She came to with a jolt! The air she breathed turned into a vile burning substance and she snapped her head to get away. She couldn’t go far. Nothing moved below her neck. She was trapped, sitting upright in some kind of metal frame.
“Suzzanne?” a man’s voice called loudly. “Mrs. Ritchie?” he repeated. Suzie opened her eyes, blinked, and turned toward the sound. A man in blue scrubs was to her right, his expression concerned, his eyes analyzing.
“You’re OK,” he explained. He was holding a broken vial of smelling salts. “You passed out but you’re fine. It won’t be long,” he lied. “We’re almost finished with the procedure.”
The procedure, Suzie now remembered, was the marking stage of a needle-marked biopsy. She looked down. She was naked to the waist, locked between a high-tech chrome and leather wheel chair and the frame of a mammogram machine. There were two technicians in the room, a man and a woman, watching her every response. Protruding from her right breast were two six-inch-long needles.
“I think we can go ahead,” the woman said to the scrub-clad man. “We only have a few more pictures left to get the second needle placed,” she reassured Suzie, “then we’ll move on to the last one.”
“Alright, you’re two centimeters high,” the man continued. He was looking at the latest of a row of x-rays on his viewer.
“Ok,” the nurse acknowledged. She carefully reached up and moved one of the needles. A wave of pain and nausea swept over Suzie. She turned her head to look away from the sight and the room began to spin.
“I think I’m going away,” Suzie mumbled as the heavy blackness swirled around and began to pull her under.
December 1st usually arrived with a flurry of activity: shopping, decorating, planning, choirs, carols, trips. Determined to be more help than usual, I pulled out a legal pad and pen to make my list and asked Suzie what she needed.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Okay, what about shopping? Whose presents are left?” Since I’d gone freelance, Christmas was always a test of budgets and willpower.
“None. It’s all done. I did it last January during the sales.”
She slowly shook her head with a faraway look in her eyes. She had never done it before and has never since.
That’s the way the rest of the week felt. On the surface things were normal. I had two demo days for a publishing company at our studio in Brentwood. I took Suzie for her preliminary blood work. Saturday and Sunday were very quiet.
But beneath the surface, things felt surreal as if this wasn’t really happening. The unspoken tension wound tighter. My brain seemed to always be trying to think two thoughts at the same time. That is to say, it was hard to think clearly at all.
Sunday night we planned a feast. The idea was to have a no-holds-barred midnight snack to mark the last moment before Suzie began her fast. Anesthesia required her stomach to be empty. It was a small rebellion. A way to fight back by against the lack of control.
It turned out to be less a celebration and more a harbinger of things to come. We gave up and went to bed. She wanted to snuggle. We needed the contact but, for the first time, I was self-conscious about where I put my hands.
After four days and nights of frayed anticipation, the alarm clock clanged with finality. The wait was over. Ready or not, it was Monday morning–biopsy day.
We had to be in admitting at 7:00 A.M. which was three hours earlier than I usually started work. I rolled out of bed quickly and had breakfast while Suzie got a shower so she wouldn’t have to watch me eat.
“Did you get some coffee?” Suzie asked as she walked in, eyeing me suspiciously. Either she was being typically sweet or I looked even worse than I thought.
“No. Tea. Are you ready?” I asked. It was still early.
“I guess so, but it’s too soon to leave.”
She sighed and sat down at the kitchen table with me. We stared at each other in silence for five long minutes. There was nothing left to say and for once I kept my mouth shut. It was not a comfortable silence.
“Let’s go!” I finally said. “Anything is better than this. We can at least drive a little and find the right entrance.”
“O.K.” she replied, jumping up quickly enough to surprise me. “I have the directions in my purse. The nurse said admitting was on the far side as you turn in the parking lot.” I guess she was ready to go, too.
The sun strained through the ancient oak trees in our backyard. The air was cool and damp with morning fog. It was invigorating because, as much as we didn’t want the answer to our questions, today we would finally know. I hoped knowing was better than fearing everything imaginable.
We left the kids sleeping peacefully. Since everyone ran on my crazy late schedule they would probably sleep until noon. At thirteen, Bekah was old enough to babysit for other people. She would handle Sandy and Billy until we got back. I would call to check on them. We would only be ten minutes away.
This was Summit Hospital’s opening day and Suzie would be among the first patients to walk through the doors. She joked about being their guinea pig. I laughed and reassured her that everything would be better there. Last week nurses talked excitedly about how great it would be to have all that space and all new equipment. It was their dream hospital.
We crossed the Stones River bridge, turned right on Central Pike and the new hospital came into view. Set high on a Tennessee hill, the Summit Medical Center loomed like a modern day castle. At the foot of the steep slope was a lake, complete with a fountain splashing in the morning mist. It curved moat-like around the base of the hill and out of sight. There was a walking trail that crossed the lake over a wooden arch that added a drawbridge effect.
We turned into the entrance and climbed the steep drive. The white concrete and glass building came into view through the windshield and from below it looked far taller than the eight stories it was. It gleamed intensely as the rising sun struck the top of the hill first.
Climbing out of the shadows below, the place seemed to be lit from within like a white version of the Emerald City of Oz. The parking lot was nearly empty and I had my pick of good spots. It felt deserted as we walked to the entrance. There was no breeze and the only sounds were chirping birds and a few cars on the highway. Walking across the empty parking lot I felt like the Scarecrow taking Dorothy to see the Wizard. Was this place really open?
There were signs of life as we got to the curved drive at the outpatient entrance. The sweeping portico was large enough to need skylights, the drive paved with hexagonal brick. Automatic doors slid smoothly to reveal a two-story lobby with a second-floor balcony.
The space was immense. We hiked across the lobby past the oversized, plum-toned information desk, taking in the grand size and bright colors of the place. Everywhere were shades of lavender, blue, green or gray and the furniture looked as expensive as the bills were probably going to be. It made the old hospital seem claustrophobic by comparison.
The door to admitting led to a waiting room of a more reasonable size. The check-in window was at the far end. There were a few scattered people doing paperwork or watching the TV suspended in the corner. The smell of new paint and carpet were in the air. Suzie signed in and they gave her a clipboard to fill out.
We waited nervously for a few minutes until a door in the back of the room opened and her name was called. I trailed behind, uninvited. The admitting nurse led us to a meticulously clean room filled with cubicles and offered us the two immaculate chairs in front of her perfect desk. It looked like an office showroom.
“Do you have your insurance card?” she said before we even sat down. “I need to make a copy of it for our records.” Suzie handed it over and she bustled off leaving us to look around. There were wide windows across one wall which afforded a good view of the rolling hills. There were two computers on her desktop along with a few family photos that were neatly framed.
The whole place had the sheen of a new car before it hits the first pothole. When the nurse returned we commented on how nice it looked and were rewarded with a good two minutes of lavish praise for the new facilities. After the commercial, it was all business.
“Full name? Address?” She typed the information into one of the computers
I hate paperwork.
“Phone number? Date of birth?”
Something about it makes me nervous.
“Social Security number? Occupation?”
Maybe it reminds me of taking tests in school.
“Primary care physician?”
This will go on your permanent record.
“Have you had any surgeries?”
Or possibly it’s like doing taxes.
“Do you have high blood pressure?”
Your life reduced to a few small squares on a form.
“Person to contact in case of an emergency?” she said with the same tone you might hear “Do you want fries with that?” I decided to try some conversation to get my mind off of it.
“Why do you have two computers?”
“Oh, we’re converting to the new system. Do you have any drug allergies?” She was relentless.
Suzie dutifully continued to answer the questions. I decided to try again.
“Will it be an improvement?”
“It’s going to be great. Right now I have to go through twelve screens to register you and when we get the new system online I’ll only have to use three. It should really speed things up. Do you have a living will?”
Wow, what a pleasant thought before a biopsy. Did she say twelve screens? I gave up on conversation and sat through the interrogation grimly. A few more questions and there would be no need for the biopsy, they’d know it all.
After an extensive probing, another nurse escorted us down a hallway to Same Day Surgery. This was the pre-op area for outpatient surgery. We would be going home later this afternoon so we didn’t need a regular room. I concentrated on keeping my bearings and smiling at Suzie. The nurse, obviously pleased with the new surroundings, became our impromptu tour guide.
“Same Day is down this hall.” she smiled. “All of our outpatient services are within one hundred and fifty feet of the front entrance.” We smiled, umm’d and ahh’d politely but our minds were elsewhere. “The waiting area, surgery, and recovery are all on the same level so traffic flow will be great. You’ll stay on the same floor. We won’t have to cart you up and down the elevators to surgery like we used to.”
Her excitement inspired confidence. I was beginning to see the advantages of a brand new hospital when I was jolted mid-step by a deafening buzzer. Red lights began to flash simultaneously down the long hall. Suzie looked at me in alarm and my confidence in our new hospital began to waver.
“Oh don’t worry about that,” the nurse smiled. “They’re just testing the fire alarms. It’s been happening all week.”
“All week?” She must have seen the concern on my face so she explained.
“Yes, the hospital is finished but they’ll be doing construction on the offices for a while. The building above us will be all doctor’s offices. It’s connected to the main hospital by this glassed-in corridor on all eight floors above us.” She waved her hand down the sunlit hallway like a tour guide at Universal Studios. We followed like good tourists until she led us through a door on the right.
At Same Day, it began to look like Summit might actually be a hospital instead of a day spa. It had the same pastel colors and new car feel but there was a waiting area and central nurse’s station. I prepared myself for the hospital sounds and smells but they never came. The pleasant attitudes and soft colors continued and it smelled – could it be? It smelled like freshly brewed coffee!
The nurses were color coordinated and talkative as they checked “Richie” (misspelled) off of a large marker board on the wall. There was one other check mark. Suzie was the second patient – ever.
When I commented on the smell, a blue-uniformed nurse pointed around the corner to a complete mini kitchen with a steaming pot of java. No wonder the nurses liked this place.
A purple-clad nurse took over the tour and reminded us that all outpatient services were within one hundred fifty feet of the front entrance. Traffic flow, she explained, was designed for efficiency so there would be no trips down winding halls to the other side of the hospital.
Suzie would make a quick trip to imaging for marking then return to her room before surgery. After surgery, she would come back to the room until we were ready to go home. The room was smaller than a regular room with just enough space for the bed, a chair and not much more.
As one nurse left, another swept in with a back-draft, hospital gown and a smile. She showed Suzie the bathroom and was quick to point out that the old rooms were tiny, crowded cubicles with no hint of a bathroom to change in. Had they practiced this show?
I looked around at the sparkling floor, the crisp bed and the new TV that hung on the pastel wall and tried to be grateful. Things could be worse. The nurse pulled the door closed behind her and we were alone.
“Well, what do you think?” Suzie asked. I tried to keep the mood upbeat.
“I think they look like they work at McDonald’s” I answered. “If the doctor comes in wearing a red clown nose we’re leaving.” She laughed enough to encourage me. She should know better.
“I can picture the operating room with a drive-in window. They use heat lamps for surgical lights and a loud beeper goes off when you’re done.” She chuckled again. People under stress will laugh at anything.
“I think it’s nice,” she defended. “It’s better than nurses dressed in sterile white from head to toe,” she said, smiling.
“You’re right,” I grinned. “But they had your name on a board on the wall like a Big Mac.”
“I may feel like one by the time this is over,” she called as she stepped into the bathroom. So much for humor.
I picked up the phone to check on the kids, gave Rebekah the phone number to the room and assured them that I could be home in five minutes if they needed anything. I doubted they would. They enjoyed having the TV to themselves and I heard it blaring in the background.
Suzie was still changing so I decided to check out the TV. I sat down in the only chair and heard a loud plastic BANG! Pain shot down my neck. After a paralyzed moment of throbbing, I turned carefully around to see a red box on the wall marked Sharps – Biohazard. Aptly named.
I decided to soothe the pain with some TV of my own. I moved my chair nearer the bed and commandeered the nurse call/remote control. It only had one button for changing channels and a volume control but this wouldn’t stop a dedicated channel surfer like myself. I hit the button to turn it on, scrolled up the volume wheel on the side and CNN flickered to life. I was set.
I settled back to catch up on the news when I noticed there was no sound. I checked all the buttons, settings and connections, still nothing. I asked the nurse for help but she said she had no luck and made a note to call maintenance. I was officially incommunicado, an audio engineer with no audio. I told myself it was just a small glitch.
Suzie came out a little embarrassed and cold in her backless gown. The nurse came in to get her vitals and put on her hospital bracelets. There were two of them. One was patient ID to distinguish her from the other unconscious bodies in surgery. The other was blood red with the word “ERYTHROMYCIN” written in black magic marker to prevent them from giving her an antibiotic she was allergic to.
Such precautions were reassuring until I thought about it. The need for such things meant someone in the past had made such life-threatening mistakes. I told myself that nothing would go wrong today.
Then the nurse popped an electronic thermometer into Suzie’s mouth and began inflating the blood pressure cuff. She pumped and pumped then stopped and pumped again. Suzie’s eyes started getting bigger as the cuff got tighter. There was no reading on the wall gauge.
“Hmmm.” the nurse said as she let the air out and started over. Once again there was the rhythmic sound of pumping air and straining Velcro. We all watched the gauge this time as nothing happened. Suzie held the thermometer in with one hand as her eyes began to squint in pain.
“Mmnnumm!” she finally squealed from behind the thermometer and the nurse stopped pumping.
“There’s something wrong with this,” she said in frustration. “It’s brand new. I know I’m doing it right.” She fiddled with the unit, accomplishing nothing. “I’d better go check with the supervisor.” she finally said as she removed the thermometer and left the room. Suzie shot a skeptical glance my way.
“Well this is encouraging,” she said.
“Make sure and check the supervisor’s feet when she comes in.” I cracked.
“Why?” Suzie asked.
“If she’s wearing big, red, clown shoes then we’re in real trouble.” She made an annoyed face. I was ready with another comment about the drive-through window but Suzie wasn’t laughing. Even I finally took the hint and shut up.
It took a while but the nurse finally came back with an expert in tow. In about twenty seconds the supervisor found and removed a red packing tab designed to keep the mercury in the baumanometer stable during shipping. It worked perfectly when they tried again. Suzie gave me a look of relief. We really didn’t need anything else to go wrong. The nurse, fully in charge again, plunged into another inquisition as her supervisor left the room.
“When did you last eat? When was your last bowel movement? When was your last period?” she volleyed. She asked such personal questions as if it were normal conversation and went on to review today’s procedure in the bored tone of a waitress describing the soup of the day.
“Since this is a dye-marked, needle guided biopsy, it will be a two-stage procedure. First, you’ll be taken to imaging where they’ll use mammograms to find the tumors. Then they will numb your breast with a small shot and insert needles to the exact location and depth of the tumors.
“Then you’ll be brought back here until they are ready for you in surgery. There they will put you under general anesthesia and use the needles to mark the tumors with dye so Dr. Burns will be absolutely certain where they are.”
“So, they’ll leave the needles in when I come back here?” Suzie asked.
“Yes, they will put paper cups over the needles to keep them from moving until surgery.”
“Like Dixie cups?”
“Exactly,” the nurse smiled as she walked out the door. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right and stared at the door as I replayed the conversation in my mind.
“Well, that’ll be attractive.” Suzie finally said.
“Did she say paper cups?” I asked.
“I’m still thinking about the needles,” she replied and fell into silence.
I wanted to say something encouraging but my mind went blank. I was here to be her support and I had already run dry. There were no funny stories or platitudes that would help right now. She stared at the ceiling and I looked at the purple and white floor tiles trying to come up with something positive. Instead, my mind wandered, looking in vain for a more pleasant subject. I was somewhere in the mountains when a nurse walked in.
“O.K. time to go!” she announced. It wasn’t quite a shout but in the smallness of that quiet room, Suzie and I were simultaneously jerked back to reality. The room was suddenly full as an orderly entered, pushing an odd black wheelchair. The cushioned seat was tall and straight as a ladder back chair. In gleaming black leather with spotless, knobby, grey tires, it looked like it was made by Harley Davidson.
“Nice ride,” I commented to make distracting conversation.
“Yes, this is part of our new equipment.” the nurse answered cheerily. “Normally you have to stand for a mammogram but this will take longer so this new chair is high enough to allow you to sit down instead of passing out from standing up so long.” Nurses have such a blunt way of talking it’s hard to tell when they’re joking. She helped Suzie to sit up.
“How long will this take?” I asked.
“Oh, about an hour,” she answered. “As soon as they’re finished with her we’ll bring her back here to this room. Dr. Burns will come by to see her before the surgery to answer any questions you might have.”
There was nothing more to say as they quickly bundled Suzie into the chair and started to leave. I had to jump up to kiss her goodbye as they wheeled her unceremoniously from the room. I stood in the hall and stared after her until they went around a corner. I stared a little longer as I tried to imagine what was happening to her. It sounded horrible and there was nothing at all I could do to help. She was alone.
It slowly came to me that I was alone, too. In fact, I was alone, standing and staring down an empty hallway at nothing. I went back in the room and stared at the floor, then the walls and then I stared at the broken TV.
I prayed for Suzie and the children at home. I prayed for the doctors. I prayed everything I knew how to pray about the situation. It took about ten minutes. My unoccupied brain began to spin into worry mode. I had to get my mind on something else. I needed a mission to distract me and exploring the new hospital was as good as any. I guessed at how much time I had left, stood up and started to walk.