Tales of two nights before hip surgery

On a hot afternoon in July Harold “Junior” Bray walked around his small farmhouse one last time before it was time to leave for the hospital. Everything was in order — the coffee maker was unplugged, the windows secure and the message on his brand new answering machine informed callers that he would return their call as soon as his health permitted.

Every step was deliberate, slow and painful. Whenever he could, he leaned on something close by to redistribute his weight away from his arthritic left hip.

Harold Bray Jr.’s place was neat as a pin. Widowed for fifteen years, he ran his one-person household just the way he had run his little store. Everything was always well organized, clean and fresh. Even now, he rotated the dry goods in the kitchen cupboards, so that nothing ever went out of date.

At precisely one fifteen he locked his front door and hobbled across the gravel front yard to the car. As he turned the ignition, the gas gauge rose to FULL and the small motor started obediently. He drove exactly the speed limit all the way to Cityside Hospital and arrived promptly at three o’clock.

The woman at central registration had his paperwork, a plastic card with his personalized information embossed and a bracelet with his name, birthdate and his orthopedic surgeon’s name.

Up on the orthopedic floor, a nurse and a young doctor, an intern, assigned to Dr. Oberlin’s service, greeted him. He answered questions, signed some papers and underwent a detailed and lengthy physical exam by the young doctor, who was obviously very nervous, but Harold could tell how sincere and enthusiastic he was about being an intern.

After dinner, which was actually better than he had expected after hearing his neighbors’ and friends’ accounts of their hospital stays, Dr. Oberlin stopped by. He wore a wrinkled summer blazer and a white button-down shirt with a loud, wide paisley tie. He spoke confidently about how routine this operation would be and wished Harold a good night.

“See you in pre-op at seven tomorrow,” he waved on his way out of Harold’s room.

Harold watched some TV until a night nurse came in and announced it was time to start preparing him for tomorrow’s surgery. A nurse’s aide arrived and he was ID-checked and sent to the bathroom with special soap to shower. After he had dried off, the nurse came in with a sleeping pill. He wasn’t sure he needed one, but accepted it to be sure he had a good night’s sleep. By nine o’clock he was sleeping peacefully and when an orderly rolled his gurney into pre-op at six forty-five, he really didn’t feel nervous. He figured he was ready, and he had waited long enough for his new hip.

***

On a hot afternoon in July, Harry Bray paced the floors of his run-down little farmhouse. Opening cupboards, closets, desk and kitchen drawers, he searched for the letter with pre-op instructions Dr. Gleeson’s office had sent him. What time was he supposed to stop eating? When was it he was supposed to shower with that special soap? When did he need to be at Cityside to check in in the morning? Was it really five-thirty?

He finally found the instructions and threw himself, as much as his a sixty-eight year old arthritis-ridden body allowed any sudden movements, down in his blue velour recliner. He had managed to swing by the refrigerator and now he popped open a cold beer — after all, the sun was over the yardarm, and he definitely needed something to steady his nerves.

Harold Bray, III’s house was the same one his father had spent most of his life in, the one he had died in at the ripe old age of 88. Harry inherited it, just like he inherited his father’s crippling arthritis. He looked around from where he sat — the place was a mess, even he admitted it: Overfilled ashtrays everywhere, piles of magazines, clothing strewn about, and now drawers left open from his panic-stricken search a few minutes ago.

He lived alone, always had, and he seldom left the house. He was nervous about driving through the woods to town all by himself at four in the morning, the worst time for wildlife.

The afternoon passed slowly. He had a couple more beers, tried to watch TV, tried to get his cousin Ned on the phone and actually managed to take a short nap after his three o’clock pain pills kicked in. At five thirty he opened a can of beef stew and ate it cold — it was too hot to bother warming it up.

After he ate, he watched some TV, ate a bag of chips and finished off the beer in the refrigerator.

All night he tossed and turned, catching fifteen minutes of fretful sleep here and there. He dreamt about hospitals, about something going wrong with the anesthesia or surgery, about hitting a moose driving through the woods at four in the morning.

At three o’clock he gave up. He got dressed and almost drank a cup of coffee before catching himself — he wasn’t supposed to eat or drink anything before the surgery.

Route one was dark. One of his headlights was dimmer than the other; the plastic lens was all scratched and fogged up. His eyes kept fogging over, too as he tried to watch the edge of the woods and the yellow centerline at the same time.

Suddenly, rounding a curve, there he was — the big bull moose from his nightmare. Harry slammed the brakes and swerved to the right. The moose froze and the car slid in slow motion toward the steep ditch. Suddenly the moose turned to the left and ran. Harry turned the wheel sharply to the left. The old pickup truck groaned and bounced back in position in the road again but with an unmistakable grinding in the right front end; he was driving on the wheel rim.

At exactly five-thirty Harry hobbled through the hospital pneumatic doors, drenched in sweat, dirty to his elbows and with black rubber stains even on his forehead.

He cleared his throat as the receptionist raised her eyebrows and looked him over:

“I’m Harold Bray, III and I’m here to have my hip operated.”

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

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