The Krankenhaus Blues

Hospital_Bed

The right side of my abdomen throbs. It’s not a stabbing pain, but more of a low-grade annoyance I’ve been living with for the past three days. I’m functioning just fine—I even played twelve hours of piano gigs over the weekend, but I can’t stand up straight without feeling like a family of five is throwing a grill party in my intestinal tract. Right now they’re tossing more coals on the fire.

Our doctor’s office is a five-minute walk from home. Hobbling over to see her is no big deal, assuming I can still hobble. I call at 8:00 a.m. and she sees me at 8:30. After a minimal amount of belly tapping and prodding—this woman could have a career as a conga player—she tells me she suspects appendicitis and insists I go immediately to the hospital, or the Krankenhaus, as it’s called here in Germany.

I love the word Krankenhaus. It’s right up there with Kaiserschnitt (C-section) and Dudelsack (bagpipes) on my list of German words that sound exactly right.

“Should I call the Krankenwagon?” the good doctor asks.

“No!” I say. “My husband is home. He’ll take me. He drives faster than a Krankenwagen anyway.”

“Okay. But don’t waste any time. You need to go immediately.”

I leave her office and, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the doctor isn’t looking, head into the local grocery store. My son will leave for a semester abroad in California in a few days, and his friends will throw a farewell party for him tomorrow. It’s a German tradition for the honoree to take a cake or some sort of treat with him to the shindig. Curtis has requested my brownies.

“What did the doctor say?” asks John when I arrive home with a sack of eggs and dark chocolate.

“Not good. She thinks it’s my appendix. I’ve got to go to the Krankenhaus right away. But first I have to bake these brownies for Curtis.”

“Really? You have appendicitis and you’re going to waste an hour baking brownies?”

“I’ve had this pain for three days. I played four piano gigs feeling like this, one of which included the world’s longest Lionel Richie medley. Another hour won’t make a difference.”

I have been baking brownies for both Curtis and Julia for over twenty years. I’m not much of a baker, but my brownies are the shiznit, as the kids like to say. Julia, the younger of the two, has already left home for nine months; right now she is in Seoul, Korea. Now it’s time for Curtis to jump on the Empty Nest Express. Knowing my son will be gone in just a few days, this final culinary favor takes on new meaning. I’m a fool—risking peritonitis for a Betty Crocker moment, but I’m hardly the first mother to bake a cake for her son when she’s not feeling up to par. My sister once baked a coconut cream pie for her son’s birthday while recovering from a hernia operation. I have another friend who made three-dozen artisanal cupcakes (with rainbow-sparkle icing) while attached to a heart monitor. Of course, her son was three, not twenty-one, but still. You never get over this mother thing. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Here’s what I figure: Your nest can’t be empty if your heart is full. Bake the damn brownies. Show the love. Melt the chocolate.

“I could bake the brownies,” says John.

“Yeah, you could,” I say. “But this is my job.”

I start the brownie batter. My appendix doesn’t burst while melting the butter or beating the eggs. The scent of dark chocolate wafts through the house while I pack an overnight bag. I take the brownies out of the oven.

I’ve baked a good batch.

We head for the Krankenhaus.

Brownies

***

I answer a bunch of questions and go through a battery of tests, the results of which prove inconclusive. No elevated white blood cell count, no fever, no sign of anything dangerous during the ultrasound procedure, which goes on forever and hurts like hell. But the pain persists, and my lower abdomen is rigid and bloated, even though I did not eat any of the brownies, I swear. I see three or four different doctors, starting with the emergency room resident and moving my way up to the chief of surgery. Together they decide to check me into the Krankenhaus for a few days of starvation, bothersome tests, and, possibly, an appendectomy. Our insurance entitles me to a private room, but the Krankenhaus is full today, so I have to take what I can get. What I get is a double room with a triple-sized woman named Patrizia Parrott. Pat is enormous, the size of one of those poor people you see on American reality TV shows.

Because of Patrizia’s double-wide hospital bed, my humble single-wide has been shoved to one side of the suite, right up against the washroom door. I notice a crane next to Pat’s night table, and I panic a little when I spot the potty chair, parked conveniently next to the dining table. The Feng Shui masters would not be pleased. Pat sighs and groans and crams Brötchen into her mouth, all the while issuing instructions to the overworked aide and flipping through the channels on the TV suspended over the two beds.

“Well,” whispers John. “Every patient’s worst roommate nightmare.”

I try to stay chipper, but I’ve been here for five minutes and the racket coming from Pat’s side of the room rattles me—coughing and belching and other unmentionable sounds. Good thing I brought my noise-canceling headphones.

“I kind of feel sorry for you,” says John.

It occurs to me that the last place anyone should have a roommate is in a hospital. Humans do not exhibit their best qualities when faced with failing health. Who decided that having two sick people three feet away from each other would be a wise idea? Mister Rogers or Charlie Rose could be in the next bed and I would still be cranky about sharing my space.

“Try not to talk to Patrizia,” John whispers, in English. We are out in the corridor, while Pat has a sponge bath. “Trust me on this. She seems kind of bossy. If she gets a chance she’ll start giving you orders. Look how she treats these poor nurses. Put on your headphones. You can always smile at her.”

He has a point. I have no desire to spend the next few days as Pat’s nimble go-fer. Or changing her channels. And I am terrified of Pat’s potty-chair. And the crane.

On the other hand, maybe I should help out a bit. I’m not really sick. I feel a bit like a Krankenhaus fraud. Aside from the dull throb in my right side, there’s not much wrong with me at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.

“So, do you need anything?” John asks, just as Pat, finished with her bath, demands more bologna from the woman working the dinner wagon.

“I’m really hungry,” I say. A rolling buffet on a cart rolls right past me.

“Sorry, honey,” says the food Frau, checking her chart. “Nothing for you but tea and water.”

Pat requests another Brötchen, this time with Nutella. I’m not sure what’s wrong with her, but it’s certainly not her appetite.

“Young man,” Patrizia Parrott says to John in German. “Can you open the window for me?”

John, polite as always, opens the window and then scoots out of the room before he receives further instructions. I say goodnight to Patrizia Parrott, put on my headphones, open my book, and prepare for a long night.

 ***

Sometime around two in the morning Pat begins chomping on cookies and chips she has stashed in a locker next to her bed. I can’t see her very well, but I can hear her; the crinkling of  bags, the rattle of  packages, the tentative chewing and sputtering one associates with illicit junk food consumption. I can’t recline with my bulky noise-canceling headphones, and I don’t have any earplugs, so I accept my fate and lie there in a semi-hallucinogenic state. It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so hungry. I smell Twix bars and salt and vinegar chips and consider breaking my silence and asking for a tiny bite of something, anything. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m bored, I’m famished, and I’m sleeping two feet away from a woman with a serious eating disorder and a very large clandestine stash of junk food. Come on, Pat, toss a bag of Cheetos in my direction.

The last time I was in a hospital was to give birth, two decades ago. I drift in and out of sleep and wonder if I’ve become one of those half-crazy, washed-up moms who gets sick to distract herself from an “empty nest,” a term I’ve come to loathe. Maybe I’m not really sick. Maybe I’m making myself sick because I’m worried sick. It has never occurred to me that I might actually miss my kids when they leave; I’ve always thought I might become more of who I used to be once they were gone. Perhaps that’s the problem. Better to check into the hospital than tune into my own dread.

Maybe that pain in my side stems from the pain in my heart. Maybe the act of saying goodbye to my adult children has jumbled my well being.

The waving hand, the failing heart, the empty nest, the bursting appendix.

Edna St. Vincent Millay could have dined on this for decades.

If only I could dine right now. I try to ignore Pat’s crunching sounds, close my eyes and drift into a hunger-fueled sleep.

Nest

***

The next morning: no water, no tea, no justice. Pat eats the German version of a Denny’s Lumberjack Special while I gaze longingly at my empty water pitcher. I’m scheduled for an ultrasound and CT at ten.

The German word for appendix is Blinddarm. Blind is blind. Darm translates to “intestine.” The blind intestine.

Was blind, but now I see.

Herr Dr. Stanayotolopolous, who has an extension on his name tag to accommodate the extra letters in his name, performs the procedure. He pokes around for twenty minutes while I wonder if ultrasound gel can be used for erotic purposes. He asks me to hold my breath about a dozen times. This makes me dizzy.

“He is very hard to find,” he says.

“Who is?”

“The appendix. Der Blinddarm.”

It seems appropriate that something shaped like a Blinddarm should carry a masculine article.

In an effort to impress Dr. Stanayotolopolous with my knowledge of all things Greek, I tell him I once lived in Astoria, Queens. He grunts in response. I shall keep my opinions about spanakopita and baklava to myself. Why can’t I stop thinking about food?

“Ah! There he is!” Dr. Stanayotolopolous swivels the screen around so I can see the swirled mess. Somewhere in all that fuzzy stuff is my appendix.

“He is sub-acute,” he says.

I like this term, sub-acute. It describes my mood.

“So this means surgery?” I ask.

“No. There are new studies. The British Medical Journal says fifty percent of sub-acute appendicitis patients will heal on their own.”

“And the other fifty percent?”

“They need the operation.”

“So what do I do?”

“Talk to the surgeon.”

He walks away, leaving the nurse to de-gel me.

“Can I eat something now?” I ask.

“Probably,” she says. “But only broth and other clear liquids. They might operate tomorrow.”

 ***

I return to my room just as two nurses prepare Pat for the crane. I still don’t know what ails her, and I’m not about to ask. Time for Pat to use that potty chair. To get there she needs the crane. Do I need to see this? No. But it’s like watching a slow motion accident unfold—I can’t turn away. The crane, an electrical human hoisting system attached to a heavy anchor, has a harness that goes around Pat’s mid-section. The machine whirs as Pat begins to levitate, an activity that does not please her.

As the crane heaves Pat to an upright position I wonder how many Oreos a woman has to eat before she notices she needs a winch to help her stand up.

“Lunch!”

Pat, sniping and groaning as the crane transports her to her final destination—the potty chair—scolds the nurse for not finishing the procedure before lunchtime. My pity for Pat evaporates when I hear her insult one of the workers.

“We’re having goulash today,” Pat yells, suspended midair. Both Peter Pan and Divine come to mind. “I need to use the toilet before it gets cold.”

“We’ll warm the toilet seat for you,” says the nurse.

“No. The goulash—warm the goulash” says Pat. The nurse prepares to lower her onto the potty chair.

“Lunch, Frau Goldsby!” says the food Frau.

Rather than eat while Pat uses the potty chair—I have to draw a line somewhere—I decide to take my chances with the Marlboro gang in the lounge. The food Frau follows me with her cart.

“Here you go, dear,” she says. “I know you’re on a vegan diet, so we prepared special broth just for you.”

My mouth waters at the thought of food. I’m tired of my bad attitude. Maybe the food will help. Broth. Ahhhh, liquid gold. I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours and I shake with anticipation as I remove the lid from the bowl. It’s chicken broth.

“But this is chicken!” I say.

“Yes,” she says, beaming with pride. “Vegan chicken! We took all the chicken meat and skin out of it. It’s just the broth. It’s vegan.”

She’s a pleasant woman with happy eyes and I’m too exhausted to argue with her, plus the smoke drifting in from the terrace nauseates me. Some lunch this is. Vegan chicken broth with a hint of nicotine.

I used to be a smoker, but that doesn’t stop me from casting a scornful glance at the patients puffing away on the balcony attached to the lounge. Every time the door opens a blast of freezing air and a cloud of smoke hits me. If you are in your pajamas, in a wheelchair, and attached to an IV pole, you probably shouldn’t be lighting up.

What’s the matter with me? I don’t like myself  today. I’m angry, out of sorts, and taking it out on stout stealth-eaters and gray-faced smokers. I need a drink. I wander the hallway for thirty minutes yearning for vodka—that’s a clear liquid, right? I settle for a cup of chamomile tea.

***

“There’s a hair in my Veal Parmesan!” yells Pat.

Two days go by.

The food Frau, the aides, the nurses, the crane expert and the potty chair woman treat Pat with respect, although I catch them muttering to themselves when they turn away from her. Whatever they pay these workers, it’s not nearly enough. I’m growing less tolerant of Pat by the hour. If I were in charge of that crane and had the likes of Pat screaming at me about keeping her lunch warm, I’d be tempted to leave her hanging there, with a plate of Schnitzel just out of reach.

I maintain my silence, put on my headphones, and try to come to terms with my lack of compassion for a woman who is clearly in a wretched situation. How can she live like this? Maybe she’s lonely and fills herself with food to chase away the emptiness. Does she have grown children? Is her empty nest lined with candy wrappers? Did she ever have a nest at all? How did she end up here, and how will she ever go home? Maybe Pat was once middle-aged, semi-vibrant, reasonably thin, with kids who needed her. Maybe Pat used to be like me. Maybe I’m turning into Pat. Maybe you start with appendicitis and, before you know it, you need a crane. Maybe I am losing my mind. If I could just eat something, I’d feel better. Everything in this room revolves around food, and I’m still not allowed to eat.

Patrizia Parrott yells: “I need a cookie!” I am tempted to shout Polly wanna cracker? but I resist. That would be cruel.

“More pudding!” she shouts.

My daughter Skypes from Korea to see how I’m doing. My son calls from home to thank me for the brownies. My husband drops off some instant miso powder for my next broth meal. I’m grateful for any contact at all with my misplaced real life. I’m dizzy from hunger. I still have a pain in my side. I want to go home.

The head surgeon, after reviewing test results, schedules  surgery for the morning. I’m too weak to argue, and at this point, I’m actually looking forward to anesthesia. Five hours—an entire morning—without Pat. And after surgery, I’ll be able to eat. Who needs this stupid appendix anyway?

Pat rips open a Beefi, the local version of jerky. I will not call her Fat Pat. I will not.

When the nurse asks if I want a sleeping pill, I shout out a resounding yes. Tonight I dream of food and departing children and cranes.

Hands

***

I awaken the next morning feeling light-headed and a little strange. It takes me a few minutes to realize the pain in my side is gone. I press on my stomach, and there’s nothing—not a stab or a stitch or a spasm. Hallelujah.

John arrives at the crack of dawn, just in time to watch Pat inhale her daily loaf of bread. The surgical team squeezes into the room and surrounds my bed. It’s a teaching hospital, so a half dozen doctors and trainees gather around my belly. I feel like a Thanksgiving turkey or an Easter ham.

“How are you today?” asks the surgeon.

“The pain is gone!” I say.

“Your stomach is no longer rigid. This feels like the stomach of a completely different patient.”

It does not escape me that, for the first time in many years, I have an audience of six young-ish men staring at my naked torso with admiration. Maybe the starvation diet served its purpose.

The surgeon presses harder and invites another doctor to have a poke. I sense Pat’s judgmental eye on me as the doctors confer. I hear Pat chewing. There’s a privacy curtain in the center of the room, but Pat’s double-wide puts her way past the center mark. Even if we pulled the curtain she would still be on my side. I feel like her head is in my lap.

“No surgery,” he says. “The inflammation is gone. You need more tests, Frau Goldsby, just to rule out anything else, but you can schedule those next week, as an outpatient.

Dr. Stanayotolopolous was right. I healed, on my own, motivated by desperation, hunger, and the ever-present smell of Doritos coming from Pat’s side of the room.

“Can I go home?” I squeak. “Can I eat? Please?”

“Yes. Have some breakfast, wait an hour, and see how you’re feeling. Then you can leave.”

I pull down my nightgown while John rushes out to find the food Frau. The doctors file out, consulting their clipboards. So much for my audience.

Now that I’m leaving it seems safe to talk to Pat. I feel guilty for not being kinder to her. I had a chance to be compassionate, but, caught up in my Hunger Games drama, I blew it.

“So, I’ll pack my things,” I say to Pat. “It was nice meeting you. I hope you feel better soon.”

“You’re not the only one going home,” Pat says, between bites of apple. “I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow. My son is coming to fetch me.”

“How many children do you have?” I ask.

“Three. They don’t live around here. They are good boys. They visit when they can. Two of them are doctors. The third is a lawyer. He’s the baby. He’s thirty-six. They kept me very busy when they were little.”

“Do you miss them?” I ask.

“I never stop missing them,” she says. “I carry them with me, everywhere I go. Maybe that’s why I weigh so much.” She laughs, just a little. “Here. Take an apple with you. You might get hungry on the ride home.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“You were a good roommate,” she says. “You were quiet. I like that. I need my rest. The last woman who was here never shut up.”

The suite fills with the sound of Pat’s labored breathing. I feel unbearably sad. For her. For me. For every mother in the world who bakes farewell brownies for a departing child; for every super-mom has-been who eats too much, smokes too much, drinks too much, hoping to fill empty space; for every woman who re-feathers her nest, restructures her days, re-imagines her life—not because she wants to, but because her options have dwindled.

Little birds fly away. That’s the way it works.

Maybe if I eat something I’ll feel better.

 ***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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  • Reminds me of my experience in an Italian Hospital.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      How do you say “hospital” in Italian? Hope you’re okay, Sharon!

      • I believe it’s “ospedale.” Sadly, I don’t speak Italian, only know some very basic words. I’m well recovered now. Thank you.

  • Sharon Reamer

    Nice and beautifully written description of a German Krankenhaus. I always used to think of it as the Krakenhaus which does bring other images to mind. Glad you finally got something to eat!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Ms. Reamer. I think every German Krankenhaus could use a cocktail bar.