by Nancy Johnson
The words fly down the hospital corridor like precision missiles homing in on Maggie, their fleeing target, piercing her on impact.
“Keep her away. She’s abusing me!”
Maggie presses palms against ears as she escapes her accuser, the screeching woman in the corner room.
Indifference is everywhere—in lab coats, with stethoscopes, or arms laden with flowers, moving with unflinching eyes, looking ahead or downcast, but never back in the direction of the desperate cries—the wails just white noise in their daily routines. Only one person, another patient, looks with any concern towards the screams.
This isn’t the mother Maggie knows. She’s never been stark, raving mad before. And growing crazier by the minute. It must be this place.
Every one of Maggie’s arthritic bones had resisted when the call roused her from sleep three nights back. “Your mother” and “emerge” were the only words she could make out over beeping alarms and blaring loudspeaker messages in the background. Her mom insisted she could handle everything, but this was the fourth call in a month from the hospital. This time Maggie found the tiny claustrophobe strapped in a wheelchair in the middle of the chaos.
“Save me,” the struggling prisoner had cried as Maggie unlashed the restraints from feeble wrists.
“She complained of chest pains, but vitals were good.” The young nurse glanced at patients, mostly elderly like her mom, in stretchers lining the walls. “Waited quietly for six hours,” she said, and Maggie raised her eyebrows. “Then she erupted.”
It was another hour before the meagre, middle-aged doctor showed up. “We can’t have commotion like hers in here,” he said, hands on hips, not looking at her mother, now on a stretcher in a fetal position.
Seriously? Maggie took in the pandemonium around them.
“Besides, it’s bad for her heart. I gave her something. Should’ve worked by now.” He beckoned an ambulance attendant. “I’m transferring her to cardiology across town. They can give her more when she gets there.”
“Demons!” her usually delicate mother shouted as they wheeled her away.
At first, Maggie was relieved at the spacious room they gave her mom when she arrived at cardiology, so different from the congested mental and medical wards back at the main site where they usually stuck sick, old folks. They needed to be somewhere, but cubby holes and closets? And the original terrazzo at this place still shone from decades of care, not urine slopped like the hallways cluttered with stretchers of frail elders back in the ER. Yet . . .
“It’s been three days. Where’s the cardiologist?” Maggie looks down at the woman behind the nursing desk.
Maggie knows now she has to get her mother out of here. The surface bustle seems better organized than the commotion in emerge, but it’s become clear that the callous undercurrent connecting every other part of this hospital system flows here too.
“She’s gone. Another one’s doing rounds tomorrow.” The nurse doesn’t look up from her mounds of paper.
Though the wall around this woman isn’t visible, it’s there, just like the walls around so many workers Maggie has met while shepherding her mom through the health care maze. But there are cracks. Like with the nurse slumped over, crying in the ER washroom the other night. As soon as she saw Maggie, she snapped bolt upright, her face an instant mask as she’d brushed past on her way back to the bedlam on the other side of the washroom door.
“Show me her chart.” Maggie is curt. She’s spoken to this woman several times, but for the first time she really looks up and Maggie sees eyes that are chocolate with fuller lashes than her own or any other middle-aged woman she knows.
“Actually, you can, and you will. I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Have it ready.”
A nervous chill flushes through Maggie as she turns away. She doesn’t know what to do with the chart even if they give it to her. She never could decipher the illegible scribbles she’d peeked at along the way. But this trick from the overloaded, patient ombudsman had worked another time her mom had been given the runaround. “Ask to see the chart,” he’d said, and when Maggie did, within minutes doctors and nurses materialized from nowhere. What if they actually give it to me this time, she worries as the elevator doors close behind her.
This compact cafeteria lacks the clatter and clang of the one at the big site across town. More like a quiet lounge with cushioned chairs, it’s a welcome refuge from the whirl of blending her accounting practice with mothering teenagers and battling for care in a broken system.
The coffee is tepid. She wishes it were rye instead. She could use a shot, or six. Breathe, she thinks and looks up at the art hanging beside her table. Another Indigenous print. They seem to be everywhere across the hospital, vibrant illustrations of teachings from elders. Like this one, a brilliant blue circle with animal figures symbolizing values like humility, courage, and respect. Maggie smirks. Why can’t health care follow the lead of so many cultures and respect our seniors? Do they not get the twisted irony of hanging these artistic messages above ailing, old folks writhing on stretchers in crowded hallways?
“Bed blockers,” a friend had told Maggie over lunch. “The name for anyone over sixty needing hospital care. I found out the day after I got ‘old,’” her preternaturally spry friend had said as she signed quotation marks in the air. “Happy sixty, one day—shingles and emerge the next.” The fading rash was still visible on her forehead. “You know the first form they gave me to fill out? A ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order. Since when has shingles been life-threatening?”
Maggie’s gaze lingers over the symbolic circle on the wall beside her. Imagine if the truth of that print was what really flowed through this system. She looks at her watch. Time’s up.
The elevator reopens to the nurse pacing between the desk and a phone on a shelf beneath another vivid image from a founding nation artist, this one a silhouette of a grey wolf baying against a luminous, full moon.
“The medical director wants to talk to you,” she says from a face pinched in worry. Maggie takes the phone.
“What the hell is she doing over there?” a man’s voice barks.
Maggie holds the phone away from her ear. Bold first words to a daughter of someone whom the hospital considers a customer. Does he bully his underlings like this? She catches the eye of the nurse, who is trying to look like she is back at her pile of paper.
“How the hell should I know? You’re the one in charge,” Maggie replies, the nurse’s frown disappears and her mouth curls into a half smile just before she looks back down to her files. “They shipped her here from ER three nights ago. To see a cardiologist.”
“That shouldn’t have happened.” This time his voice sounds tired. “She’s a frequent flyer in emerge. Has dementia.”
“Well, she didn’t have it last week. Got a lifetime achievement award at a microbiology conference just two months back. Then, three nights ago, it was like a switch went off. Now she won’t let me near, screams I’m abusing her. And maybe I am for letting this go on as long as it has. This isn’t my mother, and no one here seems to give a damn.” Maggie fights to keep her own decibel level down, lest they restrain her too.
“Sounds more like delirium,” he says.
“Tremens? I thought that was from substance withdrawal. She doesn’t drink, so it can’t be that. And the only drugs she gets are from people like you.” Maggie wonders if she’s gone too far.
But as Maggie’s ire flares, his seems to fizzle in direct, opposite proportion. “No, just delirium,” he says. “Mental confusion, emotional disruption. Triggered in frail, old people by constipation, urinary infection, abrupt changes in setting, medication.”
Maggie hangs her head. How could she have forgotten that time they got her mom’s diagnosis and meds wrong? “It’s like someone is scraping the colours off the inside of my brain,” her mom had slurred through a confused haze. When her mind was clear again, which it had been until three nights ago, she’d warned Maggie to always keep an eye on what they prescribe.
Now Maggie is kicking herself, recalling the little ER doctor looking down his nose at her—quite a trick given that he only came up to her chin. “I already gave her something . . . they can give her more,” he’d said. Maggie grits her teeth at the memory.
“It’s the meds,” Maggie says in a muted voice.
“You have a medical degree?” he flashes. “It’s probably something else. I’ll check her chart when they bring her back here.”
“Her chart’s right in front of me.” The anger is back in Maggie’s voice. “The nurse can tell you what she’s on,” she says, thrusting the phone at the nurse.
It can’t be more than a minute before Maggie has the phone back. “That’s a pretty high dose sedative for her age and size,” the doctor says. “I’ve changed it, ordered lab work. She needs to come back to this site. Ambulances are backed up, and this is no emergency. Probably won’t get to her till after supper.”
“Won’t moving her again just agitate her more?” Maggie asks, but he’s already hung up.
Maggie settles in a plastic chair at the far end of the hallway from her mother’s room, just as the woman wearing her mother’s body—no longer screaming—emerges with a thin, hospital blanket flung about her shoulders like a shawl. And then it begins, as the woman she used to know as “Mom,” flounces up and down the hall, gesturing with dramatic flourish to anyone looking, like an actress on an imaginary stage.
Maggie does her best to hide in the folder of work she’s brought, but it’s hard not to peek and wonder where the dignified, accomplished professional she knew has gone. The brave woman who raised her and her sister single-handedly, who always found time to bake with them or snuggle together watching old movies. Maggie longs for the scent of fresh cookies, for the warm sedation of that woman’s embrace, not this chill of distance from the stranger promenading before her.
“May I sit here?”
Maggie looks up at the eastern European accent to the lone person who showed any concern this morning, a slight man her mom’s age, with a dense wave of white-flecked, grey hair. His robe is the same slate, lightweight cotton that every patient is in, yet he manages to wear it like a dressing gown on a star in an old black and white movie. All he needs is a cigarette holder.
“Please,” Maggie says, removing her jacket from the chair beside her.
“You visiting someone?” he asks.
“My mother. She’s been waiting three days to see a cardiologist. Now they’re sending her back to where she started, the site across town.” Maggie is careful not to look at her mom and reveal her supporting role in the drama playing out in front of them.
The man sighs heavily. “Is not a very good hospital. Is bad for old people. I bring my wife here a lot before she died.”
Two food carts roll off the elevator.
“Must be your supper time,” Maggie says.
“I’m not in a hurry to eat that,” he smiles.
“Funny,” Maggie says. “I read the hospital says one reason for hospital overcrowding is that people try to get admitted for the food.”
His eyes narrow and fix on hers with an intensity that makes her shift in her seat.
“Seriously. I could show you the article.”
He waves the offer away, shakes his head. “Everything, even toast, is brought here from three hundred miles away,” he says as her mother sashays down the hall, bowing and curtseying to passing visitors, every turn of the head, every snicker another stab at Maggie. “And they still say is ‘food’ when it gets here. People only come here if they are sick. Or lonely or scared. They want a safe place, not hospital dog food.”
No sooner is he finished when, from the corner of her eye, Maggie catches something unthinkable. Like a reluctant witness to an impending train wreck, she turns slowly to the scene unfolding before them, hoping it isn’t real. But her mother, smiling broadly, strutting with wide flourish down the centre of the hall, does it again.
She stops, parts her patient robe, and bares her naked chest to another man she passes. Maggie bolts from her chair.
“Mom, no,” she cries, and reaches out to rewrap the bony frame in the flimsy garment.
“She’s kidnapping me. Save me!” her mother shrieks and slaps at Maggie as she stumbles to flee.
Maggie freezes in place while three hospital staff race towards them. A harried looking woman says over her shoulder, “It’s okay, dear, we’ll take care of her,” and they hustle her mom back to her room.
Damn this place. Damn her mother. So much of life consumed by this madness. Why is this my job? I can’t fix this, plays over in her mind as she slinks back to her chair, her head drooping like a chastened child.
“Crazy old bat belongs in a nuthouse,” she laughs nervously, glancing at the gentleman.
But the shrill scream from her mother is a light poke compared to his daggers.
“This your mother?”
His tone douses the fire in her face and an icy cold seeps into her belly.
“Children should respect parents. She cannot help what she does.” His stare bores through her.
When he finally turns away, memories flood Maggie’s mind in a torrent—her mother’s face when their father closes the door that last time, proud grins and “You can do anything” after every game and recital, colleagues’ accolades, the kids’ bounding to greet Gramma. Later, her subdued “Okay” to Maggie’s “I’m busy, don’t know when, Mom.” And more recently, her stalwart “I can take care of myself,” followed by a cascade of hospital scenes.
Maggie and the man sit with a dam of silence between them. Some time passes before two buff, young ambulance attendants arrive on the floor. They bring her mother out, sitting up in her stretcher, smiling, primping her hair and fluttering her eyelashes at them and anyone nearby as they wait to take her away.
Just as the elevator doors open, the elegant elder beside Maggie rises, walks over and grasps her mom’s hand in both of his. “Good luck, beautiful lady,” he says, and she smiles back as they wheel her in.
“The kindness of strangers,” are her mother’s last words before the doors close on Maggie.