“Petrova, Korneychuk and Habibova – JUICE! Makarova and Krushelnitskaya – BILE!” shouts the nurse in the hallway.
Great. Bile.
Stomach juice is better because only takes two hours, you get to sit down and the plastic tube they feed you is thin. Bile takes four hours during which you must lie still on your right side. The thick orange rubber bile tube has a metal nipple at the end. You swallow the tube and the nipple goes deep into your body, through your esophagus, out of your stomach, in your duodenum and almost into the gallbladder. You must fast before both lab tests, but midway through the stomach juice session they insert a syringe into the tube snaking down your esophagus and squirt in some beef stock, to stimulate juice production. When they take bile they squirt in a solution of magnesium salts. No food.
We must fill ten small mayonnaise jars with juice, four test tubes with bile. I don’t know why they need such huge amounts of stuff for lab testing. Four test tubes seems like less; however, juice drips rather freely and the nurses are usually satisfied with our output, while some gallbladders don’t want to give up bile. I myself have never been able to produce more than a tube and a half of it, and so the nurses yell at me. When we make less bile than they like they reschedule the test and we have to do it all over again in a week. That means they won’t let us go home and we will spend our entire lives imprisoned in the Regional Children’s Hospital, 3rd Floor, Gastroenterology.
Now I lie here on the cot covered in orange vinyl next to another unfortunate bile secreter, and I envy the four lucky ones who are sitting up in chairs with plastic tubes in their mouths and happily churning out stomach juices.
When they release us and we get up from the bile cots, all other kids on the Floor will have had lunch already, and we’ll walk to the dining hall where cold leftovers are kept for the kids who have spent the morning in the lab. The nurses tell us to walk close to the wall so we could lean onto it if we start to feel faint.
Today in the dining hall they are serving a drink made from dried bananas. We started getting dried bananas from Vietnam recently and we figured out that the bananas can be boiled in water to make a hot drink even more recently. I get a glass of sweet liquid with a shriveled pinkie-sized poop-colored half-banana in it. After I’ve been biled dry, the banana drink is ambrosia.
Now the juice is done, the bile is done, and I’ve already swallowed the light-bulb. The light-bulb swallow test one is probably the worst of the three, but it also lasts the shortest. The cable with a little camera at the tip that they send down into the stomach is inflexible and they wiggle it around too much, but the test lasts only about two minutes. After the light-bulb my throat was all scratched up and sore.
We are getting daily shots in our butts: vitamins. B6, B1, B12. The shots hurt, especially if Nadia the nurse is on shot duty. Nadia is a curly-haired bottle-legged round-bottomed pink-lipped blue-eyed tiny-nosed dainty doll-like blonde. She is mean as a wasp. Nadia has a heavy hand with everything. When she walks into our ward with a silvery starburst of thermometers in her hand, the thermometers look ouchy.
Every spring in March our mothers take us to mandatory appointments with our pediatricians, and the pediatricians assign mandatory three-week stays in the hospital. All of us have had stomach pains at some point in our lives and now we are on special watch. If we don’t show up for our annual checkups, our mothers will be in trouble. The doctors will yell at them. Our mothers are afraid of doctors. They speak in small voices when the doctors come, and look like little children. We are afraid of doctors too.
We had stomach pains; other kids committed other crimes and must go elsewhere, like Ear-Nose-Throat, Second Floor. We envy them sometimes: we heard rumors that they get sausages and oranges for breakfast in ENT. It sounds unlikely but, then again, they were not assigned Diet #5, like most of us, or Diet #1, like the most miserable of us. Diet #5 is tasteless steamed goop. Diet #1 is strained colorless tasteless watered-down steamed goop which might as well be injected directly into the bloodstream as it requires no digestive effort.
The ENT kids don’t exactly live the life of Riley, though. They may not have to give up bile or food, but there is a scary torture room on their Floor. One device in the room is cutely named ‘the cuckoo.’ The nurses buckle in the kid and then they pump liquid up one nostril and vacuum-drain it from the other, over and over again. Some of the liquid escapes into the throat and ears. To keep from inhaling too much water the kid has to say cuckoo, cuckoo non-stop. The water brings out pus, blood, snot and, we hear, sometimes even eyeballs. The littler kids scream so hard we can hear them up on our Third Floor.
Littler kids have a bad time on our Floor as well. Parents are not allowed on the Floor, and the average kid stay is two to four weeks. Parent visits take place downstairs, in the lobby, three afternoons a week; kids may not visit with their parents for longer than 20 minutes a day. The Floor doors are locked at all other times.
This is a regional hospital. Many kids don’t get any visits because their parents live a long train trip away and do not have the time or money to travel.
The food packages our parents bring are searched, decimated and trashed by the vigilant receptionists. No fruit. No vegetables. The hospital does not want to risk an outbreak of Hepatitis A, so no vegetables or fruit.
We don’t want an outbreak of Hepatitis A either. If we get one, we’ll be quarantined for three months and there will be no parent visits ever, ever. Those metal doors will never come unlocked.
Small kids cry and miss their parents. You can’t successfully explain it to a toddler that they will only be locked here for three weeks, a month tops. More for some, though. For the three-year-old Misha it will be months and months. The nurses told us Misha’s liver is rotting and he will not live past the age of four. We big girls take care of the little girls in our wing. We empty their chamber pots, braid their hair and tell them fairy stories. We would take care of Misha too, but he must stay on the right side of the hallway with the boys. We hope those stinking boys are nice to little Misha.
Big kids cry and miss their parents, too, but they have distractions. For one, there is romance. The girls’ wing and the boys’ wing are always a-stir with gossip and will-they-won’t-they. We just have to make sure no boys are discovered in our wards past bedtime, hiding under the beds and telling ghost stories. The nurses are outraged when it happens. They call us young sluts and promise to tell our parents on us.
Other distractions are singing, scary stories and amateur theater. One girl in our Ward of six is famous for two theater acts. One is telling the story of how her boyfriend jumped off the roof and killed himself because she forgot to put on the silver ring that he had given her; the other is wrapping herself in a bed sheet and performing scenes from The Disco Dancer, a famous Bollywood movie. Her faux Hindi is very comedic; her story about blood caked on the long ash-blond eyelashes of the boyfriend is very tragic.
We get up to hi-jinks. Once, we put a flyer on the door of the Floor bathroom which said “Closed for Poop Inventory.” The flyer looked so official that a couple girls were afraid to enter and held their pee for an hour before the nurses found out.
Since all of us Gastro kids must return to this hospital every year at the same time, we know half the children already when we arrive. Some children even like going to the hospital; to them, it is like a sleep-away camp. You can steal kids’ pillows while they sit through quarter-assed classes in the School Room, and draw on kids’ faces with toothpaste in the middle of the night while they sleep, and your parents are not on your case about weeding the vegetable garden or babysitting your little brothers.
One young girl named Zhenya spent at least three springs with me in this hospital. Zhenya would come by train from a distant whistle-stop town. She was one of those kids who never got visited because their weary parents had to stay home to attend to the cow and the pigs, the potato fields and making ends meet.
One evening –- the hospital is always lonelier and sadder in the evenings, when all the bile has been given away, and all the stories told, and the only thing to do is sit on the vomit-pink bedspreads and stare out the window at the black pines outside – one evening she said to me quietly, her dark eight-year-old eyes large and serious:
“All the kids who came with me got picked up and went home with their mamas already. I am the only fucking bitch left in this whole motherfucking place.”