29 Dec Special Patient Populations
“Special Patient Populations”Written by Ron Riekki Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 8 minutes
For the fourth building of Florida’s Leesburg Super-Geriatric Regional Medical Center, you have to go through a series of doors that require a badge, computerized vein recognition, and facial recognition from the security guard. An overhanging sign greets you with the words Cogito ergo sum. The weak evening winter sun insists its way through the tinted windows of February. Valentine’s Day hearts line the walls of an area where ten percent of the people have had acute myocardial infarction. This is wing B, the 100-year-olds.
I’ve spent twenty years here. This is my first day cleared for all wings.
I’m sick of 175-year-olds who are sick of sickness.
I’m curious as hell and heaven and purgatory to see what the 200-year-olds look like, but I’m not rushing there. It’s important that the panoptic security cameras see me acting nice and bored.
What the hell kind of a world is it where the death of a super-wealthy 150-year-old is a premature burial?
Benjamyn is still unable to get out of her bed-less bed. She hovers there, weightless, floating, a brilliant cure for decubitus ulcers. You need gravity for bedsores.
All of the people in this building are millionaires.
But the buildings I’m about to go to, billionaires. The final room houses a trillionaire.
But one step at a time.
I heard the gaggle of rhonci, the crash of crackles, the stampede of rales, the entire animal kingdom of horrible breath sounds that are part of this wing. I imagine wing C as the sound of death. Except death has been cured—if you can afford it—so I’m wondering if the sound is peace, which, in many ways, is the same as death.
All we’ve created, truly, is a heck of a lot more pain. And what that’s really done is made pharmaceutical billionaires. The irony that the bulk of the people in these buildings are ex-pharmacy CEOs. They spent their life selling meds so that they could afford an eternity of life on meds.
If anyone knew my thoughts, I’d be burned at the stake. Actually, burned before the stake. I’d be burned in the hallway, in my office, in the elevator, wherever the thoughts were discovered.
But I have a poker face, mostly because I have a poker heart. I’m the perfect combination of pleasant and could-care-less that all hospitals require.
I go down the hallway with hellos to blind people who can’t see I’m waving and “Happy V.D. Day” to a woman I know who has three venereal diseases.
They haven’t cured blindness or herpes yet, but death has been mastered.
Medicine ends with sin. And it begins with Me.
I make a lot. I mean, all of the pennies I’ve earned could stack from here to the recently discovered eleventh planet Vesta. In my old age, I probably won’t be able to afford wing B, but I’ll spend some years in wing A. Then I’ll die like a man, like a woman, like a tree. I’ll die like everything dies—solemnly and stupidly.
This is rocking chair land. I walk by people who can’t walk. The rooms go in order of age. I’m in the 190s now. I can see the final door here coming up and walking through it I feel like I’ll have a planet named after me.
The Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Ceres, Vesta, and Bob.
The hallway between wing B and wing C is the color of breasts—a multicultural white and brown and black with pink in the center. I’ve heard that there are hints at sexuality in the rooms, subliminal sounds of orgasms in the pumped-in music. Of course, until this moment it’s all been rumor, but I’m about to find out the truth about these rooms.
The badge clicks. The vein-scan flatlines (a good sign). The security person (wonderfully androgynous) shakes its head yes, I can go on. I do.
This will be my first 200-year-old person on the other side of that door.
I open it and I notice the hallway is smaller, less rooms. The doors are all closed. This disappoints.
In wing A, the feel is of a very depressing mad party. But a party nonetheless. You are guaranteed some nudity, some vomiting, some laughter, something inexplicable everyday. Just yesterday a man peed all over his roommate. The roommate, come to find out, had requested it. His skin was on fire. I told him we have medicine for dysesthesia, but he said the urination works better. Truth is, he’s probably right. Urine is still used in some hospitals for jellyfish stings.
But this is the 200s where, apparently, billionaires want privacy. I slow my walk. I hope the camera views this as reverence on my part.
I’m part janitor, part assistant, part EMT, part father figure, part uncle figure, part cop, part nurse, part Moses, part everything. I carry a stethoscope and a mop, although I keep the mop folded up, tucked away. I put the stethoscope out proudly. Hospitals are all about performance. Everyone who works in a hospital is dressed in his or her specific Halloween costume—playing nurse or surgeon or mortician. It’s the same as a witch or vampire or zombie costume. We aren’t those things. We just pretend. For money.
A lot of money.
You work your whole life to give us your money in the end.
I get to the end and door after door is closed. The rooms are even more soundproof. From one, I swear I hear the gospel of Jesus Christ performed as punk rock. From another, I was unsure if it was porn or a game show.
I click through the door and get to another hallway. This one has a floor the color of dollar bills, walls the color of quarters, and a ceiling the color of sky with little stars of 24k gold.
These are the 300-year-olds.
There are oval portraits of the residents on the walls. They look like hollow sockets. They look like child skeletons, so shrunken in their old age that they have turned into rigor mortis fetuses. They look desperate for light. I walk by them, their eyes and chins and necks following me. When you get to be that age, everyone looks like they belong in a haunted house, not a nursing home for the über-moneyed.
I click, I’m OKed, I’m waved through, I walk, like Christ on linoleum.
Inside, the hall is even shorter. The doors are closed, but not all. Towards the end, a few are open. A person is wheeled out of a room at the end. I watch from a distance. The wheelchair is pure silver, motorized. Three women are behind him, not pushing, but accompanying. They are dressed, respectfully, as a nun, a pixie, and a dominatrix. He wheels into another room. Or perhaps it’s a she. The person is controlling everything with perhaps its eyes. I slow. I take it in. I’m also nervous. I smile harshly. I’m ignored.
I see that rooms are open and empty. I see they are filled with the most obscure of things. One room is filled with wine. A cabinet with bottle after bottle stacked to the ceiling. Casks of sherry…Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado.
Another room is a complex doll collection of all sizes, shapes, scents, feet, faces, some feeling human, real, others as if they’ve been collected from Bali, Tanzania, the farthest reaches, singular creations, ruby eyes, silk clothes. One of the dolls stands up and walks to the door, closes it. I have what the French call “chicken-skin.” Goose bumps. The feel like I am being watched by cameras and ghosts and tables.
I walk more quickly. I start realizing the reason for the extreme security. The level of dementia must be extreme. The amount of money at their disposal even more extreme. The last room seems to have everyone in it, everyone from the other rooms. It’s palace-like, a house of a room. The door is wide open. The door has its tongue out for the doctors, a red carpet that glistens with expense. I look forward. An exaggeratedly large camera, unnecessarily large, is mounted on the wall opposite the room. The camera moves, loudly, a speaker system set up so that you can actually hear it moving; it follows me. I don’t look inside, only peripheral vision.
I go through the door to wing E.
Wing E—for people over 400 years old.
I’ve heard there are only a dozen or so of them here. The hall is even shorter, smaller. A thing is in a chair the moment I walk in. A mummy. Alive. A face like hop-frog. Its body like a purloined letter—an Edgar Allan Poe theme. The feel that it has no eyes. The mouth in a perfect O. It speaks to me.
A nurse rushes out of a room; he is panicked, apologetic. He translates. The thing is talking through a computer system. Unintelligible to me.
You need practice, the nurse says, except Mrs. Cunnyngham speaks with an Oxfordian vocabulary so you’ll have to pay a bit of extra special attention.
I listen. The sounds make no sense. My senses barely hear any sound. I lean in. I smile like my life depends on it. It does. Mrs. Cunnyngham could order my death on a whim if she wanted, if she lacked ethics, if the wind pushed her that way.
The nurse tells me that Mrs. Cunnyngham had a dream last night that she could knock on the sky, that the sky was made out of lead.
I shake my head yes.
The nurse asks me if I understand the God metaphor.
I nod yes.
The nurse tells me that Mrs. Cunnyngham thinks I am smarter than her.
I say no, that could never be the case.
The nurse says that Mrs. Cunnyngham wants to know if I believe in God.
I choke on the future. This is why I am paid so much, for moments like these. One wrong word and I will wear my vertebrae on the outside. I pause, thinking, performing that she is brilliant to ask this question.
Mrs. Cunnyngham closes her eyes that aren’t there and falls asleep.
I thank God for that.
The nurse tells me I should go.
I almost run.
Other doors are open. The people seem to be wearing clown wigs. Their faces seem either smashed together and shrunken or elongated from torture racks. A few have mega-plastic surgeries where one feels they are looking at corpse-ghosts or skeletal lions. They have rock skin. There is never any movement. Or if there is, it is so minute as to be almost unnoticeable. I’ve surprised them. They aren’t lined up to watch me. They look out windows at fake worlds—trees created for them, lawns crafted to childhood dreams. It’s Disney façade. I see an oxygen tank that’s painted to look like jungle ferns. There are more hover-beds. Entertainment systems with three-dimensional perfection and that double as X-ray machines. One room is a church. A Jesus animatronic is on a cross. The hymn playing feels planetarium celestial. If one closed their eyes, you could imagine you were at the highest reaches of Dante’s hierarchy.
I leave wing E.
Wing F is the 500-year-olds, 600-year-olds, and 700-year-olds.
The doors are open. The rooms are empty. But only because they lead to other rooms. These are hospital rooms as mansions. They lead into underground cities they own. There appears to be no cameras anymore. There are six people in this wing. I have a feeling I’ll never see them. Or if I do it will be like Halley’s Comet, brief, unforgettable.
I get to the final hall. The final door. The final badge check, a full-body scan, a repeat of the full-body scan, and a Navy Seal Team that gives me a series of questions. The Seal Team leader says he’ll be accompanying me from this point on. He tells me I’ll have to leave the mop behind. We enter wing G.
Wing G is the trillionaire 800-year-old.
Singular. Not plural. One.
There is no hall.
We step outside.
“We’re not outside,” says the Seal, “So don’t think you are.” I look up at endless sky.
“It’s not endless,” says the Seal.
“Are you real?” I ask.
He listens on an earpiece. I touch a tree. It feels like a real tree. I feel the sun. It must be the real sun. It must be.
The Seal finishes listening. He says to me, “She wants to know what you want.” I shake my head negatively, instinctively. I don’t need anything. I have this. I have experienced this.
“No,” says the Seal, lowering his voice, “When she offers you whatever you want, you should take that opportunity.”
“What do you mean?”
He leans into me, whispers, “Whatever you want, you will have. You just need to say it, now.” This is why I am paid to do this job. My life, my happiness, my death, his death, her death, the life of every living thing, the world relies on what I say.
I look up at the sun that is not a sun but is the sun and I let it blind me with its fist full of orange in order to be left only with my infinite possibility of words.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A