“Did I wake you?” he says, and so it begins.
“No” I reply, “you didn’t wake me.” I wipe the sleepiness from my eyes.
“I’m in a lot of pain, I’d like to go to the hospital,” he says. “I’ll be right over,” I say. I drive faster than I should, but he’s my son. Why isn’t the Prevacid working? We’ve seen several doctors. They think it’s acid reflux, but still no definitive diagnosis. The results of the blood tests are due back today, but his pain is here now. We’ve given them symptoms, history, but still nothing.
We know the routine at Emergency—$40.00 co pay and the nurse’s questions. “On a scale of one to ten how would you rate the pain? One being mild, ten the worst you’ve ever experienced,” she says.
“An eight,” he says.
“The doctor will be with you in a minute” she says.
Only curtains separate the patients in the E.R. They offer as little privacy as the gown one dons upon admittance. The walls are an antiseptic white. Snatches of conversation ride the currents of hope and pain. Waiting is the worst part. Pain doesn’t wait. “Is it a heart attack?” an anxious wife asks.
“I don’t think so, but we need to run additional tests,” the doctor says. A construction worker, still in his work clothes is brought in on a backboard. He has difficulty talking through his obvious pain. His breathing is labored. “Do you feel this?” the doctor says, “How about this?”
He doesn’t respond. He groans. He can’t even shake his head. A young man behind the curtain to our right has appendicitis; an MRI shows an inflamed vermiform appendix. He is in no obvious pain. He asks the doctor if he can wait a couple of days to have it removed. He has the lead role in Bye Bye Birdie, and there is no understudy. The doctor explains what happens when an appendix ruptures and says, “It’s either bye bye appendix or bye bye Conrad.” The boy sighs, resigned to the injustice.
“I understand you’re having some pain Michael,” the doctor says. “Yes,” says Michael pointing to a spot just below his sternum.
The doctor examines him and asks more questions. He then turns to us and says, “Since he’s a male, it’s probably an ulcer. If he were a female, I would bet on a gallbladder.”
Haven’t they listened to the history? I had my gallbladder out at 21 my son is 19. Blood tests, ultrasound, x-rays, the results are back and they’ve narrowed it down to the gallbladder or hepatitis. They’re thinking of more tests. The surgeon on call reviews the lab results and the ultrasound and tells the emergency room doctor that no further tests are needed because it’s his gallbladder. The surgeon, in a white coat and with a stethoscope casually draped around his neck and a smile etched on his face, introduces himself and sits down.
“The ultrasound is somewhat unclear,” he says “but considering the blood tests, it is certainly your gallbladder.” He produces a clipboard with a piece of clean white paper. “I’ve done this so many times I can do it upside down,” he says drawing a gold-capped fountain pen from his pocket. He draws an almost perfect diagram: the liver, bile duct, the gallbladder, the entrance to the pancreas where a stone has lodged causing pancreatitis, and on to the small intestine. Writing upside down, he neatly labels the pancreas. He is pleased with how it turns out. His smile broadens. He draws an X across the gallbladder showing the intended result of the operation. He mentions the risks one percent this and two percent that. I don’t want to hear about the risks, he’s only 19.
“We’ll admit you to the hospital and remove it in the morning” he says. Morning comes, and I follow his bed to the second floor; where the surgery will take place. I’m allowed to go into pre-op with him. The doctor comes by and says, “Are you ready to get this done?” Is he asking me? My mind screams, ‘No, I’m not ready.’. I hear Michael say “yes.” What else is he to say?
“Doctor, take good care of my boy,” I say.
“I’ll do my best,” he replies. Somehow I’m not reassured. Well perhaps a little but, it’s not enough. I want guarantees where guarantees are not given.
“How long will the procedure take,” I ask. I’m calling it a procedure now?
“About an hour and a half,” he says.
An hour and a half seems like a long time, but I have no point of reference. I squeeze Michael’s hand, force a smile, tell him I love him, and leave for the waiting room. I check in with the silver-haired waiting room receptionist, a senior citizen volunteer. She will find me when the doctor is finished. I sit down. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ I say to myself. I start reading the paper. There is a young man sitting near me. Why doesn’t he look worried? What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he know that any surgery can end in disaster? Another man, older, looks distraught.
“This is maddening,” I say to no one in particular.
The old man slowly raises his head, catches my eye and says, “Yes, my wife was supposed to be out in two hours. It’s been four and a half now.” He lowers his head and resumes his private vigil.
“My wife is getting her tubes tied,” the young man says. “We have four daughters,” he continues as if that explains everything. “Who are you waiting for?” he asks.
“My son,” I say. “He’s having his gallbladder removed—a fairly simple procedure.” Why do I add that? Am I trying to reassure myself?
“McDonald family, John McDonald” the receptionist barks. “Is anyone here waiting for John McDonald”?
A teary eyed, middle-aged woman rises from her chair. “Yes,” she says. “Come right this way,” the receptionist says.
It’s been forty minutes. Not much longer to wait. It will be such a relief.
The old man hasn’t moved for the past thirty minutes. The waiting must be hell. The young man—who, I learn, is a transmission mechanic—is telling me how he dropped out of school and has a good career. He offers me a discount on transmission service. He removes a business card from his wallet. I listen politely without really hearing. He puts the card back in his wallet and sits down.
“Eunice Smith, Is someone waiting for Eunice Smith,” calls the receptionist. The old man stands and follows the receptionist.
Is it good news or bad? I don’t want to know. More names are called and more go to discover the fate of their loved ones. It’s been an hour and twenty minutes. It could be any time now. An hour and forty-five minutes have passed.
I resume reading a book. Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky It’s good, but not particularly cheerful. Its two hours now. I try not to worry.
I stand, and start pacing, gazing down the hall to the operating room hoping to see Dr. Leckner. For a while I thought his name was Lecter, like the doctor in Silence of the Lambs. I continue to gaze down the hall. Other doctors come and go, but no Dr. Leckner.
I’m about to ask the receptionist to check on Michael’s status, but she’s on the phone again. “I’m sorry,” she says. “All I know is that she’s in four south.” She hangs up.
“It must be difficult dealing with families that are under a lot of stress,” I say.
“Yes,” she replies, “that one would be even more stressed if I told her all I know.”
Thoughts I didn’t want to think are now displacing those I was clinging too. I walk back and forth. “Does my walking bother you,” I say. I don’t care, but I say it anyway.
“Could you check to see if he’s in the recovery room yet?”
“Jonathan Jenson.” I say. “It’s Michael to me. A childhood change.”
“No, not yet” she says.
Can’t she be even a little supportive? Can’t she say that the doctors always seem to underestimate the time it takes? Can’t she? Two and a half hours. My imagination is out of control. Has something gone wrong?
“Jenson, Jonathan Jenson. Is there someone here for Jonathan Jenson?” she asks.
My stomach is in knots. They’re calling me. I’m led to a private room. Why a private room? I’ve seen doctors just come to the lobby, smile, and tell the family that all is well.
“The doctor will be with you in a moment,” a nurse says.
“Just sit down and relax.”
Relax! I remain standing. I see a doctor coming down the hall. Yes, it’s Michael’s doctor. He enters the room. I’m trying to read his eyes, his expression.
“It went well,” he says. “It was a lot messier than we expected, but the procedure went well.” The details that follow store themselves in the foggy part of my memory. In the place where what is real and what is not are unclear.
“How long will he be in recovery?” I ask.
“We like to keep them about an hour,” he says. “You can wait in the lobby at four west. They will bring him right past you.”
I go to four west and wait. Two hours later, they bring him past. He looks tired, but okay. He’s okay!