Hospitals are not my favorite places at the best of times. They are such concentrations of pain, stress and raw emotion that I barely need twenty minutes before I start feeling emotionally overloaded in them. But, after last week, I have reason to like them even less.
Thanks to the overcrowding that has become the norm, Trish had to share a semi-private ward with a man having psychotic episodes. This circumstance is not (I say with understatement) recommended for someone who has just had major surgery.
At first, he seemed normal enough. Possibly, I thought on my visits, he was a little simple, not being able to distinguish his current hospital stay with past ones or give his doctors and nurses much information about himself, but I could hardly blame him for that. Even when he insisted on giving a half-incoherent, half-rambling reply to every comment made in the room, I dismissed his behavior as annoying but harmless.
Then, last Friday night, he went off like a bomb, trying to tear out his IV and catheter and other connections and struggling to get out of bed (which, fortunately, he was unable to manage). At first, he seemed to think he was in a war movie – and, before long, the movie became real. He seemed to believe that the Chinese had landed troops in British Columbia, and that he was on a boat that was shelling their positions. A little later, after nurses and security swarmed around him and tied him to his gurney, he seemed to believe that he was in a town called Dawson, where he had been taken prisoner and was being tortured for information.
Between swearing and shouting abuse, he made his plans out loud. He would pretend compliance, he said, so he could escape. He would even eat the food provided – although it was undoubtedly poisoned – but just enough to stay alive.
And Trish? In her room mate’s delusion, she was pretending to be his mother to trick him. She came in for a share of the swearing and abuse. She managed to get some sleep after the nurses brought her some ear plugs, but trying to sleep less than two meters from such events is not exactly restful.
Nor could she help thinking what might happen if her room mate got loose – he may have been too weak to walk far, but he still might get as far as her.
The next day, the hospital found a nurse to sit with the man, and Trish finally managed to get a few hours’ sleep. She also spent as much time as she could manage outside the room. Her room mate was mostly sedated, but he was still rude and angry when awake.
By the time Trish came home on Monday, she was more than a little tense. We weren’t sure she was healed enough to go home, but she wanted out of that room badly.
I don’t blame the nurses for what happened. They do the best job they can in trying circumstances, and, anyway, surgical nurses aren’t experienced in dealing with psychiatric patients. I’ve often thought that the medical system would be more equitable if doctors’ pay was halved and nurses’ pay was doubled. They do a job that I would flee screaming after half a shift.
But I do blame the organization and budget cuts to the medical system that such a patient was put in with another one who could only be traumatized by his behavior. The next time someone claims that the British Columbia health system is fine, I’m going to reply with this anecdote. It’s one that would be compelling as a Stephen King short story – but even King would have trouble convincing readers that such a real-life incident could happen in fiction.