Helpless!! Or, The Price of a New Knee

On September 10, a Wednesday, I reported to St. Peter’s Hospital here in Albany for surgery to replace my right knee that had gotten very tired after 70 years of faithful service and was demanding to be put down. I remember feeling not much anxiety over the prospect, probably because I approach anxiety-producing events in my work life as a criminal lawyer by focusing, like an old horse wearing blinders, on just showing up on time, be it at Court or a hospital’s cutting room. Three hours later I woke up in a hospital bed, an IV tube taped to the back of my hand. What did I feel? Nothing, that I can remember, probably owing to the Oxycontin in the IV.

At times like this (flat on my back in a hospital bed) I immediately remark on whether I have company, other suite mates. This is a hangover from my years as a New York City Patrolman, I’ve no doubt, like in restaurants having to sit facing the front door. There were three of us. The fellow nearest the door (I assume a male although I never did see his corpus) was continually out of sight, enshrouded by those movable curtains around the bed. But we could hear him moaning until the day he was no more, curtains pulled back revealing a freshly made bed. Whether he had a miraculous recovery or moaned his last, I don’t know, never asked, in the conviction that too much knowledge can be bad for you. The other half of “we” was the old white guy in the bed across from mine, with a wife visiting daily. He looked like my picture of an Upstate farmer: a weather-lined face, big hands and ropey-muscled build. I don’t remember what he was in for, if I ever knew. What I do remember is our mutual hallucination.

It all started when I hobbled and careened off furniture this night to get to the bathroom. It had been the equivalent of receiving a Great Mitzvah from above to be able to get to the bathroom rather than have to pee in a bottle. I don’t know about you but the thought of being immobile in a hospital bed scares the beJesus out of me. This night, I made it to the bathroom eventually, but later started to slide down the wall behind me as I stood at the sink to wash my hands. The ultimate danger--- the height of ingratitude, I’d been warned by staff — would be to flop down on my spanking new knee. But collapse in a slow-motion slide to the floor on my ass couldn’t be that big a deal, I reasoned. Luckily, I could reach the ripcord on the wall next to the bowl and summoned help. Two big guys came pretty quick and hoisted me to my feet and shepherded me back to bed. Naturally, this event caused a lot of drama that attracted a crowd to our room.

The next day, my roommate shared with me, sotto voce, his take on what had transpired the night before. A big man with a gun had taken a shot at me while I lay on the bathroom floor, he informed me excitedly. I pondered that briefly before responding that the bullet had missed. As he was still tethered to his Oxycontin drip, I saw no point in appearing a know-it-all. Interestingly, about a month later when we were both home, he called me (we had exchanged numbers in that flowering of the bond that often forms between guys in miserable straits) and repeated the gunman story, adding the detail that I lay bleeding on the bathroom floor when the shot was fired. This time I did suggest that the source of his visions might be the Oxy drip. He sounded unconvinced so I let it go, appreciating how we all like to hold on to a good story. As for me, no visual hallucinations from Oxy. I merely knew and was tortured by the fact that I was both the Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer in a case where somebody’s life hung in the balance and I couldn’t prepare for trial the next day because I couldn’t stop watching reruns of Law & Order on my rented TV. As soon as I got off the Oxy, I got off the case.

There is one other thing of paramount importance to the hospitalized: Bowel Movements. Indelicate to bring up, perhaps, but the staff inform you that you can’t go home until you have one. Apparently, the anesthetic they pump you full of in the OR puts everything on hold. On the fourth day of my lying-in, I lost all inhibitions and asked the nurse for help. Actually, in my Post-Op state, I dispassionately noted, I had no inhibitions: couldn’t care less if whosis saw my whatsis, or whatever. The nurse performed heroically, and soon after delivering, I was out the door.

Robert Knightly