Tuesday, September 30, 2008

COLUMN: Hospital

Occasionally, I like to think of myself as a hip, on-the-go urban city slicker. Sort of like "Sex and the City," but without the estrogen... or, come to think of it, the sex. But I'm not just a city dweller, I'm a QUAD city dweller, which should make it 4x as cool, right?

I grew up on a gravel road, five miles outside of Galesburg, a town with only (gasp) ONE Wal-Mart. I know, I know -- life was rough. Yet somehow I perservered to the bright lights of the Island of Rock.

Of course, coming here to Augie where all of my friends were from Chicago, I rapidly learned that, to them, the Quad Cities was little more than a slightly refined sequel to "Deliverance," just with running water and a few less banjos. And on our many sojourns to Chicago, I would witness their eye rolls every time I gaped in awe at the Sears Tower while travelling 10 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic on something inexplicably named an "expressway."

Still, those trips to Chicago gave me a boost of big city confidence. I now know the names of Chicago neighborhoods and can get from Point A to Point B (just don't ask me to parallel park once I get there.) And when I found out that my dad had to go to Chicago for surgery last week, I was ready and able to be my parent's liaison to big city livin'. But none of my faux urbanism could have prepped me for the inner workings of a big city hospital.

First off, my dad's fine, so no worries there. After 30+ years of riding the rails on Burlington Northern, his spine had apparantly seen enough and was attempting to escape, one disc at a time. But the surgery went relatively well, and as I type, Dad's convalescing at home and expected to be good as new in a few weeks.

I'd decided to drive up late the night before, crash at a hotel, and join my mom at the hospital the morning of the surgery.A good plan in theory, yet I hadn't counted on a $200 room bill, a hotel full of rowdy drunken Germans, and a long night of insomnia. In the morning, I found the hospital, and it was a suburb unto itself. And that suburb was apparantly building another suburb, as half the place was under nightmarish construction. After parking in the convenient across-the-street, up-the-block, and down-a-hill parking garage, I hiked to the main entrance and made my way to the waiting room -- and Joyce.

Joyce sat at a desk and her job, best as I could tell, was to read the morning newspaper to herself. Occasionally, though, she'd be distracted by these pesky patients going into surgery. That's when she would take a deep sigh and recite the same speech to every family walking in: Here's a bag, patient's clothes go into bag, bag goes into closet, here's a pager, we'll beep you when your beloved family member is out of surgery (or, presumably, deceased.)

Something told me that deep inside, Joyce knew that she could easily be replaced by the JoyceBot 3000. It's ok, she was far better at reading the paper anyways. And when a construction worker mistakenly walked through the back door to the room, Joyce looked like her world was about to end.

So there we sat, with a pager that looked not unlike the "your table is ready" contraption you get at Olive Garden. This hospital had no fewer than 16 operating rooms going at once, and your could monitor it all via a video board that looked identical to an arrival/ departure screen at O'Hare -- except instead of Flight 106 arriving at Gate 12, it was Patient 10615 arriving at Surgical Post-Op (and hopefully not departing for anywhere whatsoever.)

My dad ended up in a hospital room the size of your average walk-in closet. I know that the hospitals in Galesburg probably don't offer the kind of cutting-edge technology as this place, but at least they feature room to stand. And they certainly don't feature Italian John.

Italian John was my dad's roommate, and HIS job was to make me afraid of ladders for the rest of my life. This was a guy who took a simple spill off of a 4 foot ladder onto a grass lawn, yet somehow had managed to mangle his legs to the point of a horror movie. He laid there in a gnarly traction device, pins jutting out of his flesh, moaning. Non-stop. "Ohhhhhhh." "Ughhhhhh." "Errrrrrr." Occasionally he would spice things up with a "I NEED TO GET THE (EXPLETIVE) OUT OF HEEEEERE," which may have been the only English in his vocabulary. Our only break was when he would fall asleep, where we would have approximately 2.5 minutes of peace before the snoring began. By the end, my dad was the one lying there in pain and I was the one wanting the morphine pump.

Later that day, I journeyed back to the Quads, humbled by my big city naivete and happy to be home. Even happier was my dad when he got released 3 days later. This week, I got a call from an old friend whose mom in Chicago had taken ill and required gall bladder surgery. "You wouldn't believe this place," she said, "There's construction everywhere and I don't even know where I am."

"Actually," I told her, "I WOULD believe this place. And when you meet Joyce, tell her the family of Patient 10615 says howdy."

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