It’s easy to miss the most common things, like the magic of a sunrise after a storm. Only in its absence can we appreciate the warm yellow rays striking rich green leaves with shiny white highlights beneath a pale, clear sky. Otherwise, it’s just morning.
When the nurse took me back to SICU things were different. There were more people in the room and they were busier. Faces were more serious. There were more monitors pulsing with more variables to record.
Suzie looked smaller in the bed. Her head was swathed in bandages and a tube protruded like an insult but it all faded to insignificance when she smiled.
“Hi,” she said like a symphony.
Never was there a more beautiful sound. Contact made. Lifeline reestablished. Hope bloomed. The future reappeared.
“Hi,” I replied like an idiot, dumbstruck once again at my great good fortune. I asked questions I don’t remember provoking answers I don’t recall to hear her say anything, anything at all.
It wasn’t what we said, it was the promise of another conversation. And another. A continuation of that first conversation that never seemed finished. We could have been anywhere.
“Mr. Ritchie?” The tone of voice implied bad news. I turned to see a familiar nurse with a worried expression. “I hate to do this but visiting hours have been over a long time.”
“But she just got here!” It was a pitiful display but I milked it. She gave a disapproving smile at my performance.
“I know. We let it slide over the weekend but you can not be here for the Monday morning shift or we’ll be in big trouble.” There was no question I’d lost. I couldn’t cause these kind people any problems.
“The waiting area has recliners and they will give you a pillow and blanket,” she added. “You’ll be just outside.”
I looked at Suzie and she nodded. “I’ll be okay,” she reassured. “Get some sleep.” I suddenly felt exhausted. We could continue this tomorrow.
Unlike the abandoned surgical area, the desk in SICU Waiting was staffed. I collected a small pillow and a thin blanket. The overstuffed chairs opened out and most were full.
I picked a remaining spot, pulled up the blanket against the cold and shifted in the recliner until I found the least uncomfortable position. Fatigue did the rest. It lasted until 1:30 A.M. when a voice woke me.
“Herbert!” The woman’s voice was like a chainsaw. “Herbert, roll over!” She shouted loud enough to wake the room, but not Herbert.
The chair looked like a toy beneath him. His mouth was hanging wide open and he sounded roughly like a semi truck fighting its way over Monteagle Mountain. He stopped just long enough to build anticipation.
Loneliness crept in to fill the gap, more powerful somehow in a room full of total strangers. No one was here for a good reason. No one was sleeping. The worry was infectious.
I prayed for Suzie, alone behind locked doors. The cranial pressure monitor haunted my dreams.
“What happens if the pressure gets too high?” I’d asked Dr. Rosenthal.
“We’ll have to open up her skull and relieve the pressure to prevent brain damage. No one wants that but it’s the only alternative.”
“The steroids are helping and we’ll monitor her closely. I don’t expect it to be a problem.”
No one expected any of this, I reminded myself. I had asked what the danger number was and checked constantly the monitor. I made it my job. Now, who was doing it?
In my dream state, I kept up my vigil. Until Herbert erupted again with shouts following. This wasn’t going to work. I didn’t have the energy or the patience.
I turned in my things at the desk and asked how to get outside. Emergency. The other end of the building. The hospital was locked and the halls dark and not a soul was to be seen as I made the long walk back to reality leaving Suzie in God’s hands.
Suzie woke up feeling rested from a peaceful night’s sleep. Though her eyelids were closed, the light glowed through them and she didn’t really want to get up yet. Why spoil the moment. Dennis must be up early, she thought. She settled deeper into her pillow.
She stretched her feet and her stockings were tight. Why did she have them on? She was propped up high in the bed. That was unusual. Then she opened her eyes. She blinked to focus her eyes on the hospital room. No, Surgical Intensive Care Unit.
She’d had surgery. What was…? Brain surgery!
The individual scenes of the nightmare clicked into place. She couldn’t talk. But now she could. Something more happened. What was that? Mastectomy! Bi-lateral. Breast cancer, just like Mom. The emotions flooded in, overwhelming her.
The details continued to come. It was like living it all over again. She was wearing compression stockings to prevent circulation problems. Her head was wrapped in bandages. A glass tube stuck out of the top of her head about four inches. It was connected to a clear plastic tube. To monitor swelling, they said.
Too much. Where is Dennis? She looked around. No one. All around her was dark. A wave of loneliness washed over the ocean of feelings.
A sound clicked behind her. Someone was there. Her throat was dry.
“Hello?” she said with a creaky voice.
A nurse floated into view. Or was it a nurse? Long blond hair glowed in the backlighting. Green eyes. Beautiful. A perfect angel. She was holding a clipboard. Angels don’t need clipboards. A nurse then.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Ritchie?” she asked in a pristine British accent, right out of an Agatha Christie novel. Confusing.
“Not too well,” Suzie answered and the tears choked off any other words for a while. The nurse stood by and waited. “I’m not doing really good,” Suzie continued. “I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”
“Well how about I just sit down here and let’s talk for a little bit?”
“Okay. Could I have some water? My mouth is so dry.”
“Not just yet. But here are some ice chips.” A styrofoam cup waited on the bedside table.
“Mmm.” A spoonful made Suzie moan with relief. “I couldn’t eat all day yesterday.”
“Oh, that’s a long day. But you’re doing really well.”
“Am I?” Anesthesia had obliterated any memory of Dr. Rosenthal’s post-op conversation.
“Your inter-cranial pressure has stabilized and you’re speaking well. So, brilliant, I’d say.” She smiled. When Suzie returned it, a tear ran down her cheek.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that waking up here alone at night with all of these machines . . . It’s scary.” The ice and the ambient temperature sent a small shiver down her spine. She still felt the chill of the O.R. in her bones.
“I know. It’s hard to sleep with us checking on you. So, why don’t you tell me about your family?”
It was the perfect distraction. Suzie was so relieved to be able to have an actual conversation that stumbling over the occasional word seemed trivial. Sharing stories about her kids made them feel closer.
The loneliness retreated, defeated by a single person sharing simple kindness.
They talked well into the night until Suzie was borne on the last wisps of anesthesia into a deep, forgetful sleep.