My old friend Potter works at a hospital these days. It isn’t a great job but the benefits are good. It’s part of growing up—one way or another you settle for good benefits. Giving up something you like for something you love, and then one morning you wake up and little girls are running all over the house and a woman you love wants you to mow the grass, and you are where you are, and eye-to-eye with your 40th birthday.
Potter has been at this three or four years. He is a technician, which seems to fit him. He likes to do things himself, start to finish, to know they’ve been done right and nothing has been left out.
On the other hand, a “Code Blue” can come over the loudspeakers and Potter has to set his regular work aside and run, usually to the emergency room or cardiac care. From the start Potter didn’t like the emergency room. The yelling. Doctors yell at nurses, nurses yell at orderlies, everybody yells at the technicians. Sometimes administrators stick their noses into it too, which is worse than yelling, but nobody cares much what the administrators say because they are administrators, and by definition don’t know what they are talking about.
Neither has Potter ever gotten used to what he thinks of as the violence. Saving lives—and losing them—can be hard to watch. Ribs can be broken during resuscitation, blood, needles, sobbing sounds from the waiting room. Patients who don’t die end up looking like they’ve been beaten up. Once in a while one of them is dropped on the floor.
Back when Potter was new at this, a woman came into the emergency room one night with chest pains. Actually, the pains had already stopped on the way over from her house, but her husband brought her in anyway, to be on the safe side. The woman was scared, of course, but her heart sounded strong and healthy to the doctor and there were no new symptoms. The pain had not resumed and the tests that indicate the particular enzymes that are released when something happens to the heart were all negative.
Still, the doctor admitted her for the night. To be on the safe side.
But even facing an evening in the hospital, the sweet wash of euphoria that goes through your body is almost worth the scare. One minute you think you’re dying, the next minute the doctors are saying it was probably just something you ate, and if this story comes with any consolation, it lies in the chance that the woman was still euphoric and relieved when she died.
But however it went later, for now the woman kissed her husband good night and told him to go home and take care of the kids, and she would be ready when he came to pick her up in the morning.
In the morning the husband got the kids off to school and drove to the hospital. Nobody from the hospital had called. It was a mistake, of course, the kind of mistake that is most likely to happen when there is a job nobody wants to do, but giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, a mistake. The husband went back to the emergency room and asked where his wife was, and the person at the desk gave him the room number. Which I think goes beyond the definition of a mistake. Callous, indifferent, coldhearted—take your pick—but “mistake” doesn’t cover it.
And it gets worse. In the hallway, the man ran into one of the nurses from the previous night, an older nurse. There is a saying about nurses, in some hospitals at least: the older the colder. And while that obviously isn’t true in every case, it can’t be, there may be something to it.
Anecdotes cannot take the place of scientific surveys of course, but in the small sample offered here—that is, writers of this column—one of us experienced a spectacular, thousand percent overdose of insulin, the other recently encamped 10 weeks with infections from a dog bite, and swears on the bible that the nurses in charge were worse than the dog.
It is also worth pointing out that as things are arranged in the world, nobody is in a position to do more damage with less accountability than a head nurse on a floor where patients are expected to die. From the children’s ward of a hospital to the Sunset View Retirement Home. It seems impossible that the enormous cost of hospitalization doesn’t include cameras in the rooms.
So the husband stopped the nurse and checked that he was going the right way, and yes, she pointed him down the hallway and into the room where his wife was lying, dead. Not only dead, but bruised and battered from the efforts to restart her heart.
The husband began to yell, which is not permitted around hospitals unless you are on staff. The first nurse he confronted called a “code gray,” a signal in this particular hospital that someone unruly or belligerent is loose in the building and all the male staff are supposed to drop what they are doing to help subdue him.
This is how Potter met the man with the dead wife.
But this, as mentioned, was back when Potter was new to the job. Your skin gets thicker when you have been around a while, until, as Potter says, “Somebody in his 50s dies, especially if they’re obese or a smoker, it’s like, OK, what’s for lunch?”
In early October Potter is answering a Code Blue and hears the yelling even before he’s through the doors into the emergency room. The man on the gurney is young—younger by five years at least than Potter. He is trim and clean, someone who keeps himself in shape. It may sound a little simple-minded, but people who come in the emergency room usually look like what they are. If they have heart problems or bad lungs, they usually look sick and weak and likewise, when someone arrives at the emergency room looking healthy and strong, and turns out not to be, it’s unsettling to everybody, even sometimes to the old-timers with the hardest edges.
In any case, the nurses and doctors are already working with the body, going through the protocols, but Potter knows it’s over. The look on the man’s face—he’d thought of him more as a kid than a man—is peaceful. You might think it would be the other way around, but it’s the young dead who appear reconciled, and the older ones, with seemingly less to lose, whose faces hold more of the struggle.
The 911 call had come from a neighbor who happened to have been watching when the man dropped face first in the grass behind his lawn mower. Until the emergency crew arrived he never moved. A nice-looking boy out mowing his grass—the neighbor didn’t know much more about him than that. The lawn mower was still running when the emergency vehicle arrived.
There was no identification in the man’s pockets and nobody was home when the emergency workers rang the doorbell. The neighbor did not know his name, just a nice-looking young man who seemed, well… nice.
Back at the hospital the doctor steps away from the body and “calls it”—hospital talk for officially dead. In Potter’s experience, doctors typically are ready to give up before the nurses. Not always, but usually. Sometimes a doctor needs a few minutes after a patient dies to walk in the parking lot, and sometimes a nurse goes to a room set up so patients don’t see them cry. Mostly, though, they all move on to the next in line.
And the doctors and nurses move on to the next in line and Potter goes home thinking how young the dead man looked, younger than Potter. A young guy who took care of himself and stepped out the door a few hours ago to cut the grass. And that was it, only it wasn’t. Potter is not designed for moving on. Not until everything is taken care of, back in place. He is obsessed with details, getting everything right.
He worries about the dead patient’s family, especially the kids. Girls, he thinks automatically. And then an awful image—little girls waiting somewhere to be picked up from school. And where is the wife? Has someone told her? Has someone made sure she’s there when the kids find out?
And it circles back around one more time, how young the dead man is.
Not was, is.
The doctor has called it, Potter hasn’t.