During the first few days of my two-week hospital service stint in early September, I ran into my father’s nurse, a brown-haired woman in her 50s with a kind face and a gentle manner.
I was in a patient pod (a large space with six glass-doored patient rooms around a central nursing station) in the second floor Intermediate Medical Care unit. The IMC is a patient ward reserved for very sick patients who aren’t quite sick enough to need care in the intensive care unit but who need more intensive monitoring than on a regular floor.
I was there to see a patient, an older man who had been just diagnosed with a devastating and advanced cancer. I had not met the man yet; this would be the first time. I was there to tell him about his cancer. I was there to tell him exactly how bad his diagnosis was, and how short he was likely to live.
I had not been in the IMC since the end of February, when my father was a patient in that very pod, and when my family was on the receiving end of the bad news. I was fully aware of this fact, and I’d been trying to suppress the emotions that kept trying to surface ever since those automatic double doors to the IMC swung open to allow me entrance.
My father’s nurse stepped out of a patient’s room. We saw each other in that same moment, and I saw recognition on her face. She smiled, and then her eyebrows furrowed and her smile faltered as she recalled why she knew me.
I am off work today, on a scheduled day off that I planned for as a reward for working the last 18 days straight. I’ve already checked my work email three times, and I’ve spent 15 minutes logged in to the hospital’s electronic medical record to check on some of my patients. Have I mentioned that I’m terrible at days off?
I also woke up sick, of course. My throat is filled with shards of glass, and coughing makes me wince. My joints ache and my brain feels foggy. When I sneeze, the cats startle and dash out of the room.
I’m medicated now, with Sudafed and ibuprofen, and I’ve had a cup of coffee and a bowl of steel cut oats. I think I’ll be able to face the day, once the full effect of the medications kick in.
I wake suddenly from another bad dream, my heart racing. The bedroom is dark, and other than the sound of my husband’s rhythmic breathing beside me, there is silence. I turn my head to look at the clock. It’s 4:47 a.m. In three minutes, the alarm will go off, insisting that I start my day. I close my eyes again, exasperated. Those three extra minutes of sleep would have been nice.
I switch the alarm off and climb out of bed, disturbing the cat that had been sleeping on my feet. Another cat is already waiting for me in the bathroom. Maggie either has a keen sense of when I’ll be waking each morning, or she sleeps in the bathroom, ready and waiting for me to turn on the faucet so she can drink from it. I haven’t yet figured out which it is.
This morning is a gym morning. I change into my workout clothes, wash my face, and brush my teeth. I pull my hair back into a pink and purple headband I’ve stolen from my daughter. My eyes feel puffy with sleep. My cheek is embossed with sheet marks and the imprint of a hand. One of the best things about going to the gym at 5 in the morning is that everyone looks like crap. It’s expected.