Thursday, March 17, 2011

Safety Dance

I was released from the hospital this afternoon.  My discharge papers suggest I "indulge in creativity during this time" and "get some exercise, but not enough to make you tired." Since I am too tired to cook, bake, or run, I am calling today's writing my creative cardio.  I'm so efficient.

When I was admitted on Monday, I was chalk-full of information on radiation, exposure, and contamination.  After the email, followed by the written explanation, followed by the hour and a half long meeting with a nuclear safety officer, I was confident I knew exactly what to expect and execute during my 48 hours in bio-hazard-dome.  My admitting nurse seemed to have skipped the training.

Things weren't right from the jump.  Lab tests were missing, so they had to draw more blood and get a urine sample before they could administer the iodine.  Even as the nurse repeatedly sighed and clicked her tongue at me for having "small veins"; and blamed my recent sip of ice water for her failure to get an accurate read of my body temperature.  Really, after 10 minutes of no ice water, you still can't get it?; and forgot the kinda-vital-to-recording-vital-signs blood pressure cuff, I remained calm and compliant.  When she put me on the bed, which doubles as a scale, and announced my current weight, I said, "Um, that's incorrect."
She gave me a patronizing look and said, "Oh, ok honey, I'll subtract five pounds because of your street clothes and shoes, and what appears to be a very heavy hospital bracelet."
Listen here! I will unleash five pounds of Kiss My Ass if you don't shut your--! "Actually, what I meant is, that weight is too low.  If that is, in fact, my current weight, I have miraculously lost 35 pounds in about two weeks."
"Oh.  Well, are you at least close to that weight?"
"Uhhhh, not since about 6th grade."

Finally, all tests and vital signs were logged and I was ready for transition to my bio-hazard garb.  The safety officer had been very explicit about this part of the process: I would change out of my street clothes into a hospital gown.  All items I wanted to take home--wallet and cell phone--would be placed in plastic bags in a closet, safe from contamination.  Once all of that was completed, I would be administered the iodine.  I waited for my nurse to return with gowns and plastic bags.  Instead, my doctor arrived pushing a trolley with what appeared to be an overgrown paint can.  He explained that the radioactive iodine pill, encased in yet another internal steel cylinder, was inside.  I brought his attention to my lack of hospital gown and general unpreparedness.  He just kept repeating, "It's OK, it's OK."  His impatience was growing (understandable, in the presence of a radioactive substance), as the process had already been delayed.  "We need to give this to you right away."  So, I washed the pill down, and, as if his ass was on fire, he left the room with one final instruction.  "Start drinking water immediately!"

The water thing: during this type of radiation treatment, the iodine is sucked up by any remaining thyroid and cancer cells.  These iodine-saturated blobs then show up on a scan indicating if and where there is any remaining cancer.  The rest of the iodine leaves via bodily fluids.  Since they don't want radioactive iodine hanging out any longer than necessary, you are given one job during the 48 hours of isolation: drink yourself silly.  More specifically, drink enough water that you are peeing every hour.  Again, I was given very explicit instructions beforehand, and assured by my safety officer that before I am even administered the pill, I would have my own personal refrigerator in my room stocked with water and juice to swill until my bladder's content.  I opened the refrigerator in my room.  Empty.

So, recap:  In my street clothes.  No hospital gown.  No plastic bags.  Wallet sitting on the end of my bed.  No hydration in sight.  Radioactive.


I express my concern to the nurse that some safety protocols may have been overlooked.  She apologized, but in light of the fact that I was now radioactive, there was not much to be done.  Everything was contaminated and would have to remain at the hospital after I left.  Honestly, I was fine with my clothes not coming home with me.  And, I had the foresight to put my phone in a Ziploc, per the safety officer's instruction, so I knew it would be alright.  Also, as one who hears and understands safety instructions (am I tooting my horn, here, too much?) I did not bring any reading material or comfort items that I was not prepared to leave there.  I didn't even bring my purse.  Now, I admit, I could've left my wallet at home and brought only my ID and insurance card.  But, those would've been in the contaminated pocket of my contaminated pants.  The point is, regardless if I brought in my wallet, my purse, or the frakkin' Die Hard movie collection, all of these items were supposed to be in a plastic bag far away from me while I built a fort out of empty water bottles. 

Do you hear that?  It's the sound of someone dropping the ball.

It took an HOUR for my hospital gown to show up.  It wasn't until another nurse came on at 7pm that I was brought a large jug of water to get me through the night.  And, when I woke up the next morning with pain in my jaw and neck (to be expected, as the iodine is also picked up by the salivary glands) and asked for more water, I was kindly reminded that I was in isolation for a reason, and every time the nurse walked in, she was exposing herself to radiation.  Really!?  Boy, that sounds unsafe.  Perhaps steps could've been taken to prevent having to come in here so many times. 

At 1:00, my nuclear safety officer--my guardian of sanity--came in.  He mentioned that the nursing staff alerted him that I might have some "questions about my treatment".  When I described the events of the previous day and the morning, he confirmed I was not crazy; safety protocol had not been followed.  When I got to the part about the water he said, "You're supposed to have two dozen bottles of water in the room upon your arrival.  That prevents the nurse having to enter except for meals and emergencies."
"Thank you!" I said. 
"Miss Dunn, I'm sorry this happened at such a strange and scary time for you.  It must've been frustrating given everything we went over beforehand."  Whether it was real or just good acting, I never thought sincerity could be achieved by a man standing 6 feet away, in a yellow paper safety gown and rubber gloves, while holding a Geiger counter.  But this guy nailed it.

Five minutes after he left, my nurse returned with a case of water and six hospital buckets of ice.  "Is there anything else I can get you Miss Dunn?"
"No, thank you.  That should hold me for a while." 

The nuclear safety officer was also kind enough to scan my clothes and wallet for radiation levels.  All items were safe to take home.  Sadly, there was one casualty:  a tube of chap stick I'll never see again.

1 comment:

  1. This is great writing, Samantha. When I started reading your story, I thought maybe you had been in Japan for the nuclear crisis, but upon further inspection, it looks you had radiation as cancer treatment? Either way, a highly relevant post. I wish you the best on your recovery. Thanks for a great story.