Under the Knife

Under the Knife

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Under the Knife


It is a truth universally acknowledged that weird things happen at hospitals. From the moment the automatic doors open, you are enveloped in a different world. A world of beeps, beepers, humming radiators, humming nurses, ID badges, IV bags, gift shops, shift stops, PNs, PAs, MDs, and RNs. Simply being in a hospital usually means you are experiencing a crisis of some sort. Naturally, this association makes people wary. However, I have had the unusual experience of being in a hospital without being sick.


In May 1995 I began working once a week at Massachusetts General Hospital. I imagined myself passing the scalpel to a doctor performing open heart surgery, or better yet stumbling upon the cure for cancer. It turned out, however, that those under age eighteen are not allowed to work directly with patients or doctors. I joined a lone receptionist, Mrs. Penn, who had the imposing title of "medical and informational technician." My title was "patient discharge personnel." Mrs. Penn had her own computer and possessed vast knowledge of the hospital. I had my own personal wheelchair. Manning the corner of the information desk, my wheelchair and I would be called on to fetch newly discharged patients from their rooms.


This discharge experience taught me lessons both comical and sad about hospital life. On one of my first days, I was wheeling out a woman when I noticed an IV needle still pressed in the back of her hand. I returned her to the nurse's station where the needle was removed without comment or apology. Another time, an elderly man approached the information desk and threatened that if I didn't let him see his wife, he would take a grenade out of his pocket and detonate it. I didn't really believe he had a grenade, but who could be sure? When the man repeated his words to Mrs. Penn, she knew exactly what to do. An immediate call for security was sounded. Sad to say, that man was not the first or last unbalanced individual to frequent Mass General while I worked there.


Nor would this be the last time I relied on Mrs. Penn. Some months later, a thirty-something man came to the desk asking for his father's room. When I looked up his computer entry, the father's name came up with the code for the morgue deceased.

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Not knowing what to do, I told him my computer was down and directed him to Mrs. Penn's terminal. She broke the news and directed him to the attending physician.


Last spring, I handled the discharge of Oliver, a twelve-year old boy undergoing chemotherapy. When I asked how he would be going home, he replied, "How do I get to the nearest subway station?" Apparently, Oliver's parents were busy and couldn't bring him home from the hospital. I gave Oliver 85 cents and walked him to the Charles/MGH subway stop. After explaining what inbound and outbound meant, I watched a frightened little boy board the train. Teenagers in my town have one thing in common our parents lavish us with attention, even spoil many of us. But what I saw that day opened my eyes to a life wholly different from my own.


Then life changed. On a beautiful, hot, August day, my lung collapsed. I was at a basketball camp in Cambridge when I felt a searing pain through my upper back and chest. Anyone who has had a pitchfork driven through his shoulder knows exactly how I felt. The camp trainer said not to worry; at worst, I might have an enlarged spleen, a tell-tale sign of "mono." The trainer had no idea what he was talking about. Next stop, the hospital.


I spent one night at Mass General, sleeping with an oxygen mask to pump my lung back up. The doctors sent me home the next morning with a sore back and no sleep This collapsed lung was just a singular event, a one-hit wonder. Wrong. In October, my lung collapsed again. This time I spent two nights with the oxygen mask. This time when I left I was scheduled for surgery a week later. The day of the surgery I saw Mrs. Penn behind the desk, but she didn't wave. I realized that with my oxygen mask I was about as recognizable as the face behind Darth Vader's mask.


Though I knew I was in good hands, my main feeling as a patient was helplessness. Nonetheless, I experienced one small triumph near the end of my stay. On the way to the CT scan, my wheelchair attendant had no clue where we were going. Not only did I know the way, I knew a shortcut. The attendant was impressed. For a moment, I was not a patient, but again part of the invisible fraternity of hospital workers.


The most consistent component of my life during that year was the hospital. When I see someone with an oxygen mask wheeled by my desk, I don' t assume an attitude of indifference. I know what it is to push and be pushed in the wheelchair. An extended stay at the hospital helped me realize and appreciate what a normal life is.
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