At a gathering of my church’s board and pastors this weekend, I asked one of the pastor’s wives how her mother-in-law was feeling because two days earlier, she had fainted in the hospital while visiting a friend and hurt herself badly when she fell. The conversation led others to reflect on medical mishaps that happened to them or to others while visiting other people at the hospital. They concurred that however badly it sucks to encounter a health problem, a hospital ain’t a bad place for it to happen. I agree, except when being in the hospital is what brings it about in the first place. I remember just such an incident. It happened on my thirty-first birthday, May 23, 2006…
They’d warned me that Mrs. Goertzen was eccentric, a little crazy even, but the forty-minute drive from Terrace Lodge retirement home to her biopsy appointment at the hospital was uneventful. She slept most of the way. Upon stepping out of my car though, she said,
I offered her my arm but instead of linking it in hers, the tiny woman stepped close, pressed every inch of her body to mine, strapped both arms around my waist and held on. I gingerly placed an arm about her bony shoulder and in this fashion we commenced our ungainly three-legged crossing toward the hospital doors. The thinness of those frail-looking arms was deceitful. I had no hope of loosing myself from their iron grip without attracting even more attention from strangers in the parking lot who were beginning to stare at what they perceived to be my mother strapped like an over-sized leech to my side.
In the waiting room I carefully peeled her off, deposited her in a chair and went to the nurse’s station for her paperwork. She now had nothing to do but answer questions on her chart which I recorded for her.
“Mrs. Goertzen, do you drink alcohol?” She answered in the affirmative.
“Do you have a problem with alcohol abuse?”
“Oh yes”, she replied.
I looked up from the chart, wondering if she had misunderstood the question. Her matter-of-fact blue eyes gazed calmly back at me. I forced myself to read the next question.
“Um…how much alcohol do you consume in a day?”
“A good-sized bottle.” She was as cool and unperturbed as before. I was less experienced then, and not accustomed to intimate details from perfect strangers. Astonishment at this admission from an elderly Mennonite woman must have been shown in my face because her own leathery visage cracked all over as she burst into gales of gleeful hilarity, sputtering, “I got you. Ohh, I got you!”
People in the waiting room turned to see the commotion. I turned Mrs. Goertzen back to her chart in fervent hope of getting her out of there, fast.
In hindsight, patience would have served me better. With no mischief to occupy her thoughts, Mrs. Goertzen got tired of waiting. Without warning, she lurched to her feet. “I’m tired of this,” she declared, swaying precariously on her thick-soled orthopedics. “I’m going home.” The daily-bottle reference shot through my mind as I leapt to my feet to steady her. With the help of a nurse, I half-coaxed, half-corralled her into a corner until a team of doctors was finally ready to begin the procedure.
“Oh yes,” I said. The thought of Mrs. Goertzen strapped to a bed with a knife in her back bothered me considerably less than it might have a few hours before. I settled into a comfortable chair at the head of the bed and watched a big syringe shoot anesthetic into her spine. Turning her twinkling blue eyes to me from the pillow, she began to depict amusing facial expressions the doctors hovering over her backside might exhibit were she to pass gas. Having had all I was willing to take for one day, I admonished Mrs. Goertzen to hold her wind.
A shiny, steel-bladed instrument carved a tidy sphere out of her back.
“Are you alright Ma’am?” They were talking to me. “Yes”, I said, albeit less certainly than before. I’d never attended a biopsy before. There was a lot more blood than I expected.
Again the blade stabbed her back and quarried deeper, churning up more blood. The smile vanished from Mrs. Goertzen’s face. She winced and gasped from pain. The sedative did not travel as far as the scalpel.
My head began to feel heavy and droop; I could no more lift it than hoist a refrigerator over my shoulders. The room turned unbearably hot and the knife bore ever deeper into Mrs. Goertzen’s feeling flesh. Sweat poured down my face and back and a lead weight pressed me down, leaving me unable to move a finger. How very odd, I thought. Should I say something? I am in a room full of doctors. But Mrs. Goertzen has a hole in her back. Poor Mrs. Goertzen. Someone else should have driven her today.
A female voice said, “Ma’am, you look awfully warm. Would you rather wait outside?” When I didn’t answer, she began to peel off layers of sweat-soaked clothing. I heard a strange, wheezing gasp, then realized it had come from me. Knock it off, I said to myself, before they really think something’s wrong. I could have carried it off, too, had my throat not constricted, leaving me the air capacity of a stir stick. I was conscious but I couldn’t see anything. Mrs. Goertzen, however, witnessed the entire scene and was raising a terrible fuss. As they wheeled me from the room, I heard voices begging her to lie down and assuring her that I’d be okay. It took the entire team of physicians to keep the old lady from flipping onto her back with the scalpel still lodged in her spine.
Once in my own hospital bed with a cold cloth on my head and a fan blowing my sweaty shirt cold on my skin, my breath and vision returned. I felt and heard the heaviness dissipate in tiny particles that cascaded from the top of my head, sifted through my brain and disappeared. A kindly nurse bearing juice and little crackers agreed to call Albert to come and collect me and the other patient. By now I felt almost well, but not having foreseen my first episode, I feared another one on the expressway going home, an event which would have sealed the matter as to whether or not Mrs. Goertzen was better off with someone else’s charity.
Presently, the old dame in question tottered in, patched and disinfected, to settle into an armchair at my bedside. Albert found me there, pale and prostrate, while the irrepressible old battle-ax whom I was supposed to be tending smiled gently down on me, looking for all the world like a beneficent angel sent to stroke my fevered brow and administer healing balm. I half-suspect she favoured this reversal of fortunes.
Mrs. Goertzen and I fared better during subsequent outings. Well, other than the time I almost dumped her over a curb because I’d neglected to buckle her into her wheelchair, but my right hand shot out in time to catch her from an impending face plant on the rutted side street. The last time I saw her, she informed me that she has a new beau who also resides at the home. If he shares even an inkling of her mischievous bent, I daresay the pair of them keep the staff hopping at Terrace Lodge. My thirty-first birthday may not have been the happiest of my life but thanks to Mrs. Goertzen, I’ll never forget it.