Thursday, April 30, 2009

Old-People Problems

I apologize in advance for what I fear will be a lethally boring, dry, and humorless post--and I will take no offense should it go unread--but I'm subjecting my readers to it for a reason. I hope.

Last night, for hours and hours and hours, the elderly woman in the room next-door was screaming and wailing and fighting with her heavily accented African attendant--called a "care partner" at UCLA. The voyeuristic cannibalistic (and lazy) writer in me couldn't avoid eavesdropping, even though it very quickly became evident that the drama was uninteresting and incredibly repetitive, if deeply sad. Still, I transcribed the chunks of it I could decipher. I rarely heard what the staff said, in their forceful calming tones, but most of the old woman's words were clear, shouted through snarled, twiny vocal chords.

I know nothing about this woman. Strangely, I do know her name (which I won't use, of course), but I don't know what she looks like, what her cardiac condition is, or how old she is. I wouldn't recognize her if she walked into my room now. Unless she started shouting at me, which she probably would.

In trying to keep up with the muffled, painful exchanges, I realized that she was demented (and the nurses said as much--in the hours-long struggle, numerous attendants, nurses, and social workers were alternately recruited to mitigate and molify; and there were frequent discussions of Haldol, a powerful anti-psychotic, though I couldn't gauge whether any had been administered). There was nothing remotely interesting about the content of what was said: it turned out she was belligerant about not being allowed out of bed without assistance, and about the attendant's attempt to change her diaper. But the overall effect was pretty terrifying. I wondered if it was a dismebodied, auditory augur of my future: alone in a hospital room, angry and scared. Given my health at 32, what eventual alternative could there be for me?

Then this afternoon my friend Jamie stopped by with her 19-month-old daughter (and a Coffee Bean iced coffee, bless her heart), and we walked down to the hospital cafeteria for lunch. Jamie noted that what's interesting about my medical issues, and my consequent perspective on things, is that I've "got old-people problems." I suppose this is undeniable. Yes, I was born with congenital heart disease, and, due to medical advancements in the last half century, only now for the first time is there a generation Tetralogy of Fallot sufferers who have lived into middle-age. Something about my condition feels intrinsically childish. But pacemakers in general do sound like old-people problems (and there will be more to come on my struggles to get a young-people pacemaker). Long considered comic-relief by ad men, it turns out old people (a) have their own problems; and (b) were previously non-old people. So in that light I thought I'd post the partial transcript of last night's ruckus next-door.

Be warned, it's boring and repetitive--in content. Getting past that, though, I hope it takes on the formal abstraction of a prose poem. That somehow Gertrude Stein would be proud of this woman's creation, albeit unintentional.
Gertrude Stein. I'd like to squeeze those Tender Buttons, baby!

And I don't know anything about spoken-word poetry, but I imagine that this poor woman's paroxysmic protestations were both performative--in some self-pitying, addled, acting-out way--and genuine performance. The theatrics of suffering, or some such banality. It's disjointed and apparently meaningless, but with any luck that makes it all the more revealing.

David Milch, a writer I greatly admire and have been fortunate enough to briefly study with, says that, in "Moby-Dick," Melville subjects readers to the obsessive, overwhelming, and boring chapters about the whaling industry so that, in some sense, they will ultimately share Ahab's fixation and frustration. That, in some metonymic parallel, the reader's relationship to the novel will reflect Ahab's to the whale. To, as Coleridge puts it, transform the novel (and Ahab's quest) from a fanciful association to an imaginative one. Maybe my invisible old lady's words can transform the fanciful association of old age that we all possess into something slightly more imaginative and genuine...

OLD LADY: ...Let go of my hand! Let go of me. Let go of my hand. Let go of my hand. Let go of me! Let go of my hand, I said! Didn't you hear me?!

ATTENDANT: I'm not doing anything.

OL: Yes you are , you're being bad to me. I want you to call my husband. Right now. Right now. Right now. I want you to leave me alone, and stay away from me.

A: I don't want you to fall.

OL: I'm not going to fall.

A: Where do you want to go?

OL: I don't know where I want to go! I don't want to stay here with you. I don't want to stay here with you! I don't want you to touch me. I want you to get your hands off of me! Get your hands off of me. Get your hands off of me. I want her to get her hands off me! I'm sick and tired. I'm sick and tired.

NURSE 1: Just relax, close your eyes.

OL: I will not close my eyes. [many minutes later] Let go of me. Let go of me. Right now. Right now. Do you hear me? Right now. God damn it! Leave my hand alone. Leave me alone. I don't want you to touch me. Get away from me! Get away from me!...No, get away from me! Owwww! You bitch! [sobbing] Get out of here. Let go of me. Stay away from me! [several other nurses enter room] I want her away from me….No I don't want you to touch me.

NURSE 2: We just don't want you to fall out of bed. What's the problem?

OL: I want her to get her hands off me.

N2: Well she will if you get out of bed.

OL: I can get out of bed. [inaudible exchange] They're going to hear about this, don't worry!

N2: Okay, let's pull you up.

N1: We're gonna pull you up in bed.

OL: Leave me alone! Wait till I tell my husband.

A: You want me to call him?

OL: I don't care if you call him or not, I'm gonna tell him plenty.

N1: Okay, pick your legs up.

OL:Let go of me.

N2: We just want to make sure you're safe. Let's just relax, 'cause you're getting all wound up for no reason.

[many minutes later]

A: What did I do on your hand?

OL: You broke it!

A: I broke it?

N2: Are you cold or hot?...Okay…

OL: I don't want to be handled. Let go of my fingers. Let go of my hands. Now! Now. Get away from me. Get away from me! Don't push me now, I'm gonna call the police. Let go of my fingers now. Do you hear me? Now.

A [walking out to nurses' station]: Excuse me, Nurse, you don't have anything to calm her down?

NURSE 3: She called the husband and he didn't want her to get anything.


OL: Get your hands off me!

A: Okay, stay in bed.

OL: Don't you dare hit me.

A: I'm not hitting you.

OL: Yes you are!

A: I'm not hitting you.

OL: Yes you are!

A: You're hitting me.

OL: I don't care!

A: Okay, stay in bed, I don't want you to fall.

OL: Get away from me. Let go! Let go-oh.

A: Stop hitting me, it's hurting me. You're hurting my hand.

OL: Let me be.

A [returning to nurses' station]: Can you call the charge nurse for me? I need to talk to her.


OL: I'm not bothering you, leave me alone!

A: I don't want you to fall.

OL: I won't fall.

A: Let me change you.

OL: No!

A: You're wet, you smell.

OL: I'm not wet!

A: Yes, you are.

OL: Too bad!

A: You stink.

A [conferring at nurses' station]: She says she's gonna make sure I lose my job. She's hitting me. I need my job, so if you guys--if they don't give anything for her, I have to leave. Still they don't want to give her anything.

N3: Yeah, I'm going to talk to the charge nurse and Ill be back. [later, on phone] I don't know if you want to talk with the husband about what to give her, because I don't... [inaudible].


A: Don't pull this IV, you're going to hurt yourself.

OL: Leave me alone! Leave. Me. Alone.

A: If the patient were hitting and scratching, I'd expect some kind of intervention. She needs some kind of medication. Something….She can't strike out of the staff. This has been going on for 2 or 3 hours…the husband can’t… [inaudible].


NURSE 4: My name is [Nurse 4], I'm the charge nurse for the night shift. I'm just checking on you. You met [Nurse 1] here and [Attendant], right? [later, at nurses' station] Okay, so the doctor called, they're gonna let her get some Haldol. But you know how it is, as soon as she falls asleep…


A: Lay down.

OL: You are a pain in the ass.

A: You see when I'm touching you? When you try to get up from bed.

OL: Get your hands off me!

A: I will leave you alone when you stay in bed. Why are you hitting me?

OL: Because you annoy me....Will you stop it? Damn you! Get out of here, just get out of here!

A: Why are you screaming? People are sleeping.

OL: Don't you dare, damn you. Get off of me! You're gonna be sorry. Boy, are you going to be sorry. You are going to be sorry.

N4: Mrs. [Old Lady], settle down. We're just gonna clean you, and after that, were not gonna touch you.

OL: I don't want you to clean me, I can clean myself. Leave me alone, I said. Let go of my hand. Get off of me! I don't want you to clean me, I want to clean myself up.

A: You can't.

OL: Yes, I can. You're making me very angry....Stop pulling on me.

N4: Mrs. [Old Lady], we're helping you.

OL: You're not helping me. Will you stop it, you're hurting me! Bastards.

N4: That's not appropriate.

OL: I don't care! I don't like what she's doing to me....Leave me alone, you pig! You will close your mouth. Leave me alone, you pig....

1 comment:

  1. I totally get this. The really good nurses aren't the ones who say the appropriate things, they're the ones who care. Nurses who don't care but say the appropriate thing become a patient's worst nightmare, because the emotion comes through clearly even if the words are well-meant. Especially if you're in a state where you can't focus clearly on the words. Ugh.