Move Over, Robin Cook
“HELP! They are going to kill me. I know all their secrets!” This was not what I expected, when I shuffled through the drab green hallway of Good Samaritan Hospital, for my first visit to Judy in the recovery room. Weaning her off the breathing tube was not easy because of her emphysema and I feared for her state of mind. As I approached her bed, she grabbed my arm and whispered, “We’ve got to get out of here or they will kill both of us.”
Our daughter Julie rushed in just in time to hear those words. Judy signaled her to come closer and spoke in her ear: “I will tell you all about it as soon as they bring me into a regular room.” Julie, who had no patience for “cliffhangers,” said, and not in sotto voice “Why can’t you tell us now?”
Judy clenched her teeth and started shaking “Now you have done it! Now they’ll have to kill all of us to keep their secret!”
Three weeks previously, a routine X-Ray exam showed a cloud in Judy’s right lung. A CATSCAN detected a node and a PETSCAN (Positive Emission Tomography) confirmed a malignancy, through uptake levels of radioactive glucose.
The internist thought it should be removed, in light of Judy’s smoking history, and referred us to the Head of Thoracic Surgery at Columbia Presbyterian, with an office in Rockland County and association with local hospitals.
The doctor strutted into the examining room penguin-style, dressed in a blue serge suit, as if he was attending a wedding. There was no white coat, stethoscope or head mirror. Nor was there any gesture one might misconstrue as humanity or sensitivity. Mounting the PETSCAN films on the light box, he said through the back of his head, “Yep, you’ve got cancer,” (without focusing his eyes at the “you” in question). He went on, machine gun style as if he were talking to himself, “Because of its small size, we can use several one-inch incisions and a camera. As a former smoker, there’s no time to mess around “. (“Mess around” must be a clinical term, but I never heard it used in a doctor’s office before).
I inquired, “Which hospital do you prefer operating in?” (I only end a sentence with a preposition when I am under severe stress).
He said,” It doesn’t really matter to me. However if you go to Columbia Presbyterian, the surgery is performed by robots.” I asked “Are the robot surgeons Jewish?” (Naturally I assumed that the stereotypes about the superiority of Jewish doctors also applied to robots).
He responded, deadly serious, “Is this important to you? They are made of metal and plastic.” Do any surgeons have a sense of humor, or do they just understand body parts and not whole people?
Getting caught in the weird scenario, I said: “We would prefer not to be operated on by a robot from the Wahabee sect of the Islamic faith.” Maybe my Arabic sounding name confused him, but he just shrugged his shoulders and left the shrug to our interpretation. We decided on Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern and human operating hands attached to bodies of undetermined ethnic backgrounds.
The doctor was wearing the unattractive green operating garb, with a cute green bonnet, when he bounded into the waiting room after the operation. Again, as if talking to himself and looking at no one, he mumbled, “The operation was a success. We removed the tumor and, much to our surprise, the biopsy was negative. The PETSCAN showed a false positive. It’s not my fault. It happens 10% of the time. You should be able to see her in the recovery room in about an hour.” And he stormed out, almost in anger, leaving us wondering what crime we had just committed.
Fast forward: Judy stayed in the recovery room for 48 hours because they had no regular rooms available. The life-threatening mystery she uncovered was that “There are two recovery rooms. One is being used for the usual post-operative reasons. But the other is dedicated to performing sex change operations. Can’t you tell that I was put in the wrong room? “(In all fairness, there was a mirrored wall which gave the impression of another room. But the sex change part was of her own creation.)
I learned the whole story under an imaginary “cone of silence” in the recovery room. Judy had told the nurse, “Please don’t be angry that I don’t believe as you do. Some people are pro-choice, while some are anti-abortion. Some people are in favor of sex changes; some are opposed to it. I don’t question your support of sex changes. I just don’t think it is a good idea for me. It might also upset my husband. Two penises in the family would really confuse him, and he confuses easily. By the way, I have just been studying you. I don’t see any signs of your previous manhood. You are a lovely young woman. You must have been a handsome man.”
I shuddered as she continued, “This has been going on for years without being discovered. See those monitors at the nurse’s station? Each nurse uses two; one for recovery and one for sex changes. Look at how they all congregate and talk to each other while staring at me. Look at the man in the next bay.” I saw a poor soul who seemed 90 years old, with a breathing tube and in obvious distress.” He’s the ringleader. They just cut off his penis and placed it in a jar on the table next to him. Maybe they are preparing it for me. I don’t want a penis! I wouldn’t even know how to use one! Don’t stare at him! He can have us killed with one wave of his hand! Please don’t leave me alone here.” I told her that I will remain close. In the meantime, our other daughter, Carole, was flying in from Virginia to stay in the room with her.
When Judy finally got her room, Carole slept in a chair to allay her fears and protect her from the usual hospital mistakes. This freed me to visit the recovery room and apologize for Judy’s behavior. The head nurse laughed and turned to the other nurses, who joined in the hilarity. “This happens all the time. It is caused by anesthesia, being in a room with no windows and the stress of having tools inserting down her throat. It is called ‘ICU-itis’ but I must admit that Judy deserves the Academy Award for the most original hallucination. We enjoyed every minute of it.”
In her regular room, with our daughter on guard duty, we asked Judy whether she was still frightened. “Absolutely; they will still have to kill me. I can see the nurses on the floor looking at me and whispering to each other. I also think that some of the recovery room nurses have been visiting this floor and plotting against me.”
I phoned one of Judy’s friends, who was planning a visit, and warned her about what to expect. This friend, usually perpetual motion in verbosity, actually listened attentively to Judy, for once in her life, open-mouthed. Nodding her head, as if she understood, she said. “I am going to write a letter to the Rockland Journal News and complain about this.”
When after the third day in a real room Judy had not changed her mind, we consulted one of the physicians. He wrote an order for a psychiatric visitation. When I arrived, Carole said, “Look at the nurse’s station. Do you notice anything unusual?”
I saw a bearded man, probably Pakistani, looking rather severe and wearing a large turban with a jewel in it. I jokingly said that he looks like Osama Bin Laden. “Well,” Carole said, “You might find it interesting to learn that Osama is our psychiatrist Du Jour. He plans to visit Mother as soon as he finishes his paper work. I spoke to him and told him about Mother’s paranoia. I requested that he remove his turban before seeing her. He almost became violent telling me that he was a Sikh and could not remove his turban. I told him ‘Thanks- but no thanks’.” It made a lot of sense. Judy, in her hallucinatory state, might not be receptive to psychiatric therapy from the world’s most feared terrorist.
Two days later, Judy finally relented about her fixation. The Patient Relations Manager convinced her that there was only one recovery room- not two.
In our follow-up visit to the surgeon’s office, we told him about the sex-change hallucination. Doctor Personality, almost exuding a touch of warmth (or was it gas), said “How do you know it isn’t true?”
Addendum: Many years later, Julie had surgery at the same Hospital and Carole came with her. When Carole thought the surgery should have been over and inquired at the nurse’s station about her sister, she asked where the recovery room was. The nurse replied: “Which one”?