Post #61 - Into the World of COVID

I had been having chest pains and finding myself out of breath when walking up the slightest hill so the cardiologist suggested I come in to the hospital for a catheterization, a procedure where like a plumbing snake, they make a tiny cut inside your wrist and run a camera up your arm, through your shoulder and into your coronary arteries.

It's terrifying — not the procedure, that's easy and I'm fine,  but just walking into a hospital.

I'm 65, have had five stents, so I'm a high risk person, and you don't know what's floating around in the air over there or lurking around on the bannisters, but as the cardiologist said to me through my computer last week, "you have to weigh the risk against benefits," and based on my history he thought it was a risk, whatever it was, that was worth taking.

So I drove the car for the first time in six weeks (it was just like riding a bike) with a worried wife next to me. Since it's an in-and-out procedure, kind of like a car wash, there was no need to bring anything except a phone. We got there, kissed goodbye, and I got out of the car and for the first time since the pandemic began, entered the world of COVID-19.

As I entered, the lobby was filled with nurses wearing masks. Many were in blue gowns, and they were in good spirits. I approached the registration desk and asked what was going on. "Are they going on strike?" I asked in a loud voice, as I had speak up through my mask and at a proper distance from the desk, according to three signs that you couldn't miss.

"No, it's nurses day," she said, a bit to my disappointment. I was already imagining myself carrying a picket sign in support into the operating room. She said the hospital was expressing its appreciation with a speech or two, and some food.

I barely had time to hum the first bars of "The Internationale" before my name was called and I was  ushered into an office to register by the only male in the department. He would also be the only person I saw the entire time I was in the hospital, who was not wearing a mask. I wondered about him as I sat in front of his desk, a little too close for comfort. The day before, our newsletter had linked to a story in Scientific American about why people were refusing to wear masks. For the men, it seemed to be about macho culture: "Who are you to tell me what to do" "I've got my rights," "I've got my big long gun here (Freud would have had a field day with that one), and I'm tougher than a virus." "Caring about other people is for lefty, sissies."

He called up an insurance form on his ipad so I could sign it with the electronic pen he had in his hand. I looked at his bare hands and bare face and asked him to sign it for me. He said he couldn't do that. I had to ask, "Why aren't you wearing a mask?"

"I don't need one," he said."I just got in."

I told him I didn't want to sign that ipad, either with my finger or with the electronic pen, but I he insisted I didn't have a choice, so I did,  wondering what Tim Cook would think about his ipads being potential instruments of death.

When I was done,  he took a Lysol wipe from the container on his desk, wrapped it around the pen and then wiped down the ipad screen." "See, no need to worry," and then got up and went into another room to get the wristband from the printer, but I continued to worry. Was the printer being wiped down too? What about the door knob? This wasn't someone who seemed really into following safety rules.

In a few minutes, much to my relief a masked nurse came to get me. She led me through a few hallways where we past patients in their beds, most of them older. Finally, we got to the room where I would prep for the procedure. She led me through the door and handed me over to another masked nurse, who couldn't have been more covered up if she was walking through Taliban territory in Afghanistan. "Hi, Susie-Q," the first one said. "I have your patient."

I really was her patient. There wasn't anyone else around. We were standing in a small operating room that had been temporarily decommissioned after elective surgeries had been canceled. A lone bed had been placed in the only empty floor space. That was mine. It was like being put in a large storage closet.

We chatted and she put me at ease. She said in a few minutes a COVID-19 nurse would come in and test me. Even though Sue and I couldn't have been more isolated if we lived among the penguins in Antarctica, the idea of a test was somehow comforting — until the nurse came in with her bottle and a swab that I think was as long as one of those pullers that grocery store clerks use to grab boxes from the top shelf. "We reach in pretty deep" up into your nose," she warned me but not unpleasantly. She wasn't kidding. As she put it in and turned it to scrape out anything that was in there, it burrowed deeper and deeper until my big toe started to ache. It only took about 15 seconds though, much to my relief, until she said the dreaded words, "Now we do the other nostril."

When she was done, I turned to the nurse and asked her, "You have to go through that every day?"

She shook her head.

"You mean you don't get tested?"

"Nope," she said, with a look I could only interpret under her mask as a mix of sadness, fear and anger."

"How about equipment?" I wanted to know. She reached up to the desk where the monitor sat and handed me a paper, cottony mask. It should have had a sign on it that said, "Hey COVID droplets, enter this way." It was flimsy as hell.

"They don't protect you much," she said, "but that's all they give us."

She went back to her work while I sat back in the bed to ponder that. A few minutes later,  a second nurse showed up to give Susie a break. The three of us began talking about the virus. They told me that what was normally the recovery room for out-patient surgery was filled with COVID patients but that the ICU, while crowded, was not overwhelmed. At the virus's peak, there were maybe 100 patients. Now it was down to 50 but still quite a bit above capacity.

Were any of the staff sick? The second nurse, said that of 20 or so on her shift, four were sick while another six or so had symptoms — meaning probably but weren't tested. I didn't want to ask if any had died.

I shook my head, thinking about all the risks they were taking. "He knew all about this in advance...."

That's when I got the next jolt of surprise. "Well, not necessarily," Susie said a she got up to leave for her break. When she left the second nurse shook her head. "Almost all of them on this floor are for him," she said.

"Even with the shortages and the lack of testing?"

"Yes. They don't blame him."

What could I say. People would believe anything, even nurses who are fodder for an administration that couldn't give a damn about them. I wanted to ask more, but I thought about a former NFL player I knew who was a vocal antiwar activist in the 60s. Decades before Kaepernick came along, he refused to salute the flag before the game. At the end of his career, he hurt his knee and found himself on the operating table looking up at a surgeon whose views on the Vietnam and patriotism were the opposite of his. "You know," the doctor told him. "Your life is in my hands now." He wasn't joking.

On her return though, Susie was as friendly and thoughtful as she had been before, but as I sat back and waited to be wheeled in I thought about her and the lobby full of nurses who were feted on Nurse Appreciation Day and given food, and a speech. It didn't occur to me until I was sitting there that they didn't get the one thing they needed most — protection.

The second nurse returned. "We're ready," she said brightly. She seemed eager. The hospital had just resumed elective surgeries. It was like getting the old gang together for another game. Only I wasn't a player. I was the ball. 

"I'll be in here with you," Susie told me as we entered the operating room. The air in there was cold. The team was extremely friendly. One by one they introduced themselves to me through their masks and kept me informed of every liberty they would take with my body. My arms were tied down. I was given a nose mask. I must have looked like Hannibal Lector. The senior nurse introduced himself as "Ang" (short for Angelo). He had black hair and an arm full of tattoos. I couldn't see enough of his face to make any kind of guess about him. "Did you have a good night's sleep? I asked. I detected a smile, but maybe a painful one. He took out an electric razor. I waited for him to say, "I'm your biggest fan," but instead he assured me that while we were about to get deeply intimate on this our first date, he would protect my dignity or what was left of it. I knew I would have to do a whole lot of trusting. No Trump jokes now, but as he went about his business, I couldn't resist saying, "I like it long on the sides." He laughed as did the others.

Susie said they would give me something to relax me. I thought I didn't need to relax. I had an audience, and I chattered away. When the surgeon came into start the procedure, I looked over at him and asked, "While you're in there can you drop in some disinfectant?"

I thought it was a good line, but a few seconds later, Susie leaned over and said, "We're going to give you some more anesthesia." The house dropped the curtain during my act. The next thing I remember the surgeon said it was all done. Susie, as pleasant as ever, wheeled me back.

It was good to see her again.

Comments

  1. I am wondering how many of us have "underlying conditions." It sometimes seems to be blown off, as though, "Well, they had one foot in the grave already."

    ReplyDelete

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