The Living and the Dead: Part 2

Published 06, Mar, 2013

Hospitalized Senior writer Ed Wolf remembers what it was like in the AIDS wards all those years ago.

I can see the sky through the narrow window; it’s morning. I’m half asleep when the nurse comes into the room. I watch her go to the board that hangs on the wall in front of me. She erases the name ‘Rose’ and writes ‘Leah.’ She’s young and friendly and very energetic. She says, “Good morning,” takes my blood pressure, asks me if I’m hungry, says breakfast is on its way and that my doctor will be here soon. She asks, on a scale from 1 to 10, what my pain level is. My knee is only faintly throbbing, but I tell her 8 anyway; I know it’s best to stay ahead of the pain. She says she’ll bring me some morphine and then she’s gone. 

It was a difficult night. I couldn’t move my left leg, couldn’t sleep on my side as I normally do. The night nurse came in every few hours, checking on me, giving me pain medication. I would’ve liked to talk to her, but she’s quiet, and busy.  I dreamed of my partner Kirk being in the room last night, but now I know he really was here. I can see the things he brought me from home; my robe, sweat pants, a 6-pack of ginger ale. 

When I did fall asleep last night, I’d try to move my leg, tweak my knee and wake myself up. The room felt small and cramped and dark and I kept thinking about the past and the AIDS unit and the patients I saw there. I had to keep reminding myself that I will be going home, home to Kirk and a group of friends who will help me get through the first few weeks of recovery. I won’t be dying in this room, in this bed. But I could see them, the men on the AIDS ward, and how they did die there and did not go home. 

Leah returns with the morphine. She confirms my name and my age and then watches me as she injects it into the tube in my arm. She asks me how I’m doing. I tell her I’m okay and then, after a pause, that I used to work at San Francisco General, back in those terrible early days of the AIDS epidemic. I ask her if she knows that right here at St. Mary’s the first AIDS dementia unit in the entire world was created. She nods her head as I talk, removes a plastic bag from the IV pole above my head, but she’s not really listening. She puts the empty morphine hypodermic into a biohazard container and leaves. 

An elderly man wearing a white paper hat rolls my breakfast into the room, but the morphine has kicked in and I’m not really hungry. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them, there’s a group of doctors standing around my bed. I recognize one of them from the operating room last night. He’s pointing at a tube that’s in my leg and draining fluids into a bag on the floor. When he sees I’m awake, he asks me how I’m doing. I feel like I’m on display and try to pull myself up in the bed. The faces of the team standing around me are so young. I want to tell them that I remember sitting with AIDS patients back in the 1980s, when the teams of doctors just like them would do rounds just like these. I want to tell them how the interns awkwardly stood at the foot of the bed, listening to the doctor describe symptoms of a disease that no one knew how to treat. I want to describe their faces and how they would stare at the misery that was occurring before them. 

But instead, my eyes close and I drift off to sleep. 

When I awake, the doctors are gone. The clock reads 11:15 and the room is filled with sunlight. The television is on; there’s news about the Middle East. It’s strange to see photographs from the outside when this room has become the world for me. I try to follow the images on the screen and remember how I used to sit and watch television with the patients on Ward 5A. There were times when there wasn’t anything to say and we would just sit quietly and watch TV  together. I remember November 1989 when the Berlin Wall suddenly came down. I went from room to room on the unit, turning everyone’s television on, making sure that the patients knew that somewhere in the world walls were coming down. I remember someone died that day and I wondered what it was like for him, to be leaving, knowing this moment in history was happening. Did any of it matter to those who were dying? 

The man with the paper hat returns with lunch. I haven’t eaten anything in almost two days and when I lift the plastic lid I see a piece of chicken and a few pale spears of asparagus. I pick off a piece of chicken and take a bite of the limp asparagus. Whenever I eat asparagus I remember my grandmother. She was a young woman during the Great Depression when food was scarce and so many were struggling. Whenever we were in her house we had to eat everything she put on our plate. If we didn’t like it or didn’t want it, she’d tell us how terrible it was when she was young and the days when people had nothing to eat. “You will never know,” she would say. “You will never know how bad it was, having to stand in line for bread, having to go to bed hungry!” If my father was at the table, he would talk about the war in Europe, how he saw many people starving, how terrible it was for the children there. Some times they would argue with one another, yelling at each other about what was worse, having to live through the Great Depression or being a soldier in the war. Over and over they would shout to each other, and us, “You will never know!” each trying to convince the other of the terrible suffering they had seen and experienced. 

I would sit still while they argued back and forth, staring quietly at the asparagus on my plate. I would think to myself that they’re both right, I will never know what it was like for them to be hungry or to be a soldier in a war. My grandmother would make my sisters and I sit at the table, sometimes for hours, waiting for us to eat the awful canned asparagus she had put on our plates. What good does it do to tell people about the terrible times you’ve been through? What does it achieve? I spit the asparagus out into my hand and put it back on the hospital tray. 

There’s a knock at the door and a woman comes into the room pushing a gray plastic walker in front of her.  She says her name is Susan and that she’s the physical therapist. She shakes my hand and asks me if I’m ready to get out of bed and go for a walk with her. I can’t believe what she’s suggesting, my new titanium and plastic knee is barely 24 hours old. Susan pushes the call button on the side of the bed and the nurse arrives. They disconnect the tube that is draining from my leg and then pull back the covers. Susan rolls the walker in front of me and smiles. I look at her in disbelief. 

“What do you think,” she asks. “Do you want to take a little walk with me?” I tell her I’m not sure, I haven’t gotten up since yesterday, that the surgery was only last night. She asks me to sit up and then slowly helps me swing my legs over onto the floor. I’m a little dizzy when I first sit up. “Great,” she exclaims. I’m hesitant and she says, “Mr. Wolf, your old knee is gone. It’s gone and it won’t hurt you any more.” I reach forward, grasp her outstretched arms, and slowly stand up by the side of the bed. “Take a deep breath,” she says. I do, but I’m afraid to take a step forward. “Really,” she says, “believe me. It can’t hurt you anymore.” 

To be continued . . .