“I’ll be back in a little while, Hon’. Will you be okay without me?” the frail old woman asked of her husband. She was standing at the front door and breathing heavily.
“I’ll be fine,” her husband replied from his wheelchair. His voice sounded as weak as his body looked – emaciated, scaly, and full of cancer. “I’m sorry I can’t come with you.”
The woman opened the front door. A gust of cold winter air scattered dried leaves into the foyer and chilled her lungs. The lone tree in their small yard looked tired and skeletal. She coughed against the wind, but pushed on. The walk down the stairs and across the driveway was exhausting. She wrested the car door open and plopped down into the bucket seat. Her breaths came fast, and she thought of calling the ambulance instead of driving herself to the doctor. But after a few minutes of rest she felt better. Her husband had wheeled himself to the front window and was watching her with concern. A nasal cannula graced his elfin face, and the woman thought how marvelous it would be to take a deep drag of his oxygen. But she felt good enough to proceed, and waved to her husband. He blew her a small kiss from his dried lips as she backed out of the driveway.
The woman drove cautiously to the doctor’s office. Other cars swerved aggressively around her. The impatience of youth and the hostility of the middle-aged were very unsettling. A black car behind her was flashing its high beams, signaling for her to speed up or die. At the next stoplight the black car pulled up next to her, riding the right hand shoulder of the road. The driver was a man with a goatee, and he looked over her with all the dramatic scorn his face could muster.
The journey to the doctor’s office took a harrowing thirty minutes. All the parking spots close to the entrance were filled with rugged SUV’s and bright family cars. The closest spot she could find was dauntingly far, and she worried her lungs would not carry her. Like a diver she stored up a few deep breaths, and then embarked across the macadam.
She made it to the front desk, huffing as she signed in. Other patients in the waiting room watched her surreptitiously, wondering if they should spring up to catch her if she began to fall. Fortunately the woman made it to a chair and began recharging her lungs once more..
When she was eventually called back to see the doctor she asked for the closest room. The medical assistant obliged, taking her pulse and blood pressure. The doctor breezed into the room. “How are you today?” he asked.
“Not good, doctor,” she said with a shaky, breathless voice. “Over the past week I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t walk across my house without getting out of breath. My ankles are swollen, my chest is tight, and I’m really worried because there is no one else to take care of my sick husband. You remember he has cancer, right?”
The doctor looked uneasy. He scribbled notes, asked more questions, and then took a deep breath himself. He examined her, but it seemed he had already made a diagnosis given his furrowed brow. “Well, I’m definitely concerned about you. I’d like to do an EKG to take a look at your heart rhythm. Do you think you can make it up to this examining table?”
The woman looked up from her chair at the examining table, plush with institutional green plastic upholstery. It looked like some high altitude mesa, but she agreed to climb up. The doctor held her arm as she moved arthritically. She felt her heart racing again, and her lungs felt as if she were sprinting at full speed. The air in the room became thinner and thinner as she climbed, until suddenly there was a faint feeling and darkness advancing from all sides.
When she next opened her eyes she was looking at the ceiling panels of the exam room. There was a dead bug of some sort in the fluorescent light overhead. The doctor was kneeling beside her, supporting her head and taking her pulse. Someone had placed a nasal cannula into her nose, and it was blowing sweet oxygen into her being. In her confusion and alarm she thought immediately of her husband back home, and how quenching his oxygen supply had seemed. How ironic it all was. How pitifully powerless they had become. Everything was happening quickly and in a blur of movements. A few young men, presumably from an ambulance, lifted her onto a stretcher. She was wheeled out of the office in an embarrassing parade, passing other frightened patients who were no longer reading in the waiting room. She asked the doctor to please call her husband at home, and to tell him not to worry. He would need someone to take care of him, and she would set this up just as soon as she could from the hospital. The doctor nodded and wished her well as he patted her sorrowfully on the shoulder.
Several hours later, having endured blood, radiological, and cardiac testing the woman found herself in a quiet room on the 4th floor of the hospital. It was determined that she had congestive heart failure, and the doctors and nurses would be working to fix her up over the next several days. She had started calling her home from the emergency room, but her husband wasn’t answering. The anxiety she felt for him far outweighed any breathlessness she felt in her own body. Upon arriving in her own room the first thing she asked for was a telephone. Still there was no answer. She called her neighbor, who went next door while on the phone to check for her husband. No one answered the door, and the neighbor could not see anyone in the house.
It had been about 5 hours since she had begun her voyage away from home, and she mulled calling the police to go check on her husband. But it was possible he was just napping. His hearing was shot, and the fright of seeing a policeman at the front door might kill him. The woman held back tears as she fiddled nervously with her watch.
She barely looked up as the nurse appeared in the doorway. She was pushing another patient in a wheelchair into the room. “Looks like you have a roommate, Ma’am.” The woman forced an anxious smile as she looked at her new roommate, a frail and bony silhouette in the light spilling from the hallway. When she realized it was her husband smiling back at her, with a boyish grin she recognized from fifty years ago, her heart began pounding even harder than before. “How did you get here?” she exclaimed. “You should be at home resting! I was worried sick! You didn’t answer the phone!”
“You shouldn’t be here alone,” her husband replied. “I called a cab after the doctor phoned me. The hospital doesn’t know this yet, but I’m staying here with you tonight.”
The woman took her husband’s hand, shaking her head. “You are in no shape to be chasing after me,” she scolded him. But her eyes betrayed happiness that he had made the brave odyssey through the frigid world, especially in his condition. “Look at us. We’re not doing so well, are we?”
They sat together precariously, silently content in one another’s presence. Despite the IV poles, oxygen tanks, and beeping monitors they felt at home.
They were, as always, two lovers still journeying together into the uncertain night.
Dr. Charles is a family physician who blogs at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles.
Submit a guest post and be heard.