"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, October 13, 2013


The curtains were opened just enough that I could see straight down the hall to the surgery doors. Walt lay on the gurney next to me coming out of anesthetic fog after a successful repair to his shoulder replacement. Even though there is promise of privacy in medical situations, the curtains and crowding created a setting of peculiar intimacy.

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.


Barb said...

For some people life is a tightrope. They must depend only on themselves for balance or they fall (fail). That kind of life would be very scary for me. I depend on a support system. You've conveyed the scene and the feelings so well, Deb.

DJan said...

I hope this young man found his way. It's fascinating to think about the different ways we find our way in the world. Thank you for this lovely vignette. :-)

kario said...

It must have been difficult to not step in and offer. I know I would have wanted to, too. This is why I stopped working as a surgical assistant - I wanted to take all of the lonely patients home and nurture them! ;-)

Hope Walt recovers quickly! Thank you for your exquisite observations.

patricia said...

Great writing. Great symbolism. Love this story.
Love you, too.

Pam said...

Much for thought here Deb. Like schools, hospitals see the full range of human circumstance, and like hospitals, schools discharge students into the big wide world knowing some will have much more support and opportunity than others.
I wish him well.
I think when you are compassionate, you cannot help but notice these things. Nursing and teaching have a lot in common.

Sandi said...

Only you, Deb, can take what nearly everyone else would maybe casually notice and immediately forget, and build a story that rips a hole into our complacency. Powerful tale of how vulnerable we are, despite our insistence that we are not.

When I got to this sentence, "I wanted to step into his cubicle and hold his hand and tell him he could choose another way." I was reminded of someone else I knew, in what almost seems like another lifetime. My tears are unstoppable right now, as I remember uncovering and caressing his bare foot, blanketing it with my tears as I kissed it good-bye.

Love to you and Walt as he heals.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, a poem--I don't know which one--says something about "coming upon beauty unaware." And so it is that we so often come upon not only beauty but vulnerability, courage, fear, joy, shame, terror--all the emotions that swirl within a human heart and spirit.

And these emotions either touch us or not, depending on our own experiences and how open our heart is to the mystery of just what being human means. Peace.

Retired English Teacher said...

I am overcome with emotions as I read this. I can't imagine not having a support system in place. We had a similar experience when Jim had his back surgery. A man our age had the same surgery. He of course had to be in the hospital, but then, after his stay, he too was released alone to go to an assisted care center to recover since he had no one to help him.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Curtains allow for little privacy and lots of imagination. The man is like many who must face being alone.
Hope all is well now as you must be back at home.