Editor’s note: In this tightly observed guest post, a nurse visiting a sick family member experiences the hospital as a kind of foreign country.
Eileen McGorry, MSN, RN, worked as a registered nurse in community mental health for over 30 years. She currently lives in Olympia, Washington, with her husband Ron.
The walkway is hard, the concrete cold, and I am immersed in darkness. Then there is the swish of the hospital doors and whispery stillness. The light over the reception desk shines on a lone head, bent over a book. A clipboard is pushed toward me. The paper on it is lined with names, some boldly printed, others scribbled, the letters unrecognizable. The spacious lobby is filled with individual groups of soft stuffed chairs and love seats. All of it quiet and empty. Over the chairs and sofas, the black of the midnight hour is changed into twilight.
I remember the bustle of the area at midday. Families gathered together, eyes searching the crowd for the green scrubs of surgeons. “She will live,” they say to some, and to others, “We will wait and see.” The frenzy of the day over, the empty chairs wait for tomorrow.
I sign my name in script. I use the old Catholic school script. The script preached by my mother, who is upstairs recovering from heart surgery. I walk past the chairs along walls so white they gleam. I touch the grey button at the elevator. The soft ding that follows vibrates through my body.
The elevator is empty. I push my body into the back wall. I watch the small circles of light above the door, first two, then three, then four. I step off into muted light. The air feels thick. It’s hard to move my body forward. I was in this place all day. I left only to eat.
My mother is stable. It is I who is dissembling. I come as her protector. “Her numbers are good, but she gets confused at night.” Last night, my sister stayed with her. She sat in the visitor’s room, and then later dozed in the chair by my mother’s bed. She woke to my mother’s wide eyes. “They could have killed me while you slept,” my mother told her.
The sun rose, and with it my mother calmed, returned to who she is. But still we fear the confusion will rise again. Tonight I am the protector. I push through the heavy double doors of the ICU. My mother is still awake, her pillows soft beneath her head, the bedcovers wrapping her in whiteness.
“You don’t need to stay,” she says. “I’ll be fine, go back home and get some sleep.” Her voice washes over me. But I can’t get inside her words. I look at the tubes hanging from plastic bottles and the blinking machines with numbers measuring her every breath. “I will be right outside,” I say, “If you need anything, the nurses will come get me.”
I turn to leave. I look into the face of the nurse at the desk. She looks through me. The visitor’s room is small and empty. It is filled with hard furniture. The television flickers with colors and I switch it off. My book stays closed on my lap. I look through the small window. The streetlights shine with mist.
A minute passes, then another. I stand and walk outside the room. I walk along the hallway, running my hands along the white wall. I go back and sit. More minutes pass. This is how I will be all night—tense and weary and worried. I am beyond reassurance. I will stay in this state for days. I will hold my fear close. It will be months before I finally crash into the inevitability of accepting whatever happens next.
I sit and stand and . . . sit again for several hours. Finally my restlessness overcomes me. Still hours from dawn, I return downstairs to the empty lobby. The light over the reception area persists; the twilight over the empty chairs is unchanged. The bent head of the clerk at the entry is so still that it seems to be a mural.
I feel a sudden rush to return to the ICU waiting room. I’ve told my mother I’ll be close. They could kill her while I’m gone.
The dark sky finally lightens. I watch the gradual rise of the new day. No one has come for me in the night. Still, the double doors of the ICU are heavy as I push through them.
My mother is propped up in a chair, her hair brushed, her body washed. There is a pillow under her right arm and one under her feet, which have been elevated on a stool. There is red liquid hanging above her, the plastic bag half full, the tubing reaching down and snaking around her to the needle inserted in the crook of her elbow. The over-the-bed table is by her side and on it are water and coffee. The red liquid has turned her face rosy. She is wearing her own gown and I think it is nice the nurses took the trouble to thread those tubes though the sleeves. I imagine the not yet healed incision into her heart.
She has yet to see me, and I watch her finger the beads in her hands. I know her words, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”