The TV showed the Cubs game while Joyce and I waited. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon, and the Cubs were playing a day game at Wrigley. I couldn’t recall who was pitching or who the opposing team was – I was too preoccupied. I glanced up at the screen. It was always the same shot: the camera behind the pitcher watching his windup, the release, and the outcome. It was regular to the point of being below consciousness. Whether the batter hits a home run or strikes out, it doesn’t matter. The pitcher keeps pitching. The catcher keeps signaling. The batter keeps batting.
All of us in the ECM group were nervous. Pacing, talking excitedly, quietly watching the game. I could feel it, and I was the same. There was some patient waiting behind some white curtain somewhere down the hall, and she’s going to realize what a fraud I am the minute I walk through the door. This white coat hides nothing. I realize I’m no diagnostician; I’m not supposed to be yet. But even on an interpersonal level, how was I supposed to make the patient feel at ease about disclosing information when I wasn’t at ease with myself?
Finally, Joyce and I got the call. We went to a room and there was no one there. The woman had apparently dashed into the washroom just as we arrived. That just gave Joyce and me more time to agonize and wonder aloud which questions we should ask and which are off limits.
When she came out, we introduced ourselves. Her name was Mrs. X. She was about 5’2″, African-American, and in her 50s. When I made eye contact with her and shook her hand, I began to feel better. Hers was a singular face instead of a malady, an expression of warmth in her smile instead of a petroleum jelly-encased corpse that I had been so used to seeing and smelling.
We immediately got onto the subject of why she was in the hospital. She wasn’t bed-ridden, and she seemed to have some energy about her. The clues were making me curious.
She had asthma. Her first attack was in April of 1992, while she was walking to her home on West Division. Suddenly, her breathing became labored. She started worrying, and the worry made it worse. She tried walking home, but she could hardly walk, much less breathe. With much effort, she finally made it home and was lucky enough to have her sister there to call 911. She was taken to the emergency room and diagnosed.
Though neither of her parents had it, many of her brothers and sisters, and their offspring have asthma. One grandson lives with her, and he has it. We asked Mrs. X if the boy was old enough to know what it meant to have asthma. She replied that he knows to the point of reminding his grandmother to take her medication, and he knows the consequences of when she doesn’t. Mrs. X isn’t old or senile or forgetful. But it is hard to remember to take six different medication at specific times of the day.
After her initial diagnosis, her doctors put her on medication. It didn’t work. After the first time, she began having attacks with frightful regularity – once a month. She would be at home and could tell when the attacks were coming. At first, she would ignore them, hoping they would go away on their own. But the attacks would progress to the point of constricting her airways so she couldn’t utter anything into the mouthpiece of the phone when she called 911.
She would return to the emergency room. Not only the second time, but each month thereafter. The physicians prescribed more medication to combat the illness and even more medication to combat the effects of the medication given. It didn’t help. And there she was sitting in front of Joyce and me, eight years later and in the hospital for the exact same reason.
I was amazed. This isn’t baseball. Baseball is about regularity, but it is also about punctuations: pitchers need only three strikes and three outs and nine innings once every five days for nine months. They go home at night. They forget about the game. They grill steaks and drink Coronas and play with their kids. But Mrs. X must live her entire life knowing that an attack is in the near future. Her whole world has had to change. She was forced to give up a job at which her employers were asking her to stay. She has regular appointments at the UIH Outpatient clinic every two weeks. Outside of that, she stays at home most of the time. And even in her house, she is not free. Because of the amount of dust that would be kicked up into the air, she has to call in someone to vacuum. And the oxygen canister is always close by, just in case.
All this, and she was incredibly upbeat while talking to us. She has bad days, and she has good days, she said. But she also has a strong support system. Social Security provides for her transportation to and from the clinic, as well as an air conditioner to keep her comfortable in the summertime. Her family and her church check up on her and help her out. Much of her family lives on the South Side, and they are soon planning on moving closer to her. And even though other parishioners tell her to take it easy at her Jehovah’s Witness Church, she still goes out on those “good days” to go door-to-door extolling the virtues of her faith.
After realizing we had lost track of time, Joyce and I got up and said our goodbyes. After hearing her tell her story, I wished her well; judging from her disposition, I believe she already is.