"Surgery Room," ca. 1915. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 001-710.

The Middle Distance 3.2.12

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Doctor and four nurses, wearing caps and gowns but no masks or gloves, operate on draped patient. One nurse administers anesthesia in a cone, one is handing large scissors. Electric lightbulbs are on the wall behind. Photo is identified on back.

Photo by Sean Cayton

A few weeks ago, I found myself in that most vulnerable and compromising of positions — draped in a thin cotton gown, propped on a gurney in a cold, sterile room behind a drawn curtain. I assured the nurse that I was just fine, in spite of a not-so-slightly elevated heart rate.

“Whoo, somebody’s happy to be here,” joked the nurse watching the racing digital monitor.

I was overdue for some of the diagnostic tests that lurk on the far edge of the middle distance, the door prize for making it beyond age 55. Anticipation of going to that scary place of needles and monitors and code language had me in a state.

I tried deep breathing and meditating, but the pulled curtain gripped my anxious heart. When it opened again, I would be wheeled down the hall and then, like the assistant behind the magician’s cape — poof! — I would disappear into the welcome oblivion of anesthesia.

My first memory of being behind the fateful curtain alone was when I was 7 years old. It was late summer, and that afternoon, one of the last before school started back, my brother and I and his friends had been jumping out of a large tree onto the grass below, daring each other to inch upward and jump a little farther, from a slightly higher perch. On one flight down, I tilted in the air and landed on all fours, wrenching a skinny wrist. I shook it off and jumped with the big kids, my wrist throbbing, until our mother called us home for supper.

By the end of dinner, tears dripped into my mashed potatoes and the skinny wrist had swollen into a tight-skinned sausage. My parents led me to the station wagon and drove me to the hospital — the only time I can ever recall being the single child in the car, in the company of both my mother and father.

They waited with me until I was taken to x-ray where I was drawn behind a pulled curtain and left to face a huge machine straight out of a Saturday sci-fi matinee, surrounded by the terrible ticking of silence. Released finally, I was overjoyed to be fitted into a plaster cast and treated to ice cream on the way home.

Years later, at age 32, I stared again at a pulled curtain, this time in the labor and delivery ward of Vanderbilt Hospital, an IV dripping a slow flow of magnesium sulfate into my veins to stop contractions and prevent the premature birth of the robust twins that had taken over my body.

“You’re going to feel some heat,” the nurse warned, just before the fires of hell washed over me and I entered a long night of feverish paralysis. Just beyond the curtain, in the next cubicle over, a young girl cried for hours: “Daddy, it hurts. It hurts so bad, Daddy.” I caught a glimpse of the father, a man in overalls with gray hair and face stubble, when he sneaked out from behind the curtain for a breath of air. “Daddy!” she screamed and back he went. “I know, baby, it’ll all be over soon,” he said. I was trying to keep two babies in and she, so young and scared, was trying to get one out. It would never be over.

Fast forward twenty-six years to the drawn curtain and the mother of grown men, as she waits for the nurse to return. All around, naked conversations echo down the hall with no doors. Directly across, behind his curtain, an elderly man, hard of hearing, tries to understand the doctor’s legally required warning: one in one-hundred, one in one-thousand. Chances are good you’ll be fine.

“I don’t think I should go through with this test,” says the man, and the doctor reassures him again, a little more loudly. Nurses in soft-soled shoes pad up and down the hallway. Someone slips in, checks the anxious man’s ID bracelet, and calls out his birth date — the same April day as mine — 1928, the year my mother was born.

He is left alone with his wife. “Don’t worry so much,” she says, “Just stop worrying.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just that I’m so frightened of everything these days.” Then there is quiet, and she sings to him in the universal tone of mothers standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, a soft wordless hum.

The curtain slides open and a nurse rolls my bed into the hallway. Don’t worry; it’ll all be over soon.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 3/2/12: Behind the Curtain

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Scary business being alone and trying to hold your own hand…

  2. Paula says:

    EEEECCCK! Get that needle away from me,,,,, PLEASE!!!

  3. Marty says:

    Any trip to the hospital requires a leap of faith and a measure of humility. Stay well,Kathryn,and keep writing your life’s stories.

  4. Liz says:

    Kathryn, thanks for reminding all of us nurses about the fear behind all the procedures that we can prep for in our sleep. It’s good to be reminded of the need for empathy as people embark upon “routine” yet scary procedures! Love that Versed!
    and love you!

News

Xinhua/Landov
April 26, 2015 | NPR · In a new documentary titled The President, the Russian leader says seizing Crimea from Ukraine righted a historical wrong.
 

AP
April 26, 2015 | NPR · Even with the arrests, police said Saturday’s protest over Gray — a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody after receiving a fatal spinal cord injury — was “mostly peaceful.”
 

AL.COM/Landov
April 26, 2015 | NPR · Several boats in a race at Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay were capsized when winds unexpectedly gusted to 50 knots, generating waves up to 10 feet high.
 

Arts & Life

April 26, 2015 | NPR · In honor of National Poetry Month, our latest Weekend Read is Fred Moten’s collection The Little Edges. Poet Douglas Kearney says Moten’s power is in his attention to music, both in text and subject.
 

April 26, 2015 | NPR · Every answer to today’s puzzle is a familiar two-word phrase or name in which the first word starts with L-O and the second word starts with G.
 

April 26, 2015 | NPR · The second volume of Anne Opotowsky’s lavish trilogy about the Kowloon Walled City is like the city itself — vibrant and contradictory, its skilled atmospherics sometimes marred by sloppy art.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
April 26, 2015 | NPR · The lining around Chad Clark’s heart was crushing it, giving him a 22 percent chance to live. Eleven years after Beauty Pill’s debut LP, he and his band come back resilient.
 

April 26, 2015 | NPR · Putting the eclectic back in alternative, Felix Contreras of Alt.Latino talks with Rachel Martin and shares some 1960s Colombian throwback tunes, Latin jazz and bluegrass mariachi.
 

Courtesy of the artist
April 25, 2015 | NPR · Chad Clark of the band Beauty Pill walks us through creating “Steven and Tiwonge,” a song about a gay couple in Malawi sentenced to 14 years in prison for their sexuality.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab