Face, Meet Sidewalk

Violet’s Illness

Posted on: August 21, 2011

Violet’s heart gave a painful thump as she heard a loud, mechanical snap from the other side of the thin curtain, and the solid electronic squeal was replaced by a steady beep. She took it to mean that whatever crisis had been happening over there had resolved, at least temporarily. The cacophony of voices became slightly less frantic. Violet tried to focus on something else.

The air was chilly, especially for a thin old lady who was allowed to wear nothing more than a flimsy piece of over-washed cotton. Truth be told, she had rags in better shape than this gown. She smelled disinfectant and unwashed bodies, and wondered how long some of the patients had been there. Through a crack between the curtains, she saw people rushing about. Eventually, she saw someone on a stretcher being moved away and heard something about ICU. The noise level dropped considerably.

Violet felt miserable. She was cold and she had to pee. It felt like forever that she lay on the stretcher with the curtains mostly drawn. No one came by. For someone who was apparently sick enough to bypass the waiting room, it seemed strange that no one even checked on her. The elephant continued to roll around on her chest.

Slowly, though, she began to notice that the pain in her chest was not getting worse, and the abject terror she had been experiencing before began to fade. With each passing minute, she found herself becoming less afraid and more angry. With the anger, a tiny butterfly of hope wafted in to land on the boulder that was crushing her chest. Somehow, it eased the discomfort a bit.

With nothing to do but wait, she listened to the activity around her. Hospitals, she noticed, operated with a strangely ordered chaos. There were people running everywhere, but everyone seemed to be doing their job with purpose. It would be nice, she thought, if they would come and do their job with her, so she could get the hell out and go home.

The longer she waited, the more insistent her bladder became. Soon she realized that without a bathroom in the very near future, she would likely suffer an indignity worse than the time Margaret’s wig flew off at bridge. With a force of will, she pushed aside the lump of granite on her chest and sat up. A wave of dizziness nearly overtook her, but irritation at her infirmity and the absurd situation made her wait a minute before swinging her legs over the side of the stretcher. Her head cleared, and she was just about to step down to the floor when the curtain whipped aside and a sour-faced nurse in a brown uniform entered. She had a basket of equipment and a permanent frown, likely, Violet thought, from dealing with hypochondriacs day in and day out.

“Where are you going?” she demanded.

“I need the bathroom,” Violet said, feeling defiant as her anger flared. Hope and frustration pushed her to be a little louder than she otherwise might.

“Are you having any chest pain?” the nurse asked.

“No,” Violet lied. It was bearable, and she knew that she’d be on a bedpan in a second if she admitted it.

“Fine,” the nurse replied. With surprising gentleness, she assisted Violet down from the stretcher and helped her put her shoes on. They exited the cubicle and she showed Violet where the bathroom was. They walked together, the nurse never far away. Violet would have realized how strangely comforting that presence was, if she hadn’t been concentrating so hard on not urinating down her own leg.

“Just pull the string when you’re done and I’ll help you back,” the nurse said. Violet decided she was probably just more jaded than miserable.

After she’d finished and the nurse had helped her back to bed, Violet was again subjected to all the same questions she had answered at triage. The nurse took her blood pressure and temperature and placed oxygen tubing under her nose.

“We are going to hook you up to a cardiac monitor now,” she said. She helped Violet undo the gown, frowned at her bra, and helped her remove it. Violet felt even more exposed than before, but noted that the nurse had at least closed the curtain firmly. She stuck a series of foam circles to Violet’s chest, abdomen and legs, attached them to wires, and flicked on a computer screen at Violet’s head. Violet heard a steady, quiet beep and twisted around enough to see a series of numbers and squiggly lines floating across the screen. The nurse covered Violet with her gown and a warm blanket. For the first time since Bert and Elsie had dragged her in, she actually felt comfortable. Now that something was happening, she at least felt like someone knew she was there.

“I need to start an IV on you,” the nurse said, almost apologetically. Violet’s heart gave another lurch and she heard the monitor begin to beep more quickly. The nurse glanced at it.

“I’m very good,” she said conspiratorially, and actually smiled at Violet for the first time. Violet returned the smile weakly, and the nurse disappeared.

It wasn’t long before she was back with a basket of supplies. Violet closed her eyes. The nurse chattered away through the painful stick into a spidery vein on the back of Violet’s hand. As she half-listened, she decided her first impression of the woman had been incorrect, and perhaps she was human after all.

In a few minutes, Violet was tethered to the stretcher by a thin tube dripping a clear liquid into her hand. It felt cool going in, and Violet was glad for the lovely blanket, even though its initial heat had long since faded. The nurse left again, this time leaving the curtains open, and Violet was alone in a room full of noisy activity.

In spite of her predicament – tied down in the eye of a hurricane with an elephant sitting on her chest – Violet was sure things would turn out well. A comforting thought came to mind: if this was it for her, at least she’d be with people who would make sure she didn’t suffer. Even after Frank had died, she had steadfastly refused to consider the likely circumstances of her own death, and was now surprised to find that the thought of today being her last on earth was not particularly distressing. In fact, she almost relished the idea that she might see Frank again soon – she’d love to ask him where he’d been all this time – Ethel made it to visit every night, she planned to say, why the heck couldn’t he?

Violet dozed on her stretcher. Her hand ached where the IV was stuck and the tube in her nose was irritating, but the beeping of her monitor was steady and constant, and rather than irritating, it lulled her by giving her something to focus on. Every once in a while, someone would come by and ask if she had pain. Since she really didn’t (her hope continued to chip away at the massive weight on her heart, relieving it a tiny piece at a time), it was truthful when she told them she did not. She had no idea how long she lay there, what time it was, or even if it was day or night. The activity level in the Emergency Department never varied, despite what she might have expected.

As she lay there, rising only once to go back to the bathroom (a massive undertaking that required two other people to help wheel her IV pole to ensure she did not fall and break a hip), Violet began to notice her gut churning and gurgling. She wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten. The heaviness was still in her chest, but she realized it seemed to be moving lower and lower. Violet began to suspect that her own original diagnosis had actually been correct. As the minutes passed, the roiling and seething of her digestive system out-competed the chest pain for her attention.

And suddenly, Violet determined her own problem, just minutes before the doctor came in to see her.  It was with utter certainty that she shifted one cheek off the stretcher and squeaked out a small diagnostic test. It was as quiet as possible; despite her age and the rights and privileges inherent, Violet preferred to behave in a ladylike manner as much as possible. Anxiously, she glanced around wondering if anyone had heard the backdoor breeze. But no one appeared to be in the least concerned about the little old lady breaking wind in the third stretcher. The test was successful, and as the pressure eased a noticeable fraction, she abandoned all pretense and let them roll, figuring there was no time like the present to empty the tank. Thankfully, she had never had to deal with the curse of odiferous wind, and felt quite certain she was exacting her cure unnoticed by anyone. With each expulsion, the crushing weight lifted and her breathing eased.

Finally, the thunder subsided and Violet felt like new. The chest pain was gone and her breath came and went easily. She made an attempt to sit up, so she could find someone to help her dress and leave. As she shifted on her bed, she noticed a young man– younger even than her own doctor, who barely looked as if he was old enough to be out of high school himself– in a white coat standing a step or two behind. He had an incredulous look on his face, giving Violet the impression she might not have been as quiet as she had thought. She considered pretending the Sound and the Fury hadn’t come from her.

“Better out than in,” she shrugged, blinking innocently.

“Yes, indeed,” he responded drily. “Well, Mrs. Maclean, I came to tell you that your EKG and blood tests are fine. You are not having a heart attack. We think it was angina.”

Angina brought on by gas, she thought. Thanks, son. Violet was indeed relieved, but completely unsurprised to hear the news. “Then I can go?” she asked.

“Well, we’d like to run a few more tests…” he began, but Violet stopped him with a hand.

“I’m fine, young man,” she said. “Help me get dressed, please.” She said it in such a way that the poor thing was unable to do anything but help. He pulled out the IV and taped a cotton ball over the spot. Violet herself yanked off the oxygen tube and disconnected the wires attached to her chest.

As soon as she was dressed, she walked purposefully toward the doors they had brought her through all those hours ago She waved at the gum-snapping triage nurse on her way out.

“Good bye!” she said cheerfully.

She could see out the front doors that it was near dark. The presence of that same miserable nurse at the desk gave her hope that it was evening and not morning. Walking straight through the waiting room – still crowded – she saw Bert and Elsie sitting there, where she had left them all those hours ago. It irritated her beyond reason that that nice Eduardo had failed to send them away, but aware that she had no ride home, she marched briskly up to them. Covering her embarrassment at the whole situation – her weakness in front of the bridge club, her “escort” to the hospital, stripping and enduring the indignity of performing all those bodily functions in front of strangers, the utter certainty that she was about to die – she announced, “I’m fine.”

Realizing from the looks on their faces exactly how imminent they, too, had considered her demise, she added, “Thank you for waiting for me. I’m sorry to have caused you any trouble”

Elsie spoke first. “Violet, we’re so glad you’re all right!”

“Thank you, Elsie,” Violet said, truly, if reluctantly grateful for her friends. Bert looked like he wanted to hug her. She pretended not to notice. Hopeful for their sakes that she was, indeed, cured of her affliction, she herded them toward the exit. To prevent rumours from flying through the bridge club, she decided to cut (ahem) her losses and tell them what happened.

“As I suspected,” she said. “It was just a little gas,” She held the door and let Elsie and Bert lead her through the doors and into a lovely, fresh evening.

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