My hospital roommate and I shared a room roughly the size of a laundry hamper, one with the same rumpled aspect. Separated by a thin curtain, we learned of one another’s conditions and bodily functions, although not as willing participants. My hospital roommate was an eighty-six year old woman named Valerie. Physically, much was crashing and burning for Valerie. She had a wracking, volcanic cough, day and night. She was immobile. I suspect that she had been in that state for a while, before arriving at the ER by ambulance. She’d been living alone in her home, relying on the Visiting Nurses and some local charities for much-needed assistance. Judging from my experience with my own mother—who was physically fit, but mentally not while living alone—Valerie’s middle-aged children must have been driven mad by the situation.
My hospital roommate was in pain and tormented by her ailments. The hospital staff recognized her discomfort and strove to help her, but she refused most suggestions. Valerie was only a little confused about things, but one thing was crystal clear: she wanted to die. Stuck in the back of our laundry hamper, I could not help eavesdropping as she told the compassionate doctor that she did not want to live as she was. Loud and clear. Valerie did not want the suggested heart valve replacement or anything else extraordinary. She did want to be comfortable. She wanted to go home. She wanted to die.
Valerie achieved some comfort only when asleep, a blessed event for both of us. If she woke at three in the morning, the lights and the TV would go on—she didn’t know what time it was. I tried to cope using earplugs and an eye mask, but if it wasn’t Valerie waking me, it was the staff. The staff station outside our door was noisy, bordering on the raucous. I’ve never experienced co-workers who enjoyed each other so much, especially over the second shift. Invariably, when Valerie and I both fell asleep, we were woken by vital sign checks.
My hospital roommate’s family called a meeting with the compassionate doctor and a hospice nurse. Rolling my IV pole out of the hamper, I walked the boring corridors. Up and down I walked, in a fetching costume of two johnnies, a down vest and hospital socks, trying not to stare at my fellow patients. Eventually, the family meeting ended. Immediately, Valerie was given morphine and some relief. She didn’t stop coughing altogether, but she slept more peacefully.
Feeling better and desperate to escape the hamper, I campaigned to go home, too. On my way out the door, I talked to Valerie. She did not recognize me in my street clothes, and thought I was a staff member. My hospital roommate recognized my name, though. I said, “I’m going home.” She said, “I’m going home.” I wished her great comfort and offered congratulations on her return to her own home. We both knew what it meant for her. While something wavered in her eyes, she was stoic and brave about that meaning. On my way out, I heard a nurse say to Valerie, “You have a nice roommate.” Feeling like a wretch for the times I’d wished absolutely anything would stop her coughing, I broke for the fresh air.
Post laundry hamper
Hospital roommates no longer, I still think of Valerie. I hope that she is comfortable at home. I know she’ll receive good care from the hospice people, but I find myself worrying about her. I also find myself treasuring my own vitality. I can only hope that I have the clarity and bravery my hospital roommate had, when my turn comes.