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Hearts and Hospitals

January 13, 2008

My first adventure of 2008, after working New Year’s Day, was a bout of hospitalitis. This was a result of dutifully going to an emergency room to check out chest pains. Despite an expensive array of modern medical technology, the cause is still unknown. Perhaps a twitch to remind me to burn the candle at both ends less, get more rest, etc.

Every time I go to a hospital, I swear I’ll never go back. I’ve been in Army hospitals, New York City hospitals and suburban hospitals. The customer service hasn’t gotten any better since I was curtly informed at a field hospital in Vietnam to come back in the morning to get treated for a broken collar bone. This time, I went to an emergency room on the advice of my doctor, after I called to request an exam to check out a jolt of pain in my chest that woke me up. Twenty-four hours later, I felt fortunate to escape this latest medical experience.

Despite signs on the walls listing the rights of patients, including clearly explaining proposed procedures and options, the EM Doc barked like a drill sergeant: “So, we’re going to follow my action plan, right?” Excuse me, I asked, what did the EKG and the chest x-ray and the blood tests that he had ordered show? What did the heart beat monitor I was hooked up to show? Oh, he said in medical bureaucratese, nothing out of the ordinary. But, I should be admitted and checked into a hospital room for more tests to relieve my “discomfort.” “I’m discomforted here,” I said, rubbing my numb feet and legs under a thin sheet on the bed in an examination room that was about the temperature of a meat locker. “I’m freezing. I’d be more comfortable at home.”

“If you sign out, it’s against medical orders,” he said with a fierce glare. “You could have a heart attack at home and die.” “I could have a heart attack right here,” I replied. His response, I chillingly felt, implied that I was insubordinate and that he’d relish a chance to do a “code blue” on me. Then he dashed out of the room, to call my doctor, as it turned out. On the phone, my family doctor explained that a couple more rounds of blood tests were needed, a few hours apart, to look for a chemical marker associated with heart attacks. Also, she said, I should get a stress test. “I walk up six flights of stairs at work,” I said. “That’s my morning stress test.” By the way, I added, another reporter died of a heart attack while doing a stress test. She didn’t sound dissuaded.

OK, I said, I’ll stay the night—if I can negotiate a way to stay warm. By then, I’d put my pants and boots back on and wrapped my shoulders with my sweater over the flimsy hospital gown. I’d also yanked out the wires hooking me up to the heart monitor, pulled off the oxygen tube in my nose, and gone to the bathroom, after repeatedly asking for more than three hours when could I go to the bathroom. Awhile later, a heart specialist arrived and checked my chest and back with his stethoscope. I asked if he had looked at the test results. Yes, he said, adding, in a flurry of medical terminology, that the likelihood I’d had a massive heart attack was very small. Still, he urged me to be admitted for more tests. Reluctantly, I agreed.

Off I was wheeled in the emergency room bed, with my belongings in plastic bags, the sides snapped up like a crib. The bed and I were parked in a fifth floor hallway and the aide disappeared. This reminded me of the time about five years ago when I was in another hospital to check out chest pains and was left lying in misery in a gurney in a hospital gown barely covering my butt in a crowded emergency room hallway for about six hours. That time, I was told the tests showed I didn’t have a heart attack—but a stress attack. My wife had died, her mother was dying, the last of our dogs had died, my kids had moved to California, I’d sold the house and had to get out, and I hadn’t sleep well in months. The battery of tests for a heart attack, however, showed I was fine.

This time around, I was plotting my escape when a nurse arrived and let me out of this miniature jail on wheels. Apparently in response to my complaint that the last time I was in the hospital overnight, to be treated for a kidney stone blockage, the man in the next bed kept the television on all night, I was wheeled into a room with a very quiet roommate. In fact, he quietly died in the night—while nurses and aides came and went, changing the silent old gent’s diapers and repeatedly waking me to take blood samples, blood pressure readings, temperature readings and at least the third EKG reading since I went to the emergency room. Near dawn, a nurse’s aide realized my roommate didn’t seem to be with us any longer. She dashed out and brought back another aide. They both left and a nurse strode in and fussed around behind the curtain separating our beds. She left and awhile later an officious-looking man in a suit walked in, glanced around the other side of the curtain at the body in the other bed and turned and left. None of them said a word to me about the death that had occurred right next to me.

To die in a hospital is what I was trying to avoid. I contemplated going home and taking my chances. But I wanted to know the results of all these tests—was my heart OK or not? There was no one to ask. The nurses and aides and technicians didn’t know. I waited until shortly after 9 a.m. and called my doctor. She wasn’t in. In fact, the receptionist said, she was off for the day. I asked if I could find out my test results and whether I could be released from the hospital. I was told the doctor would be contacted and get back to me. She never did.

Meanwhile, the family of the man who died arrived. Amid their crying, I slipped out into the hallway and resumed plotting my escape. Walking up and down past the nurses’ station, I made a show of doing isometric exercises. I checked out the locations of stairwells and elevators. When the grieving family left, I put my pants and boots on, took off the hospital gown, put on my T-shirt and slung my sweater over my shoulders. During one of my walkabouts, the heart specialist appeared in the hallway. He did a quick check with his stethoscope and pronounced me fit to be discharged. However, he added, I should make an appointment for a stress test at his office and take some medication he would prescribe.

“I’m being discharged!” I told aides and nurses. “How do I get this stuff off?” I asked of the wires clamped to terminals stuck to my chest and to a mobile monitor hung around my neck. “Your nurse has to do it,” I was told. But she kept disappearing on other matters. My roommate’s body also disappeared, wheeled out while I was walking about.
Weird, how they don’t talk about death in hospitals—or what’s actually in your test results. After all that medical drama, the chest pains are still a mystery. All those tests I guess confirmed that I’m still ticking.

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