Noe Valley Voice June 1998

Florence's Family Album:
A Galling Trip to The Hospital

By Florence Holub

When we were first married, my man Leo and I didn't consider spending money on health insurance, because we had no health problems. And in the following years, we produced three sturdy children whose medical requirements were minor.

Not until a decade later, in 1958, when Leo went to work at Kaiser Graphic Arts and got the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, did we begin to see the merit of comprehensive health care.

A few years later, Leo accepted a position at Stanford University and became eligible for its medical protection plan. But since we still lived in Noe Valley, we kept our Permanente coverage. That was a wise decision, because in the decades after Leo retired, our bodies began to require periodical repair work, and we found our Kaiser care to be exceptional.

For the past two years, Leo has been plagued with intermittent migratory symptoms that for a while kept his doctor mystified as to their cause. For months, all the tests kept coming back negative until, finally, a sonogram revealed a gallstone.

Almost everyone our age -- I'm 79 and Leo's 81 -- has gallstones, and they usually cause no trouble, so in order to avoid an unnecessary operation, Leo was told to come in when he experienced more severe symptoms.

The symptoms returned one weekend last December, but his doctor was off duty, so Leo waited until Monday morning. By that time, the pain was gone, so he forgot about it.

Four months later, however, the symptoms returned with a vengeance, persisting for an entire morning -- painfully, relentlessly. We phoned the hospital, and our good neighbor Angus Pera drove us to the emergency entrance of the Kaiser Hospital on Geary.

Within an hour, Leo underwent every test known to modern man. But it was the trusty sonogram that exposed the culprit: a very unhappy gallbladder! Leo was then moved to a three-bed room to await probable surgery.

I left him flat on his back, attached to a number of plastic tubes feeding him saline solution, antibiotics, and a painkiller that eliminated most of the discomfort.

The next morning, Leo's hospital room seemed like home, there were so many Noe Valley folk around. I didn't get her name, but discovered that Leo's nurse, who greeted me so warmly that morning, lived on 24th Street near Castro. And there was a man in the third bed, a graphic artist, who said he had contributed to the Noe Valley Voice!

At Leo's urging, I went to the foot of the artist's bed to see who he was. I suspect that neither of us recognized the other, but we politely pretended that we did. (So many people have worked on our fine little paper, it would be impossible to remember them all.) He told me he had created some ads that had appeared in the paper. We exchanged other pleasantries and best wishes.

Leo later told me that there had been quite a bit of excitement in the middle of the night. He'd been awakened by loud shouting coming from the graphic artist's bed. "Be quiet! Shut up!" the man was yelling. Since Leo was not making a sound and the third bed in the room was empty, he couldn't imagine who the graphic artist was talking to.

At that instant a nurse raced into the room and began questioning the shouting man. She soon solved the mystery. It seemed the graphic artist had had a dream in which he'd been attempting to subdue his dog, who was barking up an imaginary storm.

Leo was relieved to hear it was all a dream. So was I. That poor man, who is not very old, was ill with an incurable liver condition. He was under heavy medication, which, I am sure, altered his perceptions.

The next day, a new patient appeared in the empty bed, awaiting surgery for a tumor growing between his heart and lungs. Leo heard his doctor quizzing him about his history: How many cigarettes did he smoke per day? "Half a pack," he answered. When did he quit smoking? "Today," he replied.

That night the graphic artist had another outburst. This time he jumped out of bed and began jerking violently at the curtain around the smoker's bed, yelling, "Get out of there! You get out of there!" Alarmed, Leo and the smoker ran out into the hall, tubes and all. Suddenly a supernurse strode onto the scene. She was tall enough, strong enough, and diplomatic enough to handle any situation. After she had subdued the disturbed man, she asked him to explain his strange actions. Well, it was that imaginary dog again, who had crawled under the smoker's bed to hide. The graphic artist had jerked the curtain, he said, in order to drive the creature out.

The nurse soon had everything under control, so Leo and the other man went back to their beds, while the owner of the imaginary dog was taken to another part of the hospital. (We sincerely hope he is feeling better now.)

The following morning, Leo and I watched a tall man repairing the damage done the previous night. Using pliers, he bent back into shape the metal curtain hooks that had been wrenched and twisted just a few hours earlier. The smoker's bed was empty, as he had been taken to surgery early that morning.

Every day that I visited Leo, I wore my big Yes on A & J hat (promoting the de Young bonds), which served as sort of a good humor hat. Almost everyone who saw it smiled or made an agreeable comment, especially people along the corridors of the hospital.

One day, however, it was raining, which would have ruined the printing on the hat, so I wore only my badges. As I walked up 21st Street to the bus stop on Castro, the 24-Divisadero sailed across the intersection, and I let out a disgusted "Rats!" A young lady named Jill, who lived on the other side of the street, heard me and offered to help me catch the bus in her car. I accepted, and as we raced along, I was reminded of the famous car chase scene in Bullet, the Steve McQueen movie shot in San Francisco.

Up and over the hills we went. At one point Jill said, "Aren't you the one who wears the hat?" and I confessed that I was. Hat or not, we didn't catch up to the bus until Haight Street!

When I got to the hospital, an attendant who had always laughed when she saw my headgear said sadly, "Where's your hat?" I wished I'd brought it.

A day later, when the sun came out again, so did the hat, which also cheered up the two new patients in Leo's room-- one old and one young.

The following morning, a Saturday, Leo was wheeled down to surgery. For hours, I waited upstairs beside his empty bed. Then the doctor informed me that my husband was in the recovery room. The operation was over!

For the next two days, Leo rested. He slipped in and out of sleep but felt no pain, and was happy to see that our son Eric was there, too. Since Leo's original room was rather cramped and noisy, he was moved down the hall to another room, one that accommodated only two patients. His new roommate was quiet and considerate, so Leo got some much needed peace and quiet. The surgery had been more difficult than expected, so it took a while before he was allowed to sit up, then to walk.

When the tubes were removed, he was reintroduced to real food -- first chicken broth, juice, and Jello, then French toast for breakfast the next day, and chicken and rice for dinner.

After eight days, he finally came home to sleep in his own bed, and to bask in the sun on our deck overlooking a garden on a lovely hill in Noe Valley.

And to think that the source of all this trouble was a little organ that is almost as obsolete as the appendix.

That really galls me!