When David Morgan and his residents crowded into my room on an early morning five years ago this week, I announced that I was ready to go home.
An aerial view of the campus of Vanderbilt Medical Center. (Photo: www.mc.vanderbilt.edu)
A day or so earlier, he had said or nodded or done something that had given me the impression of an imminent release from the oncology floor at the Vanderbilt Medical Center.
I had had enough. I saw no reason to prolong my stay. I had done everything everybody wanted, except eat the meals whose very odor caused a wave of uncontrollable nausea with predictable consequences. Despite that one exception thrice daily, I was a model patient – so I thought. I had taken the pills and answered the redundant questions. I had hauled the damnable IV-stand with its chronically tangled cords around the oncology floor on forced walks. I had never asked the unanswerable question about a cure.
Morgan said my release depended on my counts – what the morning's lab work showed about my acute leukemia. His conditional answer sounded like a definitive announcement – you're going home today – to one with chemo brain.
When a nurse entered the room soon thereafter, I asked if my counts were back. She said no. When she entered a second time, I asked again. She said no.
I pondered what to do. I soon decided the nursing staff needed some encouragement. I struggled out of bed, untangled the IV-stand, yanked the electrical plug out of the wall, pulled open the door and looked for a nurse.
Finding one, I asked if they had heard from Morgan. The answer was no.
What in the world was he doing, I wondered. Why hadn't he made a decision? He had said that he would make a decision – if the counts were good. What was taking so long to process the blood work?
I circled the floor, wearing my blue mask, slipping in sock feet, hauling the IV-stand.
Another patient, the chubby one, who was bald and had no eyebrows, was circling the floor in the opposite direction. I suspect that he, too, knew that we were racing each other to see who could round the floor the fastest. We never talked, perhaps fearing we would catch what the other had.
When he retreated to his room, I retreated to mine too tired to compete when there was no competition.
Nothing happened. No report on the counts. No word from Morgan. No nurses.
I again left the room, yanking around the IV-stand. After a few laps, I sat on a stationary bike in the hallway and peddled for a few minutes until impatience and fatigue drove me in search of a nurse, asking for a word from Morgan and getting a negative reply.
Perhaps rather sharply, I suggested that if Morgan wasn't going to call them that they needed to call him – to remind him that I was going home. Enough was enough.
Even on the cancer floor, the most patient nurses can get sick of the most impatient patient. In hindsight, I think they had had enough of me.
A nurse entered my room late in the morning with indescribably good news – Morgan was releasing me. She said a technician would remove my PICC line.
Assuming that meant within the next few minutes, I inched out of bed. I called my wife, Betsy, with a simple request: Come get me.
I hung up and began to pack, not that there was anything to pack – toothbrush, dry skin ointment, extra pair of socks, unused shaving kit.
The technician arrived and removed the PICC line.
Unshackled from the IV-stand with a euphoric sense of liberty, I opened the particleboard closet where I found the same clothes that I had worn a month earlier into the hospital – dark slacks, gray-starched dress shirt, jacket, black socks, belt and loafers. I dressed in the now-oversized clothes. I sat down in the green, plastic-covered chair – and waited edgily for my ride home, fearing Morgan might change his mind.
Betsy opened the door. I stood up but could not lift up the packed bag. I moved toward the door. Let's go, I said. She said we needed to wait. Prescriptions had to be gathered. Papers had to be signed. A wheelchair had to be delivered. I replied that I didn't need a wheelchair. She insisted. We waited.
We waited until everything was in order and an orderly pushed me in a wheelchair onto the elevator, off the cancer floor and soon into the blinding light of the street.
The bathroom mirror at home told me something I didn't know. The mirror said that I disappeared into a skeletal creature – a rib cage, some bones without muscle, almost hairless, save a few strains of a former mustache, a few whiffs of white hair.
Dead man walking, I thought. But dead man walking at home was better than dead man walking another step around the oncology floor.
Dressed in multiple layers of sports gear, as if I could actually do something athletic, I hobbled into the back yard toward the freshly tilled garden and laid down in the green grass, feeling the coolness of the earth, seeing the cleanness of the blue sky, observing the newness of life, giving thanks for being home, birthing a sense of the "fierce urgency of Now."
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.