Waves of Regret (Essay by Susan Newark) Satire Black Humor Medical Malpractice Radiation
The following piece from 1990 is a blackly-humored satire based on the Newark family's real-life experiences with radiation and related hospital practices. It is excerpted from Dear Husband.
Waves of Regret
A snotty nurse once told my mother that a million dollars’ worth of cobalt was used in her radiation treatment. I guess that was supposed to compensate for the severe untreatable burns and endless health problems, which plagued her for decades to come. It’s okay, though—the doctor promised to severely reprimand the other nurse who’d wandered away to gossip and left Mom strapped to the table. That was 1957, you see, and in those days the machines did not shut off by themselves. Not to worry, however, because this is a brave new world, and the care modern hospitals take with radiation is impeccable.
I should know—I just spent a couple of weeks in one with Mom, who died assured that, on the record, the gigantic tumor with its multitudinous twisting, winding roots (which doctors had examined in awe for four hours on the ultrasound) had nothing to do with the one million dollars’ worth of cobalt. In fact, one doctor even assured her that her story was so implausible she had probably imagined it. Her shrunken shoulder bones and the scar tissue remaining after removal of the original cyst were obviously the result of some other phenomenon.
Anyway, as I sat by Mom’s bedside, I could certainly see that the times have changed when it comes to care with radiation. For example, down the hall, I’d noticed a patient’s room with warning signs all over the wall next to the open door.
RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS. DO NOT ENTER.
EMPLOYEES MUST WEAR PROTECTIVE CLOTHING.
I asked the nurse about it, and she informed about the patient’s radioactive rod implants, apparently lethal enough to maim or kill at close range. Well, no problem. Passersby were at least fifteen feet from the bed as they strolled by the room, and any young children unable to read or visitors who couldn’t speak English would surely be deterred in a reasonable period of time.
And the meticulous procedure with which the staff decontaminated the room after the patient finally checked out was even more impressive than the big red warning signs. I know, because I watched them do it. For a couple of hours, two young men carted each piece of furniture from the room, set it in front of the door to Mom’s room, and ran a radiation detecting scanner over it, before hauling it back into its original position. Lest you should think they were careless, I must stress that they put a paper sheet on the floor so that visitors strolling down the hall would not pick up anything undesirable on their shoes—one assumes the doctors have established that radiation heads for the floor rather than loitering mid-air. And the concern for their own safety was equally responsible, for they wore blue paper shoe and uniform coverings the whole time and ran the scanners over themselves when they were done.
Once finished, they conscientiously stored all the disposable items and linens in plastic bags, cramming a large open-topped cloth bin in the hallway. No one picked up the bin for several hours, but I wasn’t worried as I brushed by it to use the rest room, because obviously they knew what they were doing. I mean, if radiation can’t penetrate paper, it certainly can’t penetrate plastic.
Later I did a little snooping to find out what happened to the bin, but I eventually gave in to hunger after failing to locate any off-limits areas. Tired, I decided to ride the elevator to the cafeteria instead of descending the stairs as usual. But as I emerged in the basement and paused to get my bearings, I found that my search was over. For right there next to the elevator were two swinging metal doors labeled DECONTAMINATION UNIT. I peered through the glass windows at bare-armed employees busily decontaminating the contents of the army-green cloth laundry bins, and I briefly wondered if I’d accidentally taken the staff-only elevator, ending up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be (I’d mistakenly done this one other time, emerging by the employee break room, and had been chewed out royally). But a few steps around the corner assured me I wasn’t in trouble, since the cafeteria door (which I usually approached from the other side) was right there.
As I scuffled in, I noted a sandwich bar along the right, a salad bar in the middle, and a hot food buffet to the left, next to some doors leading to a back room where the food was stored and prepared. Quickly I deduced that this back room shared a wall with the DECONTAMINATION UNIT. Well good, I thought, hospital food being what it is, the only thing that looked appealing was the salad bar—and now I wouldn’t have to worry about quality vegetables. If by some chance they’d missed being irradiated before getting there, they surely were adequately treated by now.
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Photo is of my mother in 1985 with my son Erik.
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