2020 Temple Health Essay Contest Winner
Once here in the emergency room, Lou knows this is bad. He feels God-awful, and it’s getting worse by the minute. He’s having trouble speaking now, answering the nurse’s questions while he works to get some air into his lungs. Still and all, there’s a sense that this is not real, that he is standing back and watching all this happen to someone else.
Do you smoke, the tall blonde nurse wants to know.
Lou shrugs, not sure how to answer. Not anymore, he thinks, not really. His mind wanders back to the days, those times of his youth. Forty, fifty years ago. Back when he played a mean sax, when he might have a shot of bourbon for breakfast and then smoke a pack of Pall Malls before lunch. Lately he has begun to ask himself—did it really happen like that? Did he down shots of Old Granddad every morning, or was it a one or three-time thing that he’s been replaying in his mind over and over? Did he really get all that applause for his solos when he played with Vinny and the boys? No one else is around nowadays to remember what he remembers.
Right now, everything is a blur. The intravenous, the x ray, the oxygen through a plastic mask. The oxygen helps a little, not enough. The blonde nurse seems worried, holds his hand, wants to know who she can call. Lou doesn’t want the nurse to call and worry his daughter, who has enough to worry about, with her kids and all. That’s why he snuck out of the house before dawn, barely able to get his pants and slippers on, so she wouldn’t worry. But the nurse says that his family needs to know he’s here. Lou doesn’t have it in him to argue.
The monitor is making electric noises, and more medical people in gowns and masks and hoods and gloves pass in and out of Lou’s room. They all look so young. A young woman comes in to talk to him, another nurse he thinks, but then she introduces herself as Doctor. She says they are doing testing, and they don’t know for sure, but possibly he has the virus, which Lou has figured. The tall blonde nurse returns, says she has talked to his daughter, told his daughter that he has pneumonia and that everything is being done for him. And then nurse says that they are going to have to put Lou on a machine to help him breathe. You’ll be so much more comfortable, she says, it won’t hurt at all.
I’m going to call your daughter back after we do this. Is there anything you want me to say to her?
Lou pushes the plastic mask away from his face, says between heavy breaths, Tell her the last thing I saw was your beautiful blue eyes.
Oh, the nurse responds emphatically, You will see so much more when you’re feeling better.
Sure, Lou thinks. He knows in his bones that he is not going to wake up.
Another young doctor comes into the room, and several other people in masks and gowns have appeared out of nowhere. The young guy seems to be directing the others—give me this, do that, is something ready. Everything is here, it seems, everything is ready. The blonde nurse is holding Lou’s hand, murmuring reassuringly. A tall, skinny man comes into the room, older than the others. Maybe a senior doctor. He walks a little stiffly, Lou can see wisps of reddish gray hair under the surgical cap, matted with sweat. The old guy looks at Lou’s wrist band.
Lou Hicks, he says. You used to play sax, didn’t you? With Vinny what’s-his name? You were really something. That was you, right?
Someone is holding a different plastic mask against Lou’s face, tightly, so he can’t speak. He pushes his forehead against the mask and gives a slight nod.
Some kind of medicine is being given through the intravenous. The blonde nurse holds his right hand with both of her hands. The tall guy, doctor or whatever, has put his hand on top of Lou’s left hand.
The young doctor standing expectantly at the head of the bed muttering something to himself, something about, Surreal, this all no longer seems real….
Lou knows he is about to fade. It is real, he thinks this is all real. And way back then, back when I played that mean sax, that wasn’t an old guy’s imagination. That really, really happened.
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Dr. Rick Martin is an emergency medicine physician at Temple University Hospital. His essay, Lou, is a short work of fiction for which he received first place in the 2020 Temple Health Essay Contest.