Last week, I spent a morning in the Cardiac Procedures Unit at Kaiser Hospital with my 93-year-old father, who was getting his pacemaker replaced. He had used up the battery on the old one, installed in 2004. It was a relatively minor procedure. He was fine coming and going, well, fine for a half-deaf, half-crippled very old man. Usually a big talker, he was quiet and nervous and probably as sleepy as I was. They wanted us there at 7:30, but they didn’t call him in until around 9, and the procedure didn’t actually happen till about 10:15.
I had brought my laptop with visions of writing for several hours while I waited, but I was too sleepy and too distracted to concentrate. Instead, I took notes, and I think that was the appropriate response. After all, I was away from my desk, away from the loveseat where I write poetry with my dog in the same setting every ordinary day. Here I was in a different setting, surrounded by all kinds of interesting people and activities that piqued my interest. Nobody looked sick. I could only tell the patients by the white wristbands they wore as they sat in the waiting room while “Good Morning, America” played on a big-screen TV overhead. They came in pairs and groups, all having different stories.
Let’s let the imagination run wild and imagine what’s going on with . . .
* The Hispanic family that keeps adding more people. An older woman appears to be the patient, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. It’s like a party. A white-bearded man dominates the conversation. They all speak English until a younger woman with long dark hair enters. They switch to Spanish.
* Two young black women and a man who might be in his late 50s. The man is large and he has vitiligo, where the dark color is gone from big patches of his skin. He sits next to me and I see that the white portions are as white as my skin. The man plays a slot machine game on his phone.
* A smallish bald man in his 40s with a baseball cap and tee shirt tucked into his jeans. He’s the patient. His skinny wife sits like a puppet in hiking shoes, new jeans rolled up at the cuffs, and a face with long creases on each side of her mouth that make it look like she’s always smiling. She’s chewing gum and never stops touching her husband, giving him a full back and neck massage which he doesn’t seem to notice.
* A young crew-cutted man and a blonde woman right out of the 1960s with carefully applied makeup. Neither one is wearing wrist bands.
Can you make up a story out of any of these people? I know I could.
Let’s think nonfiction for a moment. I have so many questions that could be answered in an article or pondered in an essay or poem.
* How does the pacemaker work? How do they do angiograms and other heart procedures? Do people die in these procedures? What are the risks?
* Why do they play TV everywhere these days as if we’re all one common mind wanting to watching GMA or Kelly and Micahel or the View?
* There are hand sanitizers everywhere, but they keep handing these heart patients the same plastic-encased papers to read and then sign their names on a computerized signature box. Aren’t they covered with germs?
* How do people like my dad who can’t hear get along in these situations? The answer is not so well. What can be done to make their experience better? How can nurses and aides be trained to speak up or offer more visual cues?
* Are our possessions really safe while we’re unconscious?
* Are medical workers spending so much time looking at their computers that they don’t see the patients?
* Why do some people keep touching their partners?
* What happened to the rules against using cell phones in hospitals, all those warnings that they interfere with equipment? Everybody had a cell phone or tablet, including me, and nobody said a word against it.
* Who designed the endless lookalike hallways at this hospital?
* What is it like to work in a room with no windows doing the same task day after day?
* What happened to nurses dressed in white dresses and white caps?
* Would it hurt to offer coffee, tea and snacks in the waiting room when we’re stuck here all day?
* Would my father’s mother, who died in 1954 of heart disease at age 58, have lived much longer with the procedures they have now? Will I need a pacemaker someday?
* Pacemakers: models, how they work, dangers, advantages, possible malfunctions. The doctor indicated that if Dad’s pacemaker battery died, so would my father. How many people are walking around being kept alive by these mini-computers implanted in their chests?
Writers, you are welcome to use any of these characters and questions as prompts while I enjoy the last of my vacation.
The moral of this post is that sometimes you have to put down your electronics, look around, observe and let your mind wander. Then take some notes. Maybe you’ll use them later in a story, article, essay or poem. Maybe one day, you’ll need a piece of information and think, oh wait, that day I hung out at the hospital, I remember . . . The world is one big prompt.
Now let’s go write.