The Iron Curtain

This post has been in my head for almost two months. I’ve known what I wanted to write, but I’ve needed to get some distance between myself and the events described here before I could actually put pen to paper. I should also offer a little caveat emptor. These stories are toward the darker end of what’s been published on this blog. If you’re sensitive to that sort of stuff, you may find what follows upsetting.

Hospitals make strange bedfellows. That’s not to say that they make you share a bed with someone. That would be uncomfortable, and probably very unhygienic. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that hospitals make for strange roomfellows. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

In my most recent (and final) stay at the hospital, I had two roommates. The first was strange, though not particularly exciting. He never spoke, but his family (two women—I think his wife and sister) was convinced the hospital was guilty of some sort of vast conspiracy (not to mention grave malpractice), spanning months if not years of this man’s treatment. They complained, loudly and ceaselessly, about this injustice, constantly denigrating the doctors, nurses, and technicians who periodically slipped in and out.

After a few days, he was moved to another room. Apparently in addition to their frustration with the medical establishment, the two women were very unhappy about the loud noises emanating from my side of the room (sometimes late into the night). Since I was barely conscious for the duration of this roommate’s time in my room, I must lay the blame at the feet of the kind folks who visited me in the hospital. If you did, you should know that meant a tremendous amount to me, even if I appeared catatonic at the time. You should also know that you were excessively boisterous and drove a sick man and his family to their wits’ end. So again, thank you.

Before I relate the story of my second roommate, I should note that technically speaking I had three roommates. After the conspiracy theorists’ departure, I briefly shared the room with a man and his genial, talkative family from (I think) Morocco. They were warm and quite pleasant, but had apparently intended to settle in a single, so they hung around for a few hours before moving into new, capacious quarters.

The next day, my second roommate arrived. He was a wizened, graying man, his face haggard, his voice rough and trembling. When I first saw him, I guessed him to be in his late 80’s.

Many of the patients in my ward were, like myself, young men. Worn down by weeks or months of chemotherapy (and often invasive surgery), they all had that dusty look in their eyes, obscuring the little flashes of light one associates with youth. Yet despite the obvious toll treatment had taken on them—despite their bald heads, their gaunt faces, those tired eyes—these men retained an ineffable sense of boyishness. They were sick, yes. But they were, if you looked closely, still quite young.

My roommate was not, it turned out, in his late 80s. He wasn’t even in his 70s. He was 64. A year older than my father. He appeared to have been robbed of two decades of his life.

That first night, his doctors ordered an MRI. He was wheeled to the imaging center and returned an hour later, climbing ever so slowly into bed. As I wrote earlier, I spent most of my nights at the hospital tossing and turning, beset by stabbing pains in my abdomen and stomach. That night, as I lay in bed, I heard this man moaning across the curtain. For what seemed like hours, he moaned, suffering his untold agony. He called for a nurse and she came to check on him. “Not calm,” he said. “Not calm.” She hung a bag of a common sedative and left him alone. But the moaning continued.

In the dark, I heard the rattling of a pill bottle, then a gulp. For obvious reasons—legal and medical—patients admitted to the hospital are expressly forbidden from administering their own medications. Every drug you take—even acid reducers or other over-the-counters—comes from the hospital pharmacy, with approval from your doctor. But here this guy was, downing his own stash of sleeping pills, desperate for relief from whatever was plaguing him.

In the morning, I opened my eyes slowly, trying to avoid the blinding sunlight flooding in through the window. I was groggy and still exhausted, so it took me a moment to get a grasp on my surroundings. It was time for rounds, and behind the curtain a group of doctors was speaking to my roommate. Perhaps they’d been with him for a while, but the first words I heard them speak were these: “Your test results came back. It’s spread. You have lesions all over your brain. The treatment is 10 days of radiation. We need to begin tomorrow.” My roommate had no response. And with that, the doctors ambled out of the room, off to see their next patient.

What do you say to a stranger condemned to death?

I was only an accidental witness to this man’s prognosis. Had we been separated by a real barrier—not just a curtain—I wouldn’t have heard what the doctors had to say. Nor would I have heard first his silence, then his muffled tears.

As the day wore on, the man’s family began to arrive. His younger son, his wife, maybe a cousin. I lay in bed, listening to this family confront the unconfrontable.

In the Histories, Herodotus writes of the horrors of war, reminding his readers that, “No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.”

Since antiquity, then, we have understood how unnatural it is for the old to watch the young die. This happens in times of war, but also in times of peace.

This man, of course, was not a son, but a father. That his son would come to bury him was not itself an inversion of the natural order. It was sad, not strange.

What was strange—and what reminded me of that ancient quote—was the conversation between the man and his son. We expect a father to be a source of strength. To offer wisdom and guidance to a son. But here, it was instead the son, at his father’s side, striving at 23 to conjure up sage advice for his father.

Despondent, depressed, probably in some excruciating state of suffering, the man seemed uninterested in the course of treatment prescribed by the doctors. The son begged him to remember all he had to live for. “There’s Danny’s wedding,” he said. “And so many bar mitzvahs. And Rebecca, when she gets married.” The man said nothing. “You have to be there. You’re going to be there. We have so much to celebrate. And we need you to be there.” Still nothing.

A son pleading with his father to stay with him, to see through the pitch darkness a reason to live. That seemed to me as unnatural as a father burying his own son.

I can’t get that scene out of my head. I didn’t even witness it with my eyes; I only heard it. But in my mind, I can see the son, bent over a hospital bed, trying to project his words with confidence and composure, but his voice unmistakably raw and, over and over, cracking.

In my months of treatment, I was exposed to a whole new world (not the kind in Aladdin). It was a world full of vomiting and nurses and fear and confusion and sick people. That world is familiar to many—anyone who’s been sick or known someone who was sick. And almost any medical professional. But for me, never having seen that world before, it was surprising and disorienting.

Sickness is a surreal and terrifying thing. When you experience it—but perhaps (and I can only guess) more so when you witness it.

Having been sick, I think I have some understanding of sickness. Not by any means a full grasp, or even a good grasp, but an inkling. But sickness is not death. Death (and this, of course, is a true blessing) I know nothing about.

To be in the room as this man and his son reckoned not just with sickness, but also with death was stranger, sadder, more unsettling than any experience I can yet remember.

Perhaps I should have thanked G-d for my good fortune, that despite the searing pain in my abdomen, despite the sinking terror that my operation had gone wrong and I would die, despite the crushing depression and exhaustion of my then-young recovery, I was very much alive, that I didn’t have to remind anyone why it is that life itself is worth living. But I didn’t feel fortunate. I just felt sick to my stomach. Wondering if that searing image might be forgotten.

Of course, it couldn’t be.

So from the outside, maybe the vomiting, the overwhelming enervation, the frustratingly slow pace of recovery seemed like the worst part of this whole ordeal. But this was worse than all those things.

And yet, even though I can’t forget that scene, it has faded in the past six weeks.

So I’m left with this memory, like a scene from a dusty print of some ancient horror film.

And I was just lying there. I wasn’t the man’s son.

6 responses to “The Iron Curtain

  1. I, having been there for much of the day unfolding, heard this man’s plight and his family’s reaction…I was most struck by a few conversations that I overheard, because there was no way not to. Aside from finally realizing that HIPPA is a useless waste of time if they are going to keep 2 patients in a room, my thoughts as I listened have left a lasting impression on me. In fact, I remember feeling so intensely about it, that when I returned home late that night, I had to call my parents to speak to them. I needed them to know that my experience being in the hospital with you, and with so many others had changed me.

    Upon the arrival of the first son, the father said “How did you know to come?”
    Son: “I got a call and I was told to come, so I came.”
    There didn’t seem to be a question in his mind. He was told to come and be there, and he did.

    What also struck me was the following description of his illness from the family in conversation with the Dr. To summarize, the man had cancer in his kidneys and had been treated for the cancer. A month before he had an MRI and there was no sign of anything, especially in his brain, but he quickly started to seem depressed, and it wouldn’t go away, so his family brought him back to the hospital. It turned out that his depression was the result of the lesions, and their location in his brain. They were causing him to feel this way.

    Listening to this story, I suddenly knew in a way I never understood before how intense and scary and unpredictable cancer can be. There is some degree of predictability, some path that cancer can take, but it has a way of taking randomness to a new level. It strikes unpredictably, it responds unpredictably, and it can take everything from you without remorse….I couldn’t imagine being an oncologist, trying to make sense of the chaos. I was, as you described, intensely unsettled listening to what was unfolding in the room, and I can bring myself right back to that feeling just by thinking about it, his situation and his family trying to help….as the man cried audibly…and then I heard a female family member in an attempt to the comfort man say “Hashem does not bring us things we cannot handle. You have had a wonderful life. You have beautiful children and grandchildren. You need to think about your blessings.”

    Always remember your blessings.

  2. Raphael – you are in our prayers.

  3. the meanings of hospital experiences always tend to be overestimated in the beginning – then like everything else, they fade out. if you have 5 minutes, i’ll share you mine. the summary is: we can hate even when the reason and the morale command pity.
    i broke a leg more than 5 years ago. stupidly, slipping on ice, on a flat sidewalk. i ended by spending a couple of weeks in the hospital – surgery was needed, and a couple of titanium screws. nothing compared to chemotherapy.
    anyway. the first night there, i was on a stretcher, in a 20-bed room packed of other unfortunates, men and women. the whole aisle was overcrowded – statistically, all the hospitals see peaks and lows in the number o patients, but due to the black ice in those days, this feet orthopedics section had an exceptionally high peak.
    so i lied in pain, on the stretcher from the emergency room, as there were no more free beds. and a couple of feet away, and old man, also with a broken leg. he was not just old – he was fat, and fully clothed, in thick winter rags. not a homeless, but obviously a wino, some poor peasant bastard, fat and thick like a log. and stinking. because he was drunk, and also because obviously washing was not a habit for him. he was there for almost 24 hours, until he was released upon his own request, after a lot of fuss, and after a long night of whining and attempting to leave his bed, and with no sedation possible until his alcohol intoxication passed.
    well, i hated that bastard’s guts, and everybody else in that large, crowded room did. i was feeling pretty bad myself, and all i needed was a stinking hog like him next to me.
    i don’t think there’s a deeper meaning in all this than the one i already stated. i’ll always remember the ‘life’s an orange’ joke of ‘one night stand’, told on his dying bed by the character played by robert downey jr. so, what does that mean? ‘i don’t have a f*** clue’.
    anyway, if you take a look to my blog, it’s with that broken leg that the whole home office has started. so when life gives you lemons, it’s just a way of tricking you into buying sugar to make lemonade.

  4. A tragic story and dark no doubt, but beautifully told – if the word beautiful can appropriately be used here.

    Unfortunately, I’ve had far too much opportunity to spend in hospitals in my life – mostly as an observer, rather than patient. The human misery, pain and suffering you’re witness to there can make you feel helpless and hopeless. It proves we truly have no control over what happens to us. What we can control, however, is how we choose to deal with the time we have been given. We spend far too much of it concerned over wars and conflict than giving peace and counting our blessings. Your story has certainly helped me remember mine.

    Thank you,


  5. Raf-
    Being an observer in someone’s tragedy (not sure that’s really what I mean) is always unsettling. I have found it very difficult, if not impossible, in all my years as a practicing physician, help someone else see the silver lining in what life has dealt them. All we can really do is commiserate, whether aloud or silently, and hope we are able to see the silver linings in the hand we are dealt. All the platitudes–you know, the window open for every door closed, make lemonade…every cloud…are true, if we can let ourselves see opportunity and find the courage to travel that road…..

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