When I was admitted to the hospital for my second surgery, my middle-aged roommate immediately turned her face from me. "Pull the curtain!" she instructed my nurse in a surly tone.
I quickly decided that the closed curtain was fine with me. I had no need to admit such an unpleasant person into a life that felt, at that moment, difficult enough.
However, after Ted left, it became harder to ignore the woman behind the curtain. She argued noisily with her boyfriend on the phone, then slammed down the receiver. When she refused to answer his repeated calls, her angry, self-satisfied refusal--and the constantly ringing phone--jangled in the space between us.
"Get me something to eat!" she bellowed to the front desk, after ringing her call light.
However, when the aide appeared with the liquid diet I knew all too well, she was infuriated.
"I said I wanted something to eat--not this shit."
"It's what your doctor ordered," the aide explained, politely setting down the tray.
"Then get the order changed, and bring me a goddamn turkey sandwich--on white bread!" my roommate railed. I expected the unnaturally green jello and the broth to hit the wall at any moment.
But to my amazement, within a half hour," the woman who said no" had been served another meal--including a turkey sandwich on white--just like she ordered it.
"What idiot brings a turkey sandwich without mayo?" she said, in place of thank you. The aide and I exchanged a look
But a moment later, the mayo appeared.
In the course of the day, I heard my roommate say no to the boots that stimulate circulation after surgery. "They're effing hot. You wear them if they're so great," she yelled at the nurse.
She also refused to get up and walk, though the nurses repeatedly and patiently explained how important it was for her healing. Eventually they stopped asking.
I pretended the curtain between us was as thick as the Berlin Wall. On my side, I read, talked with my family on the phone or with the nurses I'd come to know in my first visit to the floor, and tried not to think too much about what would happen the next day.
But at three in the morning, I broke.
My roommate had called for pain medication in her own imitable way. But once again, she was unhappy with what her doctor had ordered.
"No Percocet!" she shouted. "I want Dilautid!"
Assuming, as I often do, that "orders" are unimpeachable, I figured we both were in for a long night after she refused the Percs. She had already begun to moan with theatrical gusto.
A short time later, the nurse returned with her drug of choice.
Well, that did it. It was three in the morning, and my roommate obviously had no desire to speak to me, but I couldn't remain silent.
"I have to admire your ability to say no," I said--and in many ways, I meant it. "I thought the only possible answer around here was 'okay.'"
"Yeah, I been listening to you," she snorted. "I bet you've been walked on your whole life."
Hmmm...I contemplated that.
Then she asked me about my upcoming surgery. Apparently, our lives had permeated the curtain more than either of us cared to admit.
"I'm cancer free for over a year," she said. "I beat it and you can, too--if you stop being such a wimp."
I contemplated some more...
The next morning, just before my surgery, the nurse came in and said she was being discharged.
"What if I'm not ready to go?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," the nurse said. "Do you have clothes to wear home?"
"No, I came to the hospital naked," my roommate snapped and turned her back.
Only after the nurse left did she begin to cry. She was still in a lot of pain, she said; and there was no one at home to take care of her.
She rang the call bell repeatedly, complaining about pain, an inability to stand or make it to the bathroom. She couldn't possibly go home; she wouldn't.
A short time later, the orderlies came to wheel me to surgery. Since her back was to the wall, I assumed my roommate was sleeping.
But just as I reached the door, she called out to me. "Hey, good luck, okay?"
I thanked her and told her I would see her when I got back.
However, when I came in from the recovery room, her bed was made up and empty as if she'd never been there.
I continued to think about her though--about the power and limitation of the "no" she used so frequently. I wondered what her life was like, and if she really had no one at all to help her out.
And though I did not envy her life, I learned something from her. On my last day in the hospital, the nurse came to give me one of the painful heparin shots I'd been receiving twice a day.
Their purpose is to prevent blood clots. And since I was taking long, frequent walks in the halls (wanting to see the Charles River!) I didn't really think I needed them.
"What if I said I didn't want it?" I asked the nurse, covering my arm with my sleeve. "What if I just said 'no?'"
"You could do that, I suppose," the nurse said, withdrawing the dreaded needle. "I'll mark you down as non-compliant."
Non-compliant. It's something I've rarely been called, but on that morning, it felt like an unexpected victory.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
The Woman Who Said No