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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

The hospital: A place to bare souls -- and behinds

January 26, 2007|AL MARTINEZ

I am lying in a kind of half-sleep, which is all that anyone gets in a hospital, when I force my eyes open and see a light at the end of the tunnel.

It is a blurry light because my vision is unfocused, and I say to myself this is it, I am giving up the ghost, as my mother used to say, sliding down the last tunnel toward the glow at the end.

I've read about near-death experiences and expect at any moment that Mom will appear in the light telling me to eat my boiled carrots, which I still hate, and my evil stepfather will be ready to give me a whack aside the head whenever I am in range.

I'm beginning to crawl out of bed when I realize that I do not see a martini at the end of the tunnel and decide I'm not going anywhere that doesn't have a full bar.

I sit up at the edge of the bed, blink a couple of times and conclude that it isn't a near-death experience at all, or even a near-martini experience. I am just looking out through a half-closed door into the hallway of the cardiac recovery ward.

I open the door to see a parade of old people shuffling by in those hospital gowns that do not cover your behind, lock-stepped into a post-surgery requirement to move about. But to me it is like a glimpse of hell, condemned souls doomed to wander for all eternity for the evil they have done.

I'm not sure what time it is because the light in a hospital ward, like the light in a gambling casino, always seems the same. I crawl back into bed, and as I sit staring out at hell's parade, a nurse bustles in and announces that she has come to take my vitals.

In my blurry state I interpret that as coming to possess my vitals, reaching down into my body to tear out my heart and my liver.

But she is there to monitor my vitals, not to steal them, an angel of health fluttering about like a tiny sparrow doing good. Another sparrow chirped me awake at a wee hour one night to say she was there to weigh me, explaining that it would be better to weigh me then instead of doing it at 8 a.m. when she went off-shift in case I might be sleeping.

The fact that I had been sleeping when she woke me up didn't seem to occur to her, but I was too groggy to complain. Sleep is an uneven experience in a hospital anyhow, because you can't get the bed to crank up to the right position and there is always a low hum of noise, like the buzz of a distant lawn mower. You drift in and out.

Because I am in a room of my own, I spend part of the time watching the only kind of television offered at 3 a.m.: oil-slicked evangelists selling salvation and the glory of money, exercise gurus extolling flat abs and tight butts, and commercials hustling videos for "Girls Gone Wild." Though I don't mind watching girls going wild, flashing body parts that one normally keeps under wraps, I am a long way from indulging in the erotic fantasies that occupy the waking hours and hot dreams of teenage boys.

When a nurse comes in to check me over, I switch the TV quickly away from the half-naked girls back to a preacher with a pompadour praying that I will see fit to send enough money to at least get me halfway to heaven, praise the Lord. I watch parts of "All That Jazz" instead, which features Jessica Lange as a beguiling, sweet-smiling angel of death, and I'm thinking if she is on the other side, how bad can dying be?

As I ponder it later, I don't know why I'm worried about any kind of nudity in a hospital, either on TV or in person, because before they allowed me to don underwear, there was no part of me that wasn't exposed to anyone who may have wanted to look.

When you kick off the covers and your hospital-issue gown is up around your neck, nothing goes unrevealed, and whoever wants to come by for a peek is welcomed to do so.

I criticized hospital food the other day, but now that I am in a more merciful mood, I guess its tastelessness is at least partly due to the chemicals being pumped into me and the fact that I was not allowed to have salt.

The kitchen hasn't discovered herbs and spices yet, but I'm sure it will, and there will be a celebration in all of the wards for the entry of rosemary and oregano into the culinary lexicon of the galley.

Someone asked if I had endured the experience of aortic valve replacement surgery just to have something to write about. That isn't too far-fetched a notion, but no. Cigna wouldn't cover me for that. Furthermore, I would no more have myself sliced open like a honeydew melon for a column than I would bungee jump with a long rope from a short tower.

I can tell you now that I'm never going back to a hospital again, no matter what. If the devil wants me, he won't find me in that parade of old men with their behinds exposed. I'll be in my office at home slumped aside a half-finished column and seeking the martini at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure it will be heavenly.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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