Last week I spent four days in Royal University Hospital, Saskatoon – my alma mater. From 1979 to 1986 I fought death there for months at a time. The staff became my family, my safety net, so that when I did recoup from a surgery going home was a scary proposition.
Having experienced for several years the brokenness of our health care system, when I was informed I must re-enter RUH for diagnosis and treatment, I imagined the worst-case scenario anticipating the situation couldn’t possibly be that bad, so the experience would seem good in contrast. That bad it was! With so many patients in the ER the resident ended up examining my abdomen at the end of a public waiting room, screened only by my husband’s body. An hour and half in, I finally lay on a gurney in an open cubicle for my ECG. Minutes later I was back in my wheelchair in the waiting room, because they needed the gurney for the next person. Finally, they announced they had a cubicle in ER for me and I was moved into a curtained area, where I collapsed on a horizontal surface for the first time in hours. Twenty minutes later, I was told someone sicker than me needed it and I was being sent over to the ER in the old hospital basement. Once there they maneuvered me into a small corner. One wall was frosted glass floor to ceiling, the nurses station closed off the opposite side, and along the bottom where curtain areas with other patients hidden from view. However, this did not save me from hearing their detailed health problems as recounted to doctors and nurses throughout the day, and gave me no privacy for answering the staff’s many personal questions.
I settled myself in my snug corner as sunlight filled the window and felt I could be safe tucked away there for the next couple of days until my MRI took place. But at 12:30 am I am informed I am being moved up to a ward. “No,” I said, “I want to stay here.” “You can’t stay here this is for ER patients you have to go up.”
Now staying in a multi bed ward was my worst nightmare. I have a real phobia of being in an enclosed place full of strangers. You should see me on an airplane! However, they tucked me into the far corner of a three-bed ward. The other two patients across from me, where basically comatose, and I had the bathroom all to myself, so thought, “This isn’t so bad.” The next afternoon I am told I am being moved again, some man needs that space. “Why can’t you put him where you are planning to move me?” “He needs more care giving than you.” That will teach me to do as much as possible for myself to save work for the staff! I took a stand. “I’m not moving. I feel safe here and all these changes are too stressful.” Two hours later I had the administrator of the floor apologizing but telling me firmly I was being moved.
Now I am in a four-bed ward that has had a fifth bed squeezed into the middle of the side I’m on. My bed is right at the main door to the room, in fact the door can’t be closed because it is caught behind the small space I have. I’m pushed far beyond any protection from a curtain and lie exposed like a beached whale for everyone passing or entering. The bathroom is right across from me, and for the next twenty-four hours, my male neighbour and I run a silent and intense competition around who gets there first, every hour on the hour. I get up in the dark and do my wash and change in a corner of my room, sans door or curtain.
I call my tiny space the mousehole, and getting the door partially closed to block one side, and a curtain pulled across the end of my bed, settle in. At this point, I expected to be screaming, “Get me out of here.” Instead, a miracle happens. I start seeing the humour in everything. My creepy neighbour becomes, Raymond, someone I can take an interest in, as he peeks through the slit in the folding screen between us. The constant change of people being added or removed from the ward, produces dramas such as two hours of a woman gossiping nonstop to a nurse in the middle of the night, a man who refuses to wear earbuds on his TV and forces us all to listen to baseball games all afternoon and exploding bombs of a war movie at night. Requests for quiet from staff so the rest of us can sleep, last only if they are in the room, then up goes the volume again. Across from me another man moves in. He is deaf. The nurses are forced to yell at him “Are you in pain? Etc. etc. through the night. They could have a bull horn and get no answer, but the rest of us sacrifice the tiny chance of sleep we have.
Maybe being sleep deprived helped me find the humour, my body flooded with adrenaline, from unending fight or flight response, provided me an opportunity that brought me home feeling a better version of me.
My MRI took place the next day, not without complications. However, my specialist received enough information to advice me on the best course of action, and I had already done my due diligence on the options available to me moving forward. Amazingly, the special course of medication was found in a small clinic in Saskatoon and sent up to the hospital just for me. Warned it might take days to get it, I suddenly found myself receiving a quickie course in how to inject myself subcutaneously and being released that afternoon.
So, after four days that seem like a surreal experience, a mystifying dream from which I’ve woken, I am elated to be in my home by the river, buzzed up on Prednisone and racing about like a monkey on speed.
My old home at RUH is no longer a haven, but a sprawling spew of chaos. The sheer size of the hospital, with the children’s hospital added on, along with several other floors that were built after my initial stay makes getting around not only intimidating, but a marathon workout. Over forty years there are massive changes, in size, numbers, and systems; but several stood out: there is a much higher percentage of male nurses, there is a wide variety in ethnicity of the staff, who have In common, their caring, and frustration in not being able to give the time they wish to their patient. They spend more time moving them around than making them comfortable. I am most grateful for the expertise, sensitivity and good energy they brought to all our encounters.
Our overcrowded hospitals have mastered one skill since the demands of covid. Triage rules. The constant relocation of patients a driving force. Most decisions to move a patient happen on rounds later in the day. This means the patients are almost always moved in the middle of the night, as it takes cleaning staff hours to sterilize the cubicles and equipment for the newest occupant. So, more fodder for humour, as an entire ward of exhausted patients put up with the lights, noise, and personal information thrust upon them at 2:15 am by the arrival of the newest occupant. You don’t go to a hospital to rest.
My next-cubicle neighbour and I are eyeing the bathroom door. Who will win? Whether I’m first in or not, I know I’ll have a grin on my face. Hospital turned out to be a hoot!
Opening myself to the experience those last two days proved so much more beneficial than my earlier attempt to isolate and keep my protective wall in place. With awareness came gratitude. How could I complain about my mousehole, when there were dozens of patients who didn’t have a bed, thousands of Canadians who don’t have a doctor and millions of people around the world who can’t get treatment? I was blessed indeed.
Coming from this new perspective I could laugh at what days ago would have disgusted, frightened or turned me judgemental. Where else could I listen to a woman talking about her bloody stool while I tried to eat my lunch; or smile at the irony of five milk-based foods on my tray marked “no dairy”? Where else could you have a nurse shout at a room full of visitors “Do you know how much he weighs? Do you know his height?” When they can’t answer, and the man can’t hear you think they’d pull out a writing pad. Instead, the nurse goes by my bed muttering, “I’m saying he’s 5’8” a hundred and eighty pounds, so tough.”
Reps from the physio department and abilities centre are now interrogating me about my needs. Can I manage at home. Can I walk on my own? Can I climb stairs? They want to take me for a trial test. I leave the woman in the dust as I stride down the hall, up and down a stairwell and back to my room. I’m no ancient lady who needs a pole to pull herself out of bed. That they think I might be incurs a stream of silent laughter that delights my mind. I will recover fully, paddle the river, ski the hills. Time and will power have proven me right many times. I have total faith that forty years after my first victory I am in an even stronger position to combat Crohn’s, for I have a more powerful weapon in my arsenal — humour.