Anything But the Teeth
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As I watch our computer screen call up another unit for a low priority job, I ask Bronson how marriage to Rachel is going.
“Great!” he says. She’s five months pregnant. “Okay,” he revises. His face falls. “We don’t sit down to dinner together anymore. She eats whenever she gets the craving.”
The other unit doesn’t answer the call, so the dispatcher sends the job to us. Bronson curses since the address is far away from our “89,” our cross street location. The often-praised GPS system placed in all ambulances clearly has some major kinks.
We arrive at a small house in Marine Park, a semi-attached frame structure known as a “realty home.” I know these houses. You can hear your neighbors through the thin walls. Still, this one is neat, the shrubs well clipped, the flowers all watered. There’s a Virgin Mary in a sky-blue half-shell on the postage-stamp sized lawn. We’re shown inside by a nice elderly woman. The interior is old: the furniture, the decor, the kitchen. But it’s clean, and there are lots of pictures hanging on the walls, apparently of children and grandchildren. I ask the woman, “What’s the problem, ma’am?”
“My husband can’t get out of bed,” she says. “We’ve been married 63 years.” She leads us upstairs to a bedroom that is also clean but in need of a paint job. The furniture is old, and the odor of mothballs wafts from an open closet. But overpowering that is a stronger odor coming from where her husband is lying on what was recently a neatly made bed. It’s the stench of feces, and upon inspection I find that the man is lying in a fairly fresh mess. I ask him, “Sir, how are you feeling?” as I take a set of vitals.
“How do you think I’m feeling?” he says. “I can’t get up. Now tell me who the hell are you?” I explain that we’re the ambulance people. He yells at his wife for calling an ambulance.
She yells back that she can’t take it anymore. “I just put fresh sheets on that bed! I want you out. Out!” Then she yells at Bronson and me, “Get him out of here! Take him to the hospital!” She sighs. “He’s been like this for a week.”
Bronson asks, “Are you on any meds?”
“Nope,” the man says. “And I got no medical problems. Until this. Just can’t make it to the bathroom in time.” Bronson then asks him what else he is feeling. As the man answers, I notice that he has loose upper dentures that keep clicking and coming out of his mouth as he talks. I ask him to please remove them, I don’t want him to choke on them. He refuses. “Nope.”
I’m not about to order someone to take out his dentures, so I kill the subject, but keep my eye on his teeth as his wife collects a few of his things into an overnight bag – an old vinyl Pan Am flight bag – and he cleans himself, somewhat, and prepares to be lifted into the stair chair. “You know,” I tell the wife, “you could have bought adult diapers for him.”
She looks aghast. “I thought it would end in a day or two. He’s never had any medical problems. I just figured it was the lasagna I made.”
We get the old man downstairs, and at the front door he shouts to his wife, “You coming?”
“Out!” she hollers back. “Get out!” Then she tells us, “I’ll come by cab in a few hours, just want to finish cleaning.” She shouts to him: “The hospital will figure out what’s wrong with you. You’ll be home tomorrow!” He looks at her with scared eyes for a moment, and for the first time, she softens and touches him on the shoulder. “I’ll bring you your crossword puzzles. Just gimme a few hours.”
We take him to Beth Israel on Kings Highway. During the ride, I find he’s quite sharp, talking about current events, the situation in Iraq, whether Mayor Bloomberg is going to run for president. He tells me he loves his cable television, especially Turner Classic Movies and ESPN sports. All the while, I watch his loose teeth click and shift. At the hospital, I inform the triage nurse and the doctor about his dentures. The doctor tells him to take them out. He yells at the doctor, “I’m not giving away my teeth!”
The nurse asks me if he’s alert and oriented. I say, “Yes, and then some.” But since we have arrived in the ER, his personality has gone from kind and intelligent to mean and ornery. People might easily mistake him for senile. After we transfer him to one of the hospital beds, I ask, “What gives?” He says, “That doctor was rude, ordering me to give up my teeth. Well, I can be rude, too.”
Back inside the ambulance, I laugh and tell Bronson, “Maybe you and Rachel will be like that after 63 years.”
At first he’s appalled. Then his face brightens into a special smile.
Ms. Klopsis is an emergency medical technician on an ambulance in Brooklyn. This column details her observations and experiences. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients.