Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Day at the Heart Institute

For those of you who haven't got to know the inside of a hospital other than as a visitor, let me assure you they are no place for pretense.

Today for example I revisited the Ottawa University Heart Institute at 40 Ruskin Street in Ottawa. I say "revisited" because it was there that I had open-heart surgery rather unexpectedly on Friday the 13th of July four years ago. At that particular time, I wasn't exactly tuned into my surroundings (I was heavily sedated both before and after the surgery), and frankly, given the condition I was in, I could have cared less about my surroundings. But today I was returning for a "follow-up" diagnostic, albeit far overdue (they said it was the fault of my referring physican, who in turn blamed the Institute for having let me fall through the cracks). From my point of view, I was just as happy to have foregone the privilege of returning to the Institute, part of my developing abhorrence of hospitals generally. During the past four years I spent the first year draining the narcotics from my system, and the next three accepting that I was damaged goods. I did not, however, insist upon a further examination by the Heart Institute, a procedure I rather suspect is more to fulfill their own curiosity about the success of their operation than to know the condition of my own well-being, but I'll drop that as I know it makes me sound jaundiced.

Anyway this isn't about the reason for my return to the Institute; rather to swell the narrative about the state of things once you are there. To begin, it is immediately apparent when arriving by car (as I did shortly after nine o'clock this morning) that the whole environment surrounding the Institute is crawling with people. The parking lot immediately in front of the building was already jammed, and there was a further line-up to get into it. Remarkably there was the usual collection of baby-blue-outfitted hospital staff standing in the light rain some 50 feet from the entrance smoking cigarettes. The large glass doors to the building were perpetually opening and closing as patients, visitors and tradesmen came and went. Inside, where the main Information booth is located, there was a swirl of humanity, people going in every direction, some towards the bank of elevators, others down hallways, some towards the concession stand and the cafeteria. Everyone was on a mission, and each person was quickly absorbed into the membranes of the building.

While the nurse to whom I initially spoke to arrange my appointment had given me directions to the centre, my handwritten notes were fairly unintelligible. Besides any directions which involve taking the first right, then down the hall, etc. are totally indigestible to someone like me, a dyslectic, one who generally suffers from impaired comprehension. As a result, I thought nothing of standing in line at the Information counter to await my turn to ask for clarification. This seeming patience is of course only afforded those who have arrived by design many minutes before the appointed time. Out of habit I had dislodged myself from bed around six o'clock this morning; and, being prohibited from eating or drinking anything other than a sip of water, it wasn't long before my natural anxiety compelled me to ready myself for the day's upcoming adventure, the result of which was that I was standing at the Information booth well in advance of my appointment with nothing more to do than kill time.

The Information lady (likely a volunteer) was extremely accommodating, as though she were fully aware that it was a matter of some personal concern which had obliged me to attend such a place. No doubt it was written all over me, though I wasn't aware of it.

Already I was conditioning myself to the diminished level of sophistication in the building. It was impossible not to notice people in various stages of undress, some in pyjama-like outfits, others in wheelchairs draped in blankets; and of course the nursing and medical staff in their simplistic and utilitarian uniforms. Many people were obviously suffering from a disability, whether because they dragged their bodies about or were burdened with medical paraphrenalia like tubes or small machines hung about them.

After a prolonged wait at the elevators, I made it to the first floor where I located another information booth (and another volunteer, so the sign announced), where I was directed to a wicket from behind which a woman regimentally asked for my Health Card. She apparently knew I was coming. She knew everything about me, my date of birth, address, home telephone number and next of kin. She told me to sit in the nearby open-concept waiting area. Pocketing my identification, I marched over to the waiting arena and skilfully located a chair which was distant enough from anyone else and settled in, but not before grabbing a magazine (about opera no less). While I didn't scrutinize my companions, even a hurried glance told me that there were a lot of elderly people in the pit, and many of them looked to be in varying degrees of difficulty. Later I would overhear regular comments from the passing patients that they had had heart surgery ten years ago, or they had been here before for scans, and similar such references. In the meantime, however, I made myself as cozy as possible and even dozed with my magazine upon my lap. Clean living does it every time!

The next round was heralded by the blatant pronouncement of my name for all in attendance to hear. This scandalized my sense of privacy, but of course nobody but me took any notice. I felt especially demonstrable when I arose because my stiff back and customary painful joints (which I hadn't annointed this morning with pain killers) were causing me to limp visibly. Try as I might to conceal it, I too was worn down like the rest. I was shepherded into a small room where another person was already seated. My nurse drew a curtain between me and the other patient. She then proceeded to tell me what she proposed to do, and what the subsequent diagnostic procedure would entail. I accepted it all without comment or enquiry. She then inserted a needle into me and outfitted it for IV purposes, though not before asking whether I disliked needles or had ever fainted as a result. Afterwards she handed me a document and began to add an explanation of its investigative purpose, but I cut her off and said merely, "Where do you want me to sign?"

I was then sent back to a smaller waiting area, where other patients engrossed in a similar proceeding were coming and going. None of them looked particularly happy. One old Oriental gentleman was lucky enough to have the company of a young family member who looked after him and did the translating which I thought must add another layer of discomfort to an already unwelcome enterprise.

The subsequent scans and radiation injections were unremarkable except for the horrible claustrophobia from which I suffered when the scanning machine revolved about me, but thankfully there were enough open spaces at regular intervals to allow me to preserve my sanity. The luncheon at the cafeteria was once again notable for the ambience of commonality. When I couldn't see any menu displayed behind the tray rails, I merely informed the chap at the counter that I would take whatever he gave me, which ended being skinless chicken, vegetables and rice. The attendant who had filled me with nuclear waste had directed me to have a heavy meal at lunch, as though it would somehow assist the subsequent scan of my heart muscle.

The final procedure was to scan my heart after the radiation was in full bloom throughout my heart. Once accomplished, I received a "travel letter" so that I might explain to the American customs agent why my nose was glowing. I was then off from the building. I made a very deliberate retreat from the hospital and the City and headed home. I should add that my escape was temporarily thwarted by having inserted my parking ticket in a municipal pay machine (which gobbled it up and never returned it) rather than the appropriate hospital parking machine.

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