Caring doctors, nurses made my pandemic birthday happy

By midday, I was fixing lunch when pain cinched me around my upper abdomen, just under my ribs. I ate a few bites of the chili and eggs and half an avocado but had to give up. I walked around. I stretched on the bed. Nothing helped. What felt like a very thick, very tight belt squeezed tighter.

I talked to my doctor, Andrea Hulse, who was concerned that it might be one of the weird ways heart attacks present in women. We agreed to meet at her office at 10 the next day which seemed preferable to a trip to the emergency room in a pandemic. By evening, though, as the belt notched painfully tighter, we agreed I should go to the ER at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Hulse reassured me that the ER was divided into individual cubicles to protect other patients from the coronavirus. My sister, J.E. McNeil, agreed to take me.

By the time we arrived, I was in bad shape. Fortunately the waiting room wasn’t crowded, and I got in for examination almost immediately. Although I hadn’t had fever all day, and my blood oxygen had been good, by then I was deteriorating. My vital signs had worsened and the pain had intensified. Shortly after, I was being wheeled down the hall to my own cubicle in the ER, its glass door closed behind me in case I had covid-19.

For the approximately 20 hours I stayed there, it was constant blood tests, infusions, different techs, nurses and doctors. Around 2 a.m. the morning after I arrived, two nurses (the ones who had checked me in at the waiting room earlier) walked in and wished me a happy birthday. “We should tell her she tested negative for covid,” one said. Not a bad birthday present.

Kind of a blur. A CT, and then later in the predawn hours an MRI. After the MRI, I was wheeled out on my gurney to await transport back to the cubicle. It didn’t come, and I may have slept an hour, which was bliss. But I woke up, concerned not to have been moved. I called out to the MRI operator, who had requested transport. When it didn’t arrive, he ended up transporting me back to the ER himself.

Back in the cubicle, it was more procedures throughout the night and next day, as well as an occasional public announcement that additional hands were needed in obstetrics and delivery or elsewhere.

No food and no water (except for briefly in the ER when I had water and ice chips) but all the IV drips I could ask for.

And throughout it all, a constant cast of competent, confidence-inspiring caretakers, who, as time progressed, would turn a frightening emergency hospital visit into an unexpected source of joy.

The CT had suggested a piece of gall bladder left after its removal in 2015 might be the cause of discomfort or a gall stone. After I had the gall bladder out, I assumed I would never have to worry about gall stones, but apparently bile ducts can continue to produce them. The MRI confirmed that it was a gall stone.

Late on my birthday, and after many reassurances that I was about to be transferred out of the ER, I was finally taken to a regular hospital room. A bed replaced the narrow gurney I had spent so many hours on, barely able to shift position. I walked over to a window trailing an IV to look outside. A few minutes later, a tech walked in and freaked out to see me on my feet. Later, a nurse explained that I was in an orthopedic section of the hospital, surrounded by patients who shouldn’t be walking unsupervised. I guessed that was the only space available.

I was scheduled for a procedure known as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography the next day at 3 p.m. The process uses an endoscope — a long, flexible, lighted tube to remove a gallstone. Wake-up would be at 6 a.m. for continuing platelet transfusions before the procedure. My platelet count was low, signaling the danger of bleeding out without reinforcements. Throughout the night I was kept awake by blood tests, the automatic tight grasps of the blood pressure cuff and one bag after another being hung on the IV pole.

The constant bagging and testing continued the next day as I awaited the procedure. Then, shortly after 3, I was rolled across the hospital complex to the room where it would occur. Meeting the anesthesiologist and the gastroenterologist who would perform the procedure, I felt complete confidence as I faded out.

I awoke not much later after a short spell in the recovery room. My doctor explained what he had done, as he did to my daughter by phone as well, and answered questions. Then it was back to the orthopedic wing.

That night was bliss. Occasional, not constant, wake-ups for blood samples and new bags of fluids. If I happened to wake up on my own or because I had crooked the arm with the IV portal in it, making the IV pole beep, I was quickly lured to sleep again by the effervescent trickle of whatever flowed through the drip into my arm. When a nurse appeared (I think close to dawn) and woke me up, I told him it had been like a spa vacation — finally getting a good night’s sleep without constant ministrations. We chatted cheerfully as he took care of me.

When I woke up again, I began focusing on getting out. Still not permitted liquids, my mouth was parched so dry that skin was peeling off my lips. But later I got the go-ahead for a basic liquid diet. And ginger ale. Still later, I graduated to half a dinner roll and a squash melange.

About then it began to hit me how much I had enjoyed my days in the hospital for the amount of human interaction it brought and the number of smart, caring nurses and doctors and other hospital workers (the MRI operator included) whom I had met and who had helped me through it.

It resonated particularly because recently I’ve been writing short profiles of front line health workers who have died of covid-19 for an accountability project produced by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian US called “Lost on the Frontline.”

Now I had spent three days getting to know health-care workers more personally, albeit not well. Their gentleness. Their professionalism, with a profound dose of kindness. And, in many cases, a touch of fashion — the flowered caps, the cool shoes (bright red tennis shoes, black leather clogs with iridescent pink and blue flowers) and the nurse who added a few dance steps as she worked at the side of my bed.

Martha M. Hamilton is a former reporter, editor and columnist for The Washington Post and in 2018 was part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists team that won the Pulitzer for the Panama Papers.

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