I went outside the other day for the first time in 82 days. “You might want to bring a jacket, it’s in the low sixties,” noted the young resident who was there to escort me downstairs, across Ft. Washington Ave., and into the garden I’ve been staring at since they moved me out of the CCU (thus depriving me of my river view). “I don’t have a jacket,” I said. It was obscenely hot when I was admitted, back in June. “And besides, it’s always the same temperature in here. I wouldn’t mind being cold.”
It was a glorious September afternoon; cool and dry, with a light breeze. The garden is lovely, with wooden benches and some cafe tables, small trees and flower beds. We sat together, the resident and I, making small talk. I couldn’t begin to tell you what she said, I was so lost in the beauty all around us. Everything in the hospital is always the same; the sights, the smells, the food, the people. I was only outside for fifteen minutes, but that was enough to take off my shoes and feel the cool grass under my feet. It was enough to make me feel energized and refreshed.
In the garden, small birds flitted about, landing in the beautiful cherry trees before swooping onto the ground to eat a crumb from someone’s lunch. It’s inside a u-shaped group of buildings between the university and the hospital; a small rectangle of green space in the middle of the city. Like so many small gardens in New York, it is inaccessible to ordinary people, with gates locked from the inside. The resident didn’t have a key, so we had to wait for someone to exit before we could catch the gate and sneak in. At my size, and with an IV pole attached to me, I’m not sure “sneak” is the right word. I got some funny looks from people in their cars as I crossed Ft. Washington Ave. with my pajama pants and IV pole.
I had been feeling pretty despondent about my situation. Between the horrible roommates, the horrible food, horrible everything, I felt I was about to lose my mind. Then, my sister Ellen came for a Sunday visit. It was good for me that she heard my roommate, troll man, grunting away. It’s hard to explain how awful that is, unless the person hears it first hand. You can imagine the snot sucking, rattled breathing and coughing, and the loud, indiscriminate farting. But, it’s another thing altogether to stand in its midst. So, it was gratifying for me that she had now also heard him doing his thing. She reacted with the appropriate amount of horror and revulsion. I felt vindicated, for whatever that’s worth.
Ellen, a most reliable and generous visitor, came with a pizza, and an ice cold NA beer. We sat in the lounge and watched football. It almost felt like a normal Sunday. When we went to eat our pizza in the lounge, as we’d have lost our appetites if we ate in the room with troll man. There was a guy in the lounge watching the Bills annihilate the Jets. He had the woozy look of someone who’s been through it for a few days. I knew how he felt. Every so often he stood up and gingerly walked around. We made small talk. He’d had catheterization procedures in the femoral artery, twice in each groin, over the last few days. His name is Keith, from Warren County. He ate a slice of pizza with us, and we were pretty upbeat for a couple of long term patients.
Talk turned to our kids and I told him about my older daughter, her experience missing out on her sophomore year in college, how badly I felt for her. I told Keith about my younger daughter, including her exploits on the basketball court. “It was pretty great her freshman year. She got substantial minutes playing on the varsity squad and was a key part of their first sectional championship in 19 years,” I told him. “Did you say you’re from Bloomfield?” I nodded in the affirmative, having just stuffed half a slice of pizza into my mouth. “Do you know Tom Casey?” he asked. I nearly choked on my pizza. Tom Casey is the father of my daughter’s girlfriend. I’ve spent a lot of time standing on bleachers, yelling at the refs in our girls’ soccer and basketball games. Tom and Keith know each other from a charity camp and have been friends for decades. “What are the odds?” he asked. What are the odds, indeed. Pictures were taken and texts exchanged. For the second time in months, I felt buoyant and connected to the world outside the hospital.
I told Keith about troll man. Keith said his roommate, who was also bad (not troll man bad, but still), was being discharged as we spoke. In the hospital, there’s only a few varieties of roommate. Some roommates are bad, most of them are worse. Only someone who has spent considerable time in the hospital will ever get a good roommate. Keith seemed like he’d be a good roommate. He has a dry wit and joked about Tom in the way only a good friend can. On an impluse, I blurted, “you want a new roommate?” “Uh, sure,” he said, recognizing that I would probably be better than whoever was moved in there with him. As this was happening, the weekend cardiac attending physician, Dr. Dreyfus walked into the lounge. It was time for my daily check-in. “You want to go back to your room, or talk in here?” “Let’s go to my room” I said.
Dr. Dreyfus is tiny, maybe 5'3" and 110 lbs, and possessed of a sense of humor so droll that it can be hard to find the joke. We walked into my room, past troll man, who let out an appropriately loud grunt/snort. “I need you to do something about this situation,” I said, jerking my thumb in the direction of troll man. She looked puzzled, and I realized she had no idea what I was talking about. “You’re not aware of what’s been going on, are you?” Of course she wasn’t. It’s not as if the heart failure team gathers in their meeting to talk about their patients’ roommates. “I’ve been dealing with this for a week and I can’t take it any more. I need you to advocate for me.”
To say she was resistant to the idea is an understatement. She basically flat out said “no.” I started getting agitated, my voice rose and I could feel my face turning red. “Why not. I’m just asking you to move me into a different room.” She made all manner of excuses. “We have no one here who can do it. It’s a Sunday. There a lot of administrative steps that we can’t take until tomorrow.” I got more angry. “So, you’re telling me that if a patient comes in with a cardiac problem tonight, you can’t put them in a bed until tomorrow?”
She said that wasn’t the issue, “it’s that moving an existing patient requires different approvals. It’s a whole thing … Besides, we don’t normally put transplant patients on 5 Garden North.” I blew my top when she said this. “That is just not true, and you know it! I know there at least two current transplant patients over there right now.” I was looming over her, my voice just under a shout. Troll man snorted loudly. “I haven’t slept at all in three days and I can’t take this shit anymore,” I said, realizing in that moment that I had her trapped in the small space between my bed and the window. I sat down on the bed and took a deep breath. I had been a generally agreeable and easy patient for over two months, Now I felt that the hospital was not doing what it should be doing to make me feel safe and sane.
“Look, I’m appealing to your basic sense of human decency. Please help me. I’m at the end of my rope with this guy.” “Mr. Heyman,” she said sternly, “I don’t appreciate being told I have no humanity.” I exploded when she said this. “THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID!”
“Mr. Heyman, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with this tonight. I will ask about it tomorrow at our meeting.” “Fuck it,” I said. “Fuck it. That’s fine. We’ll do it tomorrow.” She walked off to her next patient and I sat on the bed for a moment to collect myself, before going back to the lounge.
“Well?” asked Keith. “Nope. Not gonna happen,” I said. I explained what happened with Dr. Dreyfus. “I can’t believe I did that,” I said, feeling both embarrassed by my outburst, but still raging at Dreyfus’s unwillingness to help. “I should probably apologize.” Ellen disagreed, “ you have every right to be angry and she should have been more helpful.” While I appreciated the sentiment, Ellen was not in the room as I towered over Dreyfus. I waited for her finish with a patient and stopped her in front the nurses station. “Listen,” I said “I’m really sorry for yelling at you like that. But you should understand that I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in almost a week. I’m really not dealing with this well at all.” “I understand” she said. “It’s purgatory. You are in purgatory and it’s very difficult.” I resisted the urge to tell her that she could have alleviated that difficulty by simply asking the nurses if they could look into moving me. “We’re good,” she said as she walked away. I’m still not sure I’d say we’re good, but I’m also still embarrassed by the way I acted. So, maybe that’s a wash.
I went back to my room and wrote a sternly worded letter to the CEO of the Hospital and to the SVP for Patient Experience. It is hard to explain how frustrating it is to have so little control over your own living situation. I don’t know if it was my letter, or Dr. Dreyfus advocating for me, or something else, but on Tuesday morning, the charge nurse told me she was working on getting me back into a single room. By that afternoon, I was sitting in my single room, free of the snorting, farting troll man. Later, the resident came and took me outside for the first time in 82 days. By that evening, I felt like a new man. When you’re in purgatory, almost everything seems shitty. So you have to appreciate the little things. Something as simple as walking outside for a bit, watching the birds, and standing in the grass in your bare feet can make all the difference. Sometimes, it even feels good to just flip out on someone, whether she deserves it, or not (she kinda did).