HANGING OUT WITH THE BOYS AT GENERAL HOSPITAL | Greg Stidham
I sat in the upright chair beside my hospital bed, laptop perched on bedside table, writing whatever was coming to mind. Most of that was influenced by my immediate condition and hospitalization, filtered through the knowledge that comes from medical school and a recently concluded, long career in medicine. Fluorescent light seeped through the night-darkened hospital room. Three men; three complex combinations of maladies; three different personalities that share at least one feature—humor.
We are all three old men. I believe I may be the oldest. Rick is almost 59. Chris looks no more than 50. So I eclipse them both at my ripe 64, the age at which the Beatles warned me I’d wonder “if you still love me,” a question that was preposterous at the time not because I was so certain of being loved, but because it seemed impossible that I would ever be so old.
Chris, sandy greying hair, sharp facial features, was quite friendly. He was a talker, but never intrusive. I learned that he had been something of an athlete when he was younger, as he later told me. Also that he had two cats (was allergic to dogs) and a very devoted wife who did not drive and was therefore dependent on his parents for rides to visit in the hospital.
“I was a long-distance runner. Marathons. That sort of thing.”
In addition to being a competitive long-distance runner, he was also, I learned, a weight-lifter—thin, lean, straight, with shaped calves and hearty thighs, flat belly. He bragged to us other “boys” that “I used to be able to run up nine flights of stairs and beat the elevator.”
He never knew that he, even at an early age, had severe, chronic hypertension, and the hypertension was killing his kidneys.
A decade or two ago, Chris’ kidneys began to fail, and the rest of his body followed quickly. Soon he required dialysis, and his running years were long past. His bones began to become brittle and deformed. This is expected in chronic renal disease, but much later it was discovered that Chris’ case was much more complicated.
Despite his many trials, Chris kept his mind sharp as a razor. He was a computer programmer, I learned though our cross-curtain hospital bed conversations, for a prestigious insurance company, and his talents were apparently quite appreciated. And with his growing list of infirmities, Chris was able to work a great deal from home, using his extravagant home computing arrangements.
Eventually Chris was put on a list for a transplant. No living donors were available, so he eventually received a cadaver transplant that was poorly matched, with a far lower likelihood of success. The transplant did allow a short period of freedom from dialysis, but was in less than a year followed by complete rejection and a return to dialysis.
One of the many difficulties caused by kidney failure is the body’s difficulty in regulating calcium, which in turn causes the bone problems. Chris’ calcium difficulties, however, were far worse than usual, even for the worst of renal patients. After seven more years, further studies finally revealed abnormalities of Chris’ parathyroid glands, the glands primarily responsible for the overall regulation of calcium. They needed to be removed.
That is why he is my current roommate, and why we met.
Chris’ body is now twisted and bent, his stature shortened by twelve inches, like a hunchback. He mostly uses a walker to get from here to there. He loves his coffee, too. Or more, he loves his Iced Cap—iced cappuccino—from Tim Horton’s.
The other morning my wife was on her way to visit and told me she was going to stop at “Timmy’s” and asked me if I wanted anything, and also to ask the others if they did.
I knew Rick does not drink coffee, and he was sleeping. “Chris, my wife is coming in and stopping at Timmy’s. Do you want her to get you an Iced Cap?”
“Oh, yes. Tell her thank you, and I will pay her.”
“I don’t think she will take your money, but I’ll make sure she places the order.”
Rick is burly, scruffy—scruffy beard, or well overgrown whiskers; scruffy longish hair on an otherwise balding pate. In his youth and after, he was a biker, a brawler, and a boozer. A mechanic by trade, he became a restorer of vintage cars (all “muscle” cars) and trucks, which he then shrewdly and apparently for good profit sells to eager buyers in southeast Ontario. He boasts six kids, with none of whom he is close, and also boasts three wives and three divorces. He loves to swear, and he is an endless source of tastelessly hilarious jokes.
Rick is familiar already to many of the staff. Prior to this now two month hospitalization, he was here five years ago after a motorcycle accident that put him into a month-long coma, in addition to inflicting a multitude of traumatic skeletal and abdominal injuries. After five long months in the hospital, he was finally discharged.
“I never had to go to the rehab place,” he bragged. “I got out of here, walked down to the Royal Hotel, and bought myself a drink before going home.” He too has had a number of nagging chronic problems following his accident, but none like the new one he was soon to face, which is why he too is now my roommate.
Rick has a million friends. Most of them seem to be bikers and mechanics also. Some seem to be contractors, however. Rarely do they ever visit alone. Usually they visit in a pack, and they commandeer all the extra chairs in the room, encircle Rick’s bed, and begin to loudly tell stories, usually of their past biking or brawling exploits. During those times, our four-bed room seems like a boozy neighborhood dive, with all the boys enjoying their night.
“Remember that time Bill and Sammy were leaving after Sandy’s closed up and them two guys in that old Silverado came up and started in on ’em?”
“Yeah. They were sorry they messed with those two. Bill and Sammy beat the shit out of the both of them.”
“Remember that stripper over in Brockville? Man, she could really shake those things!”
Somehow they all seem, despite their roughness, really good guys. Underneath it all is a palpable tenderness they feel for Rick, even though they don’t know he is dying. I know that, though. Not because he told me, but because of other things I overhear and other things he does say to me. The fact that he has daily visits from the Palliative Care Team is also a not-so-subtle clue. I know that Rick’s future will be very short; he knows, too.
Me? I’ve been in here a week. Bowel obstruction. I was pretty sick—more than I realized. IV fluids only for three days. Diarrhea enough to flood the Everglades. Then a colonoscopy. Tomorrow another colonoscopy, and the next day surgery to remove a segment of my large intestine. Probably not cancer, but not yet certain. Me? Compared to Rick and Chris, my problems ain’t shit (so to speak).
So that’s what happens in here, just like a year and a half ago when I had total knee replacement surgery. You form a sort of brotherhood with your roommates. Humor becomes your staple, as your person is stripped of dignity—whimpering with pain, peeing in the bed, trailing small splashes of diarrhea from the bed to the bathroom. It doesn’t matter. If one of us is having a problem, the others check to be sure that all is okay.
The other night my wife was visiting late. Rick struggled out of bed to his walker and from there started the short way to the bathroom. He stopped at my cubicle and announced to me and Pam:
“My doctor came in today. He told me he had good news and bad news, and asked me which I wanted first.
“I told him, ‘I guess the good news.’
“He said, ‘You have cancer and only two days to live.’
“I said, ‘Oh my god. If that’s the good news, what’s the bad?’
“ ‘I couldn’t find you yesterday,’ he said.”
Without a word, he turned and started on to the bathroom. We cracked up.
Greg Stidham is a retired pediatric intensivist (ICU physician) currently living in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife Pam and their two foundling "canine kids." Greg's passion for medicine had yielded in retirement to his other lifelong passion, literature and creative writing.