Hospital Stay
October 17th, 2010

I’m told that a stay in the hospital is voluntary, yet anyone who has done time in one will beg to differ. It’s more like a prison in that the inmates are required to wear a skimpy garment that sets them apart from the staff. On the street, barefoot with your naked fanny exposed, you’d have a hard time blending in with the crowd.

Then there is the obligatory wristband and IV drip line. Add to that an oxygen hose and vital signs monitor, and you’re screwed. You’ll never get out, not unless you can convince your caretakers that there’s nothing wrong with you—which is well nigh impossible. If there’s nothing wrong with you, then WHY are you in the hospital?

Why, indeed. As per my doctor’s recommendation, I’d admitted myself in order to have my gall bladder removed. Mine was filled with stones that posed a threat to the bile duct if left in place. And in any event, the gall bladder is one of those vestigial organs that once may have served a purpose but which—like the appendix and prefrontal cortex—are no longer used by modern man. So why not just take the thing out and be done with it? Thanks to an instrument called the laparoscope, the procedure is relatively noninvasive. In most cases, patients can be sent home within hours.

But here’s the catch. They won’t send you home unless and until you urinate. And if you can’t pee, the nurse has at the ready a device called a catheter. And believe me, the catheter IS invasive!


Every time I end up in the hospital, out comes the catheter. Doesn’t matter which part of me goes under the knife, the result is always the same. The plumbing freezes up, and so do I. In sheer terror of what’s to come.

The afternoon wore on, and one by one my fellow patients were unharnessed and released into the wild. Finally there remained just me and a fellow who had had a melanoma excised from his butt. We two took turns visiting the lavatory, but no luck. We downed cup after cup of coffee and tea, we guzzled juice, we jumped up and down—nothing. Then at last came the sweet sound of a toilet flushing. My friend emerged from the lavatory with a big smile on his face. Lucky skunk!

The nurses let him go, even though I’m pretty sure he was lying. So I hatched a scheme whereby I would flush the empty toilet, then dance out the door and past the nursing station, to freedom!

Alas, Nurse Andria wasn’t buying it. An ultrasound revealed my bladder was still holding at 350 mls, which is 50 ml over the limit. So out came the blasted catheter, followed by pain equivalent to ten frowny faces. Turns out the ultrasound machine was in error. My swollen bladder had yielded 720 mls!

“Can I go home now?” I asked in a feeble voice.

“I don’t think so,” said Andria. You’re not sufficiently oxygenated, and we’re concerned about the apnea.

Apnea? I had only marked it because I thought it was a fancy clinical term for snoring. I had also checked a box admitting that I had once been a smoker. But I quit thirty-five years ago. My lungs should be just fine, but no! Suddenly, I’m Don Draper.

“We can’t let you go home until you register at least 90 on room air.”

“Rheumaire?” Is that another fancy clinical term, I wondered?

“Room air,” she said evenly. “It’s the same stuff all of us are breathing. Now, can you tell me your date of birth?”

One thing you should never forget, or lie about when you are a hospital patient, is your date of birth. You’ll be asked for it over and over, and you had better not forget it because if you do, you’ll be declared brain dead.

Because I was insufficiently oxygenated, I was wheeled to the sixth floor and tethered to an oxygen hose and vital signs monitor. Every five or six minutes a nurse or a nurse’s aide would come to take my blood pressure and ask me my birth date. Amazingly, everyone on my care team had a name beginning with the letter K. And not one of them was even as old as my car!


“You were sure born a long time ago,” said Kristi. “Have you always had high blood pressure?”

Before I could answer, Kristin arrived with a device called a Voldyne 5000. Manufactured in Mexico and distributed by Teleflex Medical of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, it supposedly measures lung capacity, although it can also be used as a memory aid. What you do is remove the flexible hose and hold it to your nose whenever a nurse or nurse’s aide asks your birth date. It’s a trick I learned from a fictional elephant named Mr. Memory.

Night fell and the visits stopped. No nurses appeared, not even when my vital signs monitor began to beep—which it did every time I got up to take a leak, which I did every ten or fifteen minutes. Come the dawn, an intern arrived to ask if I could remember my date of birth. I held the hose from my Voldyne 5000 to my nose and answered: “April 6, 1943.”

“Whew, that’s a long time ago!” exclaimed Doogie Howser, M.D. “But we’re gonna let you go home anyway. We have an awful lot of sick people on this floor, you know. People who have had MAJOR surgery.”

Still, it was another five hours before my papers were finally processed. Quick as a cat I slipped off my ID bracelet and changed into my street clothes. Once outside, I took a deep breath—3000 on the Voldyne scale. Aah, fresh air! So much better than room air!

-Richard Menzies