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Walking Mrs. Jones




           I think the turning point came when I smelled the tobacco.  I put out my nose, craning my neck toward the bag she held open.  Captain Black.

            “This is the good stuff,” Mrs. Jones said.  Her tone was conspiratorial, though there was nothing subtle or sneaky about the way she had plucked the bag from the black canvas tote in her lap and offered it up in cupped hands like a goblet.  “It’s all I smoke.  You should try it.”

            I inhaled audibly, positioning myself just close enough to the scent so as to be believable, still keeping a safe enough distance to avoid prolonging the encounter or, God forbid, spilling the bag that already jiggled with the tremors of her eighty years.  As it was, I was hovering over a patient parked in a visitor’s chair in the middle of the General Medicine corridor, holding in each hand a corncob pipe that she had also produced from the depths of her bag.  I was desperate for Mrs. Jones to repack these prized belongings so I could continue escorting her back to her room.

            Just a few minutes earlier, she had made another break for it.  Not quite like the prior evening, when she had somehow procured a wheelchair and wheeled herself out to the parking lot sixteen floors below, then placed a call to her nurse back on the floor to inform him that she didn’t like the food and had gone out in search of something better.  Today she had only tottered by our team of doctors and medical students, crouching over her cane and trailing her other hand along the wall, her black bag of treasures swinging from the crook of her elbow.  This time she was dressed in her own clothes, complete with her bright red ball cap, its stiff brim partially covering her unkempt hair.  We all turned to watch her amble along, then our gazes snapped back to one other’s questioning looks.  “Has her paperwork been done?” several people asked at once.  “Should she be leaving?”

            I caught up to her at the elevator bank.

            “Mrs. Jones, you can’t leave just yet.  We have to finish your discharge papers.  Come on back to your room.”

            She angled her face up over her hunched shoulder and fixed me with an accusatory look.  “I have to get going!  I have to go to the ATM so I can get gas and some food on the way!  I have a long drive ahead of me!”  

            I quashed my alarm at the image of her operating a motor vehicle and addressed the more urgent issue.  “If you go to the ATM now and the nurse comes with your discharge paperwork while you’re away from your room, he’s not going to wait for you to get back!  Then it will just take even longer for you to get on your way.”  I prayed that I sounded convincing.

            She hesitated.  “I have to take the LIE.  There will be traffic.”  We both glanced up at the arrows above the elevator that would light up as soon as the next car arrived.  Just give me one more minute, I pleaded silently.  Please.

            “Oh believe me, I know!” I looked at my watch with stage concern.  It was 11:30 on a Tuesday morning.  Even the Long Island Expressway would likely be moving at a good clip.  “It can be like a parking lot!  But we’ll be able to get you on the road sooner if you go back to your room now.”

            “But if I go back, they’ll try to wheel me out when I leave, and then I won’t get to the ATM!”  She brightened at this new argument in support of her quest.

            “We’ll tell the transporter to stop at the ATM,” her nurse promised.  He had come up behind me and stood with his arms crossed nonchalantly.  It seemed he was trying not to get too excited yet at the sendoff of his problem patient.  “There’s one in the lobby.  They can wheel you right up to it.”

            “You promise?”  She glared at him.

            “Promise,” he and I chorused.

            “If they don’t, I’ll come back up here with my cane - ”

            “We promise.  Come on, Mrs. Jones, I’ll walk you back to your room.”  I turned back toward the ward’s main corridor.

            She shoved her black bag at me.  “You take this.  And give me your arm.”

            I offered her my left elbow, stooping to erase a few of the inches between us.  She threaded her gnarled right hand up around my forearm.  “Stand up straight!” she commanded.  I eased up closer to my full height, still contorting to an odd angle as we inched our way back into the hallway and around the circular floor toward her room.

            We had covered only a short distance when she demanded a rest.  “I need to catch my breath.  You know why?  It’s the smoking!”  She was gleeful in this admission as she maneuvered into the worn, pink-and-gold upholstered chair pressed up against the edge of the corridor.

            “Mrs. Jones, you know you shouldn’t smoke,” I chastened her, at the same time scolding myself for neglecting to get a detailed social history complete with a pack-per-year smoking history at my initial interview a few days earlier.

            “Well I’m not stopping!  You know what I smoke?”  She began unzipping the bag she had snatched back from me.  Please don’t let it be pot, I prayed, realizing that there was very little this woman could do to surprise me.  “A corncob pipe!” she exclaimed.  I smiled in relief, which she interpreted as disbelief.  “You don’t believe me!”

            “Oh, Mrs. Jones, I believe you,” I assured her.  “I know you wouldn’t lie to me.”

            You told me I had terrible bedside manner when I asked you if you had ever had cancer, I wanted to remind her.  You told me there was no way that I would ever remember your answers to all of the questions I asked during that first meeting, and badgered me until I agreed to take notes.  Then, as I dug into my overstuffed pocket for my notepad, you expressed only grudging approval and added, “But I’m not starting over!”  

            You belittled me for my ineptitude at adjusting your bed when you demanded that I sit you up for breakfast – first lower the head so you could wriggle up farther, then raise it up again, you taught me – and at maneuvering the wheeled table into position across your lap.  The next day, you scoffed at my unintelligence as I fumbled with the hospital phone that you shoved in my face, commanding me to place your very specific breakfast order, which completely flouted the diabetic restrictions that we had placed on your diet but that you deemed absurd.  When you finally let me examine the leg rash that you insisted had been present since 1979 – and who was I to question whether it had been there the whole time; wasn’t that what you had just told me? – you complained that the attending physician, whom you first mistook for a nursing assistant, was “one of those... you know, the silly ones that giggle” and I had to duck closer to concentrate on your rash and pretend that I had missed your overt judgment of his sexuality.  I know you wouldn’t lie to me, Mrs. Jones, and I now have your corncob pipes in my hands and your stash of tobacco under my nose to prove it, when all I want is to escort you back to your room.

            I gave the pipes one more appreciative turn in my hands before gently laying them back in her bag.

            “OK, Mrs. Jones, let’s get back to your room.”

            “I can’t!  I need a wheelchair.  Go get one for me.  There are some nice ones down in the lobby.”  She busied herself folding closed the top of the Captain Black bag and settled deeper into the chair.

            “You can make it!” I cheered encouragingly.  “I’ll help you.  Here, I’ll carry your bag and you can lean on my arm again.”  I hauled her to her feet.

            She took a moment to steady.  “Do you know how to walk with an orthopedic patient?  I bet you don’t.”

            I angled myself to her right, holding out my arm again.  “No, I don’t.  But you can teach me.”

    She waggled her cane to secure its grip against the tile then looked up at me with strict instructions.

            “We’ll start on three.  I’ll count.  I’ll put my left foot first and you’ll put your left foot first.  Then my right and your right.  Don’t start until I say ‘three’.”

            I nodded earnestly, glancing ahead to gauge any obstacles that might impede our progress.  “OK.  On your count.”

            “One.  Two.  Three.”  I thrust my left foot out and carefully aligned it with hers to create matching strides.  Our right feet landed next and we glided slowly down the hall, our hips no longer bumping against one another.  I rotated slightly to guide us through the isthmus between two medical teams huddled around mobile computers, careful to twist at the fulcrum of my left shoulder so as not to disrupt Mrs. Jones’ balance.

            When we reached Room 138, I asked whether she preferred the bed or the chair, certain that whatever I chose without asking would be wrong.  She eased onto the bed, already made up in anticipation of a new occupant, then rocked forward to latch her arms around me.  I cocked my head in surprise, unwittingly assisting her papery kiss in hitting my cheek.      

            “You’re going to make a great doctor.  Keep me in your prayers.”

I gripped her shoulders firmly, uninhibited for once by second-guesses and worries that my actions would lead to more rebukes.

            “Thank you, Mrs. Jones; that really means a lot.  You take good care of yourself.”

            I backed out of her room just as the nurse appeared holding her discharge papers and slipped down the hall to quietly rejoin my team. ■

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