Valerie Stauffer


On the Gurney


I once imagined I had the courage to face a trip to the hospital by myself. That illusion had been before the diagnosis. Now I knew I couldn’t go through surgery alone. I had brought my friends from St. Mary Mead.

I lay rigid on the gurney outside the swinging doors of the hospital operating room.  My priority was clear. I must protect my precious plastic box. From my arm stretched a plastic tube gurgling bubbles of a life-sustaining fluid. My ears were covered with foam pads connected to thin black wires that looped around my horizontal body and plugged into a sleek machine. It was no officially authorized hospital machine. I had brought this little electronic device, and I intended to keep it. From within it, came the voices that diverted me from contemplating my odds of life and death.

I had tucked my white plastic box securely beneath my pale yellow hospital gown, out of sight and more difficult for hospital personnel to confiscate although my foamy black ears fooled no one.

For the past forty minutes, my desperate need to listen to the Agatha Christie mystery had been under assault from hospital staff members. Their uniforms ranged from prestigious nursing whites to the blue garb of the orderlies who had wheeled my gurney through beige halls pungent with disinfectant. Everyone had delivered the same message.

“Can’t keep your machine when you go for your procedure, lady.” 

When cancer had been diagnosed, I’d rushed to the library and considered borrowing Surviving Cancer. It contained the information I needed but couldn’t bear to read.  Did I want to learn more about the tumor sizes and lymph node spread? And survival rates? I knew more than I wanted to know about those topics. I wandered past shelves and shelves until I discovered the audio-books. Five minutes later I walked out with my friend Miss Marple. This super-sleuth heroine of Agatha Christie’s band of delightful villagers and evil villains would keep my mind focused on a life that did not include my personal medical challenges. Miss Marple is a prune of a lady, but she would serve my purpose of banishing the real world.  A mystery demands my total attention. If I allow my mind to consider impending medical procedures, I miss the clues that identity the murderer.

In the weeks before the procedure, mass arrangements of pink roses and boxes of dark Belgian chocolate had arrived at my door, but my going-to-the-hospital splurge to myself was this $29.95 CD player. It wasn’t a model that emitted clear tones of a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue from its panel of pin-prick speaker holes, but it was perfect for my needs. My husband and children had offered an assortment of state-of-the art of MP3’s and iPods. Downloaded iTunes had been recorded for my pleasure, but hard rock, soft rock, classical sonatas or whatever kind of music on those little devices weren’t enough of a diversion to keep my thoughts under control. I could even have downloaded mysteries, but a single listen would be enough. Why spend the money when the library had a collection of hours and hours of Miss Marple for free? 

I pushed the On button of my tape player. Miss Marple was serving chamomile tea and cucumber sandwiches in her parlor in St. Mary Mead.  One of her teatime lady friends was confined to bed with severe stomach pains. The lady was near death.

On the far wall of the hospital holding room, a television screen flickered images of a golf tournament. Commentators’ voices related the emotional highs and lows of each swing.

“Please, could you turn off the television,” I requested.

“You don’t like golf?” The nurse glanced at my face and pushed the channel buttons.

Children’s cartoons, a game show, and pictures of massacred bodies being loaded into an ambulance were the choices of the hour.

“Please,” I begged.  “A lady’s dying.”

She looked at me sharply and relaxed when she realized that I was connected to my own electronic adventure tale.  She shrugged, and the TV’s battered bodies disappeared into a black screen.

“Can’t imagine how you got your machine in here. It’s not allowed. You’ll never see it again, dearie.”

 I started to tell her that absolutely no one, including my husband, is permitted to call me dearie, but I ignored that word. 

 “It’s not been easy to keep my mystery going,” I said and grinned to pretend that we were actual friends.

I snapped down on the Stop button and sighed. I was determined to continue my campaign to prevent confiscation. “It can go back on the gurney to my room, “ I explained.  At the rate charged by hospitals, I hoped I could at least have the services of a two-star hotel.

“Not the way things work here. Never know where the gurney goes next,” she replied.

I wondered if this particular gurney made any trips to collect the bodies if and when things didn’t go well.  Desperate to return to my story before I pursued that thought, I fumbled under my robe for the On button. Miss Marple chatted with her neighbors about the lady’s illness, declaring it officially a murder attempt. Everyone was under suspicion.

A green-masked face peered at me. His gown identified him as a doctor, and his moving lips and gestures to my earphones signaled that he had something to say. 

He pulled off his mask, and I saw a pleasant face with a day’s stubble of beard. I hoped he hadn’t been on duty so many hours that he couldn’t give my case his full attention.

“I’m your anesthetist.  We need to talk about what drugs I’ll be using.”

He smiled his bond-with-the-patient smile. He appeared to want my opinion. If he actually needed my advice, we were both in trouble.

“Whatever,” I said. He looked down at me for a long minute and left to prepare his brew.

I heard voices shouting behind the swinging doors.  A nurse rushed out with news, ”We’re delayed. We’ll get you soon,” she announced cheerfully and headed in another direction.  The loudspeaker crackled in static tones that a certain doctor should report to the procedure area.

Before I could consider the drama behind the doors, I focused my mind back to Miss Marple’s inquisition of the village chemist. She suspected him of poisoning her scone-loving friend. The mystery was unraveling, and I couldn’t miss a word. The suspect was answering questions in a slurred and alcoholic voice. I turned up the volume but still couldn’t hear his words.

Then the voices stopped. No cultured English tones, no cockney accents. Total silence. As the directions advised, I slapped the white cassette sharply on its side, several times for its bad behavior. Silence.  Furiously, I shook and shook my machine.

The nurse noticed the flailing of my arms. 

“Can I help you, dearie?”

“My machine is dea…   I almost said “dead” but remembered that was a banished concept.

For the first time since the cancer diagnosis, tears seeped from my eyes.

I’d lost control. 

And then another diagnosis occurred to me.  I pried out the two skinny AA batteries and polished their tiny silver heads. With care, I dropped each one back into the appropriate slot. I pushed a button and electricity surged through the connections. My machine had revived.

From the box came the calm tones of Miss Marple. She would solve the mystery. Her friend would live. Life in the village would be happy once again. 

The door to the procedure room swung open and green gowns walked in my direction. I snatched the earphones off my head. and tucked them beneath my gown. 

“Looks like we’re ready for you,” said a voice from behind a green mask.

The eyes were on my face, not my machine that I slid out of sight and hid beside the earphones. 

I was ready to go. Miss Marple and I were on the same team. We could cope.

In a few hours, I would wake and again listen to Miss Marple’s saga. The would-be murderer would be identified. He would cause no deaths. My doctor would sit by my bedside and tell me that I, like the residents of St. Mary Mead would have a healthy, happy future.