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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.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.