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I watch as the nurse places two plastic bags in the locker. One holds my friend's shoes; the other clothing he has removed following the nurse's instructions.
"Will my stuff be safe?" he says to me.
"If you like, I'll put your wallet and watch in my tote," I say.
What I don’t tell my longtime friend, who I've accompanied to this Outpatient Ambulatory Surgical Center, is that I've got this down pat. In Tommy's case, I stowed his aged wallet and wristwatch in my bag where it never left until I placed them on a mini-memorial atop his chest of drawers in our bedroom.
"I left my wallet home," my friend says.
"So, no worry," I say. I sit on a chair facing his bed while we wait for another nurse to come in to get his vitals. Next, the anesthesiologist reviews drugs they will use to knock him out, and finally the surgeon appears to discuss what happens next.
While this is going on, I zone out and recall the time a year ago when I sat with Tommy in a pre-op area. In his case, the ENT team planned to insert a feeding tube down his throat so he could get nourishment. He was dehydrated — that's what brought us initially to the hospital — and the tube was to solve his problem. Then, we'd be on our way home.
After they wheeled Tommy out of the pre-op area to perform the procedure, I returned to his hospital room. The phone rang. "We have a problem," said the doctor on the other end. "When we tried to insert the tube, there was a blockage. We're pretty sure it's cancer."
The voice of my friend's surgeon wakes me: "He'll be out of surgery in a half hour, so just stay put in the waiting area."
Sure enough, before I know it, the surgeon finds me to say, "He did great. You can go in and see him." My friend looks fine, and is chatty. Perhaps the painkillers, or his relief all is over is making him eager to converse.
But, as we talk, this latest nurse is monitoring his blood pressure and it is too high. Could our gabbing be the culprit?
"Do you mind?" my friend asks with an eye to the closed curtain that will lead me out.
"No problem," I say. Then once more I go to thoughts of Tommy and the time he was in this hospital and wouldn't let me out of his sight. During the 10 days he was here, I'd sleep on a cushioned window seat. On the few nights I didn't stay over, I'd return to find him wearing a weighted vest.
"He tried to leave," a nurse explained. "Had his clothing, shoes, and baseball cap on. Was halfway down the hall before we caught him." Often I'd wish he had escaped, for those hospital days were the worst of my life — heartbreaking and fruitless.
Once my friend's blood pressure subsides, I'm allowed to return to his room. He is dressed and ready to be escorted via a wheelchair to curbside where a cab will return us to his nearby apartment.
At his highrise, I push open the lobby doors to save him from exertion. We go upstairs and I hang out for a few hours until I'm satisfied he can be on his own. "I can call neighbors if I have problems," he says. "Go home."
When my Tommy was finally released from the hospital — with his internists' advice to forgo risky surgery because it would be torturous and not cure his aphasia or his increasing dementia — it was an ambulance that took us home.
When we arrived, neighbors were waiting. I stood on the porch as the drivers lifted his stretcher up the stairs. The neighbors followed and held the front door open. With a gentleness and reverence that reminded me of a potentate's litter, our caravan moved to our bedroom where a hospital bed awaited.
With Tommy safely settled, in the house where we lived for 13 years, away from the hospital setting I had grown to despise, the neighbors stayed to help set up the equipment. Oxygen tanks and medical supplies stuffed the hospice room.
An evening phone call to my post-surgery friend confirms he is managing okay. The painkillers are doing their job and he is comfortable watching television. "Thanks for being there for me," he says.
Because Tommy wasn't able to speak for the last year of his life, I didn't get those same words. But, as many a caregiver will tell you, it was an honor to be there for him.
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