The whiteboard across the room says that his name is Arman, or Arthur. Maybe it’s even Arnold—my vision is hazy, and I can’t make out the word written in light green marker. He’s the nursing assistant assigned to my room. I dislike him immediately.
I’ve just been wheeled up five floors up to the neurology ward from the intensive care unit, a vertical progression that means I’m getting better. Better enough that I don’t need an ICU nurse presiding over my bed full-time, at least. Better enough that I’m allowed the comfort of the pink, flannel pajama bottoms my husband has retrieved from my drawer at home. I’m still in my hospital gown, but at least I’m warmer now, and covered.
For the next few days, I’ll be poked at and medicated by a series of nurses who all seem to be named Kathy, a different one manifesting every twelve-hour shift. Their nursing assistants will help me stand for long enough to stretch my legs against the threat of blood clots.
I plan to wait out Arman’s 12-hour shift before I ask for anything—he makes me nervous, standing closer to me than necessary while Kathy the First shines a flashlight in my eyes, peers down into my pupils, and asks if I know where I am.
I don’t immediately grasp that she’s administering a test, checking whether my memory’s been compromised. “I’m pretty sure I’m in the hospital.”
“I mean which hospital.”
When I catch on to the fact that she’s grading my answers, writing them down and scoring them against some kind of cognitive rubric, I try to do better. I tell her which hospital. I even add the room number, though forming each word takes energy I don’t have.
She asks for today’s date. I tell her I have no idea. I lost track of time in the ICU, where the lights never go off—no day or night, artificial or otherwise. I haven’t been allowed to sip water, much less eat food, so I can tell nothing by the hunger pangs in my belly. I don’t have the strength to explain any of this to Kathy.
By now, Arman is standing so close that I can smell his body. I’m fairly sure I’ve showered more recently than he has, and I’ve been in the hospital for days. He stares down at me while I answer Kathy’s questions.
She asks if I at least know what year it is, and I tell her.
When she’s satisfied with my answers and turns to her medicine cart for a syringe of morphine to disgorge into one of my many I.V. lines, I add that that Barack Obama is the president of the United States, in case that helps. Kathy smiles. But Arman, still close—too close—laughs. He laughs as though he’s never heard such wit. He grabs me beneath the arms and shifts me in bed, though I don’t need shifting. His breath is sour in my face.
Strange men have had their hands on me for days.
It started with a man whose name I never caught, the one who settled me in for a four-day infusion of other people’s blood plasma: the pooled immunoglobulin of fifty-thousand other people, to be exact. I tried not to watch as he prodded at the blue veins in my arm, looking for a nice, fat vessel. The idea of strangers’ bodily fluids dripping into my bloodstream didn’t sit well with me, the needle-phobe, the faint-hearted, the squeamish. But with my own immune system gone rogue and attacking my nervous system, I needed to borrow someone else’s functional blood, someone else’s correct set of antibodies.
In the end, I was right to be nervous about the treatment. The first day’s infusion seemed to go smoothly enough, and was at least over in time for me to head home for a night’s sleep before the next round. But by two in the morning, I was immobile on the floor of my bedroom, prostrated by a case of meningitis—a swelling in the brain and spinal cord—induced by the donor plasma.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t open my left eye. I couldn’t stand. My husband half-walked, half-dragged me from house to car and car to emergency room. He X-ed my name on documents I couldn’t hold a pen to sign. I remember hitting the emergency room floor, gagging from the sensation of my brain trying to break through my skull.
The second man’s disembodied hands shucked my clothes from my body and draped my naked chest with a gown. I heard the voice of what I assumed to be a doctor say “brain bleed” to my husband where they stood in the doorway. It occurred to me that I might die. I thought that dying would be alright if it stopped the hammering inside my brain.
I couldn’t make out the face of the third man through my barely opened right eye. But I could see the fuzzy green of an old tattoo on his wrist as he slapped at my arm, then gouged into the ditch of my elbow with a needle. Finally, a burn of Dilaudid. Then another. Then morphine, morphine, morphine. The edges of my body grew hazy, the narcotics blurring the line between my skin and the cold air of the emergency room.
The fourth man heaved me onto a gurney, wheeled me away. The metallic rattle over the linoleum floor sounded like a jet engine at close range. I could barely hear over the roar when he asked me if I could be pregnant as he placed me inside the CT machine that would scan my brain, looking ruptured blood vessels.
Paramedics arrived, and a fifth man bundled me to a stretcher, said something about a transfer. I remember the jostle of the interior of the ambulance, the clanking of metal inside its boxy carriage. The drugs began to work on my mind if not fully on my body; the EMT’s face shifted as he watched me, his black hair sprouting rodent ears, his face growing a long muzzle. To my eyes, he had become a rabbit, burrowing into the grey pulp of my brain.
The six man was the ICU neurologist who grabbed my head and tried to shove it to my breastbone to see if my neck would move around my swollen spinal cord. It wouldn’t. I remember opening my mouth and trying to scream. After that, a blackness.
The seventh man was the ICU nurse who’d tended me around the clock until I could speak, open my eyes, ask for more pain medication. He was clumsy, knocking into me as he maneuvered around the medical equipment packed tightly into the room. He was the first one whom I actually liked—he reminded me of someone I’d have met in a required course in college—some earnest student not entirely adequate to the task of interpreting the textbook, but raising his hand often to ask permutations of the same question. I took comfort in the way he turned his eyes away and made distracting, one-sided conversation when he lifted me to dislodge the EMT’s sheet from under my body. I appreciated the illusion of dignity.
Once Kathy the First leaves, I send my husband home to take a long nap, to feed the cat. In a lengthy, fumbling process that takes all the coordination and strength I have, I put in my ear buds and listen to old Elliott Smith records. I need the distraction from the incessant clack of my I.V. and from the every-fifteen-minute puff and growl of the blood pressure monitor. The familiar, acoustic strumming—no drums—is all my swollen brain can handle. Maybe it’s the morphine draining into my left arm, but “Needle in the Hay” begins to seem like a masterwork of American songwriting.
I must manage to sleep, because the album is over before I’ve heard half of it, and the angle of sun in the room has shifted. I eye the bathroom four steps from my bed, and strategize how I might maneuver my I.V. pole all that infinite distance.
On the door to my room is a laminated sign that reads Fall Risk. A decorative pattern of red and blue stars gives the placard an oddly patriotic flavor. The sign means that I’m not allowed to stand up on my own, to shuffle to the bathroom, to accommodate my own needs without someone there to heave me about, but I’m tired of asking—tired of getting—help.
I get as far as loosening the Velcro on the wheezing, pneumatic compression socks bound to my calves. I’m exhausted by the effort, and dizzy. At the swift change to my blood pressure, my brain protests, nerves exploding in a white heat. I give up and press the call button.
It’s not a Kathy who comes to help me, but Arman. My voice isn’t much better than a whisper when I ask to be walked to the bathroom, and so he leans his head close—too close—so he can hear me.
When I’ve made myself understood, he retrieves a black nylon belt from a far corner of the room. The belt looks like an apparatus meant for moving a piano or an overstuffed sofa. He cinches it around my waist and hauls me to my feet, my arms flapping loose beside me. He shuffles me forward and drags my IV pole beside him. On my leash, I feel as though I’m an elderly dog being taken for a too-fast walk. He takes four steps. I take ten. We make it to the bathroom, and Arman opens the door, clanking my IV pole inside. I say “thanks” and wait for him to leave.
Arman doesn’t move. “Here, I’ll help you,” he says.
I don’t know what he means. I’ve made it here already. I say “I’m fine.”
He reaches for my pink pajama bottoms and yanks them down.
I tell him “no.” I try to grab my clothes back and cover my naked thighs, but I move as though I’m underwater. My arms won’t follow what I ask of them. I say “stop.” I want my voice to be loud and assertive, but it comes out a quiet and slurred. The green bathroom tile swims in front of me in a flicker of overhead lighting, and I think my eyes might rupture.
I repeat the word “stop” over and over until he leaves. Finally, the door clanks shut behind him.
I curse ice chips and I curse the IV fluids and I curse the fact that I have kidneys and that they have to do something with all this accumulated water. I curse the fact that I have a body in the first place.
I hold the metal rail on the wall and lower myself to the cold, sterile seat. Someone is striking an anvil inside my head.
The door peels open.
Arman leans in the doorway. He stares at my nakedness until I am finished.
The first lesson of the hospital is that the body belongs to everyone assigned to its care. I am given a flimsy gown and will wear that gown. I am not allowed to eat, though my stomach is roiling after days without a bite of food. Anyone who comes into my room is allowed to touch me, to reach a hand down my gown and root around with a stethoscope, to shove at my head to see if my neck will move. It still won’t. Medical students look at me like I’m a malformed bacterial culture in a petri dish as their attending physician talks about my “case.”
The body is a public place. My own bloodstream, still plump with thousands of strangers’ DNA, reminds me of this fact with every skull-splitting heartbeat.
By the time Arman unbelts me and releases me back into the white of my hospital bed, I think my skull may be breaking apart, splintering from the inside. As Arman leaves the room, I realize I can barely care about him now. His fumbling hands at my clothing, his eyes on my bare body—all of his slimy attentions pale beside the volcanic urgency of what’s happening inside my head.
If there is a gift in pain, it is that pain is all-consuming; I have no objective but to make it stop. The gift of pain is also its danger. Miles below my consciousness, I know I should be afraid, or angry. I know that later I will be. But right now, I cannot bring myself to care.
Across the ward, a speaker honks out a digitized rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The tune starts and stops, starts and stops. When an orderly comes into the room, I ask, “What’s with the song?”
“Bed alarm,” he tells me. There’s a woman across the ward who tends to wander. They’ve belted her down, but still, she manages to break loose and move about without permission. She’s another Fall Risk.
I think about Arman strapping her to her bed, her body resisting. I think about him laughing at her with his face too close to hers. I think about him belting me down, his hands on my body where I don’t want them but can’t protest.
All along the hall, EXIT signs glow a hazy red, a red that says stop. A red that says: You’re not going anywhere.