Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A hospital story

Back when Potter was new at this, a woman came into the emergency room one night with chest pains. Actually, the pains had already stopped on the way over from her house, but her husband brought her in anyway, to be on the safe side. The woman was scared, of course, but her heart sounded strong and healthy to the doctor and there were no new symptoms. The pain had not resumed and the tests that indicate the particular enzymes that are released when something happens to the heart were all negative.

Still, the doctor admitted her for the night. To be on the safe side.

But even facing an evening in the hospital, the sweet wash of euphoria that goes through your body is almost worth the scare. One minute you think you’re dying, the next minute the doctors are saying it was probably just something you ate, and if this story comes with any consolation, it lies in the chance that the woman was still euphoric and relieved when she died.

But however it went later, for now the woman kissed her husband good night and told him to go home and take care of the kids, and she would be ready when he came to pick her up in the morning.

In the morning the husband got the kids off to school and drove to the hospital. Nobody from the hospital had called. It was a mistake, of course, the kind of mistake that is most likely to happen when there is a job nobody wants to do, but giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, a mistake. The husband went back to the emergency room and asked where his wife was, and the person at the desk gave him the room number. Which I think goes beyond the definition of a mistake. Callous, indifferent, coldhearted—take your pick—but “mistake” doesn’t cover it.

And it gets worse. In the hallway, the man ran into one of the nurses from the previous night, an older nurse. There is a saying about nurses, in some hospitals at least: the older the colder. And while that obviously isn’t true in every case, it can’t be, there may be something to it.

Anecdotes cannot take the place of scientific surveys of course, but in the small sample offered here—that is, writers of this column—one of us experienced a spectacular, thousand percent overdose of insulin, the other recently encamped 10 weeks with infections from a dog bite, and swears on the bible that the nurses in charge were worse than the dog.

It is also worth pointing out that as things are arranged in the world, nobody is in a position to do more damage with less accountability than a head nurse on a floor where patients are expected to die. From the children’s ward of a hospital to the Sunset View Retirement Home. It seems impossible that the enormous cost of hospitalization doesn’t include cameras in the rooms.

So the husband stopped the nurse and checked that he was going the right way, and yes, she pointed him down the hallway and into the room where his wife was lying, dead. Not only dead, but bruised and battered from the efforts to restart her heart.

The husband began to yell, which is not permitted around hospitals unless you are on staff. The first nurse he confronted called a “code gray,” a signal in this particular hospital that someone unruly or belligerent is loose in the building and all the male staff are supposed to drop what they are doing to help subdue him.

This is how Potter met the man with the dead wife.

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