Last week, while we were all already dealing with a terrifying hurricane and no power for days, I began experiencing dramatic shortness of breath after only taking a few steps. I struggled and struggled, trying to convince myself it was just something I was imagining, even though I was taking deep, prolonged gasps for air with the least bit of exertion. I was attempting to persuade myself that I was simply deconditioned and if I pushed myself just a little bit harder I would end up with Olympic level lungs. Finally on Sunday, Mary Kate announced she couldn’t watch anymore and she called 911.
I actually conceded to ride in an ambulance, because I knew I wouldn’t have made even the few yards to the car. And I agreed to go because all through that whole brutal week, one particular exchange had loomed in my memory.
Two weeks before Christmas in 1993, my husband Dennis offhandedly mentioned his past bout of pleurisy was bothering him. What do you say to someone who you have been married to for 17 years and who is notorious for not taking care of himself? “What are you telling me for? Call the doctor.” And he replied, “I will, right after the holidays.” Well, he never made it to the holidays. He died of a massive heart attack on December 20. He had no idea he was mortally ill. He never would have left his kids behind if he had had any choice in the matter. These are the things that went through the head of this particular notorious patient, over and over again, as I struggled to breathe.
So off I went, sirens and all. I was too scared to be mortified. Well, I was too scared to be really mortified. I truly was more relieved than anything.
I suppose because I grew up with a world class hypochondriac who I never believed a word from, I always assume that I will not be taken seriously. And, as a matter of fact, I often am not. Part of it is, yes, due to managed care and the time constraints that limit practitioner revenue. But I think it is far more because healthcare providers are jaded, bored and do not listen. (My PCP is an incredible exception, but more about him another time).
I lay on the gurney in the ER, wearily waiting for the first in a series of MD’s who would ask me the same questions, few of which would be apropos and who would not listen to the answers anyway. Then curtain discreetly opened enough for a young voice to ask “Mrs. Cooper?” And he leaned his face in just a crack, with a raised eyebrow. He was the most adorable thing I had seen in a long time and I nearly told him that. Way to start an assessment by being defined as a dirty old lady.
He was cute, as I said, but mostly he just exuded niceness. He was polite and sensitive but not smarmy. He listened to my responses and then repeated them back to me in different words!! Agghhh!! He got it! When he came back with my lab results, which indicated I was in dire need of a blood transfusion, he looked so concerned I thought he was going to cry.
I was going to be admitted, so I was taken to a new unit the hospital had just opened to facilitate patient back-up. Because oversight of this department was my job at another hospital, I knew what they were trying to do, but they were failing miserably. Beds in our local hospitals are like gold. When you have a high population of elderly and poor, as you do at the Jersey Shore, ER’s get backed up very, very quickly. A hospital only has so many beds. Most of them are dedicated, such as orthopedic, surgical, or mother/baby. You can only place that kind of patient in that bed. If your patient has a co-morbidity, such as a communicable disease or infection, they have to be isolated or put in a room with a patient who has the exact same diagnosis AND is the same gender. So your bed possibility is reduced even further. It is a constant juggling game. Sometimes, the Gods smile and you can fit everyone together like a Chinese puzzle. Other times, it is a nightmare of vast proportions with 20 seriously ill 80-plus year-olds languishing in the halls of the ER. Within hours you have family members in your office, who you completely sympathize with, screaming at you to get their grandmother out of the ER corridor where she has been for 20 or more hours. But you literally have nowhere to put them.
So up pops the Transition Unit idea (that is what we called it at my facility, it has other names, such as the Discharge Unit, which confuses the hell out of everyone because the patient is only being discharged from the ER to the hospital). Anyway, the thought process is to get the patient completely assessed and prepped and tied up with a little bow so they simply have to be moved into the proper bed when it becomes available. The patient gets to wait in a comfortable bed in a nice little curtained cubicle. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?
Only it doesn’t work, except as a sort of a highway rest stop, without the tasteful souvenirs . The patient continues to suffer in limbo. Patients are not discharged from the main hospital any faster, and that is where the backlog starts. So patients aren’t stuck in the hallways anymore, but they do get stuck in these way stations. They are uncomfortable and there is no privacy. When you are already sick, you feel simply miserable. Patience frays, family members lose their tempers. Frequently with each other.
I ended up in the Discharge Unit for about 24 hours. Every conversation with every specialist who came to talk to me was overheard by the entire place. The space assigned to each patient, divided by curtains, is approximately 8’ by 10’. And I am being generous. The guy in the cubicle next to me snored all night long, interspersed with shouting out obscenities. Charming. The little old lady in the cubicle on the other side of me was enduring the pain and confusion of dementia and she whimpered the whole time. And periodically snorted violently. I spent the night in contemplation and prayer. I contemplated holding pillows over their faces and prayed for forgiveness for wanting to kill them.
Two members from entirely different families came to actual physical blows as long simmering issues exploded over their sick, elderly relatives. Mom always did like you best.
|For a horrible minute, I thought even the Internet was on my Fat Case.|
On the plus side, my room is spacious and bright. I am getting great care from kind people (for the most part). Mary Kate brings me flowers, and better still, brings me Madailein, who charms everyone by saying “Hi Da Da!” when my male tech walks in the door. He did turn a trifle pale. My dear friend Kathy from high school comes by. Deacon Gail brings me Communion. Christine comes by but I am at a test. She comes the next day in a blizzard!! I am surrounded by love, including virtually on Facebook with dozens of kind and encouraging thoughts.
I go for test after test, but I am still so short of breath it is almost incapacitating. While talking to the pulmonologist, I realized that the litany of symptoms is a mirror of the transverse myelitis I had eight years ago. I suggest that to her and she happily agrees it is a possibility. I started the IV steroids yesterday, too soon for any improvement, but fingers crossed. On the other hand, I am feeling overwhelmed that the MS is causing such significant and crippling symptoms. The prognosis will not be a good one. People who have lung involvement end up on respirators. I am so scared.
One of the people I encounter here is a jolly woman who brings me my dinner tray. I am very down about the whole Fat thing and I say so. She puts her hands on her hips indignantly. “Honey, you are a lovely looking woman! Beauty comes from the inside. No one has a right to make you feel bad about yourself and you need to tell them that. You need to say ‘That makes me feel bad. Don’t talk to me like that!” I don’t care who it is!” She shares some of the incredibly overwhelming circumstances she has struggled with and I am so touched by the generosity of her spirit. I feel better simply from being exposed to her spontaneous kindheartedness. It is such a gift to have someone like this placed in your path when you most need it.
And then there was the blizzard!! A week after the Jersey Shore was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, we are hit with a pre-season blizzard. People who have just gotten their power back after six days lose it again. No one is prepared for eight inches of snow.
The view from my hospital room on Wednesday. I know it says Thursday, but I am not operating on all four burners right now. So that is a big FAT mistake, ok?!?
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