drawing blood

a true story

1980

The police van pulls into the emergency ward driveway of Vancouver General Hospital. There is a lone occupant in the back – me. The little cubical I’m in is slippery. The benches, walls, floor and ceiling have been sprayed with fibreglass for easy cleaning. I’m in handcuffs and have been savagely slammed back and forth for nearly twenty minutes as the paddy wagon accelerated, stopped and negotiated traffic. This shouldn’t happen to a dog. But of course, I realise, a dog would have gotten better treatment. I, however, am a mental male. I know this because the cops used the term in reference to me several times as I lay face down and cuffed in a downtown alley.

How did they know I was a mental male? I guess it was something in my demeanour. Maybe I displayed that special something peculiar to a mental male. Was I delusional? Yes. Manic? Completely. Maybe even psychotic? Uh huh. Voices and visions? Absolutely. Gone off my meds? No way. I was taking my meds with the dedication only a manic individual can muster. I obsessed over them, compliance being the cornerstone of good patient/psychiatrist relations. But were they the right meds? Guess not. In 1980, as now, prescribing medication to a person with bipolar disorder can be more art than science. It’s like firing an extremely accurate, high powered sniper’s rifle at a target while blindfolded. Opinions on this may vary. I’m just talking from experience.

The doors at the back of the van open and an eerie light floods in. It’s night, somehow. Standing there are two cops and a small group of people dressed in ghostly green hospital scrubs. One woman and three men. Nurses and an Emergency physician. The nurses and doctor smile warmly. The cops don’t. I smile back. I’ve spent the last ten hours at 312 Main Street, the Vancouver Police Department lock-up. While there, I behaved about as expansively as a person going through a manic episode can. I was charismatic, automatic, enigmatic, dramatic, problematic, dilemmatic, paradigmatic and polychromatic. Cops have very little patience for this sort of thing.

I sense tension in the air. The moment hangs suspended.

“Well?” I say.

“Hello Mr G.,” one of the nurses says. “Do you think you’d like to come with us? We’d like to take a look at you. But you have to promise to behave while you’re here. Do you understand?”

“Maybe.”

“No, Mr G.,” the designated nurse says. “We need you to promise to behave. Can you do that for us?”

I ponder the question for a moment. I think about the iron bars, ghastly food and morose, sometimes violent, jail guards back at the Vancouver jail and say, “Hell, yes, I promise.” I’ll promise them anything if I don’t have to go back there.

The two cops come at me, and I cringe into a corner. This is calculated. I’m a calculating bastard when I’m manic. I hope that my cringing solicits a little sympathy on the part of the medical staff. I look at them with wide frightened Disney eyes. They seem unimpressed. I let the cops grab me and pull me out of the van. They stand me on the pavement, and one of them gets behind me to undo the cuffs. My shoulders are stiff; I stretch a bit.

“Sure was swell,” I say to the cop in front of me. He sniffs and departs.

Papers are signed, and I’m placed in a wheelchair. I’m wheeled into the hospital past the dim, half empty waiting room and into the florescent dazzle of the emergency ward. I suddenly feel like singing. It’s spring after all. I choose a Bernstein and Sondheim ditty.

When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.
When you’re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You’re a family man!

“That’s fine, Mr G.,” says a tall male nurse of Jamaican decent walking along side. “You can sing all you like later. But this is a quiet area.”

“I’m not normally like this,” I say, slouching in my wheelchair.

“We know, Mr G.”

“Yeah, I normally prefer Erroll Garner. Wanna hear Misty?”

“Maybe later,” says the male nurse as I’m wheeled into curtained cubicle.

“Now please undress and put on this gown,” says another nurse. “When you’re done, please sit up on the bed and one of us will be in to ask you some questions.”

I should express consent, but I hesitate. Maybe a little too long. The small space, with its mysterious cabinets and apparatus, causes me to pause. The light is strange, hostile.

“Where am I,” I say, suddenly perplexed. “I don’t live here.”

My breathing is becoming rapid; my feet and hands are getting cold. My back and shoulders are tensing, and there’s an almost painful knot in my stomach. I’m about to panic. This is how it always happens. My eyes go wide again, but this time I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m looking for escape. Everything is suddenly real.

“You’re safe here, Mr G.,” the nurse says.

“You s-sure?” I say.

“It’s okay.”

“People die here, don’t they?”

“You won’t. Please exhale, Mr G.”

Yes, he’s right. Exhaling is important. I’m inhaling like a pro but failing to exhale. I grab my shirt at the collar and pull it open. The buttons pop one by one and rattle on the floor. I can’t help it. I’ve lost control of my hands. And I’m finally fully hyperventilating.

“I have to go,” I say to no one. I’m no longer aware of the nurses.

“You cannot go, Mr G.,” one nurse says. “You’ve been certified.”

“No. Have to go.”

“Please, give me your shoes.”

“Need them,” I say standing. The nurse sticks his head out of the cubicle, speaking to someone beyond the curtain.

In a moment, there are seven nurses around me. Someone is removing my shoes. My shirt is off and the hospital gown is being forced on me. My pants are down round my ankles and someone is pulling them off.

“No,” I say a little too loud.

I hear a female voice say, “Isolation room.”

Now I’m aware of being swarmed by hospital staff. I’m in the centre of a scrum moving out of the cubicle and down the hall. I see onlookers as we pass down a corridor. They look passive and dazed. The short journey ends in a small, empty, overly lighted room. The walls and floor are tiled, and there’s a drain in the centre of the floor. There is nowhere to sit or lie down.

Once I’m in the room, the knot of hospital staff backs off as a unit. Each person has his or her eyes fixed on me as they back away and the door closes.

“No,” I yell and pound the door once. “I’m not a criminal.”

I look out through a small window in the door. Nurses and doctors are talking. The tall Jamaican nurse is animated, pointing down the hall. A woman with a name tag that says Dr K. puts her face up to the window and says, “Move away from the door and sit on the floor, Mr G.” Her voice is muffled by the density of the door, but I get what she’s saying and move away. I sit in a ball in a corner, rocking back and forth. The door opens a crack, and Dr K. sticks her head in. “I know you’re not doing well, Mr G.,” she says. “But will you allow me and a nurse to come in and listen to your heart?”

“Yes,” I say. But I’m really not present. I’m in the process of escaping to somewhere in my head. I shake, surrounded by cold yellow tile.

Dr K. and a nurse come into the isolation room, and Dr K. says, “Do you have any allergies to drugs, Mr G?”

I shake my head. I feel her place the stethoscope onto my chest while the nurse places a Bp cuff on my arm. My blood pressure is high, my heart racing. Dr K. offers me a tiny paper cup containing two small white pills. “I have some water here,” she says. “Please take this medication. It will calm you.”

I’m shivering hard now. Half cold, half extreme nervous energy. I swallow the pills.

“There are some more questions,” the nurse says. “Do you take street dugs, Mr G?”

I hear the nurse but have difficulty differentiating his voice from my auditory hallucinations. One familiar voice, the one that usually tells me when to get off the bus, keeps yelling, “Run, run, run.”

Now my arm is being forcibly unfolded, and a male nurse slaps his middle and forefinger on my inner elbow. Then he tries to put a needle in to draw blood, but he can’t find a vein. He begins to dig.

“Please stop,” I say. “That really hurts.”

“Won’t take a minute,” he says. “We just need to get a sample.”

“Please stop that. It hurts.”

“It’s okay, Mr G.”

“No, it’s not okay. Please stop.”

The nurse looks over his shoulder and says, “Patient’s not cooperating.”

Another male nurse steps forward and says, “Take the blood from his hand.”

“No,” I say, and try to get deeper into the corner I occupy.

“It’s okay, Mr G.”

“No. It’s fucked up. Don’t put that needle into my hand.”

But he does, and I watch it go in. It goes too deep. The pain is white. My eyes roll back into my head. I’m certain then that this is how one feels at the moment of death. I go into seizures. It becomes silent and I walk in the dark.

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