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Life is the Sweetest Revenge
There's no dignity in a hospital. That was the long and short of it.
David Starsky directed his eyes up at the stained acoustical tiles on the ceiling while a nurse he'd never met handled his private parts with cold hands, trying to insert a Foley catheter for a urine sample.
Blowing through tightly pursed lips, Starsky tried to ignore the sharp burn as the nurse inserted the tube. A cramping pain signaled the catheter had arrived at its intended destination and the nurse's murmured comments that it was almost over proved she was now filling a sterile specimen cup with pale yellow liquid.
Flipping the patient's gown back over his genitals, the nurse continued on with her duties, lining up a selection of needles and collection vials for easy assess. Watching, Starsky made a petulant face. Oh goody, now it was time for the blood draw.
The doctor du jour, a fresh faced resident with an Eastern European name Starsky had yet to pronounce correctly, was concerned that his patient was anemic. Thus, he'd ordered that Starsky endure yet another needle stuck into his already poked veins to determine why he was anemic.
The nurse gave it her best try, but Starsky's veins had been through this too many times to capitulate on the first try. They were made of sterner stuff than that. After three abortive attempts, the nurse sighed in exasperation, and apologized. She scurried off to find someone more skilled in vampire lore than herself to obtain a couple of cc's of the red stuff, leaving her patient uncomfortable and cold. The blankets had been folded back to the end of the bed and there was no way he could pull himself to a sitting position, yank the covers up and lie down. Not by himself anyway. These days he needed help for even that simple activity.
Waiting for the next nurse to come divining for his vital fluids, Starsky wanted to shout at the lot of them that he wouldn't be so anemic if they'd just stop draining him of blood. Pretty simple solution!
But his vote didn't count. Not at all. That was the most galling thing about being in the hospital. Here he was the fused over patient, and no one paid him any mind except as "the gunshot wound in room 437."
There was hardly an hour in the day when there wasn't some medical personnel with their hands on him, causing him more pain and more indignity. And yet, his own wants and needs were the last to be recognized.
He couldn't choose when he wanted a bath, when he could take a leak, eat his meals, have his bandages changed or even when he could have visitors. The doctors and nurses were busy people. They had to get their jobs down efficiently, and if it meant that David Starsky got a bath when he was so tired he just wanted to sleep, that was too bad. He needed to be clean and he could take a sleeping pill later on if he wanted to get some rest.
Then there were the hateful dressing changes. The wounds left by James Gunther's assassins hurt with a fury that could consume Starsky's indomitable spirit on the worst days. On the best days, the pain was within the bounds of tolerance as long as he got his pain meds on time and lots of rest. But the dressing changes shredded his very soul. Every day he tried to prepare himself for the ordeal and every day he found himself dropped into the pit of hell, cursing the bullets that had nearly ended his life.
The nurses always premedicated with extra dope, so that he felt disconnected and unfocused. Then, they'd cut the bandages away, revealing the handiwork of the surgeons to the air. Just the breeze from the air conditioner cut like a knife into his skin and he always hissed in surprise. It never got any easier. The nurses took their time, probing and examining each ghastly wound with macabre interest until Starsky was clutching the bed sheets with taloned fingers.
No matter how hard he tried, Starsky couldn't hold back the tears when they got to the one on the left, the one where the bullet had ripped open his lung and shattered a rib. The pain was too insistent, too demanding of his attention. He couldn't ignore the dragon sitting heavily on his chest, its claws slicing into his thoracic cavity, stealing his breath away. The dragon belched fire, searing Starsky's heart, lungs and throat when the nurses' hands packed the still gaping wound with sterile gauze. He'd scream at that point which only hurt worse, the simple inhalation needed to make sound causing agony beyond belief.
Starsky tried mentally transporting himself to another planet where he had healthy lungs and pain free days, the way the hospital pain specialist had suggested, but the dragon never let him stay. Its sharp teeth would grab him by the ribs and drag him back to earth with wrenching bursts of shocking pain. The nurses would try to sooth, rewrapping his wounds with gentle careful hands, but by that time he'd be too far gone. The pain would twist into his flesh, imbed itself in his cells, taunting him to a rematch of stamina, one which he never won. It would take two or three hours before he could handle any other invasive procedures, as they called them. So they came to the late afternoon blood draw.
If he were lucky, there was only one a day, but today, with the ominous low hemoglobin levels, there was to be a morning and afternoon stick. At this rate, there'd be the oh-so-dreaded midnight special, too. Sharpened silver needles stabbing him in the artery for more bloodletting at the witching hour, which destroyed any chance of rest and left an aching bruise to throb ceaselessly through the dark night.
"Hi, David." SarahLee, his favorite nurse, greeted him with a tooth flashing smile. She had smooth skin the color of chocolate honey, a sweet disposition and an accent reminiscent of the sun warmed beaches of the Caribbean. "Sorry to do this to you again but Dr. McKenzie wants a CBC."
"Then get it from him," Starsky grumped. He didn't want to be so cranky with her, but he was so tired. Tired of endless hands on his body, always touching, annoying, causing pain. It was bad enough to have her soft fingers walking up his needle scarred arms, palpating for a vein that hadn't been stuck recently. SaraLee had a gentle touch, but these days, his skin was so sensitive. But it wasn't just that: It was the loss of control in his personal space. His psyche had been bruised along with the rest of his body.
It was worse, though, when the presiding attending doctor came in with his gaggle of medical students to ogle at the miracle patient. Droning endlessly, the doctor would describe in sickening detail how the patient had survived automatic weapon fire, massive blood loss, cardiac failure and coma without any regard for Starsky lying in the bed beside him. He'd become a sideshow geek and he resented it. He had no privacy, no where to hide from the invasions into his room. Closing his eyes was his only escape, but that didn't mute the constant noise of the hospital. Monitors beeped, operators paged doctors overhead even in the wee hours of the night. It was a wonder anyone could get any sleep at all.
"I'd get it from Dr. Mac if he would just stand still for one minute," SarahLee said good-naturedly, "He rushes through here, writing a slew of orders every morning and it takes us the rest of the day to catch up." She tightened a rubber tourniquet around Starsky's left wrist to pop out the veins on the back of his hand. "A quick stick, then it'll be over. This one looks like a gusher," she remarked, readying her needle.
Turning his head so he didn't have to watch, Starsky clenched his teeth as the needle slid into the thin skin of his hand, panting when SarahLee slipped the knot on the tourniquet, indicating she'd been successful. A few moments later she pulled the needle free, pressing a cotton ball over the tiny wound.
"You bruise so easily these days." She sighed, her brown thumb shockingly dark against the almost transparent paleness of Starsky's skin. "Probably'll need a transfusion by tomorrow at this rate. I'll send Loretta back in with your antibiotics and morphine. Would you like some juice? You haven't eaten or drunk much today."
Nurses were always so nosy about his bodily functions. They recorded every ounce that went in or out with the fanaticism of mathematicians calculating the secrets of the universe. No drop of fluid escaped their eagle eyes.
"Not very thirsty," Starsky muttered, just wanting to get some sleep. If he could just steal an hour of shut eye he'd feel so much better when the P.T. came by to force him up on tottery feet, to stand like a decrepit eighty year old trembling as he gripped a walker for stability. Not that he ever walked anywhere. That was for next week. For now, just standing upright usually dropped his blood pressure so quickly he had to lie flat to relieve the free-flying dizziness. Then the nurse would come by, urging him to drink more juice, to get his strength back. Like that would help.
"Orange or apple, David?" SarahLee persisted, writing out a little sticker to identify the blood sample she'd just gotten.
"Apple, I guess," he relented, peeking under the cotton ball to see if the needle mark had stopped bleeding.
"Coming up!" She nodded, with almost annoying perkiness.
Loretta returned within seconds bearing a plethora of syringes arranged on a tray and a small cup of apple juice. She inserted the syringes one by one into the IV catheter sutured into one of the main veins in his chest so he didn't have to endure constant injections on top of the lab draws.
Morphine for pain, Gentamycin for the infection, Albuteral inhalers for his damaged airways, Lasix to help him pee and Compazine to ward off nausea so he could digest the proffered juice. So, sedated by the narcotic, he'd be too nauseated from the antibiotic and too wired from the bronchodilator to sleep. The diuretic filled his bladder too full so he couldn't relax and the anti-emetic only half relieved the ache in his belly to allow him to sip the overly sweet juice which just further nauseated him, A vicious cycle that left him always jittery, his nerves frayed around the edges like an old worn out shirt. Even several hours of sleep never completely rested him so he was exhausted and nervous but never relaxed enough to rest peacefully.
For once the physical therapist left him alone when she saw him curled away from the door, eyes shut. Starsky feigned sleep, listening to the sound of her rubber soled shoes padding away and breathed a shallow sigh of relief. Alone at last, for hopefully an hour or so. Sleep claimed him despite the barrage of stimuli from his bodily aches and the bustling hospital clamor and he dropped into a blessed narcotic haze. It loosened the sharp jabbing pain in his chest so he could slip away from the stress of the day for a brief respite.
Finally at peace, he gave himself up to Morphia, dreaming of his former days when he would drive his candy apple red Torino through rain slicked streets, the gleaming street lamps highlighting the car's white racing stripe like a beacon in the night. Hutch would be riding shotgun, griping about the burgers at Starsky's latest restaurant choice of the evening and extolling the virtues of a macrobiotic diet. The way Starsky's life was supposed to be.
The summer light was fading, the sun dipping down in the west to send long shadows slanting across the bed when Starsky woke. It was always best to lie very still at first, to let his battered body adjust to the transition between wake and sleep. He focused on various points in his body, testing out which still hurt and which were okay to move. That was always a game of discovery. What might have plagued him for a day or two would finally recede into the background only to be replaced by a newly discovered pain somewhere else. That evening, it was Old Faithful, the spiteful wound over his left lung. Stubbornly refusing to heal properly after the sutured incision had opened up, a persistent infection was resisting all efforts to cure it with single minded purpose. The doctors were starting to scratch their heads in consternation, throwing a different antibiotic at the fiendish bacteria every few days.
Even before opening his eyes, Starsky brought a hand up to press against his bandage-bound chest so he could shift his weight in the bed. Nevertheless, he let out a deep groan of pain.
"Hey, you awake?" a voice inquired.
Hutch was back! Aware he couldn't expect Hutch to sit by the bedside for his entire recuperation, Starsky still waited all day for his visits. Hutch had only gone back to policing the streets a few weeks ago, unable to stretch his time off any further, but his departure left feeling Starsky lonely for his friend and jealous of his ability to leave the hospital.
Starsky turned too quickly, then had to wait for the supernovas exploding behind his eyelids to wane before he could speak. He took short doggy breaths, feeling Hutch's strong hand curl around his limp one, lending strength and support.
"Take it easy there," Hutch soothed, using his other hand to brush the shaggy curls off his friend's forehead. "I'm not leaving."
"How...how long you been there?" Starsky cautiously opened his eyes, drinking in the sight of his partner and best friend. Despite the dimness of the room, Hutch's blond hair caught every particle of light, shining silvery bright like a star. Hutch brought back life to the room, carrying Starsky's heart with him. It was as if everything was easier and less frightening when he was there.
"Not long, catching up on the news." Hutch held up a paper, revealing that he'd been reading the comics.
"Sluggo datin' Nancy yet?" Starsky squinted at the black and white drawings but his vision was still fuzzy. Forcing the dragon squatting over his lungs back into his cage, he slammed the door shut. "That Aunt Fritzi's a real looker."
"Starsky, only you would find a comic character attractive." Hutch smirked. Every time he came to the hospital, he walked with fear in his throat, certain that Starsky would have taken a turn for the worse and the doctors were too busy saving his life to give Hutch a call. Every time he entered room 437 he was enormously relieved to see Starsky alive, inching ever closer to recovery.
"You can't tell me you don't look twice at Wonder Woman." Starsky angled his head on the pillow to see Hutch better.
"When I was twelve, maybe," Hutch agreed, folding the funnies in half. "So how was your day?"
Full of pain, Starsky wanted to say, but he didn't. Hutch knew. He'd been there countless times to hold his hand through the worst of it. He'd witnessed the blood draws, the bedpans, gory bandages, even cleaned up when Starsky lost his stomach all over the sheets. Hutch knew well enough without being told. "About the same. Nothing ever changes here. How was yours?"
Hutch launched into a highly embellished version of his day, describing his encounters with snitches, pimps and drug dealers in amusing detail. He recounted snatches of conversation and funny situations with fellow officers for Starsky's amusement.
It helped. A lot. Starsky listened with relish to the tale of the bust of a well known heroin dealer, cheering for the end of the criminal's evil career. This was his norm, what he yearned to get back to. It gave him a goal and a future to strive for.
The nurse who came in to administer another dose of painkiller listened in amazement for a few moments, appalled at Starsky's obvious enjoyment of Hutch's cop stories. Starsky missed the excitement, the adrenaline, and the satisfaction of police work. But most of all he missed being with Hutch.
The stories eased the pain and indignity of hospital life, proving there was a world past the plain white walls of the hospital. Someday Starsky would walk out of Memorial, scarred but unbowed, back in command of his own destiny. For now, he had to content himself with the stories.
"Getting kind of hungry, buddy, don't you have a tray around here?" Hutch glanced over at a covered tray on the little table that straddled the end of the bed. He'd bought his own sandwich from a local deli, no longer able to abide the hospital cafeteria's idea of food.
"Don't want it." Starsky turned up his nose at the delights Hutch uncovered when he lifted the lid. "I'm not hungry." Not for the boring sameness of a liquid diet. Nothing to chew, no spice, no enjoyment.
"Gotta eat something." Hutch pushed the tray closer, and thumbed the button to raise the bed head up so Starsky could reach the food.
"It never stays down," Starsky said mournfully. His stomach had been pierced neatly by a bullet in the shooting. The surgeons had found the misshapen piece of metal sitting in the fundus like it was expecting to be digested, and removed it, sewing up the path of its entry with tiny stitches.
Starsky had only recently been allowed to eat anything at all. The problem was that food generally made a repeat appearance shortly after it was swallowed. If it did stay down, most foods lurked in his belly, boiling in an acid bath, giving off distress beacons in the form of heartburn. So far, not eating was easier on his stomach.
"The Jell-O's red. Your favorite."
"I want steak." Starsky pouted moodily, pushing the offending tray away from his nose. The bowl of cooling broth smelled like the back of a burger joint that had been condemned by the health department.
"Use your imagination." Hutch took a healthy bite of his sprout sandwich. He could eat in front of Starsky because Starsky never wanted 'vegetable sandwiches' as he called them. Even so, he tried to think of a way to get food into his friend's mouth. Starsky's weight had dropped precipitously, the lines of his face razor sharp without any excess fat. "Pretend it's meat."
"It ain't steak. What kinda meat is that?"
Hutch put down his sandwich, examining the aforementioned dessert. What exactly was Jell-O, anyway? Touching the spoon to the semi-solid red square of Jell-O, he watched it quiver in response. "Cube steak?"
Starsky laughed. It wasn't much of a laugh, more like a soundless chuckle really and even with his hand pressed hard against the bandages encasing his chest, it hurt like hell. Still, it was a better hurt than all the ones the nurses had inflicted on him all day. Tears sprang in his eyes, but he wiped them away, riding out the overwhelming pain.
"Only hurts when you laugh?" Hutch smiled fondly, blinking away his own tears. It was the first time Starsky had laughed in a long, long time. Since the morning of May 15 to be exact.
"Never seen a Cube before, but they must be ugly beasts." Starsky couldn't stop the half giggles that kept bubbling up like champagne, destroying his attempts to get his breathing under control.
"They produce sweet juice though." Hutch laughed with joy at his partner's happiness. He smashed the Jell-O cube flat with the back of the spoon, making red glop in the bottom of the bowl. "Ever drink the Jell-O just after you put in the boiling water? Before it goes hard in the fridge?"
"My mom always gave us sips," Starsky remembered with affection, the merriment hard on his healing ribs. He was tiring fast. "That's great stuff." He closed his eyes with a smile on his face, feeling the sweetness of life shared with a good friend. Giving in to the morphine, he dropped off to sleep in mid-thought.
"Sleep well, Starsk." Hutch laid a gentle hand over his friend's heart, just for a moment. Always content to sit and watch Starsky sleep, he stored up memories of their friendship to digest at a later time, cataloguing each heartbeat as proof that Starsky had survived.
Gunther hadn't won. Life was the sweetest revenge.