Monday, September 17, 2007

At Arm's Length

“I don’t know how we are going to save the arm,” Dr. Stanovich muttered to his resident in a thick eastern European accent. It was midnight in John’s hospital room. Dr. Stanovich is the specialist who was brought in to graft skin over John’s open wound, which never healed after an orthopedist put a plate and two metal pins in his elbow in May.

Dr. Stanovich has deep bags under his eyes and constantly wears a worried expression. He moves as if he were carrying stones in his lab coat pockets and speaks as though each day were the most difficult of his life. He tisks and shakes his head when he is deep in thought. I’ll bet when he wishes someone a happy birthday it sounds more like he is offering condolences.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my mother tensing in her seat. I avoided her gaze because I was upset myself. (As a rule, I try not to reveal emotion in front of Trudy.) Instead, I imagined what it would be like if they severed my demented father’s arm. His rediscovering in horror that his limb is missing every few hours, or minutes, for the rest of his life. Having to explain it to him, to calm him, over and over and over again. It’s unthinkable. Intolerable. If they take John’s arm, I will have to sneak into his room and smother him with a pillow.

That night I called Karla at her vacation home in West Virginia. I told her she needed to come home, that they might amputate John’s arm. But once I said it out loud, I realized the truth. Dr. Stanovich wasn’t considering amputation. If John couldn’t heal after a simple incision, how could he recover from the removal of a limb? He is 86, has high blood pressure, sleep apnea, Alzheimer’s, a fractured collarbone, a fractured pelvis and pins in his neck, not to mention a host of ailments that they aren’t even bothering to treat including prostate cancer, skin cancer, and mild emphysema. Also, he refuses to eat and has lost about 60 pounds while lying in bed for the last year. What the doctor was saying is that this injury could kill him. In essence, John could die of a broken arm.

And that’s when my anxiety accelerated to hysteria. I was well aware of the fact that my father wouldn’t be around much longer, no matter what the outcome of this particular surgery. He can’t walk, he can’t feed himself, he can’t even use a bedpan. He is so weak, so disoriented, so humiliated. And so far away already. As devastating as it would be, I was prepared for the possibility of John dying in surgery. But if he did, what would I do with Trudy? I’d be all alone in the waiting room with her. Would I be required to comfort The Queen of the Air Kiss? Drive her home from the hospital? Sleep at her condo? How did I get this job? Where did everybody go??

As it turns out, funnily enough, I got all worked up for nothing because Trudy didn’t show up for the surgery. She phoned that morning to let me know she wasn’t going to make it to the hospital until, “later.” Meanwhile, I had asked my friend Arthur to come along, and Karla dispatched my sister-in-law to keep me company in the waiting room. Leo didn’t accompany her, presumably for fear of running into our mother.

When I walked in to John’s room, the nurses were prepping him. He was aware of what was about to happen and was anxious to get the operation over with. I did my best to distract him with small talk so he wouldn’t ask about Trudy. Then, the anesthesiologist bounded in. He was tall and skinny and had shaggy grey hair. The enamel frames of his eyeglasses were painted in a myriad of bright colors, as though inspired by a Peter Maxx nightmare. He spoke to John with the irritating exuberance of a drunken cruise director. “Hey, Mr. B.! Hey, big guy! Give me five! Alright!” John raised an eyebrow and stared at him, nonplussed.

Oblivious to John's scorn, the doctor explained that he was going to give Dad a shot that would put him into a light slumber, which would feel just like a relaxing nap. He claimed that after surgery, John would awaken refreshed and rested. I plastered on a phony smile and in a frantically cheerful voice said to John, “That sounds great! I’m jealous! I’d like one of those!” The anesthesiologist flashed me a cocky grin and in a sultry lothario’s tone replied, “OK, bend over.” What a charmer. He had really put me at ease.

At this point the orderlies were getting ready to wheel John out the door. One of the nurses instructed me to check in at the waiting area downstairs and Dr. Stanovich would have me paged when the surgery was finished. Casually, Dr. Dope interjected, “Oh, uh, unless you aren’t going to hang out at the hospital. I mean, if you want, you could just give me your cell phone number, and I can give you a ring when it’s over.” I glanced over at the nurses, who were rolling their eyes, declined, and turned to John. “OK, Dad, so you’ll have a nice nap, the thing is only gonna last like less than an hour, and you’re done. No big deal!” John smiled at me and protested softly, “No big deal to you.”

I walked along side the gurney to the elevator bank, assured John I’d see him in a few, and waived goodbye. As the doors slid closed I heard him mumble, “Adios.”

About an hour later, Dr. Stanovich had me paged. I rode up to the fourth floor and met him outside of the OR. He sighed, shook his head and told me he was very sorry, but John’s wound was infected, the surrounding skin had deteriorated, and he was unable to perform the procedure. Instead, he took out the plate & pins, flushed the area, inserted antibiotic beads, and bandaged it up. He predicted performing three more surgeries in the following weeks to thoroughly clean out the wound before he could graft. That is, if John can beat the infection. He reached out and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder, apologized again, and walked away. I rejoined Arthur and my sister-in-law to wait for John to come out of recovery, and called Trudy with the news that he he was ok, the surgery was over, but it was not entirely successful.

When Trudy waltzed into the waiting area an hour or so later, she was startled to see I had company. Still sporting her giant Jackie O sunglasses, she approached us, exclaiming, “Oh, Arthur! So nice of you to be here for Mary. You boys were so good to her when Gracie died.” (Gracie was my dog, who I put to sleep three years ago.) With that, she plopped her big Fendi handbag down on the seat next to mine, announced she had to find the Little Girls Room, and sashayed away, admonishing us with a wink, “Don’t steal my millions!”

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