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Vital Signs

Nothing like a few days in hospital to refresh--at least revise--one’s usual view of the world. The hospital world of repair, renewal, rescue, of injury, illness, the breaking and broken, the sinking and the sunk is unto itself, connected here and there but essentially cut off from the world of busses, bakeries, borrowing, and earning. It’s thousand technicians, doctors, interns, nurses, cleaners and transportationers inhabit the bright, immaculate corridors and labs, concentrating on their complex occupations, almost in the center of which--the “almost” can become a problem--is oneself. In the tiny den of one’s self-manipulable hospital bed--television, lights, and sometimes nurses at one’s finger--one is visited day and night by technicians who take and retake one’s “vital signs,” by interns, residents, and doctors who tap one’s chest, feel one’s glands, listen to one’s lungs and heart, ask and re-ask questions about one’s susceptibilities and habits (“Are you diabetic?” “Do you take any street drugs?”) and discuss one’s condition and its possible causes and remedies.

No private rooms available, I was curtained away from two successive roommates, men decades younger than I but so assailed by difficulty that I felt a prince of health. They were diabetics, blind, they beshat themselves and were in diapers, but each was far more alert than the doctors who raised their voices addressing them. They were ironic, funny, skeptical, contemptuous of the attempt to treat them as children or morons.

The first of my two nights, I couldn’t sleep. There was every sort of noise, loud-speakered summonses to nurses, television chatter, the intrusions of the pursuers of vital signs. The second night, my doctor prescribed a sleep-inducing drug and I awoke hours later amazed that nighttime had been annihilated. Finally, but two days in, the joy of having the doctors of my two teams (one was the hematologists debating the cause of my anemia) concur in discharging me. I was “transported” in a wheelchair by one of the good-spirited transportationers to the be-winged entrance where my wife waited with the car. And then the oddly unfamiliar but oh-so-welcome world of streets, houses, trees, CTA buses, and cars where I’ve spent most of the last half century.

It was the Monday before the Pennsylvania primary where my brilliant neighbor, Barack Obama, was trashed and trounced by the almost madly driven wife of the great political performer who, but weeks before, had my allegiance, admiration, and affection. In my own bed, fed the food I loved, I broke off the endlessly repetitive commentary of MSNBC and watched my beloved Cubs play the kind of baseball that sees them in their division’s first place. I then read a few more pages of War and Peace, which I was reading in the hospital, more astonished than ever by its fascinating human strands beautifully, magically interwoven. (Daniel Mendelssohn, otherwise writing well about Herodotus in the New Yorker, foolishly compares his wildly, uncontrollably restless pages on the rise and fall of Persia to Tolstoy’s powerfully, subtly assembled masterpiece.)


The luck of being home with anything material I could want. Now and then, though, one’s heart half-broke watching and hearing stories of thousands being foreclosed and thrown out of theirs or, worse, of hundreds of millions over the planet with nothing to eat, their gorgeous huge-eyed babies wordlessly begging that they might live a few more less tormented days. Malthus, Darwin, the gurus of demography, their predictions inscribed on the tragic human faces and swollen bodies. Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama, one of whom would soon have the sort of power which might extend, alter, and even brighten at least some of these existences, subtly and not so subtly trashed each other and demeaned their otherwise superior selves. “What,” the thought came to me, “if Tolstoy himself were president? How much would that alter the world? Or would he succumb, one way or another, to the world’s assembled greed and hatred?”

Still, the Cubs and Tolstoy’s book eased my easily easable spirit, and I slept without benefit of medication.

--Richard Stern