There was all the potential for great drama. Three brothers, separated by a total of four years and three worlds, sat with their mother in the hospital waiting room anticipating news of their father’s surgery. The dialogue was Pinter-like, enough for a play. In fact, there was enough material for a feature film. Unfortunately, I don’t write drama.
Hospitals bring out the best, and more often, the worst in people. Brought together by the joy of birth or the gravity of illness, we gather out of hope and concern in an effort to will a positive outcome. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes not. Often the patient leaves the hospital simply altered, only to recover and improve months later or to eventually regress and return. Uncertainty and fear of failure permeate the halls.
Relatives and friends who hardly socialize, or even speak during good times, are stashed in claustrophobic waiting rooms and compelled to vegetate until the doctor or surgeon summons them The forced smiles disappear quickly and every slight and indignity is remembered and exaggerated by the assembled clan. The door opens and another family troops into the waiting room. Two, three, four groups now vie for the limited seats, ancient magazines and control of the now black and white T.V.
As evening fell the soap operas and game shows were replaced by the Republican National Convention. The delegates, speakers, even the signs in the Astrodome helped divide the family. Each member picked a side and either cheered or debated with the television transmission. They fought each other through the tube and a convention 2,500 miles away. Officially they weren’t fighting. They were simply agreeing or disagreeing with the Republicans.
“Look at Marilyn Qualye’s hair. It looks like a helmet.”
“Isn’t President Reagan amazing? Eighty-one years old!”
“Helmet? Maybe a defective helmet.”
And so it went. The comments and remarks became nastier and nastier until they sunk to the level of the late Lee Atwater. The whole time everyone pretended that the discussion was not personal, but political. But they all knew better.
The hostility had just about reached the surface when Doctor Cohen entered the room. His face was calm and emotionless. There were no clues as to how the procedure had gone or what the patient’s status was. And then he spoke. With minimum of jargon he described a successful surgery.
He was asked a few questions that eventually led back to his initial report. The sixty-seven year old man would be in Recovery for about three hours and then spend about a week in a private room on the seventh floor.
Now that the immediate danger had passed, whatever remained of their shared focus and purpose quickly disappeared. No more pretending. No more Republicans. The uniting fear and guilt gave way to anger and resentment. They were the only family now in the waiting room and the veneer of civility was shed as completely as a rattlesnake looses old skin. They truly hated each other and they wanted to be certain that that wasn’t a secret.
One stormed out, only to return a half an hour later with a fresh supply of venom. Occasionally a stranger or two would enter the room, but the uncomfortable silence and icy stares forced them to leave.
Four hours later the patient was wheeled into his room. He was attached to five machines. One unit automatically took his blood pressure every 15 minutes. Another provided pain medicine whenever he pushed a button. A unit of blood was slowly dripping through the IV. Tubes were down his throat and elsewhere. His breathing was aided by an oxygen mask.
The family gathered at his bedside, drawn by his apparent vulnerability. For a moment it appeared that the seriousness of his condition would overcome the animosity of his family. But only for a moment. As he drifted in and out of consciousness his family drifted in and out of the lounge next to his room.
The whispers gave way to shouts. The door stayed closed for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes at a time. Negotiations failed. Someone suggested an abortion in the 108th trimester. But when the doctor would come to check on the patient, all fighting would stop and everyone returned to his bedside.
The morphine helped to mask the patients’ pain and will erase all memory of this day. Lucky him. The rest of us will remember this day forever.
Dave Cunix is a local freelance writer and owner of Northpoint Insurance Services. The surgeon delivered a 12 pound spleen 8/18/92. Patient and spleen are resting comfortably. Not every family reunion is a Kodak moment.