The Gang of Four
When I was wheeled into the 3rd Floor “Centre”, where people (mostly men) recuperate after their stay at the Intensive Care Unit following surgery, I immediately had the orderly close the curtains to my small stall. The three other men in my room were chatting quietly, but consistently.
At the risk of generalizing, I’d say French-Canadians are not a “quiet” people. Even their chatter tends to be a few decibels louder than your average Quebec Anglo. It can be louder and consistent, and insistent. However, the talk of these men didn’t irritate me; I just did not feel like being any part of any conversation.
Arriving from ICU, I was feeling delicate, to say the least. The last 4 ½days had been very, very difficult for me, perhaps the most in my life to date. I had lost 2.1 litres of blood in post-op complications; I hadn’t slept much; I had no energy reserves to speak of. All I wanted to do was rest.
All three men had had open heart surgery, one by the same surgeon as my own, Dr. Pellerin. Two were triple bypass, one, Monsieur Roy, was quadruple bypass. They all held their little “bébés” close to their chest when getting up from their hospital beds or lying down.
The “bébé” (baby) is a towel tightly folded into a little cubical shape and kept together with tape that a person is supposed to hold tightly onto in order to put less strain on the giant stitches going down the front of the patients’ chest. Having had minimally-invasive surgery through my side, I ditched my “baby” following the ICU.
Background chatter is something you get used to at the hospital and, if I didn’t sleep during the day with the men chatting, at least I turned the world off.
There were lots of visitors anyway. These men had wives and children and sisters and brothers and sisters’ husbands and brothers’ wives. While M. Roy himself had a fairly soft voice, his older sisters could talk up a storm. They usually came at night and stayed until visitors’ time was over at 9 p.m.
One night, their talking so overwhelmed me I could only take solace in my IPod, only to find out that I had inadvertently left it on overnight and that the battery was dead. I begged the nurse to kick them out early, as tonight, March 9th, we were going to lose an hour anyway with the change to Daylight Saving Time. She sympathized but said, um, no can do.
M. Roy’s case was sobering. Many times he reminded us that no, he didn’t eat fatty foods; he wasn’t overweight; he didn’t have heart problems in the family and yes, he did exercise regularly. Still, he had suffered two heart attacks. When I finally got involved in conversations I said in response to this information, although I had heard him say this before, “That’s not encouraging, is it?”
And it isn’t.
One of the other two men was built like an ox, and I just don’t mean that he was short and weighed over 230 lbs. (I overheard everything, even my neighbours’ weighing sessions with the morning orderly). This man’s recovery from triple bypass was absolutely sensational. He would sit most of the day, just days after open-heart surgery, quietly reading when his wife wasn’t visiting. This man would leave one day earlier from the hospital than myself and the last member of Gang of Four who I haven’t introduced yet.
It’s too bad that I don’t remember my roommates’ names. The last resident of my room, which was Room 310, had decided to take the option offered by the government and stay at a hospital in Laval for two weeks in order to have his surgery speeded up. He looked up at me one day and said, “Cancer or heart disease. If one doesn’t kill you the other will.” This man left the hospital (in French they say – regarding the day that you leave – “prendre son congé”, i.e. to take your holiday) on Monday, March 10th, the same day as me.
Gradually, I started coming out of my shell. From completely non-social on Friday, by Sunday and Monday I was fully engaged with these men. The healing process for me was progressing at a fast clip.
The setback for M. Roy was very disheartening. Monday morning, we bathed side by side with our little basins and tiny bar of soap, only separated by our curtains. He had complained softly at breakfast that he wasn’t feeling well. He refused my offer of my newspaper. At about 10 a.m., he got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, two doctors ran into the room, looking for M. Roy. His heart monitor must have alerted them. But M. Roy wasn’t in his bed and they went to the bathroom where they found him passed out. I saw them pull and carry him back to the base of his bed on the floor and then a nurse came to where I was, right beside M. Roy’s bed, and urgently asked me to leave the room.
I was in the hall. Doctors and nurses were running at full hilt towards my room while a “Code Bleu, Code Bleu, Chambre 310” was being announced on the loudspeaker. I let these people pass, naturally, and was told by another nurse who noticed my confusion (and probably pale face) to go to one of the visitors’ waiting room down the hall. There I waited, meditating on my breath, and shed a tear for M. Roy, who was evidently having one of the worst days of his life. My heart went, and still goes, out to him, and I wish him the best.
It would not be the first time that I would form bonds with the people in my room.
When, due to complications, I would find myself back in a hospital room, this time on March 15th, I bonded with another neighbour, Joe D’agostino. We chatted during the wee hours of the night as he fearfully awaited the nurse who was coming to take his blood (actually, this nurse started preparing me for the blood sample until he asked me my name!).
How many times did a nurse come to take my blood? How many times did I have to submit to the blood pressure test? When I left the emergency of the Montreal Heart Institute for what I hope is the last time, March 20th, both arms had large bruises in the biceps due to such strong blood pressure test squeezing. Both arms, particularly the right one, was full of little red marks where my veins had been punctured.
Today, four days later, the bruises are still there. The fear of getting a needle has long passed.
One of the other changes for the good that has occurred, besides the fear of giving up a vein in order to give blood, is the disappearance of a certain shyness when it comes to speaking to strangers. I spoke to a lot of strangers at the hospital – orderlies, nurses and roommates. When I did, I spoke forcefully and was usually treated with respect, friendliness and fairness.