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Take Me to the Hospital
Three Days, Two Nights at Cedars-Sinai
In my thirty-one years, I've been fortunate enough to have never spent a night in the hospital, or even visit an emergency room. This is no small feat, considering that in April 2000 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and spent the next eight months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Under my oncologist's orders, I wasn't allowed to leave Seattle until the treatments ended in mid-December, at which point I was finally free to take a vacation. I decided to visit some family and friends in Southern California. The trip would not only represent a small personal triumph, but also simply provide a much-needed change of scenery. Unfortunately, during my stay in Los Angeles, the time came for me to check in.
Only two days into my trip, on a Tuesday afternoon, the sides of my rib cage began to twinge, then throb, and then constantly hurt, feeling much like a giant sideache that wouldn't go away. I was unable to sleep that night, much less lie down without experiencing jolts of pain. The next morning I called my doctor in Seattle, who advised me to visit the nearest emergency room. As I was staying with my pal Kim at her Hollywood apartment, the nearest emergency room just so happened to be at the famed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the one which is often mentioned in the news whenever some celebrity requires urgent medical attention. I'm no celebrity, and my situation didn't seem to be an actual emergency, but this pain was something I couldn't tolerate for another day. Off to Cedars-Sinai we went.
We drove up to massive complex -- twin glass-and-steel towers built across a six-lane driveway, located just across the street from the equally massive Beverly Center shopping mall -- and found our way to the emergency room. In the lobby we were greeted by a nurse who asked me about my condition while checking my vital signs, and then told me to sit tight until I could be seen by a doctor. The emergency room I anticipated, with a steady stream of wailing ambulances depositing victims of car-crashes and gunshot wounds and drug overdoses, was instead remarkably calm. A little girl, oblivious to the handful of sick people with persistent coughs, napped on her mother's lap (she had a broken arm). It was difficult to tell who among them were the patients and who were their loved ones, on hand for support. With nothing else to do, Kim and I resigned ourselves to browse through the pile of outdated magazines, but after only about twenty minutes, I was called in.
We were moved down a hallway to another, smaller room, a sort of staging area for patients. The hallway outside the room was much busier the lobby, with a perceptibly higher level of urgency. Doctors and nurses paced around with clipboards, typed data into computers, and volleyed medical jargon back and forth, while orderlies pushed patients around on gurneys and telephones rang off the hook. In the room where we waited, an overhead television blared away with some obnoxious afternoon talk show, ostensibly intended as a diversion from the hubbub, but it was just more noise.
After about an hour I was taken to an examination room, partitioned off from the hallway by a curtain. I was given a gown to wear and had various instruments attached to my body -- an oxygen tube strapped under my nose, a blood-oxygen monitor clipped to a fingertip, and a blood pressure cuff wrapped around my arm. I laid back on the hospital bed and was wrapped up in warm blankets, warding off the slight, sterile chill that always permeates hospitals, seemingly enhanced by the fluorescent lights and white tile floors. A nurse was nice enough to stick around and chat with us while we waited for a doctor. This being Hollywood and all, I had to ask whether any celebrities had checked in that day. "Not today," she said, "but we get Sid Caesar in here all the time."
I was soon taken to another room for some chest X-rays, and then brought back to the exam room for another spell. I was famished, but I wasn't allowed to eat or drink anything until a doctor saw me, just in case they decided to give me some special medication. When a doctor finally did arrive, she only asked a lot of questions, and then left us to wait some more. By now it was 7 p.m. and, after a shift change in the emergency room, a different doctor came by to tell me that, until they could figure out what was wrong with me, I would be admitted me to the hospital for the night. Not only would my hospital-free streak come to an end, but it would cut even further into my vacation time. Damn.
An orderly wheeled my gurney through a maze of corridors, up an elevator, and through another maze. Along the way, facing up towards the acoustic tile ceiling, I felt a little silly being carted around the building when I could've easily walked, but I kept quiet and let the orderly do his job. (When in Rome, as they say.) In any case, I wasn't too worried about my health. Of course I wanted to feel better, though I'd dealt with enough health-related issues over the past year that this episode seemed like just another hassle. Certainly I didn't want to be in the hospital, but it occurred to me that none of the other patients likely wanted to be there either.
My eighth-floor accommodations somewhat resembled a room at a Motel 6 (complete with a private bathroom, stocked with towels and little bars of soap), except for the tile floor, automatic bed, wall-mounted blood pressure monitor and other hospital-specific touches. I settled into bed and began to play with a hand-held controller which adjusted its incline, and then flipped through the television dial. Kim brought me a couple cold slices of pizza from the cafeteria before she headed home, and I called my parents, filling them in on the day's events and reassuring them that this was probably no big deal. Yet another doctor came to visit me, asking the usual questions, and then I shut my door and turned out the light.
A patient in an adjacent room kept me awake for at least an hour, groaning and wailing in pain, and repeatedly calling out for someone named Tony. Despite my private room, the sound was intrusive, but it had been a long day and eventually I drifted off to sleep.
Some hours later, before dawn, I was awoken by a nurse who stopped in to check my vital signs. Then, just as I had drifted back to sleep, another visitor brought me a tray of hot breakfast food. Fine. I nodded off once more, when still another new doctor stopped by. So far I had only been asked a lot of questions and had some X-rays taken, but nothing was actively being done to treat me. My pain was subsiding and I was given some medication, and I was more than ready to go home, but since they were still investigating my symptoms, I was informed that I'd be spending another night in the hospital. Damn.
So, I passed the time between periodic visits by doctors and nurses and food service workers by talking on the phone, watching TV, playing with the automatic bed, and pondering my surroundings. The thing that struck me most about the Cedars-Sinai environment was the remarkable diversity of the people who worked there. One of the emergency room doctors was Latino, another one was Russian. The nurse who mentioned Sid Caesar was Latino. The receptionist who took my insurance information was black, as was the orderly who brought me up to my room. The food service woman was Asian, as well as a housekeeper. One of the other doctors was Middle-Eastern, or perhaps Indian. And the hospital itself is a Jewish institution, with a giant Star of David at the top of the outside towers, and an all-kosher menu for the patients, themselves representing a broad cross-section of races. (Me, I'm Caucasian.)
Los Angeles is often characterized as an cultural stew, which was no more evident than here, the most ethnically diverse place I'd ever been in my life. While everyone was dressed in their respective uniforms, a remarkable mix of backgrounds, complexions and accents were possessed among these people, working together with the common goal of healing the sick. That's the one thing about this hospital that I liked.
After lunch that day, I became tired with lying in bed, so I got up and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the window, reading and watching the sun set over the hills, beyond the palm trees and freeways, through the Los Angeles haze. For whatever it's worth, it was December 21, the shortest day of the year.
Along came dinner -- matzo ball soup and a reuben -- and then along came Kim. With a nurse's permission, I put on my street clothes and walked with her down to the cafeteria for a snack. Then, after a short visit, I escorted her back to her car, followed by a stroll through the hallways.
I caught glimpses of other patients through their open doorways. All of them were lying in bed, and most were connected to numerous tubes and monitors and various fancy-looking medical devices. Most of them appeared old and sickly, and if they weren't sleeping, many of them looked barely conscious. I was sure that some of them would not make it out of the hospital alive.
Myself, being relatively young, active, and alert, I felt completely out of place. Here were people who needed around-the-clock care, and here I was, camping out in my own little room like I was on a field trip. I tried not to feel ashamed about my relatively mild condition, reminding myself that while my symptoms weren't too pronounced, they still could've been a sign of something worse, and so I was wise to take these proper precautions.
After another restless night with more wailing from my neighbor, the daily hospital routines began anew, but the day moved along much more quickly. One of the doctors I saw the previous morning came back to me with my X-ray results, showing pleurisy on my side, which appeared to be malignant. Most likely this was a result of the radiation, which, after shrinking a tumor in my chest, left a vacant cavity in which fluid had collected and caused the aching. I was given some anti-inflammatory drugs and, by 2 p.m. that Friday afternoon, I was finally released.
Kim drove by and picked me up, and I immediately resumed my vacation activities, experiencing no further fun-hampering ailments. Within weeks, back in Seattle, the bills started to arrive. For a stay of less than 48 hours, the total came to $10,653.21.
I'm glad I'm insured.
Written in April 2001.
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