by Hugh Gilmore

The day before Halloween I accompanied my wife, Janet, to a downtown hospital where a surgeon we’d met only once before operated on her hiatal hernia. (Her upper stomach was pushing through her diaphragm.) Shortly after the operation began, the tool used to move her liver aside caused it to bleed. The procedure stalled while the surgical team stemmed the loss of blood. The scheduled five-hour surgery, recovery, and overnight hospital admission turned into a day-long one.

Losing a lot of blood, under general anesthesia, left Janet’s body near a state of shock. (Her doctors didn’t say that word to me, but her vital signs were terrible: blood pressure, hemoglobin, red cell count, blood oxygen level, several other blood markers were dangerously low. She was pale and dry.) Her care team stabilized her, but a simple procedure to remove gastric reflux had led to a life-and-death nightmare. A brief overnight stay slowly turned into a four-day one.

The medical crew worked hard, but soon over-infused Janet with fluids. The tissues of her body became overly saturated. Including her lungs. We didn’t know about this new danger until one of the consultants (people in white coats who enter your room, don’t introduce themselves, examine some part of you and walk out) let slip that he was listening for pneumonia. And another let slip that Janet might have what a layman would call a collapsed lung.

Episodes like that make one crave more information. Based on this and other hospital experiences, however, I’d say the medical staff is usually not forthcoming. Example: I arrived at 10 a.m. the third morning and saw that Janet did not have her usual drip bag running in her arm. “What’s new?” I asked the nurse. “Nothing, she’s the same,” she said.

“She doesn’t have a drip bag today,” I said.

She said, “Yes, they took it out.”

“Why? What’s the game plan here?”

“Oh, the doctor wanted it out.”

That was a typical exchange with that nurse.

Enough anecdotes. Christmas is coming, and I must end this series. I’ll offer some of the lessons I promised.

Lesson One: Nurses, bless them, angels that they are, are not always willing to give you information about your condition. Even when they take a routine temperature or blood pressure, they usually won’t tell you the result unless you ask. They also won’t tell you the doctor’s game plan. Perhaps the doctor didn’t tell them. But then again, maybe he/she did, but the nurses are wary of being reprimanded because the doctor wants to control how much you know.

After the nurse said, “Oh the doctor wanted it out,” something snapped in me. After years of arriving at a hospital and being told, “Oh, Dr. X was here this morning. He’ll be around again tomorrow,” I said, “I want to talk to whichever physician is on call. Now.”

“He’ll be around later on today, you can ask him then.”

I said, “That won’t do. I want to see him now and learn what’s going on.”

And the resident who was the doctor’s assistant came to see me within 10 minutes and he was nice and I felt better after seeing him.

Lesson Two: There’s always a physician on call. In this case, he was actually on the same floor, 50 feet away from me. You have the right to see him. He is not doing you a favor. You are the customer. He is obligated to see you. (Caution, though: This applies to the patient’s medical representative, and not to each family member or friend who arrives at staggered times seeking the same update.)

Lesson Three: During the entire time Janet was at this hospital, she had a roommate who played her television day and night at high volume. This kind of aural assault on a sick patient is inexcusable. Some hospitals require TV users to wear earphones. This one didn’t. Even when Janet’s roomie was out of the room, the nursing staff and doctors allowed her TV to keep blasting. Go to a hospital where they don’t allow that. Or learn to stick up for yourself and complain. Rest and quiet are essential to recovery.

Lesson Four: We kept waiting for someone from the gastroenterologist’s office to show a sign they cared how she was doing. After all, this specialist had recommended the type of surgery and the specific surgeon and the hospital that had treated her. No one did. And your specialist will probably not come see you.  Their excuse is that you’re in someone else’s care. After Janet left the hospital, the surgeon expected that her post-op health care would be provided by her primary care physician. In effect, she was placed in Limbo.

Lesson Five: Limbo is not a health-promoting place. Janet came home on a Thursday afternoon, coughed all day Friday, with a low-grade fever, and was admitted to Chestnut Hill Hospital via the emergency room on Saturday morning with pneumonia. I mention the name of Chestnut Hill Hospital because they took good care of her for the next five days.

Lesson Six: Once she was finally home, after nearly two weeks in hospital, she could begin recovering from her stomach surgery. It’s now been nearly a month. She’s up and around, has been to the gym and has regained her admirable sense of humor. Husbands: You can finally relax when your convalescing wife gets her brows waxed and starts wearing headbands to hold her silver-vixen hair in place again.

PS: Thank you all for your support and numerous inquiries about Janet’s health. I apologize for making the first parts of this story end as cliffhangers.