The only reason I remembered him was because of his name. The extra syllables indicated he was of African descent. North African to be exact. Algerian, if I wanted to be precise. I grabbed his leather wallet that had the word “Chicago” imprinted on the front and pulled out his ID. The leather smelled fresh and was still snug. It took me a couple pulls to get the card fully out.
With his ID in my hand I looked at him with curiosity in my eyes. “Algerian?” I said. He smiled bright showing his straight white teeth and said a resounding “Yes!”. I knew he was in pain because the smile quickly turned into a grimace as his eyes closed and face contorted. He was holding onto his left arm and squeezing his shoulder. I handed his ID to the registrar, her hair short and red just like her attitude. She snatched it from me. I always thought she took her job far too seriously.
Earlier, Chicago Fire Department paramedics called the ER saying they were bringing in a man who had just called 911 complaining of chest pains for the past hour. Three minutes later the ER doors busted open as two muscular medics wheeled in a man on a gurney. One of them looked like he was about to bust out of his t-shirt. I looked at his toned arms longer than warranted and pointed them both down the hall to room number 8.
I followed them in with an EKG machine and closed the door as the man shifted from the gurney to the hospital stretcher. I noticed he was taking in deep breaths between each move that he made. The paramedic with the ridiculous arms began rambling information to me. I was trying my best to look at his face and not at his arms that seemed to be pulsating with each word he said. My mind zoned in on the important words as I turned the EKG machine on. “Stents placed last year…” The man looked like he had just come home from work. His pinstripe button up shirt was creased on the sleeves. “49 years old…” I gently smiled at him attempting to ease his fears and unbuttoned his shirt in order to stick the cardiac monitor on his chest. “No significant cardiac history in his family…”
As the paramedics left the room the attending doctor and student drifted in. I handed the EKG over to her. She took a glance at it and told the patient his heart looked fine and lab work would be more definitive of any serious cardiac complications. She instructed me what to do with a look and nod and I proceeded to do what I have done so many times before.
I’ve been a nurse for six years. I’ve been a caretaker for many more. My spirit has always been drawn to people, especially when they are sick. I recognized early on that caring for people was part of my make up. It is one of the things that are at the core of my being. I’ve worked in the heart of Brooklyn to the coast of San Fransisco and there is one thing everyone has in common; we desire company when ill. Very few people want to be alone when they are sick. Illness breeds a sense of vulnerability and makes most of us yearn for human connections. The essence of living and what makes life are those around us. Realizing your own demise can be a smack in the face.
He was lying in the bed, topless with his bare chest out. His chest hair curly like the full head of dark hair that sat on top of his head. His jeans and shoes were still on. I unlaced each shoe and gently slid them off of his feet, readjusted him in bed and asked him to put his left arm out. I tied a tourniquet around his upper arm and watched veins begin to surface underneath his tan skin. I noticed a faded tattoo on his arm and in my broken Sudanese Arabic I could make out the name of a woman. It read “Nasrin”.
I told him to count to three and warned him that I was about to pierce his skin. He asked me if it would hurt. I said yes. As I stuck the needle into him I imagined him being in far away sandy places deeply in love with a girl who had deep brown eyes and long eyelashes. Nasrin. She would wear a black headscarf and readjust it when strands of her black hair slipped through. It was always her eyes that drew him in. It was the first thing that drew him in. She would walk past his classroom everyday. He’d wait for her even if it meant just one glance. He would wait. Their relationship would be awkward stares and lingering looks until the day she got close enough for him to say something. This time she was so close he could smell her. He froze. She would wait. There was a sense of patience to her. He begged for the words to come up. He cursed his brain for not giving his body permission and demanded his mouth make words but it did not comply. She didn’t look at him with eyes of stupidity instead she quietly looked downwards and gently commanded out his throat a simple “hello”. They would begin to meet in secret while their love began to grow.
His naivety and love for American movies taught him that if you really loved a woman you would get her name imprinted on your body. Eventually, he would get her name tattooed in secret places because Islam forbade any alteration of the body. When he showed her the tattoo she covered her mouth in disbelief. She grabbed his arm and her eyes shifted up to his face. This was when he realized no woman had ever looked at him with such intensity and desire. He tried his best not to grimace as she sensually traced her index finger around her name. He looked at her supple lips contrasted against deep caramel skin. A ray of sun snuck into the dim room and hit her eyes as she looked up at him again. Her eyes dripping with lust and pure passion. This time she didn’t hide. She wanted him to see it all. The room smelled of their sweat and ravaging hormones. With all the humidity her scarf began to slip off. His body was feeling things that he didn’t know or even cared to describe. At that moment no one else existed in the world. It was only him and Nasrin. His hand was slowly making its way to her face. He imagined what her skin would feel like under his finger tips. He stopped. He couldn’t. All the waiting he had done for this one moment. It was the worlds turn to wait for him. He wanted the world to turn seconds into minutes, minutes into hours and hours into days that would never end and if the world couldn’t do that than by Allah the world needed to freeze time all together for him. He demanded the world wait and his conviction so deep and devoted that he lost himself in her and she in him.
Later he would find out that time did not wait and a nosy neighbor standing on a nearby roof would tell Nasrin’s father that he ought to have a better rein on his daughters. This would abruptly end their early blossoming of a relationship and this was when he learned the life lesson that time was a taker and never a giver. She waited for no one, not even the begging mother would get a seconds worth of extra time with her dying newborn. It was simple.
A university scholarship would send him to Chicago and Nasrin would marry a man in the nearby city of Constantine. Her face aging but the deep brown and youthfulness of her eyes remaining. Sometimes on his summer visits home he would walk past the school. Children would poke their heads out looking at the people and donkeys carrying water down the bustling street. These were the times he would think of her. Their love would be a faded memory but like the tattoo Nasrin was forever imprinted on his being.
I began to fill the tubes with thick red blood. He looked down at his arm alarmingly and jokingly warned me not to drain his body. I reassured him he was a big man and this was virtually impossible. He laughed as I snapped the tourniquet off his arm.
I walked to the front of the ER to send his blood up to the lab. I could hear a lady crying in one of the rooms and a mother cooing her baby to sleep in another. Hospitals remind us that death and life are one in the same. I sat at my computer charting as one of the medical students hovered over the attending doctor. The secretary turned to me and said, “Room number 8 is calling you.” I walked to his room and he pointed to his chest as his face twisted in pain. I glanced at the cardiac monitor to make sure his heart rhythm was normal. Fifteen minutes later combined with a dose of morphine he rested comfortably in his bed. He turned to me and asked if his blood results had come back. I told him they hadn’t but he’d was more than likely going to stay the night at the hospital. He let out a deep sigh as I left his room.
As the night went by the ER began to bustle with the sounds of patients vomiting, call bells ringing and people crying. I whirled from room to room administering medications, drawing blood and talking to concerned family members. Nearly every time I walked near room number 8 he would wave me down. My annoyance began to reach new heights because of the volume of sick people I was tending to. Right now he was fine and I was too busy to casually talk.
Eventually, my shift was over. I put my jacket on and grabbed by bag. I was heading out and walked past his room. We exchanged smiles and he asked where I was going. He was lying in the stretcher with the heart monitor on. Different colored wires were sticking from under his hospital gown. I told him my shift was over and I was headed home. With concern in his voice he asked if someone else would be in to take care of him. I thought that was a silly question. I told him yes and that I had given her a full report on his condition.
My co-worker would call me the next morning as I walked into a dental appointment. She told me that the patient in room number 8 went up to his room and began complaining of worsening pain. One of the residents decided to order a second set of lab work. As he was Face Timing his family he went into cardiac arrest. They were unable to revive him. Once his lab work came back his cardiac enzymes had tripled. He was having a full blown heart attack.
The doctor said she had never seen this in her twenty plus year career. His blood work coming back nearly perfect. She said that ,“Timing did not work in his favor.”
Again, time waited for no one.
I sat in the chair and cried feeling like I had abandoned him. It made me feel even worse when I closed my eyes and remembered how his face looked as I left my shift the previous night. I was drained and in a rush to get home after working 12-hours. Surely, I could have given him a couple more moments. I blamed myself for being selfish with my time. I began to recount my interactions with him the previous night. Even with the gloves on I could feel the warmth of his body underneath my fingertips. I watched his heart pump out his blood into tubes. It was deep red. He was so alive.
The dentist walked in. I quickly wiped my face and smiled. He asked me what was wrong and I told him my allergies were acting up. He paused and looked at me as though he knew I was lying. Formalities would cause the conversation to stop right there and I was perfectly fine with that. He put his gloves on and I heard a snapping noise as the latex hit his wrist. “OK, open up.” he said. Normally, I hated the taste of fluoride. Normally, I hated visiting the dentist. Normally, I would have been fidgeting in that seat.
My mind was in another place.