“I’m on my way to the E.R.” Shelley left me a voicemail last Friday after her checkup at the doctor. “He wants me to get an Angiogram.”
Shelley suffers from Coronary Artery Disease, which means that plaque builds in the arteries that surround her heart. She has 4 stents, placed there to re-open passageways that had been 80-90% closed. In ’05 and ’06 she was in and out of the hospital several times for this, and has since been on a diet as well as various drugs meant to lower her cholesterol.
So with this call I’m jerked from everyday existence, from the Normal Road we usually walk, down to an existential otherland that runs directly beneath it. A land of beeping machines and E.R.s and shared bedrooms with strangers and ghoulish glimpses of the future in the old age home. Not to mention a confused and confusing environment…
“I’m here to take you to your stress test,” they tell her.
“No, I’m here for an Angiogram,” she says.
“But it says here…”
(Unless you’re both a health professional and compos mentis, don’t ever go to a hospital without a friend to advocate for you.)
Not to mention the naked feeling of being horizontally rolled through the busy halls and elevators, public eyes stripping you of any privacy and, it seems to me, dignity.
And this is just from the patient’s husband’s perspective. What Shelley is going through (yet again) I can only guess at. When they take her for x-rays, she seems for a moment deflated, with a sad “I have to go through all this again now” look in her eyes.
Later, when the cold-eyed anesthesiologist with the shaved head introduces himself with an unpronounceable Russian name (he eventually says, “just call me Igor”) Shelley asks (with knowledge gleaned from experience) that he give her Versed — to be dreamy but awake; and Fentanyl — for pain. He responds with – I swear to this – “Just say no; just say no to drugs” with a steely smirk on his face like he means it. He suddenly looks like a skinhead to me, and I want to kill him.
Once in the hospital room, Shelley shines. She immediately starts talking medispeak with the nurses, which instantly distinguishes her from all their other patients. When they learn she’s not only an R.N. but also a critical care nurse, they feel both a kinship and an admiration for her such like a cop might feel when he notices the guy in the car stuck on the side of the road is wearing a marine uniform.
Her courage is graceful and her upbeat mood is at least as contagious as any hospital germ lurking about. Lying there in the bed, talking about the possibility of soon getting a sewing machine, she positively glows, and her spirit lights up the whole unit.
And why a sewing machine? It just so happens that this Thursday she’s to be honored for 20 years service at her hospital (it’s actually been far more, but this is to recognize 20 consecutive years at the place) and so they’re offering her a selection of gifts to choose from, including a computerized Singer. The gift catalog had arrived that very day.
I need to mention that, after hearing Shelley’s voicemail late in the morning, and then sitting in shock for a while, I gathered my wits about me and did what I’ve learned from experience to do — offer up a prayer. I’ve found in recent years, with situations large and small, if I first pray for the result I want, and turn over all the worry as well as the outcome to God, it’s akin to setting up a game to win before playing it.
All I can say, yet again, is it works for me.
At one point Friday night, I need to leave for a while, and tell the guard I’ll be back. I return some 90 minutes after visiting hours are over. On the way into the lobby I debate whether or not to pray to be let back in. What if I do, and I’m not? Would that indicate God isn’t listening? Then I’ll be worried sick over the Angiogram the next day.
But while walking to the elevator I quickly decide on just such a prayer, and only then notice there’s a different guard on duty.
“Sorry,” he says. “Visiting hours are over.”
“It’s ok!” someone calls out from behind the desk. “Let him go up.”
And then the rest of the time in the hospital goes as smoothly for both Shelley and me.
A day and a new stent later (and after receiving those medications she requested) the Cardiologist, Dr. Haq, shows me a video of what he’d done. The pulsating arteries, the intricate intersection of delicate and technical, opening up minute passageways that will allow Shelley to return to Normal Road within days.
Prayer or no, I’m always stripped of my defenses at these intervals, and wonder what exactly I may be facing on the other side of her procedures. Shelley must feel far more vulnerable of course, but what goes on with her goes right through me somehow, and I can’t help but be shaken and humbled by the fragility of our lives. Especially when I look at that video of the pulsating arteries.
At the end of his debrief, I ask Dr. Haq what to expect going forward.
“Every three or four years or so, she’ll probably need to come back.”
Getting old is a bitch, and doing it with a partner can make it even more so at times. But the alternative to either is none too appealing, now is it?