I could understand the distressed look of the nurse at Mercy Hospital and why she abruptly departed. Mercy now had definitive information showing they had a patient in the surgical unit with Covid– a fox in the hen house, an assassin in their midst, a poison pill, a nuclear time bomb. If I were in the nurse’s shoes, I would have felt the same way. Over the past two years Covid has devastated hospitals, depleting staff, causing burn out, depression, despair, and even suicide in some instances. The loss of life of so many innocent people has been traumatic. Suffering has been endless. We all know this. It has been horrible. But at last, hospitals have gotten the pandemic more or less under control thanks to vaccines, therapeutics, rigorous masking, and an ironclad protocol: no Covid patients except in Covid wards. Good for the hospitals! They have figured it out and have come through it.
But not so good for an alledged Covid patient, sitting alone in an emergency room, who had just witnessed a nurse tip toe out his small room in anxiety.
About an hour later the surgical team arrived. Two or three doctors or surgical assistants followed the surgeon. The first thing I said the minute they entered the room was, “I don’t care what the test shows, I do not have Covid!”
The entire team paused and scrutinized me, pathetically lying on my stretcher tethered to a post holding tubes to my wrist and my nose. They looked all business and focused. I was bracing to hear the verdict, “I am sorry, Mr. Howell, but we have no choice, we have to discharge you.”
I could see myself tossed out into the parking lot, shivering, trying to figure out what to do next. However, to my surprise, the surgeon quietly replied, “We know you don’t have Covid, Mr. Howell. Don’t worry. We will get you through this.”
“Halleluiah!” I moaned quietly.
They briefly talked quietly among themselves and departed. As they left, the surgeon said. “I will see you in the OR at 3:30.”
“Whew.” I sighed, “Dodged a bullet!”
I had been admitted late the previous evening, and though it had gotten off to a rocky start, I had put to rest the Covid issue figuring it was done and over with. So, Day 2 turned out to be a pretty good day. Embry arrived just after the surgical team had departed, and we had a quiet day together in the tiny, windowless, ER patient room, waiting for a real hospital room to open up. At 3:30 she accompanied me to the staging area next to the OR where they performed an exploratory colonoscopy, the first of two procedures, to try to figure out the cause of the BVS. When I came out of the anesthesia, the surgeon cheerfully said that the procedure had gone well and had not identified anything to be concerned about. She admitted she had fears about colon cancer. That was the good news. The bad news: no culprit yet for the BVS. She said she hoped the next procedure scheduled to happen in two days would shed light on that—a laparoscopy, where she would make several small incisions in my stomach and go in with a scope to see what she could find in the small intestine.
Following the colonoscopy procedure, I was pushed up to the fourth floor of the main hospital where I would have my own room, 4019, a decent-sized room with a small window overlooking the Fore River, one of the main estuaries emptying into Casco Bay. So far so good.
Unfortunately, this would not last for long.
Thursday, Day 3, got off to a bad start when at the main entrance around 10 in the morning Embry was denied entry to see me. She was told that no one under any circumstances would be allowed to visit the patient in Room 4019 except authorized personnel. She protested to no avail. I do not know what nursing staff had to say about the situation but gather there was some uneasiness about violating rigid hospital Covid protocol. I could have hollered every time I saw one of the brave nurses that entered my room, “No! No! No! The test was wrong! I do not have Covid,” but everyone who entered my room could not have missed the huge sign on the door that said something like: “Strict Quarantine, No Admittance Without Authorization. Covid dress protocol required.” Whom to believe, me or the hospital?
Anyone entering had to be fully clothed in protective gear—cap, gown, gloves, shoe covering, double N95 masks, and a face shield. One of the nurses complained that it took over five minutes for her to put all the gear on and almost as long to take it off. This explains in part why no one dropped by just to check on me from time to time as nurses typically do. They did not have the time to suit up. It also explains why when I was forced to hit the call button every so often, it was a minimum of 15 minutes before a figure in a hazmat suit timidly would open the door.
Now to put this pitiful picture into perspective, it could have been a whole lot worse. I had a splendid view from my window, and there was a small tv set with something like 300 cable channels, one of which was broadcasting the U.S. Tennis Open. The only problem was that the sets were so small it was very difficult to see the names of the tennis players or the score of the game. All this would have been manageable, however, except I had no idea when I was going to be liberated from this solitary confinement. I am a pathological extrovert and a claustrophobic. I could endure isolation and boredom but only for a while; and not knowing what was going to happen next or when the isolation would end sent me into a tail spin, inching toward a panic attack. I noticed a white board with instructions where there was a space for the nurse’s “care plan for the day.” I lurched toward the white board with a black magic marker to scribble “get me outa here!” The tethers held me back, only inches out of reach.
The highlight, if you could call it that, was a brief visit by a shy, young nurse I had not seen before and whose presence brightened the day until she looked at me and commented in a kind but firm tone,” You know that you are putting us all at risk.”
“But I do not have Covid!”
But it says so on the door, and everyone knows it. This is a surgical ward.”
“Well, I am having surgery. I have had one procedure and I have another tomorrow.”
“But you have Covid.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. It says so! Look at the door.”
The conversation was getting nowhere. This was when I demanded that they give me another test.
She turned her back and exited, not giving an inch, but a few minutes later another nurse showed up and swabbed my nose for a second PCR test, telling me that if it was negative, they would let me know within the hour. One hour passed, then another. I assumed the worst.Then the night nurse showed up around 8:00 PM and casually mentioned when she was taking vital signs, “Oh, by the way, the second PCR test came out negative.”
I refrained from shouting, “I told you so!”
Then she added, “But you are still subject to quarantine protocol. No visitors. No exceptions.”
That was when I demanded to see the CEO of the hospital.
The first thing the next morning, the CEO did not show up but the director of all the nurses did; and if I had had my say, I would have promoted her to CEO. She was kind, empathetic, supportive and understood why I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately, the conversation got off to a bad start when she said that while the second Covid test, which was negative, proved what she knew all along, that I never had Covid during my stay, hospital protocol required a second negative test after another 24 hours before the quarantine could be lifted and that until I was cleared, the no-visitor policy had to be strictly enforced.
I lost it. “You know I don’t have Covid. The doctors know it. The second test proved it, and you are telling me I still must remain in isolation because of some idiot policy of the hospital?” Trembling, I told her that this was unacceptable and would surely result in my transfer to the Psyche Ward.
She nodded, managed a sympathetic smile, apologized for the policy, and agreed with me. In departing she said she was immediately issuing an order to allow Embry to join me.
Embry arrived in my room mid-morning, and we waited around for the second procedure, a laparoscopy, which was supposed to happen at 3:30 but was delayed until 6:30. The good news was that the procedure did not reveal anything serious and did provide a clue as to what was going on, which could be corrected by surgery, which will happen once confirmed by a second opinion, when I return to DC.
I was discharged from the hospital the next morning—Saturday, September 5th, my fifth day in Mercy Hospital.
Happy ending: I made it to the last two days of the family reunion and am now doing fine, a week following the procedure. Embry is off to the “Stans,” and I will return home in a week.
Kudos to the fabulous surgical health care staff in Mercy Hospital! In the Covid Era, the hospital doctors and nurses are the heroes of our time.