Far, far from the backyard of melting snow, driveway muck, incipient chickadee music and the growing sense that green is going to return after all, we traveled the road to the contagious hospital. My wife needed an X-ray.
“Contagious,” I say, not because the hospital is literally disease-carrying, but because the state of mind that prevails there is, well, kind of surreal, and you seem to catch it as soon as you walk through the door. I’m betting you know what I mean. Even though the hospital’s primary functions get about as close to nature as you can personally come, it is a world completely alien to the woods where we live.
Anyway, we were in the radiology waiting area. Nicely upholstered furniture, a few magazines. One other patient. Bonnie flipped through an issue of Rolling Stone with a picture of the former president. “We really, really miss you, President Obama,” she said to the picture. Crazily, the other waiting patient agreed.
On the flat-screen TV over our heads, Dr. Oz was talking. You know, the doctor who shilled a bogus weight-loss supplement so hard the U.S. Senate had to warn him to re-seek his professional integrity. He was asking another medical professional, maybe also a doctor, about death.
What is death? When is a patient deemed clinically dead?
You might be unaware that, not to put too fine a point on it, doctors don’t always know for sure when you’re dead. The Uniform Determination of Death Act of 1981 states: “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead.” This definition is accepted by doctors, courts and possibly insurance companies, but it is far from a settled matter in reality. In reality, there is a murky gray area between barely alive and gone.
Even when a patient is clinically dead, Dr. Oz’s guest explained in details I don’t remember, there can still be residual neurological electrical impulses that might create a fleeting awareness that medical professionals cannot detect. A flickering awareness, he might have said; I can’t remember exactly because my own consciousness was beginning to flicker. In the 19th century, there was a generalized cultural fear of being buried alive because it was well known that physicians back then did not have a solid handle on exactly when death has happened. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe exploited this fear in tales of crypts, mausoleums and unsound structures, sort of the way profit-seekers exploit the generalized cultural fear we all share of being underinsured.
Luckily, I was already aware of this uncertainty about certain death. My attention wandered to what it might be like for someone whose days were numbered, and who did not know about this uncertainty, to hear this frank TV conversation about impending death. Maybe it would be kind of upsetting talk to overhear. Of course, the voices on TV had no idea that people in a hospital waiting area were listening to them. Or how long those patients had been there, or if this might be their final X-ray. They were just doing their jobs — filling the air with talk.
“So the question is,” Dr. Oz continued, “what’s it like to die? What does dying feel like?”
As the answer began to bubble forth in minute clinical detail, I kind of lost track of reality. I watched the hallway door, expecting John Cleese and Eric Idle to come through in orderlies’ togs, pushing an empty gurney.
“Mr. Wilde?” Cleese calls officiously into the waiting area.
“Yes, that’s me, but I’m not the patient. My wife is here for an X-ray,” I say, gesturing to her.
“Yes, well, up you go,” Cleese says. “On your way to the morgue, I’m afraid.”
“But I’m not dead yet,” I say.
“I’m sorry, but you’re probably having some residual electrical brain impulses creating the illusion you are still conscious,” says Idle. “But I’m afraid we have no way of knowing that for sure, so we have to go by whatever educated guess the doctors make. Up you go.”
They gently but firmly seize me by the arms.
“I think I’ll go for a walk!” I say.
“Ma’am, would you mind giving us a hand here?” Cleese says, holding out a nightstick for Bonnie to finish me off with.
I got up, walked across the waiting area, found the remote, and killed the discussion of death.
“Thank you,” Bonnie said. “For Christ’s sake.”
Her X-ray was administered by an extremely competent, reassuringly polite technician who seemed to be inhabiting the same world as us. Then we fled the scene.
On the drive home, we slowly regained a level of everyday consciousness. It would be good to get back to the muddy driveway, patches of standing water, scattering of tall pines and the two-note tune of the chickadees. In full awareness, nonetheless, that the contagious hospital-mind would return when first one, then another, then more bills referencing this X-ray would arrive in the mail like the ghost of Hamlet talking from beyond the grave about death and — not taxes, but insurance companies. Who knew how much this would cost, or why, or for how long, or which would be the final bill?
The doctors certainly have no idea. Taxes, while as inevitable as death, at least pay for things you want to happen — road maintenance, schools, courts, police, help for those who can’t afford insurance, and so on. In the world of insurance, which is a whole state of mind at the hospital, you place a monthly bet that things you hope will never happen, will happen. Surreal. Like having what it feels like to die explained to you while you wait for what could be your final X-ray.
Bonnie, we learned later, was OK. Walking pneumonia, as it’s called here in the woods. We grip down, and begin to awaken.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. His book “Summer to Fall” is available from North Country Press. You can contact him at [email protected] Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.