Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Old Story about an Old Man

Back in high school, I volunteered at the relatively small local hospital. I loved it, a whole new world was revealed to me that my rather sheltered childhood had not disclosed. The Emergency room was my favourite department, mainly because I got the opportunity to talk to all the paramedics and police officers who came in. They would tease me, tell stories and joke around, treating me like an equal instead of a lower life form. When Mom would pick me up after a shift, I would pepper her with excited stories about what paramedics spoke to me, what they said, the jobs I did and all the amazing things I had seen. There is one story I don't believe I ever shared though, and I remembered it last night in vivid detail.

The nurses in Emerg were always very busy, and they loved it when I showed up for my shift, I had been volunteering there for a while and they knew they could give me a task and have it done right. Already that morning I had fetched and delivered the mail, ran X-rays to every corner of the hospital, restocked all the forms and brought countless stretchered patients to their tests. That was my favourite part, if any patient was going to a ward or up for a test, I was called to bring them there. I loved steering the massive stretchers through the busy hallways, I loved being responsible for them, if only for a few minutes.

I usually enter the ward through the back hallway, lined with stretchers if it was busy, and today it is. There is one old man there I keep giving a wide berth to, he is not quite with it, moaning, thrashing around, screaming, babbling and calling out for unseen people. I must admit that he scares me, he looks like a crazy, scary old man. Returning to the ward after a delivery, a nurse pops out of nowhere and asks, "Are you busy, can you do something for me?" I say I can, and she drags me over to the lunch trays, most of which are empty and waiting to go back to the kitchen, as it is after one o'clock. She plucks one off the bottom rack, all the dishes still neatly covered, and heads towards the back hall, motioning with her head to follow. I do, and my heart drops as she stops beside the scary old man. She plunks the tray down on the table beside his bed, "He's confused, but not combative. Get him to eat what you can." Then she disappears, leaving me alone with him. Gingerly, I peel the covers off the dishes and reveal a blended assortment of food, like baby food. I figure I'll just try feeding him like I did my baby sister, I have never fed an adult before.

I dip the spoon into the nearest dish and bring it to his lips, he jerks his head around and smacks at it hungrily. His confusion is evident though, he keeps calling, "Sandy, Sandy!", staring at the walls with unseeing eyes as he thrashes around. As I feed him and wipe the excess off his stubbled chin with a napkin, I am inexplicably drawn to this man. Who is he, what was his life like? I imagine his youth, his family, his gradual descent into the wizened frame he is now. I shake my head and blink back tears. I focus on who he is now and what I am doing, he is no longer just a scary old man in the back hallway. I imagine him as a loved and respected Grandfather, and take his hand as he continues to moan out for 'Sandy'. I start to talk to him, it doesn't matter what I say, I just talk as I spoon the food into his eager mouth. He grasps my hand tightly and begins to calm down, he starts to call me Sandy. I don't know who Sandy is, a wife, a daughter perhaps, but I feel honoured to be mistaken for her. Perhaps it is not right to play into it, but he doesn't understand who I am or where he is, and I don't bother trying to enlighten him.

A nurse calls me away to do another task, and I hurry through it as fast as possible, we had not quite finished our lunch. I return to him within a very few minutes, but he is once again distressed. "Sandy, Sandy!" I take his hand again and brush his white hair back from his wrinkled forehead. I begin to talk again, soothing him as I feed him his tea. I pour all the love and comfort I can into my words, he soaks it up like a parched sponge. The tray is rapidly emptying, and his appetite has been sated. I wipe his whiskered chin once again, removing dried crusts that had been there for far longer then our brief interaction. I wipe his hands, soft and warm, wrinkled and twisted into painful configurations. I place everything back onto the tray as I hear the page, "Volunteer to the nurses station, volunteer to the nurses station." I gently remove my hand from his, pat him on the shoulder and reluctantly, head back into the fray.

I make a point to head by his bed an hour later, and notice him sleeping peacefully. There is a middle-aged man on the stretcher behind him, and his wife stops me. With her hand on my arm, she thanks me. "He hasn't been this quiet since yesterday." She says softly. "Thank you for calming him down." I nod, blinking back the tears that have threatened to surface again, and smile at her and her husband as I run off to fulfill another task. I am busy for the rest of the day, running all over the hospital, stopping in my department only long enough to be sent elsewhere. Ten minutes after my shift is done, I am finally heading out of Emerg, and take the back hallway to check on him once more.

His bed is empty.

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