Sunday, October 13, 2013
For a while it felt like we were alone, except for the gently smiling, soft-footed nurses. Then there was a flurry at the double doors leading to surgery. A gurney was pushed through, escorted by three people in caps and scrubs. A woman's head nearly blended in with the blankets that swaddled her and I was just about to turn away as they turned the corner right in front of me, feeling like I shouldn't be observing someone in this way, when I noticed her foot.
One small perfect pink foot emerged from the blankets. Striking—startling—in both color and nakedness. They took her several curtains away from us, so I was left with only that image of her exposed foot that seemed both intimate and vulnerable.
A short while later, the scene was replayed, in almost identical detail. A woman, eyes closed, as pale has her blankets, wheeled out of surgery, with her exposed foot the only sign of real life. I couldn't get the vulnerability of those feet out of my mind. How that one exposed part seemed more intimate and naked than if the women had been completely uncovered.
She, too, was wheeled far away from us. While I sat praying for both women, marveling at this strange world we were visiting, a third gurney came through the doors.
This time it was a man and he was talking to his escorts. No bare parts were exposed. There was gravel in his voice, and something else I didn't figure out until later. He was wheeled into the space next to ours. I listened as a doctor explained the procedure and the man responded through a druggy haze. I heard nurses offer food and comfort. It was during the time they spelled out what the remainder of his time in post-op would look like that things got interesting.
Hospital rules say patients in day surgery have to have another person present to hear after-care details and to provide a ride home and to be with the patient for the first 24 hours. The man next door was alone. His girlfriend had to work and was unable to be there. She couldn't get off work until early evening, which would leave him sitting on the ward for five more hours. She'd only started the job three days before and he wasn't going to risk her losing that job by asking her to come get him.
He said he'd left on his own before. This clearly wasn't his first rodeo. The nurse insisted that hadn't happened at this hospital. He insisted it had. And he was going to leave this time, too.
Over the course of their conversation it became clear this man was alone. He had no family, no friends, no one besides the girlfriend who also was not available. He fully intended to leave the hospital by himself, by bus or cab, he didn't seem too concerned which.
On my way back from the bathroom, I glanced into his face peering balefully through the opening in his curtain. Surprisingly young, he looked like a fledgling raptor, all hunger and sharp talons and fierceness but fuzzy around the edges. I smiled. He did not.
By the time Walt and I left it was apparent the man was going to get his way. He would be required to sign a form saying he was leaving against medical advice. I guessed a nurse would call a cab for him, someone would wheel him to it, help him inside, and then he would be back in the world. Wounded. More alone than not. Tough.
Even in a situation where vulnerability is inherent in physical frailty and the medical world's attempts to repair, where drugs weaken most of our usual defenses, this man managed to maintain a wall. No pink foot exposed to the world for this guy, even in the most extreme of circumstances. For one irrational moment (until I remembered why I was there in the first place) I considered offering to take him home. I wanted to step into his cubicle and hold his hand and tell him he could choose another way. I wish I could have reached in and pulled his blankets gently away, exposing one perfect foot.