husband has to teach. How long will this take?”
“Don’t mind me,” I said.
“I can put the orders in now,” said the doctor. “Then an ultrasound specialist will come.”
“Is the ultrasound specialist like transportation?” I asked. “You put in the orders and wait? You can’t wheel in a ultrasound device and do it yourself?” I flashed on a Monty Python skit where a doctor, Michael Palin, orders the machine that goes ping. “I love the machine that goes ping!” said Palin.
“I can put in the orders now,” said Ann’s doctor.
Ann said no, that she was tired. She was feeling better and just wanted to go home and sleep. The doctor said okay and to call her personal physician in the morning and set up an ultrasound. He would prescribe pain and anti-nausea medication and asked Ann how her pain level was. Ann said the pain was coming back, but she just wanted to get home. The doctor nodded and said the nurse would help her with the pain, and that it was nice to meet us.
The nurse came in and gave Ann another shot of morphine, “for the road.”
I went and got the car.
We were home at 4:30 a.m. We were in bed at 4:32. As I closed my eyes, my mind was whirling with the sights and sounds of the night, and I was thinking that as much as we want our doctors to know everything right away and fix everything right away, not all stories have neat endings. I could hear the shouting for more oxygen and the vomiting, but that disappeared as the soothing sound of a machine came on, and it went ping.
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