I shift in my chair and I gaze out the window. It's one of those sparkling winter mornings. The Hollywood sign seems close. Even the solar observatories are visible on Mount Wilson. There are hikers up there.
I look at the other faces in the room. We are strangers in common who might, for a time, share a common fate. A yacky dullard might take the next seat. Heavens. Or maybe a moody and mysterious stranger who wants to share intimate secrets in a bubble of mutual discovery. Or, in the worst case, it's an insane religious fanatic who blows us up and the news shows our pictures in tidy rows as if as we had been in the same graduating class.
Clearly, I can no longer concentrate on my Vonnegut. I make up some biographies to pass more time.
The Mexican Lady squeezing her hands was once a dancer. The gym bag in her lap has pictures of her children and her dog, but not her husband. The Eastern European guy has spent the last 2 hours studying the pamphlet they sent us a weeks ago was once Stasi flunky. The Japanese man clasping both knees with bowed head and closed eyes is a fallen monk who hates his engineering job but never complains. The teenage girl leaning on her mom has a benign tumor. She is on the verge of panic. Her mother appears composed as she knits but is worried sick because a week has past since she heard from the son deployed in Afghanistan. The tanned man in the pressed shirt is texting a new girlfriend to arrange a bike ride. His pretty wife has just dropped their young daughter at daycare. And before long, all of us will called in for the needle or the knife and then go our separate ways with hardly a memory of one another.
A nurse emerges through the pre-op door. We all look expectantly. "Mr Rakoczy?"
The ex-Stasi rises to his feet. The nurse holds the door as he shuffles past still clutching the pamphlet. He is only the eighth since I arrived.
Why do they make us wait like this? To test our resolve? I rehearse all Dr. Wei-Chi's assurances. "It's very low risk." "We do this all the time." "It's the best option." I peer out at the mountains. They are steady and indifferent. The indifference is a comfort for what does it really matter?
This time I'm called. The others steal passing glances. I now have a name. I walk through the door with a self-conscious confidence.
The pre-op area is a model of assembly-line efficiency. The nurse's station occupies the center with rampart-high counters. Inside the station three nurses in flowered smocks peck purposefully at computers. Twenty bays line the perimeter. Each bay has a plush gurney, monitoring equipment and a privacy curtain. Privacy is probably the wrong word. Across the room a gap in the curtain offers a good view of the bare, hairy back of the ex-Stasi as he climbs onto his gurney.
The nurse shows me my bay and pulls the curtain. She sets down the familiar snowflake gown and plastic tote bag. "Please undress and put your clothes in the bag."
"What about the socks?"
"Yes please," she says mistaking this modest joke for a stupid question. Then she hands me a clipboard. "When you've changed, please read and sign this. We can't do the procedure unless you sign." She smiles sweetly. "Any questions? No? Good I'll bring you some water. We can't give you fruit juice. The anesthesia may cause vomiting." She smiles sweetly again and walks proudly through the curtain.
"Job well done," I say to myself. I change quickly, stumbling on my pants, alert to any movement outside the curtain. I wrap the snowflake gown as best I can and get under the sheet. A nurse comforts the patient in the next bay. Just outside the curtain two women at the Nurse's station are planning a birthday party. It's weird sitting here naked with people around.
I then read the document. It boils down to this: the clinic bears no responsibility, whatever happens is my fault. Back at Space Systems Lab we had a Homer Simpson quote for just these occasions: "Remember kids, if anything goes wrong, blame the guy that can't speak English."
Then, across the room, there's a shriek. A genuine, unmistakable, horrible, fear-filled pain followed by a deep sobbing. My heart starts pounding. I hear a scurry. Two green smocks dash past the crack in my curtain. I can't make out the the voices, but the tones are reassuring as the cooing of a mourning dove. The sobs soon die down. Then it's quiet again except for the forced air, the clicking keyboards and my pounding heart.
The nurse reappears. She takes my temperature and blood pressure. "Nothing to worry about," about she says.
"A patient got scared. She's fine now."
"She didn't sound fine."
"Your blood pressure is a bit high," she says.
"I'll be right back."
The nurse reappears with a yellow pill in a paper cup. "This will help you relax. Let's get comfortable." She the jacks up my bed, and fluffs the pillows. I take the pill and lay back. "There now. The doctor will be be with you in a few minutes."
For a while I try to follow the sounds outside the curtain. They are hushed and indistinct. I lose track of time. I nod off and awake with a tap on the foot from Dr. Wei-Chi.
"May we come in?" She enters the bay with two others. "Feeling good today?"
"Is this the big moment?"
"Sure is. This is Dr. James, our anesthesiologist and Ms. Martinez, our surgical nurse. The procedure should take about 30 minutes. Dr. James will give you a local anesthetic. When that wears off, you'll be very sore for a few days. It'll take six weeks or so before we know the results. Any questions?"
My mind is a blank.
"Are you ready?"
Nurse Martinez wheels me out. The Mexican lady, the teenage girl and the sales rep watch as I roll past. They push me through some double doors, down a hall and into a rectangular room without windows. Dr Wei-Chi and Dr. James are wearing masks, caps and surgical gloves. The walls are lined with equipment including a thing that looks like a drill press with a four-inch needle instead of a drill.
They roll me on my stomach. "We going to give you a local. You're going to feel a pinch," says Dr. James.
It's not too bad.
"How are you feeling?" asks Dr. James.
"Too be honest, I'm a bit nervous," I say.
"Try to relax," he says.
I start to say that's the worst thing you can say to someone who is nervous, but before I can utter the words, I'm back in my bay and Nurse Martinez is standing by the bed.
"Feeling OK?" she asks.
I take a quick assessment. Nothing seems wrong. "Did I have the... Am I fixed?"
"Oh yea. Everything went great. Dr. Wei-Chi expects you'll be hiking soon. We've called your wife. She's coming to pick you up. Would you like some fruit juice?"