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Visiting Mr. Sgroi MAG
“I've gotta pee.”
Mr. Sgroi had awoken with a start, and those were the first words I ever heard him utter. For someone who had suffered a massive stroke, undergone emergency surgery, and been in a vegetative slumber all morning, it was both amusing and reassuring to see this older man retain some disgruntled sentience.
“Okay, okay. Hang on for a second so I can help you, sir,” I said. But it was too late. He grimaced and I watched as a wet spot appeared on the sheets.
“All right, sir. No problem. I'll be right back with a nurse.”
Mr. Sgroi stared straight ahead with a pained expression, as if implicating an invisible specter for his mishap. When I stepped into the corridor, he let out an exasperated groan.
Proger 5 North Inpatient Ward at Tufts Medical Center, Boston, is certainly not unpleasant, but neither is it homey. The walls and hallways are all white or beige. The lights are fluorescent and cast a constant, cold glow. And then there's the beeping. All day, it's a symphony of beeps and rings orchestrated by ventilators, dialysis machines, cardiographs, computers, telephones, and whatever else is running on electricity. Sometimes I don't understand how the patients, especially those suffering from nervous-system problems, tolerate the infernal racket. Maybe they gradually learn to tune it out.
For those like Mr. Sgroi who have only a couple hours of wakefulness each day, perhaps the bustle of everything registers in the mind like a poorly-lit, slow-motion film played at the end of a tunnel – distant, delayed, and a tad surreal.
“Let's clean you up, Mr. Sgroi. How does that sound? We want to help you out, so would you please stand up?” a nurse requested.
Incomprehensible mumbling ensued, followed by a croaked, “No. I don't want to.”
“Mr. Sgroi, don't you want to be nice and dry?”
He may or may not have understood, but a slight nod prompted the nurse to begin detaching tubes and wires. It's funny to see how the nurses exaggerate their voices and dispositions depending on the audience. When addressing patients directly, they're loud, slow, clear, and liberally apply juvenile logic to show their good intentions. However, when not around patients, nurses are tense and businesslike. Sometimes the place resembles an ant hill, with drones in blue scrubs pacing the corridors, popping in and out of supply closets and patient rooms, or hurrying to departments on the other side of the hospital with forms for a Dr. So-and-So. They've got timetables and task charts, and believe me, nurses work heroically to cover everything while staying on schedule.
In any case, it took the nurses 20 minutes to clean him up. The louder and more childlike their pleas for Mr. Sgroi to please stand up so they could help him became, the more confused and annoyed he grew. Several times he wailed, “Ow!” and even threatened, “I'll punch ya in the mouth!” And of course, when the nurses responded with a barrage of “Sorry's,” he never failed to grumble, “No, you're not!” By the time his ordeal was over, he was breathing heavily and appeared crosser than ever. The nurses suggested that he get some rest but received only a dismissive wave of his hand.
I am no expert on clinical psychology, but my imagination is versatile enough to picture myself in the shoes of a very sick person. Just to scratch the surface, I imagine undergoing three blood tests every day to make sure my insulin level is stable. Sometimes the doctor might say, “Nothing by mouth,” and then pump fluids into me through a catheter. I may wet myself, but I'm unable to do anything about it. More often than not, I'm slightly confused about where I am or why I am there. I can sense the tension my presence creates, and I am constantly reminded of what it means to be useless and incapacitated. I imagine being draped in clothes that smell of soap and disinfectant, but I might as well be stark naked – exposed in the most chilling manner. Someone is always coming in to make sure I don't crumble in the mess I have created for myself.
I imagine how lonely it is to be stripped of the most basic ability for self-sufficiency. Where is normality? As a patient, I imagine I could use a large dose of it. I'd like to meet someone who would just treat me like a person. Being human seems very far away.
I snap back to reality, and it scares me to death. I don't want to have to confirm these thoughts for myself. Is this what it means to be decrepit? I know they deserve better.
Mr. Sgroi peered at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Damn, son. I just went for a ride.”
I smiled and dropped a pile of clean linens onto the bed. My latex gloves were getting itchy, so I took them off before spreading the fitted sheet.
“Well, don't they always say ‘Better out than in'?”
His wheezy laugh was an obvious physical exertion.
“Say, what are you doing here anyway?”
“Oh, I'm just helping out. You know, volunteering. But sometimes this place still feels like a monkey house.”
He was silent for a while and seemed to be contemplating an answer. Eventually, he looked up and exclaimed, “I'm never coming back again!”
“I like that. Hell, when I come back next Thursday, Mr. Sgroi, I expect to see you out of this coop.”
I finished making his bed and took a seat in the visitor's chair next to his window. It was about 4:30; a shaft of sunlight beaming in between two Chinatown apartments was thinning and I could sense the activity out in the corridors starting to settle. Even the beeping seemed to have been tamed.
Our chat continued for another few minutes, but he was hard of hearing and seemed to be getting drowsy. Soon enough, we let the growing peace have its way.
“Day's not too long for you?”
“Not at all, Mr. Sgroi. Just perfect.”
I gazed out the window until 4:50 when a nurse appeared in the doorway. She started to say something but caught herself. I turned to see why. Mr. Sgroi was fast asleep.