It starts at Reception.
There I am, trying to ingratiate myself to a woman named Lavinia. I am late for what I think is my pre op-physical appointment (but subsequently realize is pre-admission which is Not The Same). I am late because instead of going to the Ambulatory Care building for my 9 am appointment, I went to the main hospital approximately six city blocks away.
And I didn’t just go to the wrong building. No. Before I realized my error, I took a guess at which NYU color pathway to follow to which tower to the north-not-south elevators and went to the 4th floor. It was there that I finally thought to look at the calendar on my phone where I had conveniently noted the location of my appointment. Which was at the Ambulatory Care building, not the hospital.
I walked the six or so blocks to the right building, sweating in the heat and humidity as I hustled past morning midtown traffic and the busy entrance to the Queens-Midtown tunnel. Honking cars, whistling traffic cops and damp ol’ me. I searched my phone while I walked, trying to find the right phone number to call to apologize for my lateness and stupidity but my call log is full of various unsaved NYU Langone phone numbers..
When I arrived, twenty minutes after my appointment time, Lavinia smiled anyway which I took as encouragement to become a giant, ingratiating suck-up and try to make her laugh with my terrible adrenal mass gallows humor. I tell Lavinia that my surgeon has promised me six-pack abs once the mass is out so I’m not at all concerned about my surgery.
Soon Lavinia, who giggled at my efforts, has passed me along to her colleague to make my copay. I joke about never knowing if it will be $25 or $45, and ask her to rig things for the lesser amount given that my Flexible Spending Account dollars are a distant memory. I tell her how my recent hospital stay, after I was bitten by a scared kitten, produced a statement totaling $31k. My goal for the day was no five-figure hospital statements.
“I was hospitalized FOR A FINGER!” I exclaimed in horror and embarrassment, and soon this woman whose name I didn’t catch is laughing hard and bringing her cat-loving colleague into our conversation to ooh and ahhhh over the kittens pictured in my phone who did not bite me in a way that led to my hospitalization.
From there, my vitals are taken (again) by one nurse whose name gives her the initials JJ. I tell her some of my friends call me JK as if this is some sort of information she will immediately be able to put to good use. She draws three vials of blood from the same arm where four vials of blood were drawn three days prior but uses a different vein. Hers is the gentlest, least painful blood draw in the last month and yet I will later notice that it left the biggest bruise.
Then another nurse, this one an RN, comes in for what I think is the main event. But instead of getting set up for an EKG, she starts to go through my medical history. I know this is standard operating procedure but oh, how I wish they could just read the medical history I gave last week and the prior week and the week before that too.
My jokes are corny at best and silly at worst. I don’t know how many times I have said, in regard to my adrenal mass, “well, that explains my abs!” but the number is high.
“I thought I was just getting fat!” I say jauntily, hoping-what?- that they’ll think I’m pretty? Desirable? No idea.
The final step is a meeting with a resident from Anesthesiology. I go through my medical history (again) in detail and he talks about what the surgical anesthesiologist will do to put me out for surgery. He checks my neck range of motion to ensure I can be intubated without trouble, and I suddenly think about what I will look like on the operating table.
The doctor is handsome and grows increasingly attractive to me as our conversation segues from my surgery to our respective career choices and life in general. He is kind and smart and tells me how he originally wanted to become an ophthalmologist. I make a plan to google him, but then I remind myself that he’s much younger than me and – oh yeah! – I have a belly fully of a cantaloupe-sized tumor. The resident is not flirting with me. His interest is professional.
When he asks if I am able to feel the mass in my abdomen, I practically leap off the table to stand up to allow him to see that no, there’s no unsightly bulge, just some rearranging of organs that gives me frequent heartburn. I look normal, if chubby.
The exam complete, I say my awkward good-bye as he leaves so I can dress. My dream sequence ends.
When I leave the office, I notice that my height is written 1.5 inches shorter than on last week’s paperwork. I want to protest but it is too late and I’m too hot and too tired. But I’m 5’7″, damn it.
These days, I find myself talking to everyone. And while my facial expressions come straight from Mom, my need to connect and maybe charm is pure Dad. I remember his interactions with doctors and nurses through the years and suddenly I understand myself a little better.
Maybe it’s that I don’t want the people I encounter to worry. Or that I want them to care. Or that I do it for myself, to keep things light and fill the hours of tedium that are mostly broken up by blood draws and measurements of vital signs and endless repetition of my medical history.
My new reality sinks in at the least convenient moments. One minute, I am joking with an x-ray technician about the ridiculous situation I’m in – finger about to fall off, upper respiratory infection and that giant tumor. The next, I am trying to figure out how to hide the tears that have flooded my eyes during the three minutes the tech was in his little booth.
I consider telling the tech that I’m tearful because part of me is relieved that Dad isn’t here to see what I’m going through and how awful I feel about the anxiety I have given Mom. But instead I do my best to swallow the lump in my throat.
“Is my suite ready yet? I ask.
The tech laughs as he returns me to the ER.