Ahhh, the oatmeal. These guys are great! This post about writing is on the money (mildly depressing because of its precision and reality), but very entertaining. Check it, and other great posts, at this link
A doctor once told me life mattered little if one did not die with dignity.
“Forget about being a hero or having a golden plaque on your grave, highlighting what a wonderful person you were,” he swatted the disappointment away with his hands. He combed his mustache with his index and thumb then fixed his eyeglasses. He exhaled, “it’s not that. I’ve seen it enough to understand it’s not that. By time you’re buried, no one remembers you.”
I didn’t reply. My gestures did. He smirked.
“Confusing?” I nodded. Good salespeople just nod along. “Everybody remembers the you before death, right? Good. Everybody remembers the death: the heart attack, the car crash, the quiet gasp in the middle of the night. I could go on, but neither of us wants to. But after death, we don’t remember much. And it’s fine. That’s what we are meant to do.”
And so, as his voice turned into a muffled mumble, I started thinking back. I thought about my brother and his best friend, Kyle. Back in ninth grade, there was a party in Kyle’s house. Booze, weed, a thumping bass. Kyle was a bit of both: high and drunk, cruzado we call it in my country (crossed senses). He got up and told everybody he was going to take a shower. They all laughed.
Seconds later, Kyle pulled the trigger on himself. My brother once described the sound as cracking a coconut with meat inside.
What happened next? I don’t want to remember. My brother doesn’t want to. He remembers Kyle the friend. He remembers opening the door and finding him–I know because of the recurring nightmares for the following years–but he doesn’t remember Kyle after he died. He doesn’t remember Kyle, the friend who betrayed him, because he doesn’t want to. Nobody does.
“And that’s why, Bernard, death is just as valuable as life,” he said.
“How do you want to go, doc?” I asked. He nodded, just once, and smiled with accomplishment.
“A small room, just my family, no rush, no stress, nothing. Just relief.” he said. Far too young to think about death, far too experienced to get away from it, at forty-four he’d probably seen more death than all my family put together. “No rain, no weather, no cold air, I hate cold air. Just four walls, a floor, a roof and silence.”
And so, there I was, in the country’s second biggest hospital, five minutes to seven a.m., just minutes away from fixing the orthopedic operating table. Once I had finished, I walked out to a long hallway that led to the exit. The disgusting radioactive green used in the walls drained my energy, as it always did, and the fluorescent lights hummed loudly. Then cold air seeped into my pants and tickled up my legs.
Damn, doc, you were right.
I turned to my right after reaching the corner and stopped. I gasped but no one saw me; I was alone. Just me and stretcher 303. There was a white sheet resting over a lump of branches and cylinders, a patch of gray hair peeked from the top and nothing moved. I shook it off. It’s just a hospital. Someone would come.
At three thirty in the afternoon I got a call from a close friend in the hospital; I’d left my tool belt. I rushed back to reclaim what was mine. So happy to see all my tools in place, I completely forgotten about the corner. Again I stopped. There he was, 303.
To my right, no one. To my left, no one. Just the speaker in the corner: Operating Room assistant to the third floor. Operating Room assistant to the third floor. I inched closer, peeking about like a shoplifter eyeing its bounty, until I reached the foot of the bed.
Last Name: Unknown.
I don’t know but at that moment I had the urged to photograph him. I knew I couldn’t: it’s against the law. So I checked around again and pulled out my notebook and a pen. I sketched it rapidly.
Damn, Doc, you were right. I never want to be stretcher 303.
Flying back from Canada was a pretty interesting adventure. The day before my flight back, it was looking dim: Flight 4645 to NJ cancelled, Flight 1082 to CRC cancelled. Newark closed. La Guardia closed.
How was I supposed to get back?
There was only one way to find out. I got up at 3:30 am and took a taxi up to Pearson. By 4:30, I already had a seat on the next flight leaving to Panamá. The connection to Costa Rica was a breeze. But then I got to thinking, as I waited for my plane to take off. I had seen the news: New Jersey was devastated. New York had power outages all around. The transit system up and down the Eastern seaboard was chaotic. Obama and Romney were taking this as a political leap into a sure election.
But what about the Caribbean?
Sure, and I do not want to diminish the impact of Sandy in the U.S., the shore was devastated. Casualties piled up to 113. And the Caribbean had 72. No news broadcast mentioned them. No one highlighted that Haiti, still recovering from a tragic earthquake, had no means of defense against the storm. No one talks about the fifteen thousand homes devastated in Cuba. I guess the term Deadly Sandy can only apply to the U.S.
To the rest, it’s just target practice.
Cuban streets, images belonging to the Guardian U.K.
At about seven o’clock in the morning, she came out of the hospital, escorted by seven policemen and the endless sea of reporters. Her face was not frightened which confused me; if anything, it scared me. She was calm, she was–and I believe I can say it with complete assertiveness–at peace.
She just looked at the news cameras and smiled. Then she lowered her head in shame. No make-up, bristly gray hair on her head, with the occasional hint of black, and serene green eyes behind wrinkles, a lot of wrinkles. They seemed too weathered, she wasn’t that old.
I made my way near a wall, not to disturb anyone. I came in for the machines, I told myself, and not for the patients.
Then I noticed it; she was a nurse. White dress, closer to her skin that it should have been, a white hat and pale panties. Why a nurse? People pushed and shoved, they wanted to get a look, perhaps shout something. No, some of them even nodded with satisfaction. The policemen loaded her into the back of a squad-car gently and drove off. She left behind a needle. A single needle.
Four hours prior to this, she had entered the hospital dressed as a nurse. The uniform, she had gotten from a used clothing store just a couple of blocks down; the hospital guard trusted her, uniforms are usually a giveaway, and did not ask for her ID. I don’t he checked her purse either; doesn’t matter, she would have stolen the needle from a supply room.
And she knew what she was doing: injecting a huge air bubble then a hefty dose of adrenaline in the main bloodstream would cause anyone an irreparable arrhythmia.
Accelerate the heart past control, sending it to overdrive and forcing a heart-attack, while killing the brain. It seemed the perfect crime. Discard the needle in a junkie-town and you’re home free.
But she didn’t leave. She injected the patient slowly and she cried. The monitor started beeping, it piked with alarms and signals. The lonely nurse on duty at 3 am rushed and found her sitting next to the patient.
“Rest now, my friend,” she said, patting a frail, almost grayish hand, “rest now, my dearest.”
The nurse on duty could do nothing. She was dead within minutes.
The Benevolent Murderer killed her best friend, Lilly, who was on renal support, blood monitoring and, occasionally, a respirator. Lilly was 55 and had been diagnosed with acute diabetes just months past. Her condition dropped to delicate and then to terminally ill in just months. Doctors just waited. Relatives just waited. The Benevolent Murderer didn’t.
Would you wait?
Hospitals will drain your energy away.
If it’s not the surrounding death, nor the bleach-meets-blood-and-body-odors stench, it’s the pace, the stress and the diet consisting of mainly vending machines and soda, lots and lots of soda.
Keeping the engine running in this environment is nothing short of difficult, almost miraculous. It sounds as though I’m exaggerating but I’m not. Just last week I meet a forty-year-old orthopedist who arrived at our company to show his gratitude towards the owner and the great German stents we sell.
An orthopedist thanking us for stents? That’s as weird as a computer engineer thanking BMW for great brakes.
There was only one reason: even at forty, stents can be necessary.
Stents are tiny meshes introduced into fluid conducts (the urethra, veins or arteries) to expand them and allow for stronger flow. They can fix irregular flow to the kidneys, urinary insufficiency, even the esophagus!
But this case called for coronary stents. That’s right! Such was the wear and tear on his body, the stress, the diet, the oblivious cholesterol piling up, the lack of sleep after hours on end working and the irregular physical activity, that he ended up with a triple stent insertion.
At forty? That just doesn’t sound right.
So, it is best to make do with what one’s got. Take this example: about two months ago I met a doctor, probably about fifty, that was as fit as a tiger. How did he do it? Pretty simple.
With four things:
– Never use the elevator. Stairs are your friend.
– If it’s wrapped, then it’s not good for you.
– Dunk yourself in a pot of imaginary oil, so that all worries slip away.
But there was one thing he didn’t tell me. I came to find it out later. He sleeps and sleeps regularly.
And then it hit me: we are told that driving while tired is just as dangerous as driving drunk. Doctors spend over thirty hours straight working, between watches and shifts and emergencies and such. Isn’t being a doctor while tired just as dangerous?
I understand doctors and healthcare professionals are valuable. But our lives also are.
…Than a nail. That’s how the song goes.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon and I was on my way to the biggest hospital in my country. I must admit, I was foolishly–naively–thinking I’d be out of there by 5:00 to carry on with the research for my upcoming book. Never celebrate early, it just won’t work, that’s what my dad says. My coworker was waiting for me in the lobby and we walked into the operating room with motivation and determination.
I’ve never been able to explain it but I’ll try: I really don’t feel I’m crossing a barrier when I enter an operating hall. I mean that’s the so-called “most sterile” part of a hospital, right? And still, I just walked in, changed my clothes and stepped into the “clean area” looking like an oversized leprechaun with a hairnet and gloves. There wasn’t any control, any restrictions and it doesn’t make me feel right. All I could feel was the air getting colder, life being drained out and all emotion being put to the side.
It’s a long hallway—white tiles on the floor so that blood stands out, glass all around giving the place no sense of security, no sense of shelter, silence all around so machines can warn of any upcoming death—and operating rooms to the left and to the right. There’s no way to avoid them.
There it was, resting against the wall like a passenger waiting for the subway, our target: the cursed operating table. For about two years now we’ve been struggling with this table and its record isn’t exactly pristine. Five patients have died (no blame on the table), it gets jammed in the mornings and won’t hold its position in the afternoons and moves with free will. Doctors hate it and it’s not my best friend either.
We just looked at it, I like to do that before actually opening it up. Sometimes, with the simplest gaze, one can find out the most complex of problems. This time though, it wasn’t the case. We had had a report of nuances including a jammed elevator, a stuck brake on the wheels and a wobbly leg supporter and we decided to attack the “easiest problem”: the stuck brake.
Thirty minutes passed. The air got colder, my head actually hurt—a piercing pain shooting from the back of my head to the front—and I cursed not having lunch.
That damned brake would release. I was pretty sure that, if I could just get one more inch, just one, of visibility I could sneak in a screwdriver and release the spring. But the brakes are covered by a stainless steel shroud and I had two choices: either rest my head on an operating room floor or lift a machine that weighed up four hundred pounds—and do that with a bad back. I resisted both. I did everything: I used my cellphone camera to get an idea of the issue but nothing; I tried feeling the problem but couldn’t get anything but gunk and dirt.
I exhaled in frustration while my partner told me he wanted to give it a go.
Forty minutes had passed. My headache was now unbearable. The research for my book (consisting of an interview to an amputee) was now becoming a farfetched reality. My body demanded fuel. And that damned brake would not move.
My partner leaned back, literally sat down on the floor and exhaled, copying my gesture.
Fifty minutes had passed. The ten minutes we had conversed about possible solutions had been useless. No solution seemed worthy of a try. There just wasn’t any area.
Sixty minutes. The patient in the operating room next door had just been sedated. In about two hours his leg will be completely sawed off. My partner came up with a solution that required great effort. We had to life the table and put a support below and that way we would have precious inches to work with. He chose to lift it. I chose not to oppose him. We both inhaled, he braced for a comfortable position and humph-ed the chair into the air—or just two inches—I quickly slid the support just when he pulled his fingers free. One more second and they would’ve been chopped off. Success, we had lifted it.
I took a look at the brake. The spring was jammed and I thought: “if I get my screwdriver there and undo the whole system, I can clean the gunk, blood and protein, then rebuild the system and test it.” But the access was small, a gap of two inches maximum. I’d had to rest my head on the floor and, though it had been cleaned, hospital clean isn’t really clean at all. And so, I leaned my head as much as I could, my neck stiffened as it struggled to keep me from the vile invisible demons that lurk in the deceiving white tiles. I would feel them crawling towards me, wanting to stick to my skin and then seep slowly through my pores: flu, leptospirosis, MRSA, you name it and it was there. Suddenly I stopped breathing as if that would help. Then I hissed. I was wearing a mask.
I fought to get that sharp edge inside, it was just microns away, I could feel the screw and I swore it had actually turned but my hand trembled, my fingers cramped, the position was just too uncomfortable. Dammit, I had to give up.
I rested on my knees and looked at my partner with surrendered eyes.
In him I saw the opposite: in a surge of determination he disappeared. Seconds later he was back: in his hands were a can of WD40 and a hammer. He gently shoved me out of the way, then emptied half of the WD40 on the brake. After inhaling the “enlightening” fumes, he aimed at the brake. It was literally make or break: if he missed, the dent on the table would be impossible to hide.
He swung the hammer and put every drop of strength into it. I could see the forearm flex, his veins pop out and his eyes shrug with effort. The bang was so loud the doctors on the other operating room actually peeked to see if something had happened. Silence followed.
Pop! The brake unjammed.
A hammer and WD40 can be the best tools in the world.
We left at 5:45 pm.