A Christmas story from a hospital ward

  • Article by: DAVID MCGRATH
  • Updated: December 23, 2013 - 5:33 PM

When life bounded in to the room, it found where it was needed.


I worried about Christmas. As a high school English teacher in 1981, I should have been looking forward to our two-week holiday vacation. Except that I was scheduled for an operation.


I had found a subcutaneous growth that, at first, seemed like no big deal to an invincible 32-year-old husband, father and small forward in the Tuesday night parish basketball league (good on the boards, terrible shot).

But when my wife, Marianne, proclaimed it suspicious-looking and the doctor prescribed exploratory surgery at my “earliest availability,” I found myself in the surgical wing the week before Christmas.

After counting backward from 10, making it only to 8, and suddenly waking from a two-hour nap that seemed like mere seconds, I blinked to see the surgeon leaning over my gurney: “You’re going to be fine,” he said.

I felt enormous relief, mainly for just waking up. And of course there was also the relief that the growth was benign. I had completely avoided thinking of the alternative.

Although I had to stay overnight, my postsurgical mood was buoyant. I could finally be a good patient, since I was not sick.

I didn’t even mind being wheeled to a ward where five other patients lay. It was not intensive care, but a sort of economy-class accommodation, due to the HMO to which we belonged.

But I could not get to sleep.

The patient in Bed 3, a skeleton of a man with no hair, swollen, vacant eyes and a beastlike moan emanating from somewhere in his slight sternum, kept me and the other four men tense all night.

Orderlies came in two at a time, on the hour, having to clean him up, strip and change his bed. They whispered, first with composure, later with exasperation, as his arms flailed and his moans accelerated to roars.

He wore out two shifts of nurses, though he seemed blind to their human presence, as if he were struggling with diabolical, invisible forces. I asked the patient nearest me if he knew what afflicted the poor man. He thought he had overheard it was a dying liver, but he couldn’t be sure.

Somehow, finally, I managed some shut-eye, before sunlight streaming through the window awakened me. Reflexively, I turned toward Bed 3, where the old man was silent, the electric bed raised upward, his eyes closed.

Having been cleared for discharge, I skipped the tray of breakfast to get myself ready.

When I was halfway dressed, Marianne walked in, dressed pretty, with careful makeup. Mike, my 6-year-old, held her hand.

You initially assume a kid would be frightened by the size, smell and commotion of a hospital, especially the unwell specter of my ward. But as soon as he hugged me, Mike wanted to test the rolling casters on the I.V. stand. Then he spied the remote control for the bed, his eyes peeking above his glasses for permission.

Everything a fascination.

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