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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Roommate #1

Though my hospital roommates will not be written about in the order I have encountered them, I know in one way or another I want to share things about what I have learned in a general way without divulging anything personal in order to have energy and time to write during my long recovery.

I have minimal energy here; mostly napping in extreme pain or discomfort, and I have little in the way of mental fortitude to even form thoughts. I simply want to survive each night. It is hell; there is not another way to describe it. I want to be home with my wife and my dog. Most of the the nurses are godsends. Some are airheads and forget basic things. Some are downright mean or vindictive. It's just like anywhere else in the world. I am grateful for the good nurses—and they come in all different, unexpected ways—but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

But for now, as I have to lie awake with one arm totally straight, letting an anti-meningitis medicine seep into my blood for the next hour, I feel lucid for the first time in days and am going to write random thoughts about my current roommate.

He is an alcoholic, admitted from the street into my room because he is about to die. I can't see his face, but his voice is only a few feet away from my cot, just behind a privacy curtain. I hear everything he does, and in the past two days he has done everything with an air of respect for our surroundings. He keeps his voice down. He whispers to me politely if his nurse button doesn't work. He keeps the TV volume on the minimum. When he vomits he apologizes and gets it cleaned up as quickly as he can. He is—quite seriously—a considerate roommate whom I appreciate and care deeply about.

Within an hour of his admission, a doctor specialist visited him.

"How much do you drink a day?" the doctor asked.

"A twelve-pack, plus a fifth of Jack."

"How long?"

"Since I was a teenager."

"Have anything this morning as an eye-opener?"

"A rum and coke."

"Do you worry about what others think of you?"


"Have you tried to stop before?"

"A few times."

"Do you want to stop?"

"If I'm gonna die, I guess I should."

"Look," the doctor said. "This is pretty much it. Your liver has taken all it can. If you don't stop and change many things—and soon—you will die. No joke this time. This is it. I'm not here to judge you or tell you what you should do, just make sure you have the right information, plain and simple, right in front of you so you know what is going to happen if you continue drinking. I advise most of my patients in this situation to stop drinking. Most don't. Most die, and no liver-drinking-disease-death is a pleasant way to go. It is ALWAYS a horrible death."


"Now, as a miracle of life, it just so happens we don't need our entire liver to survive the rest of our lives, even after a lifetime of drinking. It can be done, but not always, and this is a miracle of the human body. If you stop, get help and eat right, you can live—and live quite well—but this will be your choice going forward—your choice—about how your life or death will proceed."

"What about getting me a fresh liver, like a transplant to start all over?"

"In your condition that would not happen. Actually, there is no way you should count on any fresh, healthy liver standing a chance of being transplanted into you. You need to be totally dry for six months at least, and you don't have six months. There are too many people who have been waiting for months or even years, playing by the rules exactly, waiting for a liver transplant. Don't think of that as a way out of this now."


The man's wife or girlfriend—who had been with him this whole time—now spoke up. (I couldn't see her, and she had been quiet.) She said, "You know honey, I can do this with you. I'll quit."

"Naw, you don't have to."

"I mean, if you think it will help."

"I can do this on my own."

"But you haven't been able to do it before."

"I know. But it's my deal, not yours. You can drink in front of me if you want. But if I want to live I guess I have to do this; find a way to quit once and for all."

The doctor, with many other patients to see on his rounds, stood up to leave. He said, "I'll see you tomorrow and a few days after that. We can talk about different options and ways to pursue this. But I want you to be sure you know the hard facts going forward, and what is truly at stake this time. Giving up a daily habit you've had for decades—being it picking your nose or drinking yourself to death—is still a habit, and it will require real changes that can only come from within you. In the end, no one can save you from death except yourself, and you need to decide if you want to live and want to be here."


The doctor left.

I had been pretending to be watching television or downloading apps on my iPhone as the doctor passed by my sectioned-off area, but he didn't look in anyway.

I waited for the inevitable moment of clarity between my two roommates where they would embrace each other in tears, saying, "Oh God, my love, this is it, isn't it? I'm going to change for you now. My life has been a waste. I'm going to be a better man now. It will be the hardest thing I've ever done, but I'll do it for me first and I'll also do it for you."

But he didn't say any of that.

She didn't say anything either.

I suppose I appreciated their honesty. The whole conversation with the doctor, I guess, was not new information to them.

I heard the TV click on wordlessly, the remote beeping as it scanned through channels, settling on some familiar crime scene investigation show re-run.

After a full thirty minutes of the TV show, he finally spoke: "Well, now we've been told for sure it'll definitely be this or that. We can't say we ain't been told there's some in between still left we can try for. And we know this ain't no joke anymore."


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