I spent more time in and out of hospitals this past year than I have in decades — a week as the patient and then many months as a sister of the patient. My personal adventures were a little scary but mostly diagnostic, without much pain involved and lots of welcome sleep. The diagnosis was inconclusive and then I went home feeling mystified but healthy.
My brother, on the other hand, was in a coma for 11 days, in the hospital for 33, lost his mind to something called ICU delirium and it took a month to return, and now he’s in a skilled nursing facility relearning how to walk and getting dialysis three days a week.
Here’s what each of our windows looked like, mine in Sacramento and his in San Rafael (a northern suburb of San Francisco).
They gave him a green neon blanket that I frankly would never have been able to sleep under, it was so bright.
We spent a lot of time visiting Sam, when he was under and then when he woke up; my sister, who lives closest, went daily. A dear friend took me to the ER in Grass Valley, visited me once and brought flowers from my own yard, and picked me up in Sacramento to drive me home when it was over.
I think I talked once or twice to people on the phone, but mostly I was sleeping or being nice to everyone who came by for blood, blood pressure, and various tests to figure out what had given me the blinding headache I collapsed with after swimming in the rain. The whole time I was basically fasting because of tests that were coming up and then postponed to the next day.
I haven’t been in hospitals that often, but this was by far the most charming of my experiences. The end result was medical proof that my heart and arteries, even the carotid!, are in good shape, as well as my brain and lungs. The stent from 2007 in my circonflex artery has worked, no blockage there. The somewhat vague conclusion was a “thunderclap” headache, a one-off due to either exercise or cold or high stress, all of which had been true that day. My brother’s diagnosis was predicted and half-way prepared for, but suddenly he almost died and thank god for kidney stones is all I have to say. Pain took him to the local ER where they discovered his kidneys had just failed, and saved his life.
It’s interesting how you can’t tell what skills people have just by looking at them. The rotating crews at both our hospitals seemed like people you’d see on a bus, or taking the Red Line into Boston from Cambridge. Their scrubs were sometimes color-coded, but their faces betrayed no sign of surgical precision or excellence in phlebotomy. I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I was a kid and a friend of my dad’s who made sandals for a living turned out to be a whiz at playing the stock market. “How can this be?” I thought, at age 12. “Why couldn’t we tell?!”
What you can tell, in hospitals, is that the staff is confident and that’s a great thing to watch. In my brother’s delirium he would snap at nurses cleaning his ports and wounds. Not ferociously, his tone was exactly how people reprimand a cat who wants to wrestle with the sock you’re trying to put on. Stop that! He would say. No! Don’t do that! Ouch! After I witnessed this once I had to leave the room when it happened, for fear of laughing. The nurses were both genial and firm about it, which also struck me as funny, since my brother was in no shape to be reasoned with.
It’s not a good idea to laugh at delirious people until they’ve recovered, they can get very offended. But we all wanted to laugh at odd moments, it was just such a relief that Sam was alive. We bubbled over like shaken champagne from the stress having been lifted.