Being a hospital patient is a bit like being a prisoner: you have to interpret the outside world through faint and unreliable signals. A nurse's voice, an alarm bell buzzing down the hall, a newspaper that someone's dropped off for your comatose roommate - you lie in bed, eyes on the ceiling, and slowly put everything together. It's like knitting with reality.
I was admitted into the hospital around 6 pm on Tuesday. A porter wheeled my bed from emergency up to the neurology ward, where the nurses introduced themselves, adjusted my posture and promptly gave me sixty milligrams of codeine. Thank you, Randi. Thank you, Barb.
At eight pm the night shift nurses showed up. They certainly didn't look like the night shift nurses I'd seen in the movies, but by then I being washed back and forth by the codeine high, already beginning to feel as if my hospital room were a small chunk of the world that had broken off from reality and had now begun to drift out into god-knows where. From my bed I could see a slice of hallway, past which people in wheelchairs and walkers went, some in bathrobes, some with great zippered scars along their skulls. They looked as unreal as anything else.
I could also hear coughing. Ropy, phlegmy coughing, like someone trying to hork up fresh concrete from their lungs. Every so often the coughing would stop and I could hear a voice that could only come from the cougher - it was a series of deep croaks, like Tom Waits calling up from the bottom of a grain silo. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but he sounded cordial. A cordial croaking frog just down the hallway.
Around 10 pm the night shift nurse came in with more codeine. She looked at her chart.
— They're calling you Aidan, right?
— So why do I have you down here as Alex?
Even through the declining narcotic buzz, I felt a wash of panic. It was one of those tales of hospital horror, where you come in for an ingrown toenail but leave with a lobotomy, all because someone had filled in the wrong name in a box on a chart.
— An Aidan and an Alex. We'll fix that up, she declared, and decisively scratched out the offending name. Score one for human intervention.
I could still hear the coughing man out in the hall somewhere, or maybe he was in his room, still trying to clear his lungs. Then his voice again, croaking out incomprehensible small talk.
— It's good that you're coughing, Alex, a nurse said. You need to get that junk out of your lungs.
So that was Alex. He would be coughing me to sleep that night.
It turns out that hospitals are not great places to sleep. Even though the beds are comfortable and the drugs are plentiful, the unfamiliarity of the place, the constant traffic, and the subdued atmosphere of unease keep you up. I read into the night, and Alex accompanied me with his hacking cough.
I had gathered from overheard chit-chat that Alex was recovering from pneumonia, and that the hospital was monitoring oxygen levels in his blood. Apparently the congestion in his lungs had starved his brain of oxygen, and as a result he was a bit addled. Over the next couple of days, I discovered just how addled Alex could get.
Around 2:30 am one of the nurses walked past my door. She stopped dead - there really isn't any better way to describe it - and stared at something down the hall. Then she swivelled around and practically sprinted out of sight.
&mdash J-----, I heard. Alex is out of his bed. His pyjamas are spattered with blood.
A few seconds went by. Then three nurses marched past my door.
&mdash Alex, what are you doing? Get back in your room.
&mdash I'm just going to answer the door.
&mdash There's no door, Alex. Do you know where you are?
&mdash Sure I do.
&mdash Where are you Alex?
&mdash I heard Donna turning the key in the lock. I was just going to get the door.
&mdash You're in the hospital, Alex. Donna's not here. You have to stay in your room and keep the IV in your arm.
&mdash You're going to stay in your bed?
&mdash Yes, I believe I will.
After a few minutes of silence, J---- walked by my door again, carrying a balled-up hospital robe. &mdash Goddamnit. The fucking guy ripped out his IV. He was fucking covered in blood.
Over the next couple of days the volume of coughing subsided, and Alex's voice grew lighter, although it never stopped sounding liked Tom Waits. He seemed to hang out in the hallway whenever possible, trying to stop each nurse for exceedingly polite small talk. I had a feeling that conversation kept him anchored and reminded him of where he was. I only heard him complain once, when he said to somebody No, I don't like it all. It's stupid, which reminded me of the horse from Ren & Stimpy.
On the day of my surgery, Alex tried to make another break from the neurology ward.
— Alex, called a nurse.
— Where are you going, Alex?
— I'm going to see Bob the Plumber.
— There's no plumber here, Alex. This is a hospital.
— Sure, he's just down the way there. He's the one on TV.
I searched my brain for a TV plumber named Bob, but I was on a morphine drip, and nothing was breaking the surface of that slick.
— Do you want me to tell Bob that you're looking for him?
— Yes please. He's just down the way.
— Okay then. I'll look out for Bob and you go back to your room.
A thin old man in a yellow shirt walked carefully past my door.
— Alex? Your room is the other direction.
Alex looked over his shoulder, as if he couldn't quite believe that the conversation with the nurse hadn't ended yet. A bright sickle of a scar curved down the side down of his scalp. I realized that the yellow shirt was actually the top half of a firmly belted hospital robe.
— I know. I'm just walking down to the end of the hall.
— Well, you make sure to come right back when you're done. Brenda? Could you make sure Alex gets back to his room when he hits the end of the hall?
A few minutes later Alex passed by my door again, accompanied by Brenda in her maroon scrubs. We made eye contact for a moment. I smiled in an attempt to say, You're doing great and so am I! but he pulled his eyes away. He had no idea where he was or why he was here, and I was sure that any correct or lucid answers he'd given the nurses were a combination of luck and cunning. His extreme courtesy sprung from a deep fear of these alien creatures to whose safety he had been suddenly and incomprehensibly entrusted. I was no prisoner at all - I was getting out the next day. But Alex had been apprehended and locked away by agents that he would never see or understand.
&mdash Alex, where are you going? That's not your room.
&mdash I know. Thank you.