Rounding

By Carla Stern

“Ask him if he’s worried about his wife and children in Mexico.”

Looking at the patient, I saw the corners of his mouth trembling. The haunted look in his eyes keenly reflected the horror of what had happened to him. I averted my own eyes, not wanting to share his misery.

I repeated the question in Spanish, leaning into him so I could hear his answer. With a breathing tube he could only speak in a low rasp, making my job as medical interpreter precarious. I hated asking for repetition, especially when the patient was making such a supreme effort to get the words out. Then there was the problem of the question itself. Why did the nurse need to ask the obvious? She knew that the Mexican consulate had had no success in getting his wife a temporary visa to come here. He would be alone in the ICU, trying to make sense of his misfortune with no family to comfort him. Worse, he would no longer be able to send them money.

Sometimes the nurses’ questions veered into the land of the surreal. Once I was called into the ER for a patient who had been run over by a tractor on a farm several hours away. He had been life-flighted to the hospital and sent immediately to trauma. As he lay writhing in agony on the gurney, the nurse asked him, “On a scale of zero to ten, what is your pain level?” I fought the urge to leave out the patient, turn to her and shout, “Ten! It’s a ten!” However, I understood that the nurse was only following protocol, so I interpreted the question into Spanish for him, internally rolling my eyes.

¿Está preocupado por su esposa y sus hijos en México?” The man with the broken body nodded. I looked at the nurse and nodded reflexively, even though she could see the answer. Then the surgeon came in, a grim expression on his face, and stood there for a few seconds, perhaps assessing how he was going to say what he needed to say. “We tried very, very hard to save your leg. We performed multiple surgeries. Unfortunately, we had to amputate it. You might feel pain in the leg that isn’t there. We call that ‘phantom pain’.”

He stopped and again stood there silently before telling the patient that he would be back in the morning to check on his wound. After he left, the nurse said, “Do you have any questions?”

Agua” the patient croaked. “Quiero agua.

“Water” I repeated. “I want water.”

Interpreters are supposed to use the first person to lessen their own presence and make communication more direct. At first it felt bizarre, but I quickly got used to hearing other people’s voices in my own.

“I’m sorry. You can’t have water. You have a breathing tube and the water will go right to your lungs. As soon as the tube is taken out, we’ll give you water.”

I explained this and then stood quietly, looking down at the list of all the other patients I had to see that day.

“We know that your stay here has been difficult and we know that you’re having a hard time coming to grips with your accident. We’ll be starting you on an anti-depressant called Gabapentin. It will take a few weeks before it starts working.”

The patient looked from me to the nurse and back again to me, his mouth a rictus of despair. In my mind’s eye I saw him on the steamroller and then suddenly on the ground, flattened beneath it. At least the accident happened at work, I reasoned. That meant the medical bills would be paid by worker’s compensation. This might give him a measure of comfort, but I doubted it.

Carla Stern is a nationally certified Spanish and French medical interpreter. She has worked in this field for the past five years at a hospital in Boise, Idaho. She also works as a court interpreter in Spanish. Her story “Tilt Test” is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom in 2016. She can be found on the web at carlastern.tumblr.com.

Photo Credit: West Hospital Emergency Room from “Historic VCU: A VCU Images Special Collection

Advertisements

Memoirs of a Dissociative Youth

By Dan Morey

Every week in group therapy we are encouraged to share what is generally referred to as life experience.  The idea is to diffuse individual psychoneurotic sufferings by creating an atmosphere of empathy—rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep, as it were.

Unfortunately, the notion of life experience has always been a bit tricky for me, owing to the permeability of certain mental boundaries that in normally functioning brains serve to keep separate reality (physical-world sensory phenomenon) from that fantastical alternate dimension where one is readily convinced that a simple Morris chair isn’t a simple Morris chair at all, but is, in fact, a grotesque dwarf who wants very badly to sodomize one in some diminutive fashion.

Consequently, as I share my experiences with the group, Dr. Boylan invariably interrupts me with: “The truth please, Mr. Moreau.  No one benefits from this absurd dissembling of yours.”  And I do my best to accommodate him, though on certain days, as I reflect on my past, I see nothing but dwarves (so to speak), and am utterly unable to judge them on the basis of their materiality.  It is only on the good days—days when my mind is ordered and capable of differentiating Morris chairs from dwarves—that I can confidently paint for the group an honest portrait of my turbulent youth.  On one such recent occasion I began my story with the following introduction:

“When I was seventeen my mother and father had their throats pawed open and partially digested by a dyspeptic Rottweiler.” Continue reading

They See Us

By Margaret Kramar

“What was that?”

Lydia bolted up in bed, hearing the music again: tinny, distant, like Big Band music from the 1920s played in a darkened theatre. A radio maybe, but now it completely faded out. She strained to hear it. Nothing.

“Did you hear it?” Her husband didn’t answer, just breathed in measured cadences. He always seemed to be asleep when she heard it. But she knew that if Steve weren’t asleep, it wouldn’t have played. She sighed and nestled down into the covers, relaxing into his warmth, snuggling into the bedroom of the old farmhouse encircled by tall pines that reached way up into the heavens. Even in the darkness, the enchantment of these old green wizards was palpable.

Before they moved in, Lydia and Steve had rounded the curve of the road many times, hardly noticing the farmstead. It was only when Steve accepted the caretaker job for the summer camp on the grounds that they penetrated the interior. Following the path of the gravel driveway, a vast panorama opened up to them: verdant meadows, shining ponds, and tall gnarled oaks leaning together, whispering and murmuring their arcane secrets of old.

One building stood out alone from the others, silent in the moaning wind. The chicken house.

“We’re not getting chickens,” Steve read her mind. Continue reading

Red-Liquid Sipping Ghost

By Mi West

“Damn Santa circus!” I roar, balancing on my toes on the icy veranda railing, and I continue, “Decorative chains are the worn-out ball and chain of dads in December.” I’d rather be balancing on my skis in the Scandinavian mountains instead. I hiss four-letter words toward a snowdrift in the garden.

Once forced into place, the lights don’t work. That turns me off even worse. Enlightened technology has taken astronauts way to the Moon, but geegaws lasting at least as long as a big pack of Christmas ginger cookies are still sci-fi.

Same procedure as last year: I fetch a spare bulb and try some swaps at random. Finally, light conquers darkness, and I consequently suppress the rest of my traditional, four-letter, juicy highlights.

I hear a teen voice behind me, the son of our neighbor Vatnberg, nicked Watson, “What’s up? Need some help?”

The teen has the gift of a detective and mystery solver. I reply while climbing down, “Thanks for asking, Watson. No, just got this monster up and running again, sweatshop junk, you know, a present from my grandma-in-law… What about you? Any cool mysteries around?”

“Our home is haunted.” Continue reading

Extraordinary Neighbors

By Dawn Wilson

Miriam yoo-hooed. I hate it when Miriam yoo-hoos. She sounds like a yahoo. And I’ve told her so. She never listens. She’s from a small town where all the women go around yoo-hooing each other all the live long day. It’s unpleasant. She does the flicking wave, too. One arm out straight, heil Hitler, and the wrist bending aw-shucks. These were women schooled on Liberace: real men twinkle.

The man who’d just moved in next door, the one Miriam was yoo-hooing while I tended her precious flower bed, did not twinkle. He was your basic everyday man’s man, I figured. A very brown man, often covered in dirt. He wore a baggy black sweatshirt. He had Italian hair, pepper black with gray salt, slicked back.

“Yoo-hoo!”

The man turned.

“Oh, hello.” As if she was surprised to see him, or surprised he was real. When he turned his gaze on you, you just sort of did that, forgot what you were doing. I stood up with the little trowel, in case she needed backup. “I never saw a moving van.”

“Didn’t need one.” Continue reading

Powerless

By Katherine Orozco

I hate when the power goes out. You see, when the power goes out where I live, it’s not just a normal dark, the one that your eyes get used to after a few minutes. It’s the kind of dark that presses on your eyes and keeps you blind. It’s the kind of dark that makes you imagine noises, imagine that your childhood fears are coming to life. It’s the kind of dark that makes people go crazy.

One night, close to Thanksgiving, the power went out in my house. I sat in my chair, my eyes as open as I could get them, and tried to stare around in the black for a flashlight. A futile endeavor, I might add. Slowly but surely, the temperature dropped lower, and I was soon shivering in my seat. However, I wasn’t inclined to move. For all I knew, there could be something on the floor, waiting for me to put my bare foot down on the freezing tile. But, eventually, I braved the floor and sprinted to my room, where I tripped over a step and leaped onto my bed. Quickly, I wrapped my down blanket around myself, trying to calm my tremors of irrational fear and cold. Eventually, my heart rate slowed to normal.

And that’s when I heard a noise.  Continue reading

Visit Home

By Robert Earle

A suburb that once was a few estates roofed with old hardwoods on a peninsula bordered by two rivers flowing into the Atlantic. The man knew the way (he’d been married there), but the woman directed him where to turn. They were looking for her childhood home, not his. Only she had memories of the woods that stood before these roads were built and of the barn being torn down when she was five and of the trees her father preserved to ensure their privacy as he sold off twenty acres, one after another, and kept just three for themselves.

They turned up a side street. There, set back a good eighty feet, stood the house with its shingles painted silver-gray and its trim in perfect condition, likewise the rain gutters, and the window in the second floor gable behind which she had lived from her birth until she was eighteen.

She said, “I’ve got to knock.”

“I’ll sit here. They’ll react better if it’s just you.”

Continue reading