“You gave me such a fright last night! I thought you were dying.”
The words came from a young woman hovering around my bed. She was a white woman in white apron with auburn hair and bright blue eyes. Her face was not classically beautiful, but arresting with a charming smile. I watched her injecting medicine in the saline bag hanging from the apparatus by my bed.
Good Lord! Where was I? Did I die? But this looked like a hospital. Then memories came flooding in. I had tremendous pain in my abdomen; so much so that I fell on my way from the Morris library to Faner Hall. After the pain subsided a little I got up and walked slowly to the Student Centre. I called a friend and crumpled down on a bench right outside the building. My friend Aneek was the one who took me to the Health Center. I could not clearly recall how things happened. But one thing led to another, and finally, I was transferred to Carbondale Memorial Hospital and had to undergo an emergency surgery. This was my first night after the surgery. I could not recall anything about the previous night except that someone called me from time to time, fixing my pillows, and checking temperature.
“Who are you?” my voice sounded hoarse in my own ears.
“Oh, I’m Nicole, your night nurse.” She smiled again and continued, “It’s early in the morning. My shift ends at 8:00.But your pressure is awfully low. You need blood.”
“Oh.” What else could I say to that?
“I checked your blood pressure late last night and I could not believe my eyes! It was down to 52. I was so scared. And I thought I would lose you any time. I called out to you from time to time and you opened your eyes every time I called. It felt so strange—like those horror movies, you know. Finally, it’s morning and the doctor has come.”
I recalled that it was summer and this small town had lost 70% of its population to summer vacation. Even the doctors were mostly gone. They had to bring a specialist for me from another town for the surgery.
I watched as they administered blood. I croaked feebly that I had low blood pressure anyway and they should not be so worried. Then it was time for Nicole to go. A new nurse had come in and Nicole left after saying good bye.
“I’ll see you again after dark, Sohana,“ she said smiling. She put a few things in her bag, waved at me and left. The day nurse was an ample woman—kind and boisterous. “You can call me Anna,” she said. A black woman in white popped in—another nurse who looked after a patient in the next room. She said her name was Chelsia. Anna and Chelsia chatted away merrily with anecdotes from their lives. I listened though did not catch everything. But something about their chirpy chats made me content.
“What would you have for breakfast, Sohana?” Anna asked. She pronounced my name ‘Suhaennaa.’
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “What’s available?”
“Let me ask the kitchen. They’ll send a menu upstairs.”
After having boiled eggs with bread, butter and marmalade along with coffee I felt less drowsy. Then visitors started pouring in. The usual time for visitors was afternoon, but it was summer and there were very few patients at the hospital. Besides, it was also the Eid-ul Fitr, and the Bangladeshi community in Carbondale could not possibly leave a fellow sufferer alone in the hospital. After my fourth visitor, however, I felt exhausted. I dozed off and when I woke up, it was late afternoon. After drinking some hot soup I fell asleep again. But I kept wondering why I didn’t feel like going to the bathroom. I wondered with embarrassment if I had peed on the bed. That would be awful. And I did not want to ask Anna; I still was not quite free with her.
Next time I opened my eyes, it was Nicole again. And I asked her, “Umm… Nicole, don’t you think I should use the toilet?”
Nicole smiled. “You don’t need to get up right away. We have put you on catheter. No worries. You can use the bathroom tomorrow.“
I looked at her helplessly, but also in gratitude. In my entire life, I never felt so feeble as I did during those three days and four nights I stayed at the hospital. I was far away from home. My mother also just had had a surgery in Bangladesh and could not possibly come to visit me even if she wanted. And here were this group of unknown people taking care of me at the hospital. Somehow, Nicole came to represent them all. The night passed in a half-awakened stage. But whenever I did wake up, Nicole was there, “You want water, Sohana?” “Are you in pain?” “What do you need, sweetie?” Perhaps she said those things to all her patients. But for me, those were like words from my mother or grandmother who stayed awake through the nights when I had fever as a child. I wept tears of gratitude.
On the second day, my PhD supervisor, Dr. Collins came to visit with a bouquet of orchids. My eyes went round because I had seen those at flower shops and knew a stick of orchids cost 20 dollars. And he had a whole bunch! A rare treat indeed for a graduate student like me! But Kenny Collins was a wonderfully affectionate old man and he walked in while saying, “My dear Sohana, what has happened to you? I just got this email from Marie saying that you’re at the hospital.” Yes, it was very sudden and I did not even have the time to think. I had just called up a few friends and my aunt informing them about it. Dr. Collins stayed for about 20 minutes asking if I needed anything and assured not to worry about classes or teaching. Everything would be taken care of. It all happened right before the fall semester started and I felt guilty. Dr. Collins tsked, “Just take rest, Sohana. You worry too much. We all know that you did not have this surgery to shirk your duties.” He left with that fatherly smile and a twinkle in the eye that made me weepy all over again.
The morning I finally left the hospital, the sky was overcast. I sat on my bed and watched my friends packing my stuff. I was not exactly going back to my apartment but to live with a friend as I was still too weak to be on my own. I was eager to be on my feet again. But as I looked back at the red brick building of the Carbondale Memorial Hospital, suddenly, my heart felt heavy as if I was leaving behind some very dear friends. These were the ones who had made it possible for me to live. My experiences at that place taught me a few things about life and I learnt how to make home among strangers. And, Nicole? Well, I never saw her again, but I will always remember her and those nights with gratitude.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English, ULAB. She is also the Editor of the Star Literature and Review Pages.