“If I’m not in the bed, then I don’t try to stop the pee,” says the constipated guy, sitting under a well-ventilated hospital gown but plainly bare-assed on the chair by his bed.
From what I can see, he’s telling the truth. And he’s lucky.
I don’t have a chair, just a Hobbit-sized bed two inches too short for my six-foot-three frame, and about as wide as three Hilroy notebooks placed end to end (I do the measurement twice to make sure).
I am wedged into a curtained enclosure (think puke-yellow shower curtain liners, the type your mother would have thrown away in 1957) next to the bathroom that constipated guy and I share with two others: vomit guy and possibly dead guy.
My space also accommodates a small night table for my clothing, books and bathroom stuff, a couple of stands to hold the sodium chloride bags draining into and out of my bladder via a catheter in my poor penis, and just enough room to stand up.
Except I couldn’t stand up without ripping out the catheter, which is three-pronged like a trident and way more forbidding than I imagined it would be. That won’t be happening. At least not on purpose. So I am confined to the bed at least until the next morning, 20 hours away and counting.
The catheter drips and drips. It feels like I am urinating constantly. This will continue for the next 20 hours.
Shivering in my own gown, which keeps slipping below my shoulders, I attempt to put on the sweatshirt I had worn to the hospital for my surgery early that morning. Instead, I wind up making a big bloody mess of the gown and the sheets and my sweatshirt as I accidentally pull the IV tube out of two intravenous catheters inserted int0 my left hand.
Blood spurts and pools as I rip off my COVID mask to use as a makeshift tourniquet while frantically pushing the help button by the bed.
It seems like forever, but takes only a minute or so for a health care aide to arrive, survey the situation, pantomime her horror and disappear. She returns with a nurse in another half minute or so. The nurse removes the needles and catheters from my hand, cleans me up and applies a big bandage that covers two cuts.
It wasn’t bad enough before. Now I have planted the suspicion that I am one of those crazy people who deliberately rip out IVs like serial killers in movies. From now on, they tell me, I am to just keep drinking water.
No IV for you.
Unable to turn to my left side because my primary catheter (penis buddy) is hooked up to the sodium chloride bags on the right, I am barred from access to most of the things placed in and on top of the night table. My toothbrush, mouthwash and socks will remain tantalizingly close but out of my reach for most of the saga.
I lose the newspaper I had been reading in another accident, though far less consequential than my first, while raising the head of the bed. It falls to the floor and is gone. The same fate awaits ear plugs that were useless anyway.
I was rolled into this night terror after my TURP operation, which stands for Transurethral Resection of the Prostate and is every bit as pleasant as it sounds.
Essentially, it involves coring out the inner prostate with a special instrument placed through the penis. This is supposed to remove obstructions in the prostate that make it difficult for the bladder to empty, a common problem among men as they age.
In extreme cases such as mine, which is complicated by a high-risk prostate cancer, sufferers get very little sleep because they are up every five or 10 minutes to pee. I have been a wreck for months and had been impatiently looking forward to having the procedure done. Possibly not as much, though, as my poor wife.
So let’s back this up an hour or two.
Emerging from the general anesthetic that put me under during the surgery, I experience chest pains and fear that I might be having a heart attack. Tests show that this was likely due to a buildup of gas instead, and both the pain and the panic gradually subside.
I’m feeling vaguely cheery as lunch is ordered in the post-op waiting room where I am parked for a few hours, but two aides wheel me away to my digs before the lunch ever shows.
On entering the seventh-floor abode where I am to spend the night, I realize I could be in trouble when I notice the date on the friendly information board next to my bed: April 1, 2021. That was more than two weeks ago. April Fool’s!
James, a friendly patient I judge to be in his eighties, likes to chat and sit too close. He needs help to get into and out of bed. I find out he’s a lonely widower but don’t get to know him well before he is taken away for physical therapy.
I never see him again.
When a nurse comes at 2 a.m. to check my vitals, I tell her I know it’s none of my business, but what happened to the man in the next bed?
She says she can’t tell me, “for reasons of confidentiality.”
“Well, I hope he’s OK,” I say.
She smiles like a sphinx.
I ask her for a sleeping pill.
“Let’s do half,” she says, explaining that elderly patients often become very confused after downing a full pill. She is lovely and all of 25.
Constipated guy is in the bathroom, loudly crying out with every failed thrust at a bowel movement. He has a deranged, magenta complexion, hair way past his shoulders, a hospital-stay-I-don’t-give-a-shit-anymore beard, and an impressive repertoire of horks, sniffs and coughs that I first mistake for maniacal laughter.
His stertorous, staccato breathing is accompanied by frequent moaning that haunts us all. This is broken only by his decision to loudly play classical music via an NPR station — public broadcaster KRFA from Washington State University — programmed on his cellphone. Whenever the mood strikes him.
Could have been worse. I was expecting Black Sabbath.
Constipated guy’s breathing issues are due to what he calls “bad COPD” — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On the plus side, the doctors have told him that his hypertension is clearing up. And now we’re into a program featuring Gregorian chant.
Vomit guy occupies the bed between a window and constipated guy. He seems to be in plenty of pain and always on the point of throwing up. He’s from Ontario and spends a lot of time on his cellphone praising Stephen Harper and Doug Ford while excoriating Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne.
Vomit guy is an avid pusher of the help button, which always emits two loud beeps. Also an avid farter and expresser of sighs. He really wants a Gatorade. And he grouses quietly to a care aide about the mess constipated guy has left in the washroom.
“Housekeeping — we’ve got a shortage on right now,” the aide explains with a shrug. No one comes to clean the washroom.
Vomit guy, perpetually perched on the point of throwing up, and constipated guy are both ruing their latest catheter changes. They have been there for days already, maybe weeks. The notion makes me shudder. I am starting to feel tremendous compassion for my fellow denizens of this Dantean circle of hell.
We are family. Get up everybody and sing.
Turns out that constipated guy, like me, is interested in pressing the buttons that raise and lower either ends of our beds. This is endlessly fascinating and never results in the slightest degree of comfort.
If the Salisbury steak I had for supper was anything to go by, it’s no wonder he’s constipated. My lunch, which caught up with me about an hour before supper was served, included soup and sandwiches of unknown origin, a slice of cucumber, a slice of tomato and more iceberg lettuce than I had ever eaten before in a single sitting.
But this is getting filling. Let’s cut to dessert here at the existentialist café.
The half-sleeping pill seems to be having an effect. I am rereading Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter when I look up for an instant and mistake my black jacket hanging on a peg for a menacing, death-like figure.
There are bursts of laughter from the nursing station as we’re settling down to sleep. Constipated guy is calling out for stool softener and a fresh pair of briefs, having soiled his bed again. A level of sobriety descends upon the party.
I manage to create a dark, safe space by covering my eyes with a sleep mask and the bottom half of my face with the N95 mask a doctor friend had sent me the day before the surgery. A tad claustrophobic, but effective.
“Whatever happened to Chocolate Ex-Lax?” constipated guy suddenly wants to know.
Words to sleep by.
About 4 a.m. I am awakened by a nurse, who I assume is talking to me but is in fact behind the curtain and standing next to the old man’s bed.
I feel a sense of relief. He’s back.
Five hours later, after the catheter has been skilfully yanked from my poor penis (where it had faithfully been draining blood, clots and snipped prostate debris from the bladder), I hear the voice of the man in the next bed and realize he’s a different guy. Much younger than James. And a burper to boot.
Fifteen minutes after that, I see my wife walking in the hospital parking lot and hide behind the post she is approaching, engrossed in her cellphone. It is a glorious, sunny day.
“Boo,” I say.