Last Thursday I had to have a routine colonoscopy. Well, I didn’t have to have one, but I had one, because everybody over fifty should. I was even a relatively good sport about it; just ask my wife.
Mind you, it’s not like I’m delighted, or even comfortable, sharing my personal medical story with the world. I’d rather not, in fact. But there’s a bit of a tale to be told.
Last Tuesday, ahead of my scheduled colonoscopy, I had to get a covid-19 test. I hoped I could do that at Northwest Hospital (now officially University of Washington Medical Center-Northwest, but it’s easier to keep calling it Northwest Hospital). It’s quite near my house, but there were no open appointment times there. Ditto for the main UW Medical Center at Montlake, across from Husky Stadium. But they could get me in on Tuesday at Harborview Medical Center on First Hill, which happens to be the hospital where they’ve been taking wounded protesters from the Capitol Hill demonstrations. Harborview’s outdoor testing site, at the corner of Terrace Street and Terry Avenue, also happens to be the one Dennis and I walked past on June 15, the day we visited the CHAZ/CHOP autonomous zone and then walked around most of the central city of Seattle. I hadn’t supposed, that day, that soon I would have occasion to be tested there myself.
Getting there was no big deal, just fifteen minutes or so from my house down I-5 to the James Street exit. Neither was the test itself. I found it as advertised: a few seconds of weird discomfort per nostril and nothing more. I chose the drive-thru option, the young lady was polite and competent as she instructed me to recline my driver’s seat, and then it was over and I went home and went on about my day. The result even came through the same day, and it was negative, which meant I could go ahead and have the colonoscopy on Thursday.
The colonoscopy itself went fine (and with a good result, I’m happy to report; apologies if that’s TMI). But one of the post-procedure instructions was to call my primary care provider if I had a fever above 100.4, and sure enough I did – but not until five o’clock on Friday afternoon, when the office had just closed until Monday.
So Jenny and I spent Friday evening waiting to hear back from UW Medicine’s Community Care Line, and when I eventually spoke to a doctor, she told me to go to a neighborhood urgent care clinic on Saturday. So I went to the one in lower Ballard near the bridge, and the nurse practitioner there took blood and urine samples, looked at the results, and then told me to take my temperature before taking my next dose of acetaminophen, and if it was still high to go straight to the emergency room. It was, so we did.
At the other end of the waiting room at the ER at Northwest Hospital sat a man waiting for his wife. He was a very normal-looking white American, maybe sixty, with gray hair, a blue short-sleeved shirt and tan shorts, and sandals. And he wore a black mask over his mouth and nose with a slogan on it in white letters:
THIS MASK IS
AS USELESS AS
I consoled myself and Jenny by noting that at least he was wearing a mask. She pointed out that if he hadn’t been, they would not have allowed him into the hospital.
The NP at urgent care had also given me a second covid test – because “Whenever you’re in a hospital setting, you might be exposed to covid” – and she had told me it would probably take several days for the results to come in. After a while the ER staff got me into a room to be taken care of, and the next thing that happened was that a nurse came in saying she was going to give me a covid test. Jenny told her that I had just gotten one a few hours earlier at the urgent care. The nurse said something along the lines of “Hmm …” and it was decided that I didn’t need another one. The first doctor I saw said, “We would only really need to know [if you have the virus] if they need to operate on you.” The second doctor – not contradicting, but complicating or enhancing, what the first doctor had said – said: “Any time a patient has a fever, we assume you have covid until it’s proven that you don’t.” Jenny and I both started wishing I had just gotten a third test within less than a week, since the hospital can see results of its own tests very quickly.
The second nurse in the ER room told me something that caught my attention: “During the surge, we were the covid hospital.” That would have been early on, when Seattle was the first epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. Northwest Hospital is ten minutes’ drive from my house, or I could walk to it comfortably in about forty-five minutes.
My fever was, probably, because I had become dehydrated from all the diarrhea they inflict on you as prep for a colonoscopy and, without going into the gory details, that brought on a urinary tract infection, something I’m susceptible to because of surgery I had last year. They decided to keep me in overnight, and they told us that, because I had a fever, they were going to keep me in “covid isolation.” But the ER doc said he would ask for my test result from the urgent care clinic to be expedited.
The nurse who was there when I first arrived in my overnight room, an older woman named Cathy, was wearing a disposable plastic gown over her clothes, gloves, and one of those transparent face shields, as well as a mask. She also had to keep my room door closed and follow a special protocol with a person out in the hallway – like the airlock on a spaceship or in some movie like The Andromeda Strain – every time she left the room. “I’m sweating,” the nursing assistant complained to her while they were getting me settled in. “Oh, I know,” replied Cathy in commiseration. “These plastic gowns are not breathable.”
It was late at night now, and I was hungry. Cathy promised to rustle something up for me from the fridge, because the hospital kitchen was closed. Eventually her nursing assistant brought me half a roast beef sandwich, a little tub of applesauce, half a pint of 2% milk, and a mini can of ginger ale. I gratefully ate and drank all of the above but then felt I wouldn’t mind having some crackers too. But I restrained myself from pushing the nurse call button just for crackers, given the rigmarole that anyone who entered or left the room had to go through. I still wanted crackers, though.
Around 1:30 a.m. when the night nurse, Lucy, brought me a printout showing a negative result for my covid test (and congratulated me on it), I diffidently broached the matter of crackers with her. To my surprise she said sure, no problem. I apologized, but she gestured at her uniform – the point being that she wasn’t wearing a plastic gown or face shield – and said, “You are no longer in isolation.” She went and brought me back several of those little two-cracker packets of Zesta saltines. Even though my isolation had lasted only a couple hours, and I was still stuck in a hospital room, I felt strangely wonderful.
Meanwhile a few miles to the south, weekend protests, arrests, and vandalism were unfolding as expected on Capitol Hill, by now almost a bleak new routine. But this weekend was just a week since the abductions in Portland had brought out the Wall of Moms. Trump’s goons had still not quite shown up here. But there was still plenty of action between the Youth Liberation Front kids and the Seattle Police: at least forty-five arrests, smashed windows, fires. The usual. Dennis, living as he does on the eighth floor of a condo tower between the freeway and the Convention Center, had texted me on Friday (incidentally, as he reported, while watching the Mariners lose to the Astros in Houston):
I fully expect a catastrophic weekend in Seattle – bracing for serious property destruction, fed intervention, and perhaps worse. Now that the hardcores are going after the West Precinct and federal courthouse – both about four blocks from here – we might be effectively trapped for a while.
He later added that he and Anne were considering making a day trip out of town on Sunday, and that sounded to me like a great idea.
Here in my own unplanned bubble away from the mayhem, as Saturday segued into Sunday, I channel-surfed looking for live coverage. Jenny and I had seen some local news footage earlier, in my room at the ER. But hospital TVs are like hotel TVs: the numbers don’t necessarily coincide with station numbers, which in this case meant that the “5” on the remote didn’t mean KING5. What I ended up finding was mostly crappy cable shit. There were promos like this one that kept coming back around:
MLB EXTRA INNINGS
3 PAYMENTS OF $30.00
GET LIVE OUT-OF-MARKET GAMES
Like I was gonna pay $90 to watch bullshit fake baseball games in empty stadiums during a pandemic.
One channel that somehow kept popping back up as I surfed was Fox, with headlines like VP TO HOST “COPS FOR TRUMP” EVENT IN PA. Another channel had a Saturday Night Live rerun, with a cast member starting a speech: “I’m Mike Pence. Many of you know me from the sentence, ‘Even if we somehow got rid of Trump, we’d still be stuck with Mike Pence.’” A Fox show had panelists ranting about Portland. One man held forth about how the protesters there were “nihilists” and then pseudo-intellectually mansplained what the word “nihilism” means. A woman said her friend Nancy, who used to live in Portland, predicted that there would be “openly pro-antifa” candidates on the ballot there in November. I quickly got the gist and cleansed my palate by watching a couple episodes of Mom on Nick at Nite.
Early Sunday morning a new nursing assistant, a middle-aged woman named Nicole, came in to take my vitals. She was chatty, and I guess I was too, so I ended up telling her about the man in the mask in the ER waiting room, and the anti-Governor Inslee statement it made.
“Oh, whatever,” she said. “Whoever it was in that position, those people would complain.”
She told me she had recently visited a friend whose husband is immunocompromised. “And I wore a mask. And she doesn’t go out a lot, but she said, ‘Masks are stupid.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I’m claustrophobic.’ But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. A lot of people just don’t think about it the way we do who work in health care.”
“I don’t mind working with covid patients,” Nicole volunteered. But many of her co-workers, especially older ones, had opted not to work. “I haven’t seen some of them in two or three months,” she said.
On Sunday afternoon Jenny came to visit me, and we spent several hours happily conversing about a range of subjects, including the life and career of Olivia de Havilland and the new book by two “royal correspondents” alleging that the real feud is not between Kate and Meghan but between Wills and Harry.
In the middle of my room’s window was attached a truncated metal cylinder maybe sixteen inches in diameter, leading to an outtake on the outside, like a giant laundry vent. I had noticed it before, but in my fevered state had only found brain space to wonder vaguely and fleetingly what it might be. Now that Jenny was wondering aloud about it, it did seem like an odd thing to have sticking through a fifth-floor glass window. So I was glad that, when my nurse arrived to check on me, Jenny grabbed the chance to ask her what it was.
It turned out it was the exhaust end of a negative pressure machine to blow air from the room outside the building, because during the early surge it had been specifically a room for covid patients, and while functioning as such its air couldn’t be allowed to mix with air in the rest of the building. “The machines are very loud,” she informed us. Learning this was sobering, because we had both been really quite flummoxed about what possible use there might be for such a contraption in the middle of a glass window. The nurse said they had been left in in case they might be needed again. There were still six rooms on this floor currently being used for covid patients, down the hall that direction, she said, gesturing. And cases in Washington were now rising again.
They kept me in a second night because I had another fever spike (short-lived, probably an effect of the particular bug I’ve got), and they needed to give the bacteria culture in my urine sample time to grow enough to help them determine which antibiotic to prescribe. I slept pretty well Sunday night and woke Monday morning feeling good. They took my temperature several times overnight, and it was normal each time. I started thinking, “What’s the catch?” The morning nurse told me all my readings and “bloods” were good. I ordered a breakfast burrito with sides of bacon and sausage and ate it, plus yogurt, orange juice, and coffee. Around eleven Dr. Osborn – nice fellow, and good at explaining things – showed up and confirmed what the nurse had predicted: I was being sprung.
In the before time – not before the pandemic, but Friday and Saturday, when I already had a fever but before I went to the ER – I had been feeling mired in that turgid sense of stasis that I’m sure many others are also encountering these days: that there’s no real point in doing anything; that whether you do the dishes or brush your teeth has no cosmic or even personal import one way or the other, so why bother; that the only events that are ever going to occur again on this planet are going to be bad ones. (Writing this just now, I flashed on Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the closing scene of The Life of Brian: “Oh, life’s a piece of shit/When you look at it” …)
But I came out of the hospital with a story to tell, maybe an inadvertent latter-day twist on what in the old days was called the New Journalism. I might be a brilliant reporter if I had contrived to “embed” myself as a patient on the very hospital floor that received the first wave of covid-19 cases in the United States. But I didn’t. It just worked out that way.
So, that was my weekend. How was yours?