Growing up in the Dialysis Room

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Katrina Hansen -Dial Unit4By: Katrina Hansen | Twitter: @_katrinahansen

The dialysis unit of the children’s hospital is in the basement. A dark, quiet room with ground floor windows. Old plastic recliners face each other, separated by thin sheets, with accompanying TVs and wiped down antiseptic remote controllers. Guest folding chairs sit beside each recliner, or rather “parent” chairs. No child brings a friend here.

The two cribs in the corner have no TVs above them. No parents complain. The rocking chairs next to the cribs that are well used, the other parents eye them covertly, but they would not for the world trade places. Near the door is the nurse’s station, regularly abandoned. Most patients here are regulars too.

Children with tubes springing from their chest or small arms arrive with their mothers and run briefly about the room, searching out anything new and interesting in their familiar and gray surroundings. The mothers come in more slowly, as if by their own momentum they can slow their children. They double check briefly with the nurses and then they move to their regular spots. As they settle in they produce books or lists or small busy work. But always one eye on the child and the feet of tubing connecting them to the machine.

There is a routine in the room that is tired, resigned. Occasionally it is interrupted by the presence of a new child. They are quickly assimilated. Most in this unit seem young;  rarely are they older than ten.

As a 17-year-old arthritic, I was an unsettling and unwelcome interruption to their room. Although the dialysis unit was used to treat many different patients with different medical needs, no one ever asked what I had. They had enough to worry about.

I stood at the nurse’s station with my mother, pausing uncertainly, waiting for the next set of instructions in this wonderland journey through my arthritis toward health. My mother is clutching a binder to her chest. It is full of medical sheets like the one she now places on the desk; maybe this paper will provide the nurse with more information than it does her. I stand by, listless, a book absently clutched to my chest. My eyes roam the room, knowing how familiar it will become in the weeks to follow. Which chair will be mine? I eye the younger children warily. What do they make of me: 17 and still a child?

The nurse nods her understanding of the sheet and leaves to retrieve my equipment and medicine. I move to the recliner closest to the door, reluctant to become more a part of the scene before me. My mother sits down in the metal folding chair and begins pulling items from the large bag slung over her shoulder—a CD player and headphones, a case of CDs, a pen, a crossword puzzle, a sweater, and finally a book for herself.

She settles back as comfortably as she can into the chair and opens her binder instead, going over hastily jotted notes and incomprehensible doctor scribbles filled with technical jargon. She is like a student cramming for midterm exams. She looks over at me, poised to speak, but my headphones are in place and she returns to her binder without a word.

The nurse comes by with a toolbox of needles, tape, an IV bag, and a small cup with pills in it. I take the pills without water or hesitation. I roll up my sleeve and offer my arm for the next part. The part I studiously ignore, gazing intently at the back cover of my book and making no comment as the ritual begins. I know it by heart, though I have never seen it.

The tear of the small sterilized alcohol swab packet, the smell of the astringent, the cooling wetness in the crook of my arm, the flick of the nurse’s nail against the numbing needle, the sharp prick and then a sensation of absence, and finally the dull pressure of a needle and tubing being pressed into my arm. I turn back to the nurse and thank her as she tapes the IV line in place. My nurse nods, collects her tools and hangs the IV bag.

I can now return my attention to the task of holding my book close enough to read using only one hand. It is more difficult than I anticipated. The arthritis wending its way eagerly through my hand as I try to grip the voluminous print makes the task almost impossible. I give up and close the book and my eyes. The pills I swallowed make me drowsy. Through half slit eyes I see my mom look over, brow furrowed. After examining me for a moment she frowns, but returns to her book.

She thinks I am finally sleeping. She knows how little I get at home. She knows most nights I toss and turn, unrested for school the next day. Despite all the possibilities of learning at school, no one has yet learned how to teach rest.

My thoughts are similar to my mother’s. Tired but unable to sleep fully, I have turned instead to thoughts of my classmates and what I’d be doing if I was with them. Napping is certainly not an option. I wonder what is happening now that I will have to catch up on tonight and tomorrow. What little jokes will I have missed that will miss most of their humor in the retelling? Tomorrow seems such a long time from now. School seems such a long distance from here.

I move, restless. My shoulder is aching, but with the IV in my arm and the proximity to the bag, rotating it as I would wish is impossible. I open my eyes and survey the room and its occupants again. They are all so young. And yet, here in this room, they try so very hard to be as young as they look.

Normal children watching normal TVs. The parents and their children all intent on pretending the large tubes permanently attached to tiny bodies don’t exist, or are only fantasy. But everyone knows the difference. In the real life outside these walls, they can never be normal.

Only here exists true pretend, true belief that they are immature children, wild and reckless. Only here can they pretend to be the same as the normal ones they see outside, or on their TVs. Only here, and for a little while, they can never grow up.

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About Katrina:
Katrina HansenOn the back of most tea bags you’ll find the ingredients as follows: “tea and other natural ingredients.” This is also an apt description of Katrina. She writes a weekly blog at Notes From the Sea, mainly focused on the ups and downs of being a single fish amongst all those hypothetical fishes in the sea. You can follow the blog’s twitter, @notesfromthesea, or Katrina’s own: @_katrinahansen.

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