January 31, 2001 - Part I
Renee didn’t know much about hospitals. She’d been to the ER a few times with her brothers for broken bones or stitches, but that was about it. She was aware her father’s mother had died in one, but she’d been young enough her parents had kept her out of it, so what Renee knew of hospitals was mostly from watching doctor dramas on TV. Still, she’d left extra early for class and dropped by JMH on her way to school, hoping to see Kai. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to, or if a nurse or Jon would prevent her from getting to Kai’s room. Or maybe Kai would be mad that she’d tried to visit. But she had to see him. Even if both he and Jon had assured her Kai was OK, that they were keeping him as a precaution and nothing more. Besides, if she really was going to be with Kai for the long haul, and she was sure now that she was--she loved him, after all--she had to start getting used to hospitals. Even if they were noisy, bustling places that smelled like antiseptic and plastic.
Renee had made her way to the eighth floor, to the main nurse’s station, and navigated the maze of corridors until she’d found his room--8-95. His door was open, the light inside on, but she hesitated before she entered. Should she knock? What was the etiquette for this kind of thing? She finally rapped a few times on the door before ducking inside.
The room was about what she expected, with Kai’s bed nearer the door, a curtain separating him from the other side of the room, a TV mounted high on the wall. He was curled up on his side, seemingly asleep, dressed in a hospital gown, buoyed by pillows and blankets. A few IVs hung near the side of his bed, alongside a monitor that apparently was recording his heart rate and a few other things Renee couldn’t understand. On the side of the bed opposite the door was a recliner with a blanket that looked as if someone had only just left it--Jon, probably. And a bed table was pushed out of the way, a tray of food still covered with its plastic lid resting on top of it, looking undisturbed. Renee noticed Kai clutched a stuffed fox in one arm, his other hand resting on a small kidney-shaped basin. Above the smell of chemicals, she could faintly catch the whiff of vomit, and she wondered if Kai had thrown up recently.
It made her frown, though Kai looked so handsome lying there. Even if she hated that he was in the hospital. She wanted to step forward, stand on her tip toes and brush some hair off his face, but she didn’t want to wake him up, either. She was just about to leave when she noticed him stir, his nose wiggling like a rabbit’s. He did that in his sleep sometimes, but this seemed more conscious.
After a moment, his eyes opened slowly, groggily, and they scanned the room, almost unseeing, until they finally landed on her, widening. “Re?” he asked sleepily. “Why are you here?” There was a tinge of accusation in his voice.
“I wanted to see you,” she said.
But he looked at her like he didn’t understand her, clearly confused. Maybe they had him on some kind of medication? “Sign please,” he said lazily, shifting onto his back and adjusting the bed a little. He seemed like he was nauseous and groggy. In the shift, the stuffed toy got displaced, and he had a moment of panic until she found it for him and offered it to him.
“This is adorable,” she said, surprised that Kai would have such a comfort item with him, but then Jon and Dr. Miller had explained that such things were important for Kai to help ground him. She found it particularly cute that he’d chosen the animal that was his namesake and wondered if that wasn’t a coincidence. He’d never explained why he’d changed his name to Fox, and she hadn’t asked, knowing it was a sore subject. The fact that on their Hamlet movie night he’d been as forthcoming about his birth name as he had was proof that when the time was right, Kai would tell her more about himself.
“Sign. Please,” Kai said. His eyes were a little clearer, and she read something there, though she couldn’t quite pinpoint the emotion. Sadness? Worry? Fear? Sometimes she wondered if that difficult-to-describe expression was Kai’s default and everything else was really a mask he wore. Masks upon masks upon masks.
“Do you want me to leave?”
Kai’s face changed as he realized she was misreading his behavior. He shook his head. Then he patted the edge of the bed, encouraging her to sit.
She did, surprised, making sure she’d still be able to sign.
Kai pointed to the tray of food. “They won’t discharge me until I eat and keep my food down,” Kai said with a frown, perhaps worried if he’d signed that she wouldn’t understand him. His frown deepened and he touched his ear, almost absently. “I need to tell you something. Important.” He hesitated. As if he were about to say, “Nevermind, just kidding,” and change his mind. But instead, he took a deep breath. Signed something from his ears she didn’t understand. Then paused, as if waiting for her reaction, and when she stared at him blankly, he frowned deeper, the sadness in his eyes growing even more penetrating. “Back in December, when I was sick, they had to give me a medicine to save my life. And it’s taking my hearing.”
Renee blinked at him. What? “Taking your hearing?” she signed back very literally, very Englishy, because she wasn’t sure what that even meant.
“I can’t hear right now,” Kai clarified. “I mean, I can. A little. I knew someone had come in. I only knew it was you because you always smell of roses.” He pushed his hair out of his face. “I can’t understand you right now when you speak to me. It’s just vague sound.” Kai let out a breath. “My hearing will go out for awhile, then come back, then go out again, only the periods in which it’s out are getting longer and longer. I see a doctor in a few days, but there’s a good chance I’ll--” Kai closed his eyes for a moment. “Just once it’d be nice to give you good news.”
Renee was floored. Kai was going deaf? How long had he been struggling with this? Since December? Or was it more recent? He had the advantage that he was fluent in ASL, but that didn’t change the fact that this was major. Life changing. Renee was determined to stand by him--she loved him--but was he worried this would be too much for her? Renee touched him very lightly. Just enough to get his attention and not to startle him. Once his eyes had opened again, she signed, “It’s OK. We can only sign together. No talking. If it’ll help. I’ll sit at the Deaf table every day at lunch. I’ll do everything I can to learn to sign faster.”
Kai smiled, but it seemed a little forced. Like he didn’t think they’d survive if he lost his hearing.
She linked one hand in his. “I love you,” she signed with her free hand. “I will learn. Nothing will change with us. OK?”
Kai let out a relieved breath, and the first genuine smile slipped onto his face. “OK. Give me a kiss, and then you should go. I suspect I’ll be here most of the day. I’ll text you later. Call, if my hearing is back.”
Renee leaned forward a bit so she could kiss him, then let out a squeal of surprise when he grabbed her and pulled her down towards him, hugging her tight. He kissed her, hard, leaving her breathless, shocking her that his mouth didn’t taste sour--either he hadn’t thrown up, as she’d suspected, or he’d rinsed his mouth thoroughly--and he looked deep into her eyes for a long moment after.
“I can’t believe you came to see me even though I must look horrible.”
Renee shook her head. She drew her fingers down along his hairline, watching him carefully for any sign of panic, but the longer she touched him, the more he seemed to relax. She traced along his ear, behind it, down his neck, onto his shoulder, which was partially exposed by the ill-fitting hospital gown, some of the wires for the heart monitor peaking out of it.
“You manage to make this gown totally sexy,” Renee said out loud, forgetting herself.
Kai stared intently at her lips, then frowned. He looked so wounded that he couldn’t understand her.
But she smiled to reassure him. Kissed his forehead. “Sexy?” She tried, fingerspelling the word. “I don’t know how to sign that.”
Kai’s eyes widened. He gestured to himself. “Looking like this?”
Renee laughed, traced the edging of the gown along his neck. Nodded.
Kai tilted his head and stared up at her for a long moment, bewildered, but with a slim smile on his face. “I can teach you how I’d say ‘sexy,’” Kai signed, mouthing the words to make himself easier to understand, “but men sign so differently from women.” Then he signed something that was almost all facial expression with a hint of gesture, leering at her with a lascivious smile, tracing her curves in the air.
Renee nodded, taking that in, trying to think how she could visually convey what it felt like looking at Kai lying beside her, even pale as he was, his hair unbrushed, wearing that horrid hospital gown, and she couldn’t. She tried. She showed herself looking him over with her two fingers, up and down, mimicking it with her gaze, then licked her lips.
Kai laughed and wrapped his arms around her. “Even like this you think so?”
Renee thought for a moment, trying to figure out how she could convey the English concept “unconditional,” and made her best effort with her limited vocabulary. “I love you without limits.”
For a split second, Kai didn’t react, and she worried she’d signed something wrong, or that maybe he really was angry at her for showing up like this, but then it happened. Like the sun breaking through storm clouds, Kai beamed. His entire face lit up like she hadn’t seen in months, a full, genuine smile that she knew was reserved for her and made her insides melt. He wrapped one hand around her arm in a gentle hold, smoothing a thumb there, his eyes locked on hers with an expression that conveyed a depth of love like she’d only ever seen when her grandparents gazed into each other’s eyes.
Especially considering the situation, the two of them lying in Kai’s hospital bed, tangled up together, the prospect of Kai losing his hearing hovering between them like another head on the terrifying monster that constantly struggled to keep them apart, that smile, that look, meant more than any words Kai could ever speak or sign to her.
Even so, for a moment, his lips parted, and she thought he might say it. The three words she’d been waiting for him to say back, but instead he said, “I’m glad you came.”
“Me too,” Renee said, kissing him one more time. She wanted to stay here, lying in his arms the rest of the day, but she couldn’t afford to miss class, and she suspected Kai wouldn’t want her to have a front row seat if he was going to be throwing up later, either. Kai may have been uncharacteristically open with her just now, and he may have been happy instead of mad that she’d shown up unannounced at his bedside, but she hadn’t missed the doubt that she might think twice after seeing him like this. “I should go.”
Kai nodded. He looked like he was losing steam, his lids heavy, his face even paler. She wondered if he was nauseous.
Renee carefully climbed out of the bed, handing him back his fox toy with a smile, watching how he pet it a few times before meeting her eyes again. “Feel better.”
“I will now,” Kai said with a lazy smile. Then his eyes drifted closed.
Megan hated medical interpreting. Partially because she hated hospitals, and partially because, for the most part, doctors and nurses treated deaf people even worse than most hearing people. And partially because she had plenty of bad experiences of her own, growing up as the only hearing person in a strong Deaf family.
But medical paid well. Extremely well. Double her regular rate. And it was steady work, especially if she could convince the hospital to hire her as an additional full-time staff interpreter once she got her medical certification. David still hadn't been able to find steady work, and even if it wasn't her ideal job, unless they were willing to move to a larger, more Deaf-friendly city, sacrifices had to be made. Megan didn't want to leave her parents, who were only two-and-a-half hours away in Omaha, and David wouldn't leave Kai. Not now.
So it meant Megan was dressed in ill-fitting navy scrubs she loathed, shadowing George Romanski, one of the current JMH staff ASL interpreters who she was training under. Megan knew George professionally, and was familiar with his reputation in the Deaf community. He was a well respected medical interpreter and much loved by the Deaf in the entire region. He'd been interpreting longer than she'd been alive, and because he was from a strong Deaf family, too, and had a Deaf spouse, Megan felt a kind of kinship despite the large age gap. Even if their relationship was strictly professional. But he was a fantastic interpreter, and a good teacher. Most interpreters she'd worked with during her training ignored or berated her, but George actually actively advised her in between patients. It was helpful, because even with her Deaf background, medical interpreting was a horse of a different color.
And the downtime was something about the job that Megan couldn't get used to. She only shadowed at JMH twice a week; the rest of the time she worked her regular agency jobs that kept her overbooked. But the hospital had them essentially "on call." They'd have a few appointments that had been pre-scheduled, like outpatient visits or rounds with an established patient, but if their services weren't needed, they simply went to the small office/lounge area reserved for all the hospital's interpreters and waited to be paged. Some days, they'd barely have time to breathe between patients. Others, George would use the time to give her some lessons based on his years of experience, or she'd work diligently on her little crossword puzzle book she always carried with her, fending off boredom.
While it was nice on a certain level to get paid to do nothing, Megan had already begun to think of possible second jobs she could take and work on during the downtime. Something she could do whenever she had free time, here in the lounge, without needing to leave the premises. Some kind of transcription work, maybe? She could potentially get paid twice--once for her staff position as an interpreter, and again for the side job, and she might still be able to freelance. Especially if David found a decent job soon, they might be able to finally plan their wedding.
Today they were starting out with an appointment in the pulmonary outpatient clinic. For emergencies, George often had almost no information going in, and the situations could very much be life or death. The not knowing what to expect--a feverish hearing, but ignorant of English four-year-old boy with Deaf parents or a thirty-something Deaf man with such severe abdominal pain he couldn't sign, or an old Deaf woman who couldn't read English and needed help filling out every form--and the responsibility of holding someone's life in your hands was stressful. George told Megan honestly you never really got used to it, but it did get better.
But for appointments, the interpreter assigned that day would get a snippet of info--nothing like their whole file or anything, but at least their name, age, sex, and a few other important details, like whether other family members were also Deaf. The appointment information--the place, time, doctor, and any special instructions (was this a surgical or ICU setting? MRI?) were also included. George was one of the most ethical interpreters Megan had ever encountered, but he'd also fill in any applicable info that she might not know, since George had been doing this so long he knew almost every single Deaf person in town, at least by sight, and had probably interpreted for them all at least once.
George was getting them some decent caffeine--remembering she preferred tea--from the Starbucks kiosk in the lobby, leaving her to study the schedule for today. Of course, everything could change if a Deaf person came into the ER or was admitted, but for now she could at least see if she knew any of the patients. Knowing a client could make a job easier--you were familiar with their signing style, for example--but it could also be tricky. And having a Deaf fiancé and family also made things hairy. On one hand, Deaf people knew you were “one of them,” but on the other, it made them wary of trusting you wouldn’t leak their personal information to your significant other or sibling or parent, and gossip spread through the Deaf network shockingly fast. Someone could say something now, and within thirty minutes, half the Deaf Midwestern community would know about it. It was actually one reason Megan had worried she’d struggle in medical, but she had a good reputation, and so did David. She was known for being extremely ethical, and he was ruthlessly loyal. She’d had one client confess to her once that many people believed Megan probably told David things she wasn’t supposed to, but that no one believed he’d ever betray anyone’s secrets. Because that’s just who David was. And they were right. It was one thing she loved about him.
“Drink fast,” George said suddenly, handing her her tea. “I got a page to the ER on my way back here. I have no idea what we’re getting, so let me stay in the driver’s seat if it’s particularly emergent. If it’s not, then I’ll let you have a chance at the wheel. If you think you’re ready.”
Megan’s gut curdled. She’d already had some practical experience during her time working with George, where she’d done more than just observe, where she’d been the interpreter, the bridge between doctors and nurses to the Deaf patient or family members, but those had all been outpatient cases, simple checkups, or routine followups at a patient’s bedside. Emergency had been too chaotic, too unpredictable for her so far to feel confident enough to step up.
“I know it’s daunting,” George said, chugging some of his coffee and abandoning the rest on the table, “but if you’re serious about this field, you need to get comfortable with emergency. You need to be willing to jump in there not knowing what’s going to come in the door and do the best job you can to make sure that patient understands what’s going on. OK? And I’ll be right beside you to feed you or to jump in if you get stuck or freeze, so it’ll be OK.”
Megan swallowed. On a regular interpreting job, if she didn’t understand the client, if her brain shut down, if she couldn’t find a good English word for the sign the client was using, then the worst that could happen were a few irritated people. Maybe someone wouldn’t get a job they were applying for, or something like that. But what they were about to walk into? If she made a mistake, if she failed? Someone could die.
“Hey,” George said, laying a reassuring hand on her arm. “It’s OK. You should have seen me my first emergency, and I had a lot less formal training than you. You’ll be fine. Just take a deep breath. Come on.”
Megan nodded. She could do this.
Joanna braced Kai with one arm to help him stay upright even though he was half sitting up, half lying on his side, leaning on one elbow and his opposite hand, arm straight, trembling. His eyes watered and snot slid along his upper lip, his ribs and abdomen aching, but another spasm hit him and he hurled again into the basin Jo held to his mouth. Dizziness swarmed him, and he wavered, but Jo supported him as he threw up again and again until he could hardly breathe, collapsing onto the pillow in a heap, exhausted and sore, his mouth tasting of bile.
He turned his head just enough to see the monitor even though it made everything spin for a moment, and the nausea surged up again as if he hadn’t just completely emptied out his stomach. His blood pressure was fine. “Why am I so nauseous? And dizzy?” The world tilted and Kai had to close his eyes.
Jo set the basin out of the way and started cleaning Kai’s mouth and face with a wet rag. Jon had been called down to the ER, and Jo was able to take a few hours off, so she offered to stay with Kai. The goal had been to help Kai eat so he could be discharged, and well, that had gone wonderfully. Kai normally would have hated having his face cleaned like this by someone else when he was perfectly capable of doing it himself, but Jo did it with a tenderness Kai wasn’t used to and sort of liked. Sometimes he wondered if things had been different, if he’d had a mother who loved him, if she would have cleaned his face for him like this when he was sick.
Jo tapped Kai’s cheek gently with her gloved hand--the gloves were to try to protect Kai from germs, and also a habit since she’d been a nurse for so many years, but it broke Kai’s fantasy for a moment. Jo would never be his mother, even if her sign name was exactly that, no matter how much Kai might have wished for it growing up. A swell of sadness rose to greet his physical symptoms, but Kai opened his eyes. “Probably (...) because of your (...) (...),” she said since she didn’t sign. She knew a few signs, and she could mostly understand Kai when he was signing or gesturing because she’d known him his whole life. Kai was struggling to understand her now, even though he was looking straight at her. The last words, which may have been as few as one or two or as many as three or four had all blurred together, and he was too dizzy and sore to make it out. Every inhalation pulled at tight, tired muscles. Kai hadn’t been able to keep anything down since he was admitted. When he did force himself to eat--because he wanted to go home--it just came right back up again.
“I don’t understand.”
Jo softened, set the dirty wash rag aside and peeled off her gloves, leaving them in the pile before using the antibacterial gel from the wall pump to clean her hands. Then she smoothed Kai’s face, gently combing her fingers through his hair in a tender moment that relaxed Kai a little even if he still didn’t feel good. “Vertigo,” Jo said slowly, enunciating the word clearly and loudly. She pointed to her ear with her other hand. “Ear damage.”
“Oh,” Kai said as it finally clicked what she had to have said before. He was nauseous and dizzy because he had vertigo from his inner ear damage. Or so she was presuming. Jon had told her about it before she’d come, which saved Kai the necessity of explaining himself, to his relief. He wasn’t much up for talking right now, especially since she didn’t sign and lipreading was exhausting. It figured that on top of everything else, he was now going to have another source of nausea. “I hurt. I don’t feel good,” Kai said.
Jo smoothed more hair off his forehead. She nodded. “I know. I’ll try to get you better medicine,” she said, speaking simply, perhaps to make it easier for him to understand.
She started to leave, but Kai found her hand with one of his and pulled, begging her not to go.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Kai said, and he knew it was stupid and juvenile, and he probably wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone else right now, but this was Jo. Jo who had taken care of him so often in his life he’d long ago lost count. Jo, who had often used her free time to sit with him and comfort him when he was sick and had no one else.
Jo nodded, smiled faintly at him, and found the remote to call Kai’s nurse. Then she held his hand and hummed to him. He couldn’t quite hear it, but it was the same tune she’d always sang to him as a kid, so his mind filled in the rest. He clung to her and let his eyes slide shut, focusing on her touch and on the song to try to take him away from his traitorous body. Thank God Renee hadn’t seen him like this.
Jon shoved his hand through his hair repeatedly as he stared at the films, struggling to believe how he could be staring at such an expansive pneumonia. “And this kid came in conscious?” Jon asked again, his brain already working out a treatment plan. They had to act quickly if they were going to have any hope of saving this kid’s left lung from massive permanent scarring.
The tired but competent peds resident who’d been the one to call him down for the consult nodded. “Feverish, yes. Hypoxic, yes. In respiratory distress, yes. But conscious.”
“And did you get any kind of history? Asthma? CF? Parents smokers?”
“Mom’s Deaf. Doesn’t understand English. We’re waiting for the interpreter.”
“Thank God. I do not want to have to deal with this and try to sign at the same time. Is he stable?”
“He’s Deaf, too. Doesn’t understand what’s going on. And scared because he can’t breathe. We’ve kept him alive so far, but--”
“Wonderful. Why do I always get the good cases? Come on. This kid has a very short window before he either suffocates or goes septic, and I’m not going to lose him even if it means I have to sign myself.”
Jon took several quick strides to the curtained exam area where the patient waited with his mother. The boy was about eight--the mother couldn’t read or write English, so they weren’t sure--and Jon was able to get a quick peek through a gap in the curtain before entering. The kid sat up in the bed, leaned forward, the oxygen mask on his face, struggling to breathe, his chest and shoulders working hard, his hair plastered to his face with sweat, his skin chalky even from this distance. His mother held his hand, doing her best to soothe him, occasionally signing something to him Jon couldn’t make out from his angle.
He was about to step inside when George and Megan, both dressed in navy scrubs, saddled up. “Thank God. I thought I was going to have to explain everything myself. My sign language skills are definitely not up for that, especially since I really need to focus on doing my job.”
George nodded. “Anything you can tell us before we go in there?”
“Both the mom and the patient are Deaf. Kid has a massive pneumonia I’m probably going to need to intubate and admit him for, but the mom doesn’t seem to have a high education level, so I’m going to really need you to get her to understand how serious this situation is, and I just saw his X-ray. Not only could he die if we don’t act quickly, but even if he doesn’t, he could lose nearly all the functional lung tissue in one lung. The first thing we need to do is calm them both down. Then I need to make sure the kid is stabilized, or at least as well as I can here in the ER. I want to convince her to let me admit him to the respiratory ICU. Once I know he’s in the process of being treated and his life isn’t in immediate danger, I’d like to try to get a full history out of her, or at least as good as I can manage so I can tailor his treatment accordingly. So I really need your help making sure she understands what I’m talking about and that I’m not just blowing steam up her ass. Understood?”
Megan was nervous. She’d been Jon’s tutor for months now--he didn’t meet with her weekly anymore because of his schedule, but he did still insist on sessions as often as he could, at least twice a month--but that was a totally different side of him than he was as a physician. She’d even interpreted once before for one of his patients, but that had been an outpatient situation, so that was totally different than this. Right now Jon was intense, every inch of his height making him intimidating. Around the hospital he’d earned the nickname Taylor the Tiger, a name she’d laughed off at first, but now she could totally see why people called him that.
She followed George and Jon into the patient’s room, remembering she was supposed to take the lead this time, her heart racing a mile a minute. Before she or George could introduce themselves as the interpreters, Jon jumped in, immediately walking up to the boy and his mother and signing to them.
“I’m Dr. Taylor. I’m going to help you feel better,” he said, looking the little boy directly in his terrified eyes. “But I have to focus on examining you, so you and your mom need to watch the interpreters, OK?”
The fact that Jon, as intense as he had been only moments earlier, had taken a few seconds to try to assuage the fears of a scared boy and his mother--personally--shocked Megan and threw her off for a second. But then Jon started in on his English, trying to get into the exam, so Megan positioned herself where the mother and her son could see her and launched into the most visual, ASL-based interpretation of what Jon was saying, watching their faces for visual cues that they were understanding her, ready to stop Jon if necessary. He made it easier for her by changing his language: the Jon she knew talked like a medical dictionary even when he wasn’t working, but now he was speaking in simpler, clearer English, his voice calm and reassuring even though he knew neither the boy nor his mother could hear him. It shocked Megan, frankly, because Jon wasn’t talking down to his patient or his mother in the sense of being condescending, but rather was adjusting his language into something more visual that was easier for Megan to interpret.
Megan began to relax a little. The situation was urgent, but the kid wasn’t bleeding out or anything, and Jon was clearly in control of things. She could do this. She needed to do this. A young boy’s life was on the line.
The boy--they hadn’t been able to get a name, only a namesign from the frenzied mother--was struggling to breathe, his chest and shoulders working hard. He cooperated with Jon as he listened to the boy’s lungs, barely paying attention to Megan’s interpretations of Jon’s words that he would take care of him and help him breathe, that he’d be OK.
Then the boy began to make desperate gasping sounds, and Jon’s demeanor immediately changed back to the intensity of “Taylor the Tiger.” Jon lay the boy back, adjusting the bed so it was flat as he barked, “Get her out of here. Now.”
Then he reached over to the wall and hit a button, and Megan barely had time to figure out what was going on--the boy sounded like he was dying--as George pushed both she and the crying mother out of the room, guiding them both down the hall to the nearest open area. The mom was frantic, fighting him a little, but he was able to sign to her that he’d explain what he could but they had to get out of the way for the doctors to work. Megan couldn’t help noticing, over George’s shoulder, that several doctors and nurses were flooding into the cubicle they’d just vacated. Oh, God. Maybe the boy was going to die. Jon had warned them he was sick, but he hadn’t seemed that bad. Megan had asthma too. It had always been mild; she’d gone to the ER before, and had only been admitted once, when she was sixteen, for a pneumonia she couldn’t kick. This kid had pneumonia, too, didn’t he?
“Megan. Megan, snap out of it and do your job.” George’s stern voice seemed to come out of no where, startling her.
Megan resisted the urge to apologize--interpreters weren’t supposed to apologize, just keep going--and offered a nod, ready to get back to work.
“What’s happening? What’s wrong?” The mother was begging for them to explain.
“The doctors needed some extra space to take care of your son. Dr. Taylor will explain everything as soon as your son is safe,” George said as if he’d had a conversation like this thousands of times before, which he probably had. Having a loved one--especially a child--sick and not knowing what was going on had to be frightening enough without adding the woman’s deafness and poor education to the mix.
“But you can hear. You can hear what’s happening. Why won’t you tell me?” Spoken like someone who was profoundly deaf and clearly had no idea how noisy the ER was. Even if George hadn’t guided them far away from her son’s station, there was a good chance they couldn’t have heard what was happening. And with pure doctor jargon going on on the other side of the curtain, Megan probably wouldn’t have understood even if she could have heard.
But George did his best to calm and reassure her, finally guiding her to some chairs where he sat with her, holding her hand, promising he’d tell her anything if he heard something related to her son.
It felt like it took hours before Jon finally found them and directed them into an empty cubicle so they could talk. He was steeling his emotions, cognizant of how attuned to body language Deaf people were, but he was still hearing, and without a word, the mother knew that he had bad news. “Your son is very sick,” he began, and Megan interpreted. “He has an infection, a very serious one, in his lungs. That’s made it hard to breathe and caused the fever.” Jon paused a moment, and Megan wasn’t sure if it was to give her time to interpret, or if it was just a natural break. “Breathing hard like that for a long time is tiring. Just like if you run a long distance, your muscles in your legs will get tired? Well he’s been working his breathing muscles extra hard, and he’s tired. He wasn’t breathing well.” Megan couldn’t see Jon’s face, since she was standing next to him, but his voice sounded sympathetic. “I had to put a tube in his mouth, down his throat and connect him to a machine to help him breathe.” Jon paused then, perhaps to give Megan a chance to fully explain, visually, what that meant. Megan had known on a certain level, but George had emphasized during one of their “down-time” training sessions that especially with a client like this woman, you couldn’t just say “BREATHE MACHINE” because then they’d get to the ICU and panic since you hadn’t fully prepared them for the visual of what their loved one would look like. So Megan gestured the tube, showed it going through the mouth into the throat, gestured the tubes that connected to that, and the machine, then showed how the machine helped the person breathe. She paused to see if the woman understood.
She looked totally wrecked--and could you blame her? “He has to stay in the hospital?”
“Yes. In ICU. Do you know what that means?” When the woman indicated that she didn’t, Jon continued. “It’s the part of the hospital where we treat the very sick patients so they can get better.”
That seemed to ring a bell with the woman, and she shook her head violently. “No. No, you can’t. I don’t have any money. I don’t have private insurance. My son and I live off SSDI." Social Security Disability Income--meaning no more than $500 for each of them for the entire month. "Please. You can’t keep him here. Let me take him home. Give me some medicine for him, and let me take him home.” She signed so frantically that Megan had a hard time keeping up, and George ended up switching off with her, taking over and voicing for the distraught mother.
Jon calmed her down, assuring her that she shouldn’t worry about money right now, that the hospital would still take care of her son, and then he went on to make it clear how serious the situation was, that her son could die. That seemed to hit her like a hammer, and she calmed.
“I need to see him. He can’t be alone.”
Jon nodded. “Soon. I promise. He’s sleeping right now. We put him on drugs to make him sleep to help his body heal. But you’ll be allowed to see him. But it takes time for them to take him upstairs, so I’d like to ask you some questions about him so I know the best way to make him better. OK?”
The woman was crying a little now, but she was compliant. Now that Megan wasn’t interpreting, she could sneak glances at Jon’s face, and it amazed her how good he was with this woman. The Jon she knew always came off as cold, a little condescending, and awkward, but here he’d managed to convince this woman to trust him. And she didn’t strike Megan as someone who trusted easily, especially hearing people. She’d probably been burned too many times in her life.
“Good. I’m going to take some notes, OK? Let’s sit down.” They’d all been standing, and Jon managed to find them all chairs, arranging them in the best way for her to see him and the interpreter, and then he began to take a history, so Megan took back over again, because this she could handle.
Kai was sitting on his hospital bed, half changed out of his gown, his legs hanging over the edge, hunched, his hands on his face. From the movement of his shoulders, Jon could see Kai was taking deep, slow breaths. So he was being discharged, but Kai obviously wasn’t actually OK.
Jon approached, not wanting to startle his brother, but not really sure how he could avoid it. Even if he waited until Kai dropped his hands, he was sure to jump, he was so skittish since Thanksgiving, and more so with his hearing issues. Finally, Jon settled for tapping the mattress, hoping Kai would feel the vibrations without being too frightened.
Kai flinched, dropped his hands and looked over at Jon expectantly, but he was visibly tired and drawn.
“How are you planning on getting home?”
Kai dry washed his face. “I’ll text David.”
Jon nodded, not sure what else to say without coming off as being too parental, something that he was supposed to be working on.
“Hand me my phone? Should still be in my bag, if the battery isn’t drained.”
Jon followed Kai’s guidance to the front pocket of his backpack, attached to the back of his wheelchair, which was parked near the bed, and found Kai’s phone easily enough. He was tempted to check the charge, but Kai could do that himself, and it would be an invasion of privacy.
Kai didn’t seem to care right now, though. He clearly wasn’t feeling well but pushing through it, working slowly but managing all the same. Jon watched as Kai fiddled with his cell, probably reading through some of his text messages before finally tapping one out laboriously. Kai stared at his phone, and only a moment later, it buzzed, and Jon could tell Kai was reading. Then his shoulders fell.
“David has a job and he won’t be done until this evening.” Kai shoved one hand through his hair, and the strands stuck up for a moment comically before falling back down. “I just want to take my happy, knock-me-out anti-nausea pills and sleep the rest of the day.” Kai looked at Jon expectantly.
Jon shook his head. “I can’t take you home. Not until my shift is over. I’m swamped today. I shouldn’t even be here, but I wanted to check on you.”
Kai nodded tiredly. Checked his phone again, maybe looking at the time. “I don’t want to call Renee.”
“You can’t continue keeping things from her,” Jon signed a little awkwardly.
“She dropped in this morning and I told her about my hearing loss. But I don’t . . . I . . .” Kai sighed. He seemed to be struggling to articulate what he wanted to say, and when that happened and he was signing, Jon noticed he went even more toward the visual end of the ASL spectrum, dropping into almost gestures. “She knows about my transplant and my MLS, etc. She knows I have limits. But that doesn’t mean I want her to . . .” Kai struggled here especially. “Look down on me?” He winced, as if he knew that wasn’t what he was trying to say. Kai held his hands in the air, palms up, fingers wiggling, obviously thinking how to explain it. He sighed heavily. “I don’t want her to see me as . . . weak. I guess. I can’t explain it.”
Jon sighed. “I could ask Vicky.”
Kai’s eyes widened a little, but Jon couldn’t read his brother’s facial expression. Couldn’t quite tell what was going on in his head. Finally, his nose wiggled the way it did in his sleep, or sometimes when he was frustrated or defeated. It was a kind of nervous tic Jon didn’t think Kai was even aware of. “OK,” Kai said, his face shifting again into more unreadable territory.
Continue to January 31, 2001 - Part II ------>