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How to Care at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

On Monday, January 9th, Melissa's cardiologist determined she was having a heart attack and sent her by ambulance to Easton Memorial. There, they catheterized her, discovered two blocked coronary arteries, and placed a stent in each. Afterward, in Recovery, I was asked to run back to the house for the supplies she would need for what they were telling me would be an extended stay.

I returned about an hour later, carrying a large bag full of medicine bottles, books, magazines, and ablutions. As I approached Recovery, a light over the door began flashing blue, a honking noise erupted around me, and the hospital's speaker system started declaring “Code Blue” in loud, uncompromising tones. I stepped through the door wondering who was in trouble and saw blue surgical gowns and white coats crowding into the tiny room where my wife lay. Melissa had risen up in her bed like something out of nightmare: eyes closed, unconscious yet clearly agitated, head and upper body tossing about, monitoring tubes and I.V. jangling.

And then someone took me by the arm and gently but forcefully turned me away. I remember noticing, incongruously, a perfectly normal-looking sandwich sitting on a plate by Melissa's door.

“No,” I cried, turning back toward my wife, “I want to be with her!”

Whoever was holding my arm, still moving me along toward the exit, said, “No, you can't be here now.” And despite what my own heart was feeling, some part of me knew this was right, that these people were trying to save Melissa's life and the last thing they needed was for me to be in their way. And so, reluctantly, I allowed myself to be pulled from the room.

Out in the corridor, I looked for the first time at my escort. She was a tall black lady who, despite the smile she wore, looked worried and a little unsure of herself. “Everything will be all right,” she said. I wished she wouldn't look so doubtful when she said this, but I appreciated the smile and the gentle hold she kept on my arm. I would learn later that she was a kitchen worker who had delivered the sandwich I'd seen to Recovery just as Melissa had gone into cardiac arrest.

At the end of the corridor, a button was pushed and two automatic doors swung open. I was led into the Outpatient Waiting Room where I immediately turned and focused all my attention on the doors we had just passed through. The lady holding my arm kept saying comforting things to me, some of which entered my consciousness, some of which didn't.

At some point the tall black lady left me, but not before she asked another lady, this one also black but not so tall, to sit with me as I waited. This lady was equally kind, equally sympathetic. She was one of the hospital's valet parking attendants, but she spoke to me with all the gentleness and authority of a grandmother. She too assured me everything would be all right and, despite the fact we had no way of knowing if this was true, I tried to act as if I believed her, as much for her sake as my own.

After a while a security guard, who happens to be a neighbor of ours, passed through the room and, seeing me, took over from the parking attendant—the hand-over performed as seamlessly as if they rehearsed it every day. Ray's a big, tough retired Paramedic with a wonderful Long Island accent, but he held my hand and comforted me that day as if he'd waited for just this moment to exhibit a more tender side of himself.

Eventually, mercifully, a nurse arrived to tell me my wife was all right and that they had taken her to I.C.U. She ended up staying in the hospital for two, long weeks. She's home now and, thankfully, I can report she's well along the road to what we pray will be a full recovery.

But my reasons for writing this down here are twofold. First, I don't ever want to forget what it was like to see Melissa rising up in her bed like that, her hands grasping at the air around her as if trying to catch hold of something that might save her. My sister, who is a nurse, told me doctors call this behavior “agonal breathing,” that when the heart stops pumping blood to the lungs, the body is so desperate for oxygen it rises up as if trying, from fathoms deep, to reach the surface of some dark and deadly pool. I want to remember that because, at that moment, looking at her, I knew more surely than I ever have in my life that I cannot live without Melissa McLoud. That she is my oxygen.

But I also wanted to record here my thoughts about the care Melissa and I received at Easton Memorial. At the Talbot County Free Library we are taught to “lead from every position,” and I have always been impressed by the way library employees, regardless of station, follow this directive, serving each and every patron with respect and compassion. But the care meted out by the hospital's staff went even further than this. It was as if all involved—not just doctors and nurses, but parking attendants, food service workers, security guards—all involved behaved as if lives might very well depend upon their actions.

Which, in turn, got me to thinking it might be a good idea for all of us to work as if lives depended upon us. For of course, in a very real sense, they do. At the very least, our own lives if no one else's.

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