Friday, May 1, 2009

Ready to Be Grumpy

Last night I hung out with a few nurses at the nurses' station. My father had suggested I try this for a little human contact when bored. I thought, "I can't do that, they're working!" He said they might have more down time than I thought.

I needed to get out of my room, so I went downstairs to the "Cafe," the poorly named little all-night snack shop in the RRMC (Ronald Reagan Medical Center). When I returned, a nurse, seated at a computer in the nurses' station, asked me where I'd been. We started chatting, and I asked if she was busy. She said no, and invited me to sit with her, at which point she confessed that she was just reading Though in her defense, she was reading a post about Toni Braxton's pericarditis. Whoever TMZ's new medical editor is, she's doing a bang-up job. Really top-notch reporting on Mary Kate's UTI.

The nurse and I hung out for a while, and I went on a little adventure with her to the all-night pharmacy. I may go into greater detail on all this in a subsequent post. But from my vantage point sitting in the nurses' station, I could see into the room next to mine.

And I saw my next-door neighbor (see "Old-People Problems" below), sleeping peacefully, with a full-time attendant sitting next to her, reading the newspaper. She was wearing a plastic yellow gown--I didn't see any signs outside the room warning of contageons, so I assumed this was because the old lady had been spitting on people so much. Lying there, she looked like any old lady, no more or less gnarled and weathered. Whatever compassion or empathy or spiritual-corporeal kinship I might've shared with her, I've managed to undo with one rude encounter with a Patient Affairs volunteer.

The volunteers tend to be elderly themselves: of the half dozen or so I've met, I'd put the average age at 75. The first night in the ER, I had several volunteers walk into my room without knocking and stare at me for a good 10 or 15 disturbing seconds before saying a word. One, when he finally did talk, went on and on about his bum shoulder. I'm sure this was done in the tenor of camaraderie, but all I could think was, "Dude, I've got an infection on my heart! Don't tell me about your bum shoulder."

When I asked a resident if UCLA had an official ombudsman service, she told me the Patient Affairs volunteers were the ombudsmen. When I pointed out that, while officially adorable, they didn't seem to be as knowledgible as I understood ombudsmen to be, she asked if I had problems with the care I was receiving. "No," I said, "I'd just like to talk to an ombudsman about some concerns I have." This was the first and only time I'd seen this particular resident (one of the many transients on my CCU (cardiac care unit) team). For some reason, though, she took it upon herself to tell the resident--and God only knows whom else--that I was upset with my care. So the next morning my resident woke me up at 7:00 am to apologize for whatever she'd done to upset me. Thus is the nature of liaison communication in the hospital.

A few minutes ago I exited the bathroom to find someone entering my room without knocking. Eliding the gory details, moving one's bowels in a hospital can be arduous, and even when successful, it's seldom satisfying. So I emerged from the bathroom clutching my telemetry box (or "telly box," a remote monitoring system) in one hand and the hardcover "The World According to Garp" that my girlfriend Katy sent me, and watched a little old lady enter my room.
Fig 1, a telly box.

Fig 2, a Telly's box. NSFW.

She smiled and stared at me for an uncomfortable stretch of time (perhaps Patient Affairs volunteers are trained in this awkward art?). We each stood on one side of the empty hospital bed regarding each other, as if in the set position to dash to the bed to determine who got it! Eventually she announced she was a Patient Affairs volunteer and proudly displayed the back of her ID badge hanging around her neck. I should get this out of the way: she was a predictably adorable little old lady. Itty-bitty, bright red wig, cane draped over her arm, massive antiquated hearing aid wrapped around her ear.

She asked me if the doctors and nurses were answering all of my questions, and I said they were, for the most part. She said I just had to keep asking them. Then she asked me if I had an advance directive--an especially eerie question coming from a 105-year-old. I said, "I really don't want to talk about this now," which seems like a reasonable request from someone looking at potentially high-risk heart surgery. She said, "Boy, you're not in a good mood." Now, I've been known to become too defensive too quickly. I think it stems from my being a native New Yorker.
Pablo Picasso, "Nueva York." Oil on canvas, 1937.

Whatever the cause, it's gotten me into trouble in the past. "Well," I said, "I've been here a week and I'm looking at at least two more." She smiled and offered me a crossword puzzle. I like crossword puzzles. But along with "Garp," Katy sent me a book of Times crosswords, so I felt covered. "No thanks," I said. Maybe I cut her off--slightly. But she left, muttering, "Someone's just ready to be grumpy," or something like that.

As I put this in words, she seems unreasonable. But in the moment I felt so awful for having been rude to her. Here was this woman, for all I knew a cardiac patient's widow, or grandmother, or whatever, who was merely asking me if there was anything she could do for me. I felt so bad that I briefly considered grabbing her in the hall and saying, "Let's try that again." I didn't.

And the guilt is starting to abate, as well. Part of me feels like, yeah, she's an adorable little old lady who's just trying to help, but a hospital patient should never be put in a position of feeling like they have to humor support staff (or anyone, for that matter). But it's troubling to me how markedly my mood is eroding over time in here.


  1. I love the showdowns you're having with volunteers. keep'em coming!

  2. My partner finally demanded to be left alone by the volunteers, student nurses, etc. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. Creepy, and more annoying than comforting. Ah, well...