Last Tuesday morning, Craig complained of a stomach ache that didn’t feel like an ordinary stomach ache. Right away my mind went to “appendix” and though Craig was reluctant at first to admit that this might be the case, after spending a few seconds on WebMD, he was convinced–based on the location of the pain (lower right abdomen)–that appendicitis was the most likely prognosis. And so it was that we hopped into a car and drove to the closest emergency room at Kaiser Permanente on Sunset.
Actually, I thought I’d dropped Craig at the emergency room but I really dropped him two blocks away at the wrong building, so as I searched for parking, our possible appendicitis victim had to navigate his way to the emergency room himself.
Once there, things happened pretty fast (at least they did, at first). Craig went into a screening room where they listened to his symptoms and took his blood pressure. From there, he was formally admitted and shown to a room where he put on a hospital gown, a white bracelet with his information on it, and an IV dripping a saline solution was injected into his hand. (Squeamish about needles, Craig almost fainted.)
Soon surgeons came in and felt Craig’s abdomen. They said there was an 85% chance that it was appendicitis and they gave him three choices: (1) wait a few hours to see if the pain worsens (if it was just a pulled muscle, as Craig worried it might be, the pain wouldn’t get any worse); (2) do a CT scan to know for sure (that would involve drinking an iodine solution and waiting an additional 4 hours for the results); or (3) go right into surgery where the doctors would open him up laparoscopically, look inside with a camera, and if the appendix was inflamed, they’d remove it.
The surgeons thought option 3 made the most sense and so did I; Craig came around to that conclusion too. One surgeon said, “Great…you’ll be in surgery within the hour.”
That was at 11:30.
Soon they needed Craig’s room for a heart attack patient, so they wheeled him into the hallway. And there he stayed for a few hours as word came that a more important surgery bumped his. While in the hallway, Craig and I read our books (me: “Brideshead Revisited,” Craig: “Adventures in the Screen Trade”) and soon, as often happens, I got hungry.
Craig, of course, couldn’t eat pre-surgery. I quietly excused myself (we knew his surgery wouldn’t happen before 4 and it was now 1:30) and made my way to the hospital cafeteria.
There’s a quiet energy about a hospital cafeteria that’s certainly unique; a respectfulness and a solemnity unusual for most places where people eat. The overriding mantra seems to be: “We know most people here are going through a tough time with sick family members, so let’s keep things mellow.”
This philosophy applies to the food too. It’s not food that’s meant to dazzle or even nourish; it’s food that’s meant to comfort.
And so at Kaiser Permanente, there’s a sandwich station, a pizza station and a grill. At lunch, I decided to go for a sandwich and ordered a simple tuna on whole wheat:
There’s nothing special about this sandwich and yet, eating it there in that hospital cafeteria, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort that, in Craig’s pre-surgery moment, I valued. I’m sure the same is true for others who escape visiting loved ones in hospital rooms for a little peace and solace in this quiet room.
Back to Craig, who wasn’t hungry at all pre-surgery, we were eventually transfered from the hallway to a room upstairs. And there we continued to wait, Craig now in a hospital bed that folded up and down, watching unmemorable shows on T.V.
At 7 PM, his pain not any worse (a key factor, probably, in why they allowed the surgery to be postponed so often), a man came to wheel Craig into surgery. I was there when the man wheeled Craig out of the room; I was there in the elevator as we rode down to the surgery floor; and I was there when the man told me where the waiting room was, as he wheeled Craig off to the operating room.
This is where things felt intense. It’s true that an appendectomy is a pretty standard surgery, one that happens all the time all over the country. But when someone you love is wheeled away into a room to be cut open and where there’s a tiny chance, however faint, that something might go wrong, you begin to worry.
This being the dinner hour, I returned to the cafeteria and this time I visited the grill for something hot. It validates my theory that hospital food is meant to comfort rather than nourish that the menu at the grill was by no means healthy: hamburgers, cheeseburgers and onion rings were all available. I settled on a grilled cheese:
It may not look like much, but with a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and a fountain Fresca, this took my mind off things. It was a simple pleasure that made this unpleasant moment in life more bearable.
Feeling replenished, I returned to the waiting room where I was joined by Craig’s aunt and uncle, who live in Topanga Canyon and who made their way down to check in on Craig.
The surgery took 2 hours and 15 minutes. The surgeon, who was supposed to talk to us when the surgery was over, never came out; we had to pester the person at the desk for updates. At last, we were allowed to see Craig who, post-surgery, was puffed up on happy gas and delighted at our presence.
Craig’s aunt and uncle left and I soon joined Craig back in his room where he drifted off to sleep. I went home that night after midnight and collapsed into bed myself.
When I returned the next morning, I found Craig gobbling away on the food that you see at the top of this post: cereal, a crepe-like thing, oatmeal. The man was hungry.
And sore from surgery. But alive, thank goodness, and able to go home a few hours later.
Retrospectively, it all feels a little silly to have worried so much about such a routine procedure. But in the moment itself, as the fear set in, I was grateful for that quiet escape into the hospital cafeteria. It’s not the kind of place I’d ever want to return to out of context, but in the moment of crisis, I was glad it was there.