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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  A Few Clouds
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On being a patient
Late-night musings from a hospital bed

Thanksgiving week is a great time to be in the hospital if you're a college basketball fan. Holiday tournaments in Alaska and Hawaii mean games are televised into the wee hours of Central Standard Time. That would be 2 a.m. right now. And here I lie in Room 910 with a giant plastic sippy-cup of ice water in one hand and a game-show button in the other.

I grip the game-show button because I'm a contestant on How Much Dilaudid Does Andy Need? It's a fun game even if it's rigged: The guy who asks the question is the same guy who gets to answer it.

The answer? Lots. Nothing pains me more than poorly called charges, and we're on a run of them in the dwindling minutes of the Texas Christian vs. Alaska-Anchorage game.

I've been on self-administered game-show doses since yesterday afternoon. It might have been earlier, actually. Or maybe last night. I don't really know. All I know is that when the spinal block wore off from the hip replacement surgery, the 1863 Civil War battle of Chickamauga reenactment began in my lower body. I cried like a baby, and after the pain medicines kicked in it was like being admitted to heaven.

That was then. Now is all that matters in a hospital. And right now it's dark in Room 910. The blackness is colored slightly by the blinking, blue gauze the television casts into the space. A single streak of hallway light sears in through a crack in the door and divides the room in half. Actually, it divides me in half: my healthy half and my hurt half. Any minute now a person who is charged with making me whole will appear. I am a patient.

The word 'patient' comes from the Latin root meaning "to suffer." It's related to "passion" in the sense of the "passion of the Christ." This is a lofty label for those of us who just want to get better. It's why being a better patient requires one to be a better person.

Before I entered Room 910 I knew very little about the medical software giant Epic Systems other than the company's reputation for working their employees' asses off. Now I see firsthand how the software works for me -- and against me -- as a patient. Its presence divides the nurses into two categories.

Category A Nurse rushes in with a nice hello and goes straight to the computer. She asks for my birth date.

Then more questions, all the while looking with concern at the computer screen. She tippity-taps my answers, one after the next, into the keyboard.

"What is your pain level?"


"Are you cold?"


"Did you eat any dinner?"

tippetytappety tap

And so on.

At the end of our encounter Category A Nurse runs a scanner over my plastic hospital bracelet, hands me a tiny paper cup with pills and looks at me.

"Do you have any questions for me?" he/she asks.

"Yes!" I say. "How am I doing?"

The Category B Nurse either flunked Epic Systems training or has purposely redefined its applications.

Category B Nurse flies into the room with a nice hello and a smile, just like Category A Nurse. But that's where the similarities end.

"How about some fresh ice water?" Category B Nurse asks, which, if you just had an operation, is the equivalent of someone asking to buy you a beer on a hot day at a baseball game.

More questions come. But there's a difference. A soft rub on the arm, a keen eye on the vein port, things like that, replace tap-taps on the keyboard. The answer to the birth-date question prompts a new, different question: "Where?"

All in all we're having a conversation rather than a data entry. And when it's over? That's when Category B Nurse goes over to the keyboard and enters the info all in one shot, giving me an apologetic look that says, "This stuff, this business, you understand. It has to be done now."

The last basketball game ends at around 3 a.m. I click the remote in the direction of the television and put it to sleep. I wish I could direct it at myself. I close my eyes. As the current resident of Room 910 settles into the awkward clench that is hospital sleep, an uninvited string of questions come forward.

Who else has suffered in this bed, in this room? Where are they now? Who will replace me here?

And this question:

After a certain point in life, does one ever stop being a patient?

I think about this one in the dark a long time. I decide with certainty the answer is "no." The realization, like medicine, is good for me.

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