Photo by Michael Comeau
Hurricane Irene bared down on the East Coast, while my mother was in the Vent Unit of Staten Island University Hospital, on a respirator and recovering from her second abdominal surgery. Located in South Beach, designated Zone A, the hospital faced mandatory evacuation. A team of medical personnel, including her surgeon, the Director of the Vent Unit, and the Vent Unit Manager, entered my mother’s cubicle. The Vent Unit Manager, usually unflappable, looked stressed as he explained to my father and I that the hospital had to “move seven hundred beds.” “Where will she go?” my father asked. “Probably Brooklyn,” he replied. “Maybe New Jersey.” When they left, my mother was on the verge of tears. Her biggest fear during her months of hospitalization was being separated from her family, especially my father.
Suddenly struck with an idea, I bolted from the cubicle. Pursuing the team into the hall, I stopped them with, “Excuse me!” My mother was a rehab patient at Silver Lake, I reminding them, and asked if it would be possible for her to be relocated there. Presenting a logical case to these men of logic, I reasoned that her familiarity with the facility would make a very stressful situation a little less stressful. My father approached as I was explaining that she chose Silver Lake in the first place, because it was close to home. Lending his support, he reiterating what I had just told them. “I’ll see what I can do,” the Vent Unit manager said, making a note on a paper, and then they proceeded down the hall. “Thank you,” I called after them.
Arriving by car at the hospital the next day, ambulances lined the length of the facility. The evacuation had begun. Stopped at the crosswalk, we waited a long time, before finally inching our way through the steady stream of pedestrians. At the parking lot tollbooth, a helicopter, taking off from the nearby heliport, passed by so close, your instinct was to duck. We circled the lot until finding a spot, and then hurried toward the hospital, to the bleating of sirens.
Not yet visiting hours, the doors to the Vent Unit were opened wide, so we entered. My mother was safe in her bed, though she looked terrified. We tried to comfort her, promising that we would remain by her side throughout this ordeal, until the paramedics finally came for her. When we asked where she was going, the Vent Unit manager replied, “Silver Lake,” like he thought that was understood. This was a big relief to everyone, and put my mother at ease as they loaded her onto a stretcher and hooked up a portable respirator.
The admission of a patient into a nursing home facility is an all-day procedure, which mostly involves waiting in the hall. “Will she get a room?” I asked the nurse, concerned that they might be filled to capacity because of the emergency. “She’ll get a room,” she replied. By the time my mother was settled into her bed, it was night, and the wind had picked up as the storm neared. Even more unsettling, her stomach appeared to be swelling.
Monitoring my mother’s stomach had become an obsession. Following her first surgery, adhesions formed in her intestines, resulting in a blockage, leading to a second surgery. It could happen again, they explained. During recovery, or ten years from now. Or it might never happen. Everyone is different. When my father and I discussed it, our tone implied that it was life and death.
As the nursing home facility battened-down, assuming that any remaining visitors were going to wait out the storm, we were told there were blankets available downstairs. By then, my mother’s stomach was distended so that it appeared uncomfortable. When it reached this crisis point, typically she was “sent out,” rushed by ambulance to the emergency room, where her stomach was pumped, a CT scan taken, fluids administered, a course of action planned. But where do you go when the hospital is closed? Imagining the worst, and dreading my decision to have her relocated to a nursing home facility instead of a hospital, where she could receive the acute care necessary post-surgery, I decided to call her surgeon.
Inside the nursing home, my cellphone had sporadic service. So, despite objections from the front desk, out into the storm I went. Situated in the hills of Brighton Heights, it felt like the top of the world, the trees swaying violently, as I paced in front of the building, detailing the facts to the surgeon’s answering service. The operator repeated the information back to me in a mechanical voice that only added to my frustration. “It’s an emergency,” I said. “I don’t know what else to do.” After hanging up, I stood there, listening to the wind, hoping for an answer.
When it became apparent that the surgeon wasn’t going to call back, my father and I located the Nursing Supervisor, and explained the situation, pleading with him to pump my mother’s stomach. He was reluctant, saying that the facility wasn’t equipped for such a procedure — reading between the lines, it was less a practical issue than a matter of liability — but given she already had an NG tube in place, we were finally able to persuade him. “It’s my first night as supervisor,” he admitted, the corners of his mouth betraying the slightest grin. The pump was hooked up, and a small amount of green bile drained from my mother’s stomach. By morning, her stomach had returned to a more normal state. Feedings were resumed, which my mother tolerated without complication. Outside, Irene raged, but in the light of day, it didn’t feel quite as threatening.
That afternoon, as my mother slept, my father became concerned about the family home, and wanted to see if there had been any flooding in the basement. With Irene’s force diminished, we drove across the island, avoiding toppled trees and downed wires. Climbing the front steps of the house, my father paused to pick up a shingle, noting that it wasn’t from our roof. Walking through the house, I couldn’t help but feel my mother’s absence, even though my father had done his best to keep everything just the way she had left it. The basement was dry. As my father checked the water pump, I looked around at the shelves, where many of my childhood possessions were in storage. Instinctively, I grabbed my old Prince Pro tennis racquet. I played high school tennis. I hadn’t held my racquet in years. It felt good in my hand. I took it with me.