Sacred Heart was like an assembly line in which patients were passed off as quickly as possible between admissions, short stay, pre-op, post-op, o.r., and back to short stay. I was seldom asked if I needed anything; and clerks, nurses, aides, stretcher pushers, doctors, and sundry technicians appeared above my face in surprising numbers only to disappear as abruptly as they came. Being flat on my back much of the time, I was frustrated by my inability to know what was going on or even who was in the room.
During surgery, two people who I couldn’t see stood in a corner disparaging conservative politicians before saying goodbye to still other unknowns. My surgeon was unrecognizable behind mask, cap, and glasses, and, since he didn’t speak to me, I didn’t know he was present until he began the procedure. The anesthesiologist stuck the deadener in my back, but never asked how I was, and I couldn’t even tell that he was in the room. The operating staff began discussing their next patient while I was still on the table. Such impersonal treatment angered Peggy who is accustomed to attending to one or two patients for an entire shift, and, if they are still there, attending to them again the next day. The best I could offer was that some of the staff had seemed more constrained by time than compassion.
I thought it a very great thing to be able to see—live and in color—the bones and ligaments within my body. No one had such an opportunity until a decade or so ago, and very few have taken it since. I also found it unsettling to look at structures that appeared so very fragile, and that served as vivid reminders of my degeneration and mortality. The glistening curves of my bone ends looked no different than those of a freshly slaughtered hog, and the bright surgical light bounced off the back of my knee cap like sunlight off the moon.
Despite the impersonality of the hospital, I remain very glad that I have access to modern medicine with all its drugs and gadgetry. The accounts I read of Himalayan expeditions often describe the extreme poverty of places where doctors are rare and their ministrations primitive. I’ve read of porters who had no economic choice but to work despite leg fractures. No matter how tightly bound, the bone ends stabbed into their flesh with every step, and, if not for their many dependents, their best hope would have been that infection took them quickly. These are the kinds of places where children still die from vitamin deficiencies. Yet, even in this country, we can but prolong the inevitable, which means that a Nepalese porter who dies from a broken leg might suffer less than an American who is kept alive as long as possible by every means possible.
I am still relatively new to age-related degeneration, and I have yet to understand how people bear it. When your joints, teeth, ears, eyes, and taste buds, are failing rapidly, and you know that a significant portion of your remaining years will be spent in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and nursing homes; how do you find a point to it all? I went to the hospital to have my knee fixed, but came home with the knowledge that its failure has only been postponed for a brief time unless I am willing to give up much that I love. I can try to measure the worth of my life in terms of how much I can still do rather than it terms of what I cannot, but for now I am overwhelmed by the latter.
I got through yesterday partly by quoting poetry to myself. One poem goes, in part:
My mind to me a kingdom is,
Such present joys therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind…
I laugh not at another’s loss;
I grudge not at another’s gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
My state at one doth still remain;
I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end
Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
Their wisdom by their rage of will;
Their treasure is their only trust;
A cloakéd craft their store of skill:
But all the treasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.
Sir Edward Dyer
I really must find a way to remain at peace in the face of the inevitable.