02 August 2009

Ah, but I was so much older then . . .

When I think back on it, it seems that a good deal of my younger life was concerned with, or at least references, the wards and floors of the University of Michigan Hospitals. Just as I might tell you about walking down a street in Buffalo in the winter, and expect the place name to elicit a certain set of connotations and images; telling you that this or that happened on 8-West or 6-East gives the story, for me at least, an atmosphere that it could have no where else.

Moving from one floor or ward to another was also a kind of rite of passage, and meant I had, with luck, become a bit more mature. Since we didn't move to Michigan until I was almost six, and my first hospitalization wasn't until I was seven, I started out on 6-East.

The main section of the hospital was built like two 'Y's joined at the base, and at each end the arms of the 'Y's angled out forming the wards. At the end of the arm was a large room called the sun porch. The three outside walls of the sun porch were filled with large windows, and on most wards the room served as a TV/Reading room. On the ward proper there was a window between each bed space, and there were no TVs until the late 1960s.

6-East was for kids roughly between the ages of two and ten. What was one cavernous ward on the other floors was, on 6-East, divided up into rooms, and all the interior walls were glass from stretcher level up to the ceiling. Each room could hold from one to four beds, and the sun porch had another five beds. 6-East was also different in as much as the nursing station was in the center of the ward on the left side instead of where the two arms of the 'Y' came together.

While they tried to keep each little room reserved for either boys or girls, there was occasionally some intermixing. No matter what the gender of your roommates, whatever privacy you got was provided by long curtains that could be pulled around your bed space. What most people forgot was that the privacy afforded by the curtains was purely visual. Sounds were heard by everyone.

The sun porch was the place to be. It was bright and sunny, at least when the world was, and you could easily watch what was going on down on the ground. It also had a television. The walls between it and the main ward were solid, and people weren't walking back and forth to other rooms staring into your room all the time, and because it was somewhat distant from the nurses' station, and had those solid walls between you and the rest of the ward, you didn't have as much, shall we say, supervision as you did in the other rooms. At least when Miss Hibbler wasn't on duty.

Miss Hibbler was a short, somewhat plump, ancient woman probably in, at that time, her early 50s. Along with the standard white nurse's uniform she always wore a rubber apron. She was, I believe, an LPN (for the life of me I can't remember the color of the stripe on her cap), and seemed to have more control of the day to day operations of the ward than the head nurse. She had a slight German accent, and a militaristic briskness about her that kept us kids in line far better than the scoldings of the other nurses.

Parents, including my mother, were usually a bit afraid of Miss Hibbler. She came across to them as stern and unyielding. Interns and residents were totally terrified of her. If they did something less than brilliant in her presence, or even when she was nearby, she would tear into them like a terrier with an old sock. Many years later I was talking to a Simpson Fellow, and somehow her name came up. He had had dealings with her when he was a third year student and intern, and all he would say was you didn't want to do anything dumb on her ward. We kids knew, however, that as long as we followed her surprisingly few rules, under that sergeant-major gruffness hid a very mischievous little girl.

Once, during a rather long hospitalization, my mother smuggled in a pet chameleon we had at the time. She had several hard plastic purses, and had taken one and drilled air holes in it. The lizard looked pretty calm about being in this strange place, but Mom was a nervous wreck. The first thing she asked me when she came in was, "Is Miss Hibbler on today?"

I said, "Yeah. Why?"

"I brought something, but if she see's it she'll probably kick me out of the hospital." Then she brings that purse out from behind her and shows me what she has done. "Is she near."

I could see down the hall. "I don't see her. I think it's her lunch time."

Hearing that she seemed to relax, and opened the purse. She had just taken the lizard out (it was only about 8 inches long) when we heard, "Vot is dis!" Mom immediately started making about a hundred excuses and reasons why she had to bring it up to see me, but I don't think Miss Hibbler listened to any of them. She just waved them aside with a "Yah, yah.", and then leaning down to my Mom very conspiringly she said, "You let me borrow for a few seconds? Okay?" Mom said something like sure, but what for, and Miss Hibbler just said, "It will be all right. Just listen for the squeal," and she took the lizard down the hall.

About twenty seconds later we heard a woman scream like they do in the movies. Orderlies, interns, student nurses, and visitors all ran to the nurses' station expecting to find a severely wounded woman. What they found was the head nurse frozen rigidly upright with a little green lizard peeking out of her collar. Now Miss Hibbler was not crass, and she didn't laugh uproariously or anything crude like that. She simply said "I like your necklace. It matches your eyes und goes well with your bright red cheeks."

"Take it off me!"

"But of course." She reached down the back of the nurse's uniform and gently brought out the lizard. "Where did you get such a thing?" There were no recriminations, and Miss Hibbler did not get into any kind of trouble, but it was several weeks before the head nurse would turn her back on Miss Hibbler again. When the lizard was returned to Mom, Miss Hibbler said, "He is a nice little lizard. Bring him back, but maybe you should wait a little."

After 6-East came 6-West, which took in kids from about eleven to fourteen years old. Like the adult wards, there were no partitions on 6-West, and there were nine beds down each side. There were still bed spaces on the sun porch, but these were only used when the ward had too many patients. Unlike the adult wards the wards weren't separated by sex. The left hand arm, as you cam to them down the main hall, was for surgery cases, and the right hand ward was for internal medicine. Girls filled the beds down the left side of each ward generally, and boys went down the right side. Again there were the ubiquitous bed curtains providing at least visual privacy.

The first thing that happened when I got to 6-West was it changed its name. The hospital complex was built on a hill sloping down away from the street in front. If you came in the Outpatient Building you had to go up to its 5th floor to take the passage over to the Main Hospital's 1st floor. And since the Emergency Room was on the 4th floor, people were already a bit confused by the layout. So to give some kind of consistency to the whole mess, buildings were renumbered using the Outpatient Building as the base. Floors in the Main Hospital that shared the same level as the Outpatient Building had the same number.

This meant that instead of 6-West I was now going to 10-West. The cafeteria was now on the fifth floor along with admissions, the cigarette/magazine stand and the door. There was no first floor. The dreaded Contagious Diseases Unit was now on the eleventh floor instead of the seventh, and the school and recreation departments had moved from the 8th floor to the 12th by staying put.

Aside from Miss Wyles, an RN who occupied a fair number of my private thoughts when I got a little older, the person I remember best is (was?) a nurse's aide named Anna. Anna was a Polish lady in her thirties. Her build was more farm maiden than vixen, and she kept her hair in a very short kind of bob. She always worked the day shift, and most of her time was spent making our beds, and making sure we got washed up and dressed. (Unless you were practically dead, you put on hospital issue clothes every morning. Jeans and t-shirt for boys and a simple dress for girls. In the evening everyone put on pajamas.) She had an absolute phobia about dirt.

Because I was always in there for bleeding somewhere, usually my knees, I was always on bedrest. Before breakfast either Anna or a student nurse would bring me a basin of hot water, pull the curtains around my bed, and tell me to wash up. Some of the student nurses would ask if I needed help, but Anna would just say "Get clean." Naturally, I would then squish the soap and wash cloth enough to make the water cloudy, and then read comic books.

About once a week Anna would get fed up with my lack of diligence. If the hemorrhage was really, really bad she would scrub me down in the bed. I was always surprised I had skin after those cleanings. But if the hemorrhage was only kind of bad she would pick me up, and take me down to the bath room. I would protest the whole time, saying I was on bedrest and wasn't supposed to be out of bed for any reason. She would put me in the tub saying, "You stink. You can go back to bed when you don't smell."

We had heard stories about a ward that was for teenagers, and had guys on one side and girls on the other, and only a nurse at a desk between them at night; but when I was admitted for a hemorrhage when I was 16 my libido suffered a severe shock when I was sent to an adult, all male, ward. Apparently the teenage ward had been closed for a variety of reasons, some of which had to do with teenage libidos.

On the adult floors each ward was for a different specialty (orthopedics, internal medicine, hematology, etc); and the left hand arm was the female ward and the right hand arm was for men. There were eighteen beds on each ward, and the numbering started with the first bed on the left on the female ward and went clockwise around the ward, and then continued in the same manner on the male ward so that the bed on the right as you entered the room was #36. Hematology, along with Dermatology and Urology, was on 8-West.

My favorite bed was actually #36½.

#36½ was the space usually taken up by the linen cart, and was only used when the ward was already full. It was against the front wall on the right as you entered the ward, and while you had a little less floor space, you had a lot more privacy. People tend, in my experience, to look to the left when they enter a large room. Plus they don't look directly to the side, but at an angle so even if they are looking to the right they are looking at the guy in bed #36 and not #36½. It may not seem like much, but when some guy's wife, mother, and great-aunt come trooping in at 7:15 in the morning you are grateful for anything that keeps you from being looked at.

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