The Doctor Who Fixed Me With the Spoon Was Wearing That Smock What's It Like to Be a Ghost in a Hospital?
by STEPHANIE BARNHART
Two years ago, my sister began doing research at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and every now and then I would pick her up. While I was waiting for her, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. I was neither a patient nor a visitor. I saw patients come downstairs for fresh air and visitors talking loudly on phones. Once I saw a woman walk outside and sob. To me there few things as hard as watching the suffering of another human being and being able to do nothing about it. I wrote this visualizing myself as a ghost that roamed the hospital recording what happens. But I found that I could not completely separate myself from the people who surrounded me. This is a record of those moments of connect and disconnect.
* * *
“Montreal, Quebec. Montreal, Quebec. Quebec, Canada.” An older woman in the hospital dining area sits by herself at the table behind me. She holds her phone up to her ear. An empty coffee carton rests on the table. She tries again. “Canada, Montreal.”
It’s a little past three on a Sunday afternoon and right now, we’re the only ones seated in the sun-filled room. The cloying smell of sanitizer and IV drips is faint here. A young red-haired man in tightly belted khakis sweeps the teal and grey linoleum floor. He goes around a far table for the second time. Voices and the sound of a cash register distill into the room.
A man and woman stroll past the closed gift shop and medical apparel store. They’re wearing visitor passes. They walk with the space of acquaintances between them and enter Cravin’s Country Market & Deli. Two-pound bags of M&M’s, Twix, Butterfingers, and Milky Ways, cupcakes the size of softballs, twelve-inch frozen cakes, and jars of Nutella. Jumbo sized chocolate bars, Mars Bars, Snickers, PayDays and Reese’s Cups cover the counter by cash register. The store seems to operate under the assumption that the larger the grief, the greater the appetite. Or perhaps, that distress requires indulgence.
“Montreal, Quebec.” The older woman speaks into the mouthpiece once more. “It’s still not going through.” She rests her forehead in her palm, her face turned to stare out the windows. She lifts her head and closes her phone, turns to see me staring. I drop my eyes, then I hear her scoot back her chair, and I turn to watch her slowly walk away.
The man and woman have emerged from the store. He carries her Odwalla Smoothie and sandwich, as well as his own sandwich and cookie. They take a seat at the table behind me. I can just see the older woman’s back receding into the hospital.
“—stay at hotel or go back home?” The man is speaking to the woman. She’s pretty, red hair, a birthmark the size of a stamp on her cheek. “No, no, no,” she says, her accent Eastern European. “He needs me here, you know what I mean?” She takes a sip of her coffee through a straw. He says something in a deep voice. They pause their conversation at the arrival of a young family. The father holds the hand of the mother, who’s wearing a white robe and bright pink Crocs. A boy of four or five in a orange shirt darts back and forth in front of them. The woman’s robe exaggerates her already thin form, accentuating her shoulders and narrow waist. The man walks her to a seat in front of the store, pulls it out, and helps lower her into the chair. Her back is rigid and straight. She holds her abdomen with her hands. “Mommy’s going to sit out here,” she tells the orange little boy.
The father takes off his camouflage baseball cap, runs his fingers though his hair, and puts the cap back on. His expression is hidden behind his hat and his beard. Together, the father and son enter the store.
“Candy and burgers,” the man near me is saying. “That’s his main choice.”
“Cake and cookies,” the woman replies. “Every day, carrots and avocados and salad I make myself, and for him.”
The man breaks off a piece of his own cookie before talking. “There’s those health places in Florida. They don’t help everyone but you know, they’re hospice. They have wheatgrass therapy and raw food. But he couldn’t eat the food he was so far gone.”
The woman clucks her tongue. “Hopefully he wakes up and starts trying. But all the cookies and pie and candy bars. They’re just not helping.”
“No, they’re really not.”
The woman in the robe hasn’t moved. Feet planted on the floor, she stares straight ahead. I wonder if she looks at her reflection or at the displays of scrubs in the window or if she sees anything at all. There’s a neon handwritten poster in the window:
The Moonlight Madness Sale, Monday, April 22. Noontime-3pm, Everything 20% off *including stethoscopes!
The little boy comes out of the store to rejoin his mother. He climbs into the seat next to hers and stares over at me with big blue eyes. He turns back to his mother, and rests his head on her arms. She doesn’t turn to look at him, doesn’t move from her rigid pose. Suddenly she speaks.
“The doctor that fixed me with the spoon was wearing that smock.” She’s looking at a dark blue set of scrubs hanging in the window. What spoon, I wonder. I’m distracted by her husband’s return. He carries Lays Sour Cream and Onion chips, Goldfish and Reese’s Pieces. He hands the Goldfish to his son, and gives his wife a hand. Together the two of them walk out, the little boy racing ahead of them once more.
The man and woman behind me have left, but the man in the khakis is still sweeping. A nurse in bright pink scrubs has taken a seat by the window. She wears her shiny blond hair swept into a bun and takes small bites of a sandwich. I stare at her meticulous eating. I don’t notice the security guard walking towards her until he passes my chair.
“Soaking up the sun over here?” he says. The nurse puts her sandwich down and smiles at the guard. “Gorgeous day,” he continues, “but it’ll be twenty degrees by the time I get out of here.” His back is turned to me. He’s balding but he disguises it with a buzzcut. I listen to them talk about the weather. The guard cleans his glasses with a rag and the nurse spins her phone on the table with her index finger.
“I want to go back to Texas,” the nurse says. “But if you’re there, you need to stop in Austin. And go to Cali and Arizona while you’re out there.”
The guard says he will, and he’ll let her get back to her lunch. She smiles. He hesitates before turning around. I watch him walk back across the empty room and take a seat. He pulls out a sandwich from his bag, and takes a bite. It’ll be twenty degrees when he goes home.
* * *
On most days families loiter in the main mall, a sunlit artery of couches and chairs, interrupted at junctures by stores and cafes. But today, only an older woman sits in the plush seats. At first glance, it looks like a nice shopping mall. Except for the large signs directing you to the Cancer Center and Pharmacy, the lack of mainstream stores, the tarrying nurses reluctant to return to too long shifts, the two defibrillators, the proliferous hand sanitizers, the patients in paper gowns, the smell of burnt coffee and disinfectant.
“They’re going to do another CAT scan, to make sure there’s nothing there.” The woman’s voice carries in the empty mall. She sits upright in her chair, back like an iron rod. “No, but they’ve put him back on food,” she says into her phone.
She doesn’t pause for a response. “But he keeps asking why when you guys were here, you didn’t come into his room. I think he’s hallucinating, that’s the word.” Her left hand rests on the lidded cup of coffee trapped between her knees. She stares across the room, eyes focused on a chair.
“He keeps asking me, ‘Honey, did you see them film me here at the hospital?’ I try not to upset him, but it’s very hard when he says things like that. The last time I went to go get coffee, I came back and he asked me if I had seen the cameras.” Her voice is light and conversational, but her right hand grasps the phone like a vice.
“He keeps saying, ‘Did you see Jay?’ He’s seeing all of you kids. But I just tell him, ‘Honey, if the kids were here they’d come in.’” Her lips tighten into a semblance of a smile. “I think he’s thinking of that day you all were here.” The woman pats her white hair down. It’s cropped short, each hair in place.
“The nurses say that lot’s of times this happens to people in the hospital. And there are just so many reasons it could happen. The pain, his sugar being high, his blood pressure being high.” A man in dirt-covered construction boots passes. Each step makes a muffled thud against the carpet, and his head nods in time to the swing of his arm. He cranes his neck toward the woman, furrowed eyebrows penetrating her solitude. She gives him a warm smile, her face breaking into wrinkles.
Time unwinds. He slows his step. The creased skin of his forehead slackens. His cheek muscle spasms and the side of his mouth lifts in a near-smile. He nods at her, an awkward motion that crooks his head. She continues to smile at him. His shoulders relax and he stands straighter.
“His two girls are just awesome,” the woman says into the receiver. The moment passes and the man’s steps pick up. His feet no longer sound heavy.
“They check on him every hour or so, always in and out making sure he’s ok.” The woman stretches her neck down the hallway. The man is no longer visible. “It’s just so sad for me not to be able to say, ‘Yes, honey, I see what you see.’ The other day he heard barking. I know he thinks he heard stuff, but there aren’t any dogs here.” The woman moves her coffee to the wooden arm of the chair, her knees pressed together. She is short, compact. Seated, she seems even smaller.
“No, no going home today and I don’t know about tomorrow. I was thinking about going home myself but I think I’m going to stick here again.” She nods her head. “Yep, I’ll get a room close by and then we’ll just play by ear about tomorrow.”
With a toss of her head, the woman looks up at the crossway the floor above her. “Alrighty, honey.” She reaches out to pick up her coffee cup and moves to the edge of the seat. “Alrighty, honey. Oh yes!” She moves farther back into the chair. “No, these are just things that are happening and I just needed to talk to talk about them—“ Her voice drops and she looks down at the ground. “Yes, everybody is on standby thinking he can go home but after the diarrhea last night, I have no idea.” She says idea with an r.
“I didn’t know last night. The nurse, he might’ve given him his meds all at once. Some people can do that, take them all at once, but he’s been taking them one at a time.” On safer territory, her voice regains strength. “Oh I don’t know Jay, it could be because they let him get on solid foods too fast.”
Her voice drops again. “No, seriously, honey, if I feel you kids should be here, believe me, I’d call you.” She rubs her neck. “That’s something I said I’d never do, say everything’s fine if it’s not.” Someone begins to vacuum. “Your mother has had a good crying spell in front of three nurses.” The older woman lets out a small laugh.“Alrighty, well” she says to her son, “I’m going back up to the room to sip on my coffee up there.” She stands up with the help of the armrest. “I will,” she says into the phone.
“I love you.”
She tucks her phone into her pocket and pats the front and back or her pants with both her hands. She has everything. She picks up her coffee. Standing straight once more, she inhales deeply. She’s going back up.
* * *
A passage breaks off the main mall to the right, a capillary that opens into the sunny dining room. At the boundary of carpet and linoleum a man is pushing an oxygen tank. Connected to the oxygen is an emaciated girl wearing hot pink sweatpants and Ugg boots and a face mask. The man walks into the dining room with the gait of an former soldier, rigid posture, eyes ahead. He is young but his cropped hair is white. The girl follows behind.
Neither says a word. Instead, the man looks around the room, his eyes tight, his free arm slightly outstretched, as if someone might harm the precious cargo behind him. The girl doesn’t lift her eyes. She’s about eighteen, her shiny brown hair in a loose ponytail at her neck. She’s wrapped a giant gray sweatshirt around her like a robe but it doesn’t hide her sharp collarbones. The couple follow the linoleum path that curves around the gift shop and away from the tables to Cravin’s Country Market & Deli.
It’s some time before the skinny girl with the pink pants emerges, alone, from the store. She wheels her oxygen tank in front her. She waits, leaning against a chair, shoulders hunched, arms crossed. Except for the tank beside her, and the mask on her face, she looks like a teenager at the movies.
When the man emerges, he carries a large plastic bag. A couple of water bottles and packs of gum. No candy, no food. They slowly walk away, his hand on the small of her bony back.
* * *
There seems to be an unspoken rule: don’t interact with your fellow diners. If you do make eye contact, smile politely and avert your eyes from any malady or display of sadness.
Then somebody breaks the rules.
“How you doin’?” I look up from my book. A skinny, stubble-faced young man smiles back at me, revealing a chipped incisor. He wears an XL black t-shirt that hangs down to just above his knees; his Bruins baseball cap is twisted to one side. His jeans bag around his legs. He carries a Reese’s Cup and Mountain Dew. I think he’s going to join me. I press my lips together in a tight smile. An older heavyset woman comes up behind him. “You find a table?”
He turns to her, and very deliberately, plops himself down in a chair at the table next to me. I am in his direct line of sight. Our eyes meet. He smiles. Moments later, an older man and a plump woman in her twenties join them. They pool their collective food on the table. A block of Cabot cheese, a frappe, a cheese-stick, chocolate ice cream, Reese’s Pieces, and a Milky Way.
“He ain’t going skiing, he’ll be a snowboarder.” The man in the black shirt is speaking. As he talks, his Adam’s apple bobs. “Heh! Now that’s controversy.” He stresses the final word, crowing it like a victory. I look up. He’s smiling right at me. I return to my book. His tablemates laugh.
“You know what I love?” He pauses. I’m part of his audience. “I am in love… with chocolate.” He takes a big bite of Milky Way and holds the rest of the bar up like a trophy.
I return to my book. I hear a chair scrape. I keep my gaze on my book. The man walk towards me. He stops at the trashcan and throws something away. He bites the air in front of the older man seated at the table. The older man laughs, and swats at the younger man with the spoon he is using to eat his ice cream.
“You gonna finish that?” the young man in black asks. He laughs. “Everyday while John is making his lunch or eating, I go, ‘you gonna eat that?’”
A nurse at another table looks over. He laughs at the attention.
He’s still laughing as the younger woman starts talking. “—I like salami,” she says. It’s the first time I’ve heard her. Her bangs almost obscure her eyes. She hunches her shoulders down towards her body. The young man slams his hand down onto the table.
“Spam? I love spam!” The older man laughs but the man in black continues. “No, no,” he tugs on the front of his shirt and jerks forward to stretch his arms across the table, “I eat it right out of the can.”
“Jeff,” the older woman says,” you’re just like me. I love it. It’s real good with mayo on it too. And if you fry it!” She nods as if to affirm her opinion.
“See? Ma agrees!” The younger man, Jeff, leans back in his chair, his hands behind his head. His eyes slide past the older man meet mine. He smiles.
* * *
The nurses take their breaks in the dining room. Around 2 o’clock, the room is filled with nurses soaking up the afternoon sunshine they’ve been denied during their shifts. They gravitate to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the woods. On warmer days, some walk outside on the Albert Schweitzer Trail, a path that circles through the aspen and pine trees around the hospital. But for now, they are content with being able to make out the trailhead.
More and more nurses come to take their break. They look like they’re in their late twenties or thirties. All women. Each stops at the entrance to press a squirt of hand sanitizing foam into her hands. It is impossible to feel clean enough in a hospital. A woman in orange wipes down her table before pulling out a lunchbox.
Dressed in scrubs of all colors, the nurses make a rainbow of color. A nurse in blue pours her own low-fat Greek Goddess dressing on her salad. One in purple stretches out her Sketcher running shoes on a chair and texts on her phone. Two women, one in pink, one in tangerine, chat over lunch.
Pink sits closest, her pants stretched tight over her thighs. The outline of her bra presses against the taut fabric of her shirt. She calls her friend in tangerine, “girl.” Tangerine, Girl, is slight. She wears her brown hair piled in a bun on her head. Elbows perched on the table, she takes large bites of her pulled pork biscuit. Pink gets up, leaving her bag and water bottle with Tangerine, and walks toward the main mall. A young nurse in purple walks into the room and over to the table. She has a lunchbox in her hand.
“Hi!” Tangerine exclaims, “You eating here? Join us. Sheena just went to the bathroom.” The woman in purple scrubs looks at the two-person table pushed up against the window and down at the spread of food. Tangerine sees her gaze. “Here, let’s move right over there.” She points at the larger table near them. Together they move to the table, leaving Sheena’s water bottle, purse and notebooks behind.
Sheena comes back just as they’re sitting down. She glances at the table, empty except for her belongings, and comes over to stand at the table with the two women. “Hey, girl!” she says to the woman in blue. Her voice carries. The woman with the Greek Goddess dressing turns to look. Sheena pushes her hair behind her ear. It’s short and comes un-tucked immediately. The woman in blue smiles up at her and returns her attention to her lunchbox. Tangerine gestures for Sheena to join them.
Sheena ignores the motion, and wraps her arms around the back of the chair in front of her. She asks the woman in blue about her Saturday night. The woman in blue responds in quiet tones. As she listens, Sheena moves the chair back and forth, like a politician playing with the podium.
“—and then I just went to bed,” the lady in blue finishes. Sheena throw her head back and emits a series of pronounced ha-ha-has. Her laugh comes out loudly, the syllables too distinct. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Sheena’s eyes dart towards the woman in blue, who has ducked her head and stares fixedly at a spot on the floor. Tangerine smiles, laughs softly, and finishes her biscuit.
“Well, it wasn’t quite that bad,” I hear the woman in blue say. Sheena lingers for a couple more minutes, and then collects her things with a loud goodbye.
* * *
When I turn back into the main mall an hour later, I see Sheena curled into a large chair. She’s reading a stapled packet of documents with yellow tabs that mark the pages. She looks smaller. She hunches her shoulders in on herself and folds one arm across her stomach. Without her large smile to hold it up, her mouth sags.
At the elevators, I stab at the upside down triangle that refuses to light up. A “ding” announces the arrival of the car and the doors fold back to reveal a thin scraggly bearded man in his twenties. Protruding Adams apple, black backwards baseball cap, black hoody. It’s Jeff, the man from the other day. The one who loved spam, chocolate and making me uncomfortable. I’m already in the elevator before I make the connection. I smile politely but he’s not looking at me. His eyes are lowered and he plays with the drawstring on his hoody. When the elevator stops at level two, he hurriedly steps off, only to slink back on when he realizes it isn’t the ground floor. An embarrassed smile flits across his face.
When the elevator comes to a rest, he tarries in the corner, allowing me to get off first. I hear him behind me, sneakers scuffing across the carpet to the automatic doors, out into the frigid air, twenty degrees, and onto the pavement away from the parking lot. I can’t hear him anymore. A dry rush of wind bites through my sweater as if to expunge the stale air of the hospital and the cloying smells of sanitizers and fresheners. I feel clean. I breathe deeply.
My eyes take in the matte grey sky and the vivid green forest. The pine trees loom over me waver in the wind. I follow the split in the sidewalk to the trailhead, a rectangular metal plaque that marks the two trails that split off behind it. It reads:
“The deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life…and that we are all united in this life.” -- Albert Schweitzer, M.D.
* * *
I’m still thinking of these words as I get in my car. As I drive around the final bend to the parking lot exit, I see Jeff in his black hoodie.
He leans against a white Ford SUV, out of the wind. As I drive by, he turns to the car and starts picking at something by the window, a black silhouette against the dusty white. Then I’m gone.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.