Last Friday we arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. when the waiting room doors were supposed to open. The nurses were running a bit behind, leaving us waiting on the waiting room. While I paced back and forth, Mom sat quietly and tried to compose herself before her big transplant operation.
Throughout the course of the next nine hours I would find myself marching through a series of waiting spaces while she underwent the most serious procedure of her life. The doors were finally unlocked at 5:45, letting us migrate from the cushioned hallway benches to the heart center’s small waiting area, equipped only with a TV and a coffee machine, the kind that makes whirring noises and produces a brown liquid in seconds that you can add cream and sweetener to, sip it slowly while trying not to make faces that warn others you’re drinking mud-cake Gatorade, then down the last three-fourths of it in a single swig to end it all.
At 7 Mom was escorted to the main event and I was directed to the hospital’s primary surgery waiting room, located a couple blocks and numerous twists and turns away. This renowned facility has been renovated and upgraded so many times over the years that it’s now a hodgepodge labyrinth. Everyone’s extremely friendly and generous with providing directions. They recognize that lost look in your eyes because they’ve been there too.
Check-in at the main waiting room took a while because I’d arrived before all their computer systems had been booted up. Once they were online, I took my assigned hospital pager and promptly went downstairs to the cafeteria for breakfast. I’ve been blessed enough that I’m not a regular at any area health care facilities — either for my own sake or for family’s — but I was surprised to find a hospital menu that offered omelets and fresh ingredients. They’ve come a long way since the days when Grandma would take me along with her to her appointments.
Greeting visitors who descend the cafeteria staircase is a triptych called “Tree of Life”, one of many art objects scattered around the grounds.
Returning to the waiting room brought nervousness and ennui in equal measure over the next few hours. I didn’t bother trying to nap. None of the snack machines appealed to me. The coffee machine was broken, which is just as well. I counted four recliners, two of which were hogged by one anxious gentleman and his bags. Plenty of reading was accomplished, in between bouts of eying the electrical outlets and waiting for other waiters to move so I could keep my phone charged. Eventually one gave, once her patient had finished their own ordeal with success. Meanwhile, Mom’s status on the summary screens gradually shifted from “In Operating Room” to “In Procedure” to “On Bypass” to “Off Bypass” to “Closing”.
Around 10 a.m. a lady on the PA announced a CODE BLUE. Ultimately this was proven irrelevant to our situation, but no less disturbing.
The half-hour from 10:30 to 11 turned into a frantic cascade events. A couple of family members arrived after a three-hour drive, but adjourned to the cafeteria for their own repast. While trying to alternate between emailing my wife, responding to a blog comment, and editing a stupid error in a previous entry, the surgical liaison arrived to let me know Mom’s surgery was in its finishing stages and the doctor would come join me in a conference room shortly. I ran downstairs, let my aunts know why I might have disappeared if they returned too soon, ran back upstairs, met with the doctor for updates, and reconvened in the main waiting room until time for the next steps. All had gone as expected, but she would be moving to ICU shortly as part of the process.
The receptionist recommended I take this open moment, between surgery waiting and ICU prep waiting, for lunch. Once more to the cafeteria, nothing sounded good, so I settled for stress-eating an apple cinnamon streusel pizza.
From there we were directed to yet another waiting room. The official ICU waiting room was closed for renovation, so we had to settle for a temporary waiting room with no facilities except a TV showing a History Channel special about something involving both samurai swords and aliens. I think. By this time I was punchy from sleep deprivation.
At 1:30 p.m. a nurse found us and guided us to ICU, where Mom was barely conscious, hooked to countless instruments and computers, unable to speak while the respirator was still in place. We all babbled for a bit, partly to work through our own nerves as well as maybe allay her fears a tad, even though she was unlikely to remember this moment at all. Mom’s nurse, absolutely the most gracious human I met that day, let us know the ventilator would be coming out in a couple hours if we wanted to await the chance to hear her speak.
Thus we adjourned to one last waiting area for the day — a set of chairs by the elevators, no real enclosure or appliances, just one handy outlet. We chatted and tried not to stare as various cleaning personnel and patients on stretchers traveled back and forth, up and down, all on their own paths before and after waiting.
The ventilator was out before 3:00. Mom’s voice was a weak croak, but it was there. Laughter and coughing hurt in her fragile state. I gave her the expected reassurances and blurted a bit of awkward inanity because that’s how I talk sometimes. I headed home a few minutes later so she could continue recuperating and I could fetch a much-needed nap.
I’m technically free of the hospital, but the waiting isn’t over yet. As of this writing she sounds much better and is burdened with fewer attachments. We have no clear idea how much longer she’ll be there, or where her next stop will be. The phrase “rehabilitation center” came up in one conversation without elaboration. It may be a while before she can return to her own home alone. For now the future is wide open, but we take comfort that the surgery’s outcome, if all goes according to plan, will mean a much healthier state for her going forward. We’ll have to see how that turns out. For the past few days my house has been my waiting room.
Prayer and turning to God have been a source of strength to us. I also keep flashing back to the pager they gave me in the main waiting room, an image of hope in itself. I have no idea if the resemblance to Captain America’s shield is intentional or not. Either way I took it as a good sign.
It served as a sort of good-luck charm longer than intended because I accidentally took it home with me. Large pockets make it too easy to ignore what you’re carrying. I returned the shield on my next visit, trusting that it would serve its next wielder well.
I also later found out that the hospital had a Starbucks right around the corner from the main waiting room, but nobody told me. I’m not sure if it would’ve provided better coffee than those nasty machines. Lord willing, I won’t have to return for another waiting day to find out anytime soon.