Okay, I take it back. That’s not startling at all. But this is: Sometimes, the use of the F-bomb is the best possible indicator of a person’s recovery. Better than heart rate, blood pressure, or respirations per minute. Better than all those arcane lab tests.
It’s Monday morning in a hospital room in Oklahoma City. I’m sitting by as my brother Bob, 75, comes back from a medical crisis. Buoyed along by machines and medications, he’s emerging from a dark, scary place after nearly three weeks of hospitalization. The docs say he’s out of the woods for now, but I already figured that out last night.
First, a look back.
I arrived at the hospital on Thursday. Although he’d already been released from ICU, Bob was still in rough shape. But he was completely alert when the hospitalist—our own Doctor Death—basically told him to hang it up.
“There’s nothing we can do for you but extend your life for a little while,” the unsmiling creep said. “You’ll have no quality of life to speak of.”
“Not…ready…to…cash…it…in,” Bob forced out, one shaky syllable at a time.
“I thought you had a DNR, that you didn’t want any extraordinary life-extending measures,” Dr. Death said, turning to my niece, who has power of attorney. “He can’t even feed himself!” he whined. “What kind of life is that?”
“It’s his life,” she said. “He gets to choose.”
Dr. Death left in a huff. We were all disgusted by his utter lack of compassion.
A lot happened over the next few days though, enough to make me think Dr. Death might have been right. Bob was deteriorating, and the anxiety we felt as the medical drama unfolded, along with the demands placed on the family, was wearing me down.
Although Bob seemed stronger on Sunday as more visiting relatives arrived, I was pretty grumpy about spending the night with him again. (At that point, he hated to be left alone.) He was asleep when I arrived, so I read quietly in his room. When he woke up I felt slightly annoyed, the way I used to feel when my kids woke early from their naps.
He shook off a dream, gave me a kiss, and said he was hungry. I fed him the homemade dinner his daughter had sent, and, surprisingly, he said it was delicious and ate most of it. This, after his eating next to nothing for days, was encouraging. Then he asked me to switch the classical music station to something more fun, so I found a country station and we discussed Johnny Cash. He asked me to make a list of things his assistant needed to do in the coming week. It filled two pages.
At around 10 p.m., after a nurse pricked his finger to check his sugars, she whistled and exclaimed, “250! Oh, Bob, you are sweet!” She injected some insulin into his arm and banged out of the room.
“Get me a Coke,” Bob said. “Lotta ice.”
“What?” I crowed. “Your sugars are too high.”
“Gimme a break,” he said in his breathy style. “Get me a Coke.”
“Look, Bro,” I said, “you’re not croaking on my watch.”
I felt a rush of joy as I scurried to the kitchen down the hall. That ornery cuss! He was known as The Brat in the family, but his spirit had been largely absent since I’d arrived. Could he be rallying?
I dispensed a few ounces of Coke into a Styrofoam cup. Lotta ice.
“Good,” he said as I held the straw to his lips and he drained the cup. “Now let’s play cards.”
We played cribbage till midnight—open-handed since he couldn’t quite hold the cards—and of course I shuffled and dealt for both of us. I was winning when he started to get sleepy.
“Fuck you,” he said.
Was Bob out of the woods?
I slapped his leg, nearly knocking his catheter line out of kilter, and he drifted off. Soon after, he slept through a treatment from the respiratory therapist, and after that dude banged out of the room I settled into my plastic recliner for a few hours of sleep.
The radiology tech woke us at 5 a.m. for a chest X-ray. “You need to wait in the hall!” she shouted at me, six inches from my face, her minty breath filling my sinuses. A few minutes later, her task complete, she banged out of the room and Bob and I sleepily watched the eastern sky brighten.
“What’s today?” he asked.
“What a day I’m gonna have,” he said. “Dialysis, more relatives, and the fat nurse.”
“You want me to punch you in the throat to finish it off?” I asked.
I smiled as the fat nurse banged into the room with a cupful of pills.
“Good morning, Robert!” she sang. “Don’t you look good today!”
And he did look good. His blue eyes were bright and alert, not heavy lidded. The tube that suctioned fluid from his chest was largely inactive, compared to the gusher it had been on Thursday. His words were connected in sentences, not uttered in labored syllables. He ate all his oatmeal, even feeding himself much of it. He picked up his orange juice and shakily sipped it on his own. Was he back?
“That oatmeal was good, but tomorrow I’d like French toast,” he said. “Mix it up.”
We fell into a silence.
“Barb,” he said after a while. “All my organs are fucked up. My liver, my kidneys, my lungs, my heart.”
I knew this, of course. I also knew that when I said goodbye to him in a few days there was a good chance I would never see him again.
“Don’t forget your pancreas,” I added. “That’s a train wreck too.”
He burned me with a sidelong glance.
“But your epiglottis is in tiptop shape!” I added cheerily, beaming as I waited to hear those two reassuring words: