Hospital from Hell

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 11, 2021 # Health

You read about bad, understaffed, incompetent hospitals every day in the newspaper, especially in this Age of Covid, but like going into combat, you don’t get the full effect until you’ve experienced one first-hand.

Here’s my bad hospital story.

I usually serve time in a very good hospital, but for reasons too boring to recount, I had to spend five days in a hospital from hell. It was both eye-opening and nerve-rattling. This was well before the COVID crisis, so understaffing and poor care couldn’t easily be written off. This was just a community hospital straining to keep its collective head above water. I left the place thinking that this must be like a lot of hospitals in America that serve the poor and uninsured, hospitals without top-of-the-class physicians or private endowments or university affiliation. These hospitals rarely show up on TV shows. The audience wouldn’t find them entertaining.

This unnamed hospital had been around for a while and maybe seen better days. I was checked in for surgery on my foot and throughout this phase, everything seemed completely kosher. I was then transported to my regular room. It was a shared room, as were all in this facility, but it was pretty roomy and had a wrap-around curtain for each patient, so I rolled with it. A nice old fellow in the other bed waved politely and then went to sleep for the next eight hours. I couldn’t play the shared 19” TV on the wall, but since I could barely see it, I’d just stare at the ceiling until I too nodded out.

It took a while for a nurse to show up, and it was clear that she was new on the job. In fact, she had just graduated from nursing school the week before. She had been given no instructions re my care or med regimen and had no mentor at her side for guidance. She had no mentor, period, she said. She was on her own and felt very jumpy about it.

I never saw her much after that first visit. She had a dozen or so other patients she also didn’t know how to deal with. I immediately got the picture. In a seemingly chaotic situation like this, staff turnover was high and institutional memory was low.

Big deal. I happened to bring my own meds,and as long as she dropped by to change my surgical bandage once a day, I was cool.

The old-timer in the next bed got up in the early evening, dressed, waved goodbye, and left—no fancy check-out protocol forhim. The dinner meal came and went –I don’t even remember it –and just as I was settling in for a goodnight’s sleep,a scrawny, half-dressed street denizen with a wobbly gait, clearly on something, was escorted in by two uniform cops and told to put on a gown and get in bed. The cops waited around to make sure he didn’t make a run for it, then left.

That’s when the fun began. Five minutes later my slightly demented roommate was sitting on his call button and screaming non-stop for someone to come. He was in agonizing pain, he bellowed, and was going to die if someone didn’t give him drugs right now. I’m lying there, three feet away, not knowing if he was actually dying or just really, really unhappy. I even hitmy own call button as a precaution, but also got zero response. This went on for maybe an hour –I kid you not –until he grumbled to a stop, turned on the TV at full volume, and started watching the Home Shopping Network. Angora sweaters were on sale.

On the other side of the curtain, I asked him politely to turn the volume down a few decibels, but got nothing back. Then, at about two am, two men in suits came in to chat with him. They could have been plain-clothes officers or drug lords, but their chat soon became a high-pitched volley of argument and insults, the gist of which I never could decipher.

I’d finally had enough and shouted across the divide to please pipe down, they weren’t the only people in the room. Two seconds later, a man the size of Bobby Bacala ripped the curtain back and told me to shut up and mind my own business. I really had no recourse –I was paralyzed, surgically compromised, and trapped –so I just buried my head in the pillow. A few minutes later, the two mugs left and my roommate went back to the shopping channel. The final insult of a long sleepless night was when Roomie, stark naked, bumbled and lurched right past my bed on his way to the single bathroom and soon lurched back, mumbling incoherently. Nice middle-class crip that I am, I was offended by both the sight and the smell.

I forgot to mention that throughout this night and the three others that followed, there were patients constantly screaming and cursing up and down the floor. It was like the soundtrack to the classic 40’s insane-asylum movie, “The Snake Pit.” A couple of more nights and I would have joined the howling.

I finally escaped, more or less unharmed, but the late-night vision of that undernourished naked guy, bumping against my bed frame and snarling, will live in my brain forever.

Two addendums: this was no tragedy, just a distasteful, unsettling 120 hours. No one cut off my leg or removed my liver by mistake. Two, it’s an example of the health bubble I and millions of us live in. We are pampered like children and our only complaint is that our morning eggs are rubbery. My hospital hell would have been hospital heaven in Rwanda, not to mention East St. Louis.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.