Vital signs


I wake feeling bad, wrong. Weak, watery, something. I press the call bell and ask the aide to check my blood pressure. She says she’s too busy. Then says she’ll pass it on to the nurse. Fifteen minutes later nurse Anthony comes and asks what’s wrong. I don’t know what to say so I just ask him to please check my blood pressure. It’s 136/86, which is perfectly fine. He stands and looks at me thoughtfully, then suggests that I have breakfast and then he’ll check it again. I say okay, having no appetite or any idea when breakfast will come.

According to the James Square guidebook breakfast is between 8:00 and 9:30, lunch is 12:00 to 1:30 and supper is 6:00 to 7:30. When I told a couple of aides this, they were shocked. They had no idea that there were actually scheduled times. At home, I always ate breakfast at 8:00, lunch at 12:00, and supper at 5:00. [As I watch now, a black helicopter very slowly inches toward and onto the landing pad at Galisano Hospital. The pilot apparently never has landed there before and is scared to death but he cozies down and makes the landing.

[Actually, he doesn’t. The helicopter rises, goes out and circles, and tries a second time. This time he puts it down.] (Meanwhile Don, the skinny guy from Maintenance, comes back again to check out the venetian blinds that they’ve been checking on every day for a week. The windows have three blinds; the one on the left is totally jammed and cannot be moved.

(It has to be moved because they’ve turned off the air conditioning. My windows face south and the sun beats in here mercilessly. An hour after sunrise, the left blind has to be closed; around 11:00 a.m. the middle blind has to be closed. Mid-afternoon the left one is opened; around suppertime the middle one is opened to the sunset. Except that the left one has been jammed for a long time. Well, anyway, the man from Maintenance installs a new one.)

So breakfast comes after I wait a while. One slice of toast, two sausages, and an egg— so-called “poached,”—one egg cracked into a small Styrofoam bowl and “cooked” until it is hot and hard. Juice. Apple, cranberry or orange. You get juice three times a day. Three different juices. Same juices for two months. Can you imagine how desperately I long for orange-pineapple? Red grapefruit?

So Anthony never comes back to check my blood pressure again. The aide—a Jamaican women whose name I never can remember—comes to weigh me. I don’t want to be weighed but decide to be cooperative. The aide says the nurse needs to fill in the box on her chart. I do not say anything nasty about nobody actually giving a damn about me, just about filling in the boxes. It’s been two hours since Anthony checked my blood pressure. Should I ask again? No, I shouldn’t bother him.

So, with much fussing and fiddling, the aide and I get the catheter bag emptied, pants on, slippers on, the walker, the wheelchair, me out of bed and into the wheelchair and us down the hall to the weighing room. There’s no place to hang the catheter bag—not on the wheelchair, not on the side of the shower chamber, not on the side-rail of the scale—so the aide will hold the bag while I stand up, turn left and put both hands on the grab bar beside the scale.

Except that my knees buckle, I scream and fall, and land on the floor. The aide briefly leans down to check me, then runs for help. She comes back with Kate, the temporary nurse manager, who hasn’t understood the problem until she walks in. When Kate sees me on the floor, her eyes bug out—falls are offenses that have to be reported to the NYS Dept. of Health—you know, the place where I’ve filed dozens of complaints?

Kate then lectures the aide on her failure to weigh me in the wheelchair, noting that I am getting worse. Really? And how did she know that? I asked for blood pressure because they never do it here. I asked for re-newed glucose checks; they aren’t doing them. Routine weekly lab work has been stopped; I don’t know why. Once a day, they check temperature, which is usually low, and oxygen, which is 95.

So how does Kate know I’m getting worse? Because I told her? And how did Kate communicate to the aides that I needed to stay in the wheelchair and not try to stand up? Answer: she didn’t. Nobody told the aide and now she’s getting yelled at for failing to do what she hadn’t been told to do. I’ve been here two months, supposedly—but not actually—with weekly weigh-ins. Today we did what we always had done—but this time I fell.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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