The best part of my recent hospital stay was trying to get my doctors and nurses to smile. The worst part was everything else.
My mom taught me a lot about grace under difficult conditions. When she was in a nursing home, dying of ALS, she insisted that we always have a box of chocolates on her side table. She could no longer speak, and only had the use of two fingers on one hand, so we had to put the chocolates on her good side. The chocolates were not for her; she could no longer eat. But whenever anyone came into her room, whether a nurse, an aide, a doctor, or a visitor, she would motion them to the side table and silently offer a candy.
Although mom could no longer speak, she could type using her two good fingers on one hand. Speech synthesizers were $25,000, but the first iPads had just come on the market, and I found out that for $5 we could get her an app that would do the same thing. She got to pick her own voice, and she chose a boring, American voice despite my sister and I lobbying for a distinguished British voice.
It is interesting how things come around. As I was recovering from the surgical removal of half of my tongue and unable to speak for the first 3 or 4 days, I remembered what we did for my mom. I had brought my iPad to the hospital and downloaded the latest and best speech app, now $10. Trying out the different voices, I chose the distinguished British voice. I loaded some of the common phrases I would be needing, and every time someone came in I pushed the appropriate button: “Good morning and how ARE you today?” I would then feverishly type responses to all their questions, and my own questions of them, and when they were leaving I would hit “thank you SO very much” in my new Alec Guiness voice. Made them smile every time. Often they would come in just to hear my synthetic voice.
When my tracheostomy was blessedly removed and my voice returned, all the staff wondered if my own voice would sound like Alec Guiness. It did not. It sounded like me. They were only a little bit disappointed.
Chocolates did the trick too. My family brought boxes of them, and I would offer them to the nursing staff. “You know what nurses love!” more than one told me. They often do not have time to take a break or have a meal, but they always have time for a chocolate.
Nurses and aides often go from crisis to crisis, not having time to rest in between or even pee. There is a name for that: nurse’s bladder. They keep holding it in to the point that their bladder expands and they can no longer tell when their body wants them to relieve themselves. They were upset with me if I didn’t pee regularly, exhorting me not to get “nurse’s bladder.” I told them not to worry, I’ve always had long range tanks. “No you don’t,” they replied, “you have what we have.” We bonded over that.
Over the 8 days I was there, I made a point about learning their names, asking about themselves and their families, and when I was allowed to walk I’d smile and wave to them as I did my laps of the ward (11 laps = 1 mile). They’d usually smile and remark on how good I was doing. After one day post-op I was walking more than most patients after 5 days. I came up with names for them (Florence Nightingale, Angel of Mercy, SuperDoc, etc) and they called me SuperPatient or RockStar Patient and lobbied to have me included in their rounds.
My first room was freezing cold, and in fact gave me a cold. When you are struggling for every breath (thanks traecheostomy!) and unable to sleep, a cold is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you. After a couple of days an engineer came and determined that the heater in my room did not work, and I was moved to another room. Actually, that is an understatement. I was upgraded to the Presidential Suite. The largest room, with the best view: Mt St Helens, Mt Hood, the Willamette River, the beautiful city of Portland.
The view was staggeringly beautiful. There was even a day bed so that a family member could stay the night, and each of my kids did just that during the first few nights when I was in panic mode over the inability to breathe and could not sleep.
My daughter Kate stayed with me the first, and by far the most dreadful night.
Did my nurses pull some strings to get me that room? I will never know, or at least, I will never tell.
By the time I left, many of the nursing staff and even one doctor sought me out to say good-bye and give me a hug.
That was the best part of my stay.