Saturday, May 31, 2014


I heard her before I saw her. The nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital, where I was being treated for pneumonia several weeks ago, had popped in a few minutes earlier to let me know, "You're getting a new roommate," so it wasn't a complete surprise. At first, it sounded like a man's voice. In my IV-antibiotic-induced haze, I remember thinking, "They wouldn't put a man in here, would they? I shouldn't have a man roommate, right?"

The voice was loud, off the Richter Scale loud, giving orders to the whoever was wheeling her to the door. Then it stopped sounding like a man - really, they wouldn't give me a male roomie - and started sounding like . . . Howard Wolowitz's mother from The Big Bang Theory. Exactly.

Betty was a mess and let everybody know it. She was almost deaf, so anyone talking to her had to repeat - louder and louder - whatever they were saying. She was almost blind. She was very obese, as big around as she was tall. And her body was completely failing her.

On the other hand she was very entertaining. That voice, wow. I did feel like I was in the middle of a Big Bang Theory episode. She had a good sense of humor, complete with some real zingers. After having to skip breakfast and lunch because of medical tests, she came back to the room famished. Our fabulous nurse, John, had saved her lunch and her dinner so that she would have plenty to eat. And eat she did! Inhaled it (yes, I could hear it all). In the middle of her meal, she said in a loud (very loud) voice: "I'm eatin' like I got ten assholes heah!" I lost it. And every time I think about it, I lose it. Just think about it.

She was also concerned about me. "How ya' doin' over theah, Mary! All right?" And I'd yell back - several times so that she could hear - "Fine, Betty. Thanks!"

But as hilarious as Betty was, she was also losing control of her body and ready to check out. "I've lived a good long life, why am I still here?" She was embarrassed by her inability to hear, see, and control bodily functions. In short, she was ready to go. She readily admitted to the nurse that she was depressed. Only one grand-daughter lived nearby, and she visited once a day, but the rest of her family were either dead or lived far away. She'd lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for over 50 years, but now her neighbors were strangers who didn't speak English. She was a stranger in a strange land and was ready to move on.

Betty taught me a lot. I learned that getting old ain't no picnic, especially if you lose control of everyday body functions, those things we take so for granted. I learned that to make things a little easier going forward, I must control my weight, and I must pay attention to the tiniest changes in my sight and hearing. I learned to keep family and friends close, or as close as I can or dare, because being pretty much alone at that stage of the game is a hard, hard thing.

After a particularly hard night of groans and tears and massive clean-up on the other side of the roommate curtain, I found myself squeezing my eyes shut and praying, "Please, Lord, do not let me live too long, where I'm in Betty's condition." Now, I'm not sure whether or not that was a good prayer, but, boy, that's exactly how I felt after sharing a room with her. As entertaining as she was at times, she really scared me, or, rather, her condition scared me.

It got too much in the middle of that tough night,  and I realized I needed to take care of myself, since that's what I was in the hospital to do. In the middle of all the chaos and smell, I requested a room change. The nurses accommodated me immediately, and I was put in a room with a less effusive roommate. As I was getting ready to leave the hospital the next day, I told our nurse to please give my best to Betty.

I'm not sure of Betty's fate, but I learned enough from her to give me great pause about what the next twenty or so years might hold for me. Plus, I learned a great zinger for when I'm stuffing my face. Ten assholes. Ha!

Thursday, May 08, 2014

A Beautiful Day for an Ambulance Ride

A week ago, my colleagues wrestled me into urgent care after I'd shown no improvement with a cough and cold I'd had for a couple of weeks. Testing of vital signs and a chest x-ray later, and the doctor was informing me that I had a mass of pneumonia in my left lung and that an ambulance had been called. Whoa, serious.

While, yes, it was serious, it was not so crazy life-threatening that I couldn't appreciate the experience and enjoy the show around me. Take the ambulance ride, for example. I've never had an ambulance ride before (thank God), and let's face it, this was a bloodless, painless way to get the experience of riding from the Upper West side urgent care to Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side, the route of which took me through Central Park. It was a beautiful day, I could lie back and enjoy the view, while Joseph and Kathleen, my ambulance professionals, took care of everything. Plus, my friend Ann got to ride with me. Best possible ambulance ride, truly.

And then, there was the emergency room experience. I was duly prodded, poked, tested, x-rayed yet again, and left to wait while others got their ER attention-time. One guy was raving and cursing so much that he was finally cuffed to the bed. A little Upper East Side "lady" fought and scratched as the emergency personnel tried to assure her that she wasn't in jail, but in the ER, because a passerby had worried about her on the sidewalk. "I only had one margarita too many and now I'm being held prisoner!" she kept yelling (this little UES "lady"). She tried to slip away several times, but they kept re-capturing her, until the last time - while no one was looking, she was out the door. I saw the whole thing, but, hey, what could I do?

I finally got to my room around 10pm (a 12-hour ordeal so far, if you're keeping score), I saw hundreds of doctors, residents, medical students, nurses, nursing assistants, and who knows who else, who asked questions (the most popular: name, birth date), affixed IVs, drew blood, snapped on a variety of wrist bands, showed me how to maneuver the IV to and from the bathroom and how not to set off alarms by keeping my arm absolutely straight. Well, just a lot of faces coming and going and asking questions and sticking me. I was vaguely aware of a roomie, but she was quiet and I tried to be the same. It was not a restful night, as anyone who's ever been in a hospital can attest.

If you have to have pneumonia, it's not a bad gig to be ensconced at Park Avenue and 77th Street in NYC. When you look out of your windows, you get to see beautiful buildings where really rich folk live, plus you get to see them coming and going to all sorts of fancy affairs. Quite entertaining.

The most painful part of the experience: my tiny, tiny veins, which caused untold pain every time my blood had to be tested (which was often) or my IV moved. I foresee this as a huge problem in the future, as I get older and need more medical care. Anyone know a way to boost vein size?

The best part of the experience: jello! Couldn't get enough of it. It's something I never make for myself, so I forget how comforting it can be. Mmm. Hospital jello!

The next day, my quiet roomie went away, and just having the room to myself let me get a lot more rest. I was roommate-less for one whole day. Then came Betty.

While I don't remember all the doctors' names (weird, eh?), I do remember the great nurses that took very, very good care of me at Lenox Hill. Here's to Esther, Alysa, Brigitte, John, and Emily. All of you treated me with dignity, care, and good humor. You made the experience bearable. Thank you.

As for Betty, that's another story for another day.