Wednesday, June 30, 2010


So, there I was, feeling completely healthy, but sentenced to a week-end on the heart floor of the hospital where my mother had died. Have you ever been in a hospital over the week-end? It is truly eerie. Few people are there; the silence is deafening; and you believe that you are probably one of the few people left on the face of the earth.

Even the medical personnel are not around - only the skeleton crew is available and even they seem so quiet. So, you do feel as if you have been totally forgotten and that you will never again be living your life as you have known it. Everything and everyone have passed you by and you are a person completely and utterly alone.

Because I had so much energy and had nothing to do, I walked the length of the small corridor so many times that I got to know just about everyone on the floor. And every time that I passed my mother's room, I would flinch and look away. It just hurt so much to see it.

My family did come to see me and they took a turn with me around the floor. When we reached my mother's death room, though, they froze and averted their eyes. They were totally freaked - and they hadn't even slept in her bed! I felt like telling my doctors that if my heart was still beating after all the trauma that I had experienced, then I was certainly A1-OK.

One decision that I made that week-end was that Nicole and I would never be doctor and patient again. It was incredible to me, moreover, that I, in the hospital for a possible heart problem, had to deal with the stressful issue of firing my doctor. I was so nervous about it that my heart would not stop pounding and I know that my blood pressure sky-rocketed. If it is true that extreme tension can kill, then I was certain that this situation would definitely do me in.

On Monday, Nicole, without her white coat, came in early to see me. I thought that she must have been in a great rush to get to my room. Otherwise, she would have been wearing it because I sensed that to her that jacket gave her enormous stature.

She sat on my bed, bestowed her beatific smile on me, and asked how I felt. With my pressure pulsing away and my heart beating wildly, I responded in as controlled a voice as I could summon. "Please leave, Nicole. You are no longer my doctor." Stopped dead in her tracks, with her smile wiped off her face, she asked, "Ellen, did something else happen this week-end?"

Nonplussed, I looked at this woman. Was she from another planet? Did she really not know that she had tortured me with her so-called health care? Gathering all my strength - and I do not know where it came from because I was a total wreck - I answered, "Last week was enough, Nicole. Please leave." Immediately, she got up from the bed and fled the room . Emotionally spent, I just wanted to sob and sob.

A few minutes later, my sister called. Apparently, after our conversation, Nicole had phoned her. According to Sandy, Nicole wanted to know how she could mend our relationship, that she respected me so much. Could she and I meet for coffee? It was inconceivable to me that Nicole believed that a simple get-together could make up to me for the mental anguish that she had caused me. In any event, I never saw her or spoke to her again.

As the morning wore on, I had a few visitors. Sam, my surgeon, a warm and caring man, stopped by and spent time with me. Because he was so responsive whenever I had questions about my cancer treatment, I considered him a friend. Therefore, I told him about Nicole and that I had dismissed her. His cheerful presence calmed me down and then he told me not to worry, that he would email his friend, Rand Levine, a noted oncologist, to take over my case.

After Sam left, Dan Lewis, the President of the hospital, sauntered in. Dan and I had known each other socially for a long time and I believed that we had a good relationship. He had checked on my mother when she had been sick in this hospital and he had been attentive to me, too, when I had been a patient here on other cancer-related issues.

Dan had an informal manner, a hail-fellow-well-met attitude and I thought that he wanted the best for his hospital and its patients. I was sure that once he heard what had befallen me that he would take the proper steps to prevent its happening again. Therefore, I proceeded to tell him my story, ending by saying, "Dan, what I have gone through is horrible. You have to do something about it."

He nodded agreeably, but it seemed to me that what I had told him did not register at all. Only when I mentioned that Nicole had called my sister did he come alive. "My God," he exclaimed. "She broke the HIPAA Law," a fact which I had not known until he revealed it to me. (Health Insurance Portability Act of 1996, which requires that a patient give his or her physician permission to speak to family and/or friends.)

His lack of concern for me shocked me. Then it became clear that because Nicole had broken the HIPAA Law, he was afraid that I would sue the hospital and that, in his eyes, I was now no longer simply a patient, but a potential adversary. However, I could not dwell on this turn of events because soon my nightmare began again.

This new drama started when Frank came to see me with his team of cardiologists. He looked very solemn when he entered my room and I immediately thought it was curtains for me. "Am I going to make it, Frank?" I asked. Surprised by my question, he answered, "Of course you are, Ellen." Relieved, it then occurred to me that he probably had been so stern because of another patient.

Then he looked at my chart and said, "It says here that you are very anxious." Laughing hysterically, I replied, "I guess I am very anxious, Frank. Nothing like sleeping in your mother's deathbed or being told you're going to die to make you really nervous!" He nodded and made some notes. Then his team checked me out and told me that they believed that they would have to do surgery to remove the fluid around my heart. This operation would involve my remaining in the ICU for a few days while my fluid drained.

It sounded horrible to me and I was certain that it would finish me off. However, before they could do this operation, they told me that they had to insert a camera down my throat, which would take a picture of my heart. In this way, they could see clearly what was going on down there.

I looked at these doctors in utter amazement. They were talking as if there was nothing to this procedure. Easy for them to say since it was not their body lying there on the table. Moreover, after everything that had occurred in the past week, I had little confidence that everything would go smoothly. Clearly, Murphy's Law was working overtime on me. Therefore, they had a slim chance to none that I would agree to their proposal.

Instead, I asked, "Why can't we do another echo? It's much easier and wouldn't it show if there is still fluid there?" They looked at me in wonderment. What a brilliant idea, they seemed to be thinking and immediately they accepted my suggestion! My God, I thought. It certainly does not take an MD degree to use your common sense. Why was it so hard for these Harvard physicians to use theirs?

In awhile the technician came to my room to do the echo. After it was done, the doctors, though, were still certain that I needed surgery. Thus, they put me on a gurney and had me taken to the waiting area of the operating room.

Have you ever had an operation? Well, then, you know that the preparation makes you think of yourself as a trussed up turkey. In my case, they gave me a johnny, inserted a catheter into my body, and left me lying there, hearing all kinds of commotion from the doctors, the nurses and the patients. Not only did I feel like a turkey, but also a sacrificial lamb being led to the slaughter, with absolutely no control over what was about to happen to me.

And I could not believe that I was in this situation. All I could think was, "Where is my life? Where did it go?" for in the short space of a week, I was having one procedure after another. At this point, it was impossible for me to believe that I would ever return to my normal, healthy existence.

Suddenly, as I was lying in a dreamlike state, trying to imagine myself in Aruba, with loads of rum in me, Joe, the young resident cardiologist on Frank's team, came running to me, out of breath and talking very, very fast. "Ellen, you don't need surgery. The echo shows that a lot of the fluid dried up by itself. You're fine!"

Totally freaked out by this news - I could not believe that I had been put through this ordeal for nothing - I shouted at him, "Then get me the hell out of here and fast! And I want a vodka and orange juice immediately!" He just stared at me, amazed by my outburst. "My God!" he exclaimed. "You're awfully emotional! I can't get you any liquor, but I can get you a valium." "Forget the valium, Joe," I cried. "And you'd be emotional, too, if you were me."

He then tried to soothe me by telling me that I would be back in my room very soon. However, since the cardiologists were still conferring on my case, I had to remain and could not even unplug myself from the intrusive catheter.

During this time, they transferred me to the hallway, where I lay uncomfortably on the gurney, and I had visitors. My sister came to see me, as well as Al, my radiation oncologist, and Dr. Segel, just off the plane from Brazil. No one said very much because my case was very disconcerting to them, to say the least.


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