Off North Road : Physician as patient
On the last morning of my 80th year, I awoke with a deep dull ache under my bony chest, which announced itself with importance, not as a trivial complaint to be ignored as the benign result of pushing the vacuum cleaner for Mary Ann. It scared me and I tried to rub away its hurt. Instead of yielding, the alarming ache trespassed upward to my neck, then explored all the roots of my lower teeth. I remembered an anxious man whom I knew while he made several visits to his dentist with a pain he described to me similar to the one which visited me that morning. I have never forgotten hearing of his sudden death on the overnight train to Cincinnati. A friend reported his heart attack the following day.
Once I succumbed to my wife's entreaty to obtain the help of the emergency service that evening in our bedroom, everything turned to motion. The room swarmed with large men, their voices resonating with authority, the stripping off of my clothes to lay bare arms for IV insertions, blood pressure, and pulse monitoring. An irritating little cap was fitted closely over the tip of my index finger and, after a bit of time, caused my finger to feel damp and constricted. "It's for the blood oxygen level result," said the nurse. "We want to know that your heart and circulation are supplying plenty of O2 to your vital organs."
An irritable brain created my thought that my little finger was vital to me also. The nurse considered that to be irrelevant, of course. The ambulance ride over Flanders Lane is the rockiest ride west of Revere Beach Amusement Park's rollercoaster. Fifty years ago, I had gone back on it for a second exhilarating ride on our outing to the park after Wellesley High School graduation. I wondered if I was being punished now for my wildness on that blurry night so long ago.
From the time I entered the hospital in Boston I was at least partially disoriented. The condition worsened with the hours. Medical staff kept a round of questions designed to assess my sanity; that is, whether I could remember the date and the day of the week and hour of day. I remained in a downward spiral. Each answer became more tentative, then, often wrong. The worst effect was the tendency to give in to medications and sleep at all hours of the day and night, except at normal bedtime, when I tossed nervously, praying for deep sleep. I would awake in the pitch dark with sounds of talking, television or laughter and, when I inquired when breakfast would be ready, I was told it was too early in the morning. "No one has come in to work this early as yet."
Several days passed before I fully understood that the nine o'clock I was awaking to was simply the early evening of the day before. I had lost a good part of the next day and never could retrieve it. I tried to become self-sufficient but every time I got out of bed to step a few yards away to the lavatory to empty my bladder, I set off screeching alarms with irritated attendants rushing back to my room saying, "Dr. Hoxsie, get back into bed and use your cane or you'll fall down and break something." I felt I would fall fleeing from the nurse who seemed always to startle me as I rounded the foot of the bed to the screeching of another alarm and groans of being wakened from several other inmates.
One terrible evening I developed a chill. My thighs would not stop shivering and I felt cold. I have had other shaking chills, but this was different. I was frightened that something was making me very sick. The nurse who answered my call bell insisted there was no fever, no change in vital signs, no lab reports that were anything but favorable. "You must go back to sleep," she insisted. "Do not leave the bed and if you must leave the bedside, be sure to use your cane. You'll fall otherwise."
It was old information, I thought, and I continued to be in distress. My voice was plaintive and supplicating and raised in volume much too loud. I was very much aware of the fuss I was making, acting the fool, and I got angry. Then I realized I must return to my rational self and get myself under control, ask that nurse for some warm tea and one of those warm blankets. I'll feel better and the nurse will be satisfied. I can apologize in the morning. The tea and blanket worked like magic.
I felt I had risen to a serious challenge and had solved my own problem. It seems a silly bit of behavior from this distance. I tried making my amends to the nurse, but she did not return again. I decided that she would have to deal with cases like mine every once in a while and I was done with it. I had had a glimpse of myself as a very small boy, scared and smarting with temper. In other words, not getting my own way and Mommy didn't love me any more. It was a pathetic insight, I thought, but all the more worthwhile to have such an unusual look at one's own soul. I would remember this evening for a long time.