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From On the Road to on a gurney

by Jim Withers

Whipping through hospital corridors on a gurney will probably never rank high on my list of favourite modes of transportation.

Here I am, though, on my back and being propelled past doctors, nurses in scrubs and lost-looking visitors.

My “pusher” – that’s what he calls himself – is a young, athletically built man named Paul, whose pedometer tells him that he logs about thirty-five miles per shift.

“You don’t mean thirty-five kilometres?” I say. (Even that would be impressive.)


Paul is one of two orderlies who have, over the past three days, wheeled me to rooms where I’ve been injected and inspected from stem to stern, including a chest x-ray at 1:15 this morning.

While on gurney rides, I engage my pushers in conversation – that’s how I roll – and they, like so many other people, sing like canaries when I ask them about their lives.

Paul operates a “rubble-pickup” service when not working here. The other orderly moving me around tells me he’s been pushing gurneys for a couple of decades, here at St. Mary’s and another Montréal hospital. He’s married, has four kids and dabbles in a sketchy sounding, get-rich financial venture.

For close to half a century I’ve made it a habit to chronicle the day’s events, including what people around me say and do ­– people like my gurney pushers. I’m not sure why – who’s ever going to read it? – but diary-keeping for me is an effective distraction in stressful situations, like being in hospital.

And so, hooked up to a beeping EEG monitor, I spend much of my second night in the emergency room tapping on my mini iPad. I describe a work station where nurses are monitoring large overhead screens as “the flight deck of an interstellar spaceship.” In addition to the swooshing of curtains being opened and closed by nurses coming around to check patients’ vital signs, I hear cleaning crews rolling carts, ambulance teams coming and going, and a middle-aged woman speaking Portuguese while spending the night at her Azorean mother’s bedside. Early this morning, a young physician appears and asks the daughter if he can speak to her outside the curtained-off cubicle facing mine.

“Your mom is 87,” he says, “and I just want to know how aggressive you think she’d want us to be in treating her?”

The strenuous efforts needed to keep her alive might only prolong her suffering, the doctor says while pretending to pump on an invisible person’s chest. I don’t catch all of the daughter’s response, except that it has something to do with her dad always being a fighter and, with him, quitting was never an option.

“OK,” the doctor says before pausing. “Discuss it with your family.”

I don’t know why I record such moments when they don’t even involve me, but writer Joan Didion’s 1966 essay Why I Keep a Notebook tells me I’m not alone:

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. …”


Thursday, March 26, 2015:

It’s my third day at St. Mary’s and, helping me escape the ER, pusher Paul delivers me to the geriatrics unit on the eighth floor.

Time loses all meaning in hospital, especially in the relative quiet of this room, and my sleep pattern – drifting in and out of an endless series of naps – is more cat-like than human. Over the next few hours I read, update my diary and chat with Henry, a slight, toothless 94-year-old whose bed is adjacent to mine. My other roommate is Madame Vachon, an octogenarian who wears a red shawl around her shoulders and whose bed is directly in front of mine.

Henry is asleep with his mouth open and horn-rimmed glasses sitting atop his white-haired head when a telephone rings and he wakes with a start.

“Hello? Hello?” he shouts into his phone. On the other side of the curtain separating their beds, Madame Vachon answers her phone: “Oui. Allô.” She’s quickly immersed in conversation in French with whoever has called her. Henry, on the other side of the curtain, is bellowing, “Hello? Hello? … I can’t hear you. … I don’t know what you’re saying; I don’t even know what language you’re saying it in.”

Madame Vachon covers her phone with a hand, looks toward the curtain and twice says in English, “The call is for me.” Henry continues to shout, “Hello? Hello?” so I climb out of bed, approach him and relay Madame Vachon’s message.

In my mini iPad, I add “hard-of-hearing” to my profile of Henry.

My wife, Winnie, a social worker who once worked here, tells me that the geriatrics unit is chronically understaffed and, as a result, has a reputation for being brusque with patients. I don’t find staff particularly unfriendly but it does take nurses and orderlies a long time to respond to Henry’s requests for an extra blanket or to be moved from his bed to a nearby chair.

It’s evening now, and I make my way to the nurses’ station on Henry’s behalf to ask for an extra blanket. The blonde woman at the desk sounds put upon when she says, “We’ll get right on it.”

They don’t.

“Everything they do here is cold,” Henry says when nurses come by later to stick a needle in his stomach. His only other real complaint is when nurses hound him to wear the lightweight tubes that deliver supplemental oxygen through prongs in his nostrils.

Henry thinks the food here is cordon bleu, laughs a lot, and is chivalrously polite and cheerful. When he says things like “attagirl,” an expression of encouragement or approval, he reminds me of my late father. Few people talk like Henry anymore, but then, in 50 years, much of how young people speak now will also probably sound quaint.

Henry is especially appreciative when Winnie, who’s come to visit me after work, helps move him from his chair back to bed. Unfortunately, he has a diaper mishap en route and Winnie, who has always had a special affection for the elderly, offers to wipe the mess from his leg. While she’s doing this, Henry accidentally knocks over his urine bottle, creating a puddle on the floor. A call to the nurses’ station gets a relatively swift response, and an orderly mops it up.

“Oh, Henry!” the orderly says. “You’ve got stools everywhere.”

“Oh boy, that’s not good,” Henry says before coughing.

“Henry! Cover your mouth,” the orderly scolds him.

A pungent odour permeates the minuscule universe that is our hospital room, and I drift off thinking about how I’ve ended up in a very different place than I was a short time ago.


The idea was hatched over beer and the clack of pool balls on a snowy, neon-lit night on the Main. Mike, a fellow Montreal Gazette retiree, invited me to accompany him on a transcontinental road trip he was planning.

“We’ll be in search of an America that once was … or maybe never was,” my friend said in the tone of a TV pitchman.

“And escaping Montreal in January,” I said. “Like Kerouac’s On the Road – the geezer sequel.”

It was no surprise when fitness-enthusiast Mike suggested that we take along our bikes. It then quickly became clear that the crown jewel of our adventure would be a hike down the Grand Canyon, where we’d spend the night in a bunkhouse before climbing back up to the rim the next day. It would be Mike’s fourth such hike and his enthusiasm was so infectious I was immediately all-systems go, forgetting that I have a fear of heights.

The trip, which started in his native New York and included bike rides through New Orleans and Austin, Texas, went beautifully – until, that is, the morning of our planned descent at one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

Feeling an onslaught of vertigo as I scanned the stunning vista, my eyes locked on to a sign listing the names and ages of dozens of people who had perished of heart attacks, strokes and falls while hiking at the canyon. Then, surveying the icy patches on the path we were about to take, it all came rushing back to me – in addition to my acrophobia, I suddenly remembered what a klutz I am. I thought of the time I fractured three ribs while on a cross-country skiing excursion – not while actually skiing, but rather when I stepped off our rented bus and fell in the ski centre’s icy parking lot. Then there was that morning when Winnie and I lived in the Plateau and I was taking out the recycling, stepped on a wet leaf at the top of our outdoor staircase, and bump-bump-bumped my way down to street level as a year’s worth of empty wine bottles rained down on me. I can still see Winnie, on the sidewalk and heading to work, turning to witness with horror the clinking, unscripted spectacle. A similar look of alarm flashed across the face of my friend George, who was speaking on a cellphone the time I came crashing down a flight of stairs in front of him at his home in England. As painful as those pratfalls were, they at least proved useful in a couple of social situations when conversation turned to the topic of great embarrassing moments, and I felt the need to contribute a self-deprecating anecdote. I couldn’t, however, see anything comedic about plunging like Wile E. Coyote to the Grand Canyon floor:

Jim Withers, 66


Jan. 22, 2015

Sporting brand-new crampons on brand-new hiking boots, I had cold feet. I was like the proverbial accountant who’d long aspired to become a lion tamer, only to be frozen with fear the moment he finally came face to face with a real lion.

Courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear, Mark Twain said, so why was I – clumsy and with vertigo ­– able to trek through the Himalayas and yet not be able to rise, or descend, to the occasion this time? Probably because I was 26 years younger when I was in Nepal.

“Mike,” I said, pausing to get his attention while he was busy tying his boot laces.

“Permission to abort mission.”

He tried valiantly to mask his disappointment.


Two months later, I’m in hospital being treated for internal bleeding and anemia. I still feel sheepish about bailing on Mike’s hike, and take little solace from the thought that it was probably for the best. I’m glad that he did again conquer the canyon, albeit solo. The path, he reported, “was only icy near the top.”

Friday, March 27:

I’m awakened shortly after midnight when orderlies plunk a woman into the bed next to mine. She has grey hair that stands straight up like that of Don King, or the feathers on an indigenous chief’s headdress. Her name is Anna, and she is a 97-year-old Haitian immigrant.

When I wake around 7 a.m., Henry greets me from his bed with a wave and a “Hi, there.”

No one pays me much attention as again, like the person responsible for recording parliamentary debates, I type into my mini iPad what people are saying. I’m not witnessing a pivotal moment in history; I’m just taking a snapshot of what life is like in my hospital room on March 27, 2015. Nothing more.

Throughout the morning, Anna sporadically breaks into rapid-fire, agitated-sounding Creole, speaking to no one in particular.

Today’s parade of visitors includes Madame Vachon’s two burly sons.

Henry is visited by a son-in-law, whose first question is: “How are the nurses?”

“Oh, I’ve got a whole new set,” Henry replies. “There’s been quite a turnaround. The other ones were good scouts, nice little girls who’d do anything for ya.”

The racially diverse staff here is a reflection of Canada’s changing demographics, and one of the “new” nurses in our room is Hee-Soon, who has actually been at St. Mary’s for five years. She worked as a nurse in her native South Korea the previous 10 years, but came to Montreal to be with her husband, a McGill student. Adapting to life in Canada, with its two languages and cold winters, has been “very difficult.”

When Anna refuses to be hooked up to an IV, Hee-Soon enlists the help of colleague Stéphane, who was born in Canada to Haitian parents. Even though he can communicate with Anna, Stéphane is no more successful in getting her to co-operate.

Anna’s daughter and granddaughter show up and Anna is quiet, and motionless when her granddaughter starts putting her hair in tight braids. Anna’s daughter tells me that her mom used to be a teacher.

After they’ve left, two female Asian occupational therapists – one tall with long hair, and one short with short hair – give Anna some exercises. They then move over to Henry who is sitting up in his bed reading The Gazette, which Winnie gave him.

“Mr. Y., are you ready for us?” the tall occupational therapist asks.

“Sure am!”

“Do you want a blanket?”

“Damn right!”

That gets a laugh.

They struggle to move him to his chair, where they coax him to blow on a contraption in which he’s supposed to make little plastic balls dance. Henry isn’t in his chair for long before his head is down, resting on his arms on the table in front of his chair.

Later, Henry accidentally yanks out of the wall the cord used to contact the nurses’ station. A brawny black orderly moseys in, saying: “Henry, you pulled out your plug again.”

He leaves for a minute and Henry says, “I hate that bugger.”

The orderly returns with an Asian woman and says, “Henry, we need to look under the hood.”

They both check out Henry’s nether regions and, finding nothing to clean up, say “Good!” in unison.

Not long afterwards, two nurses come running into the room. Turning to Henry, one of them says, “Mr. Y., you pulled out the cord again. I was afraid you fell or died.”

“OK,” he says. “In future, I’ll do better.”

They announce that they’re here to change his diaper.

“Time to change the dishes,” he says.

Winnie arrives with fresh supplies, including home-made chocolate chip cookies. She covers Henry’s bare back after his blanket has fallen from his shoulders, causing him to complain about being cold. He thanks her, and Winnie, perhaps to remind him that she isn’t a nurse, says, “I’m Jim’s wife.”

“Oh,” Henry says, pausing. “Who’s Jim?”

Winnie laughs and nods in my direction.

Anna’s son comes by, sits on the edge of her bed, and they talk. He warns me that his mother talks in her sleep, something I already knew. In fact, Anna seems to chatter away most of the night, sometimes with her voice raised.

He leaves and the darkened room falls quiet.

Saturday, March 28:

I’m awakened in the middle of the night by Henry having another hacking fit and a woman wailing away in the room across the corridor, as she does every night.

“Oh, Jesus!” an orderly mutters under her breath as she changes Anna’s diaper.

Two nurses – one black and one white – come in around 6 a.m.

“What kind of disco party’s been going on here?” the white one says to Henry. “It looks like a hurricane came through here.”

Henry grunts.

“You probably party more than I do. I’m in bed by eight every night.”

Her co-worker laughs.

Then, after the two women have dealt with Anna, the white woman says, “Why is it that people who say they don’t speak English can understand me when I speak to them? I can’t stand this province. I can’t wait to get out.”

Hee-Soon is spoon-feeding Henry, who, despite continuing to open his mouth wide, keeps saying he won’t eat any more.

“What did you put in there, Epsom salts?” he growls.

I take a mid-afternoon stroll along the corridors to some windows, where I see sunlight breaking through clouds and Lac St. Louis glistening on the horizon.

Before getting back to my room, I cross paths with my smiling, bespectacled internist with her curly reddish locks. She tells me that I’ll be discharged tomorrow. While doctors were unable to pinpoint the source of my internal bleeding, it’s stopped and my hemoglobin count is back to normal. I’ll be on iron pills for the foreseeable future and I’m to return to St. Mary’s at any sign of weakness or blood loss.

I ask her about the blood test I took last summer which, unknown to me, indicated that I had a low hemoglobin count. “If, as you say, hospitals across Quebec have access to such results, why wouldn’t my family doctor tell me?” I ask.

I take it from her frown and nod that she thinks I’ve asked a good question.

Back in the room, Madame Vachon gets off the phone and tells me that she must make a decision about undergoing surgery, and isn’t sure if she should have it done.

A woman and her chubby teenage son show up at Henry’s bed, and I note that she calls him Harry. She’s brought a pot of yellow tulips and a package of candies.

“Do you like Humbugs?” she asks.

He takes one, pops it in his mouth and says, “They’re good.”

“Are you sure you can have them?”

He’s in his chair, and they talk for a few minutes before she says, “Harry, you know who I am, right?”

“Not really,” he says, even though he’d earlier greeted her as though he did.

“I’m Heather,” she says, then introduces her son. “Your house is fine. There’s no snow on the sidewalks now, but there’s still a nip in the air.”

“They won’t let me walk,” Henry says. “I can’t enter my own house.”

“So you’re going into a nursing home?” Heather asks. “Well, you’ll get three meals a day. And you’re OK with that?”

“I got no choice.”

Echoing what the nurses have been telling him over and over, Heather urges Henry to wear his nasal cannula.

“Your organs have to work extra hard if they’re not getting the oxygen.”

“Could be,” Henry says, “but it hurts my ears and cuts my nose.”

“Just do it for 10 minutes every hour. That’s no big deal, right?”

Heather then informs Henry that his long-time friend has died, and hands him an obit photo.

After she’s gone, Henry calls me over to show me the picture and tell me what a great friend he’s lost.

“He was a real gentleman.”

Henry wants to show the photo to everyone who enters the room. Two male orderlies who come in in the evening barely feign interest. They seem to treat everything as a joke, and I hear them mimicking Anna’s chattering. Maybe they don’t think she can hear them. Or maybe they don’t care.

Sunday, March 29:

The first words I hear this morning are: “I have a little pill for you.”

It’s 6:15 a.m. and the speaker is a new nurse.

Henry again waves to me and gives me a cheerful “hi.”

Hee-Soon is spoon-feeding Anna, using the few French words she knows, but pronouncing them surprisingly well: “médicament” … “sur le dos.”

Then, while hooking up my iron IV for the third and final day, she looks across the room and says, “Mr. Y., you need your oxygen.”

“OK, I shall do that, my dear,” Henry says, but I know he won’t.

In the afternoon, I go home. I feel like a bird that’s been sprung from a cage. I’m eager to return to what is for me normalcy, with Winnie and home and getting together with friends like Mike.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever again see my eighth-floor roommates, but I’ll smile whenever I think of Henry. Maybe in a few years I’ll Google his name, and while it would sadden me to learn that Henry had died, his obituary would at least tell me more about my dear old roommate.

In her essay Why I Keep a Notebook, Didion says she sometimes deludes herself into thinking she’ll derive some “thrifty virtue” from preserving everything she observes, and that her notebook is about other people. In reality, she adds, it’s about remembering “what it was to be me.”

Maybe that’s what I’m doing.

Then again, I believe I also want to remember all the Henrys out there who, deliberately or not, brightened my days.

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1 Comment

Marvellous writing, whoever you are. With the power to deeply move a reader. For one thing, I've eaten my last Oh Henry! bar.

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