Once the decision was made to take Suzie to Summit, action brought relief. Being able to do something burned off some of the adrenaline edge. When we pulled into the parking lot, there were two doors marked “Emergency”: the covered ambulance entrance and the doors for everyone else.
I pulled to the walk-in entrance, ran around to open her door and helped her inside to the waiting room. Which was full.
Great, more patience required.
I stepped to the desk where a female version of Methuselah took Suzie’s name and info from me. I tried to explain the urgency of her situation but it was like trying to convince Mount Rushmore. This battle-tested matron had seen and heard it all long before I stepped up to her desk. If we weren’t bleeding on her then we would have to wait.
The silver-haired gatekeeper punched in her security code on a keypad, opened the door behind the desk and took Suzie’s paperwork back to the triage nurse. I expected the nurse to come running back through the doors calling for Suzie when she realized the gravity of the situation.
I sighed and helped Suzie find a place to sit near the door. When it finally opened, I was halfway to my feet when the nurse called someone else’s name. A man got up and hobbled across the room.
He was barely bleeding. This facility obviously had misplaced priorities.
Suzie, of course, was patient. She patted my arm and slowly said, “I’m . . . okay.” I was shamed into submission. If she could deal with it then so could I. I was mentally trying to crack the security code on the keypad when she haltingly asked, “Did you . . . move . . . the car?”
“I’ll move it once they look at you. I need to be here to tell them what’s wrong,” I deflected. She looked worried. I couldn’t have cared less if they towed the car and melted it down.
“The door . . . is open,” she insisted. Confused, I looked at her, then back through the glass doors to the car. It was parked at an angle, blocking the entrance, with the passenger door standing wide open. Great, I’d helped her with the door and forgotten to shut it.
“Aaah,” I growled.
“Someone might . . . need to get . . . in,” she prodded.
“I’ll move it in a minute. Right now . . .”, her look stopped me. “You’re really worried about parking at a time like this?” She nodded and continued giving me the look, the one that works every time. “But what if they come for you?” I countered.
“I’ll be . . . fine,” she answered. I marveled at her ability to think of someone else at a time like this and gave up.
“Are you sure?”
“It won’t . . . take long.”
“Okay, I’ll be right back,” I said and hustled to the car. I slammed the door and gunned it out to the parking lot. A small eternity later, I found an empty spot. I made sure all the doors were closed this time and jogged back across the parking lot. I barely slowed long enough for the glass doors to slide open.
When I walked back into the waiting room she was gone!
The triage nurse carried an aura of calmness that was contagious. The petite, forty-ish brunette called Suzie’s name and walked her to the small examining room, already asking questions and observing along the way.
“When did this start?” she began.
“Today,” Suzie finally got out after a long, painful pause. Now that she had someone to explain her condition to, her speech was worse than ever. The only answer she could give, after great concentration, was a single word.
“Are you taking any drugs?” the nurse continued, writing on her clipboard.
The answer in Suzie’s head was at least a paragraph long but the only word that came out was, “No.” She was totally at the mercy of this woman asking the questions.
“What drugs have you taken in the past week?” she asked.
Suzie mentally searched back through the maze of drugs required for the surgery. She knew the names but the words had too many syllables. The conversation in her head could no longer get past her lips.
Communication ceased. Tears began.
I looked around quickly but Suzie was nowhere to be found. I hurried to the desk but my gray-haired nemesis was gone. Maybe Suzie went to the bathroom, I speculated, or maybe she was back there right now, unable to argue with a stubborn nurse.
I had to get past that door and make sure they understood. She’d had a bilateral mastectomy. No needles in the right arm. She’d had a possible drug reaction. She couldn’t tell them what she had taken. What if they thought she was just drunk? What if they were just letting her sit? Why hadn’t I noticed it sooner? Why did I go to work? The questions piled up until the gray-haired lady opened the door. I headed for the opening.
“I’m sorry sir, but you can’t go back there,” she commanded, blocking the entrance. If she hadn’t been an old lady I would have pushed by her and caught the door.
“Did they take my wife back yet? I just went to park the car,” I said quickly. The door was swinging closed.
“Only patients are allowed in the examining room.” she decreed as the door clicked shut behind her. The alarm light on the keypad switched from red to green. It was locked again.
“But you don’t understand. She can’t speak!” I tried not to shout. “She’s had surgery and a possible drug reaction and she can’t tell them.”
“Sir, you’ll have to calm down. She’s in good hands.” The guardian of the gate stood her ground. “They’ll take care of her. They know what to do.”
“But not if they don’t know what’s wrong,” I pleaded. “She can’t tell them what drug she took. She can’t put three words together!” Finally, a look of concern, however brief, flashed across her face. I couldn’t tell if I was getting through or she was about to call security.
“Sir, I’m sure she’s fine but if you’ll calm down and take a seat, I’ll go back and check on her.”
“Thank you,” I replied as politely as possible.
She hid the keypad as she punched in the combination and entered the inner sanctum. Now, at least, I would get some action. What was the big deal they had about sitting down anyway? She came back just a few moments later. I moved to head through the door.
“They’re doing fine, sir,” she said, holding up her hands. “They will call you as soon as they finish the examination.” This time she pulled the door shut behind her.
“But how can they be fine if she can’t talk?” I insisted.
“Sir, they’ll call you as soon as they need you. They know you’re out here. If you wish to stay, you’ll have to take a seat. We have other patients!” she threatened.
The cold look in her eyes made me give up. She had reached her limit. There was no benefit to getting kicked out and the room was full of other people. I sighed in frustration and sat down.
“Just relax,” the nurse comforted. “Take a deep breath and take your time. There’s no hurry. It will come.” Suzie calmed down, took a breath, and tried again.
“Anti-his-ta-mine,” she finally got out.
“Good!” encouraged the nurse. “See, you can do it. Just relax and we’ll get through this.” Her calm smile was reassuring. It communicated far more than her words. It was as if she were saying, “This is no big deal. Happens all the time. I deal with a lot worse than this every day.”
Slowly, word by word, Suzie got her story out. All she needed was the right question and the triage nurse seemed to know exactly what to ask, what was important and what wasn’t. Her years of experience in the emergency room showed, or maybe she was a mind reader. Whatever the case, Suzie began to relax as she was finally able to explain what was going on. The right person now shared her problem.
“Mr. Ritchie?” The voice didn’t register through my numbness. After sitting for so long in the waiting room, I didn’t react.
When I realized there was nothing else I could do, I tried to make sense of what had happened. But there was too much information and too many implications. My brain finally worried itself to a dead stop. Thinking was too difficult.
The tension had taken a toll on me that I hadn’t felt until I got still. I drifted away into a timeless, thoughtless place until I heard my name.
“Mr. Ritchie?” the voice called again.
Finally, there was a nurse waiting at the door with answers to my questions. It took an effort to stand and shake it off.
“How is she?” I asked as we walked through the electronically locked door I’d hated for the last hour.
“She did great,” the nurse answered sympathetically. “We just took our time and she stopped and cried when she needed to.” A wave of guilt swept over me as the numbness disappeared. I should have been there, my conscience whispered.
“We got all the information we needed,” she continued, “then we got her changed and settled in back here. The doctor will be back to see her in a moment. This way.”
She led me through a maze of hallways to the large emergency room. Cubicles were marked off by sliding white curtains that encircled beds. As we walked past a nurses’ station toward the automatic glass doors of the ambulance entrance, she stopped and pulled back a curtain.
Suzie was lying in a bed, dressed in a hospital gown with an I.V. hanging above her head. She smiled weakly when I took her free hand. The conversation we had was disorganized, rambling and one-sided. I filled her in on the waiting room and asked her questions worded to allow single syllable answers. I tried to be glib and entertaining, a stretch under normal circumstances, while trying not to think about how unnatural the conversation felt.
My near monologue was interrupted by a short, serious doctor who did a quick examination and told us he needed a C.T. scan to see what was going on. Within minutes a smiling nurse pulled back the curtain, followed by another cheerful nurse with a wheelchair. In a flurry of activity and conversation, they helped Suzie into the chair. One nurse wheeled Suzie away and the other turned to me.
“You can wait for her right here if you want. But first, I need you to come with me to fill out paperwork.” She continued to smile. I despise paperwork and when she saw my first reaction she gave me no time to escape. “We’ll take good care of her and we really have to get this done so we have permission to treat her.” The smile persisted and she began walking. I followed mechanically.
“You’ll be back before they are done. This will only take a few minutes,” she promised. It wasn’t until she headed for the dreaded locked door that I balked.
“It’s out there?” I asked.
“Yes, you check in on the right side of the waiting room. You’ll see it.” She turned to go.
“But wait a minute,” I objected. “The last time I was in there, it took an hour to get back through this door.”
“Oh, they’ll let you back in. I promise.”
“You’re sure?” I asked dubiously. She grinned and nodded, kind of like you would do to a two-year-old, which is how I felt. I turned the knob on the offending door, stepped through and heard it click closed behind me. The security light flickered green.
I was locked out again.
Suzie is always the one who handles the paperwork. It’s not that I can’t do it–eventually. It’s that she’s so much better at it. She can remember phone numbers, social security numbers, insurance policies and bank account numbers with ease. She keeps the kid’s schedules, my schedule and our extended family’s birthdays all in her head.
When she’s around I don’t need a phone book or an alarm clock. She remembers some obscure reference that you made and turns it into your Christmas present eight months later. She pays bills on time and even shops with coupons!
Ours is a symbiotic relationship. She’s the tree and I’m the moss. I’m the “creative” one, the musician, the songwriter, the goof-off, the dreamer. Her mother had some less flattering names for me.
You get the idea. Paperwork is not my forte. Now here I was facing a hospital admitting nurse with no notes. I managed to dig out my insurance card and tell her our address. After that, thankfully, the computer still held the rest of the information from last week. I just had to confirm it.
Next came the medical history questions, the surgeries, allergies, and medications. I hung in there, but just barely. Then came the forms to read and sign. As she explained each sheet to me, I nodded vacantly and scribbled my name.
Then came the consent form. I started to sign when she stopped me.
“You do know the reason you’re signing this, don’t you?” she said, looking over her glasses.
“I think so,” I answered slowly.
“She can’t legally give us permission for treatment because she can’t communicate. She can’t make decisions concerning drugs or surgeries herself. When you sign that, you become the responsible party,” she explained with one eyebrow raised.
Me? The responsible party! My mind boggled at the thought. You don’t understand, it resisted. She’s the responsible one. She takes care of everything. She keeps us all together. She . . . I stopped myself.
I had actually been the sole support for Suzie and the children for a long time. When you have children, it’s hard to be the child anymore. Parents are responsible, whether they like it or not. But I’d never signed a legal document proving the point before.
What if I got something wrong? Mistakes at this level could be life-threatening. It would be my fault alone. But there was no choice. I looked into the nurse’s questioning eyes, nodded, and signed. I was now the responsible party.
They buzzed me through the locked door with no problem and I’d found my way back to the emergency room. I located the right cubicle by recognizing her clothes and shoes under the bed. They were there but she was gone and, for some reason, that felt ominous. Maybe it was the responsibility.
Now here I stood, alone.
It was cold and I shoved my hands into my pockets and paced to warm up. At one edge of the curtained area was a phone on the wall. I thought about the kids and decided to try a call. I pressed nine and got a dial tone. Rebekah picked up on the third ring.
“Hi sweetie, are you okay?”
“Hi, Daddy! Were doing fine,” she answered. The TV blared in the background.
“What are you doing?”
“I made supper and we ate, then we played games.” She sounded relaxed and happy. “Now we’re watching TV.”
I heard laughter. I should have known. Bekah was old enough to babysit other people’s children. Of course, she would take care of her brother and sister. They actually seemed to fight less when we weren’t around and they didn’t vie for our attention. I told her Mom was still having tests and that I would call back later. She seemed happy to get back to her show when I hung up.
Their contentment was a sharp contrast to the cold, empty cubicle. I wondered what effect this would all have on them. Then I wondered how it would affect me? I hadn’t fallen in love with Suzie’s breasts but I had fallen in love with her mind. What about those years of unending conversations that started with that first meeting?
Then I thought about her. What would it be like to be able to think clearly but not be able to talk? The possibility had lurked around in my brain for a while now, but I never wanted to focus on it. Now, alone in the cold, empty room, I allowed myself to fully look at it.
That magnificent mind, that saw things I missed, that made straight A’s, that loved and taught the children so well––that mind would be trapped. She would be all alone with her thoughts. The only way she could make her thoughts known would be if I asked the right question. As well as I could read her thoughts sometimes, I could also be clueless. She could never be able to disagree with me and share some insight that I hadn’t begun to imagine. It would be like watching everything from a jail cell.
If it were me, I would go mad. The horror of it all closed in around me. I could think of no worse fate. To watch it would be excruciating. To experience it would be beyond words. Without Suzie there to be brave for, I broke down and sobbed, banging the counter in frustration.
No one bothered me. I cried until the tears were gone.
Down the hall, I heard them coming. The nurse was still carrying on her happy conversation but now she had adjusted the questions to accommodate one-word answers. As the monologue got closer, I wiped my face and took a deep breath. The nurse swept around the curtain and rolled Suzie up to the bed. I helped them make the transfer and gave Suzie a kiss.
“How are you?” I asked. I wanted more than anything to communicate with that lovely mind. She nodded and smiled. The nurse continued her steady stream of words, talking for Suzie like people do with babies. She told me where “we’ve” been and what “we” had done, filling the silence with details. When she left, the quiet was profound.
I tried guessing what Suzie was thinking and putting it into words. Suzie agreed or disagreed and I would try again, experimenting with this new form of communication. With one sentence it would be encouraging and with the next I would reach the limits of my mind reading powers.
I began to have hope that we could learn how to do this when the doctor came around the curtain. He held X-ray film in his hand and a frown on his face. He cleared his throat.
“I don’t believe in beating around the bush,” he said, shifting his eyes from me to Suzie. “You have a brain tumor,” he announced. “I’m sorry.”
In stunned disbelief, we looked at each other and then back at him, waiting for more. He simply tucked the chart under his arm and walked away.