Column: Fighting Aliens at Alta Bates

By Susan Parker
Tuesday September 26, 2006

Several years ago, my husband Ralph returned home from a stay in Oakland’s Kaiser hospital and insisted he’d been kidnapped by aliens. He e-mailed an acquaintance in Wisconsin and told her she was the only witness to his abduction. He asked her to write down everything she had seen for a lawsuit he planned to pursue. I called a Kaiser doctor to discuss Ralph’s mental state.  

“You’d think you were abducted by aliens, too, if you spent as much time in the hospital as your husband does,” said the doctor.  

“I do spend almost as much time in the hospital as my husband,” I said. “But I’m a visitor, not a patient.”  

“Then you know what I’m talking about,” said the doc. “It can feel like an otherworldly place.”  

“Yes,” I said. “You’re right.”  

So here we are in limbo again. Ralph is back in ICU, but this time he’s at Alta Bates because the paramedics who rushed to our home on Wednesday thought it best to take him as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. His blood pressure had dipped dangerously low and his lungs were clogged with mucus.  

Although I’ve spent more time at Kaiser than at Alta Bates, I am familiar with the place. I took our former roommate Jerry there while he was in the midst of a heart attack. When our friend Leroy was diagnosed with lung cancer, I visited him in the oncology department. I saw our neighbor Mrs. Scott in ICU for the very last time before her heart stopped beating. Nine years ago, Ralph was there on his birthday after he crashed his wheelchair into a curb on the corner of Alcatraz and Telegraph avenues. Not long ago I sat with Ralph’s attendant Andrea in the waiting room of ER as she struggled to take shallow, asthmatic breaths. Ironically, this past Wednesday I was visiting a friend on the east wing of Alta Bates’s ICU just a few hours before Ralph arrived there by ambulance.  

Alta Bates is different from Kaiser, but both feel unworldly when you are stuck inside them. The ER waiting rooms are cramped, depressing and void of any comforts. Patients slouch and curl in plastic chairs, line up against walls, smoke and talk on cell phones or to themselves outside, just beyond the front doors.  

I have heard the occupants of ICU cry and scream late at night, seen plenty of bloody bandages, smelled many unusual odors, and viewed too many unsuspecting naked backsides. I’ve witnessed disoriented and defiant patients, and distraught and frustrated family members. It is not a fun place to be.  

On Wednesday night, my friend who was in the ICU room next to Ralph’s was transferred to another floor of the hospital. It was 11 p.m. and I was slumped in an uncomfortable chair beside Ralph’s bed. I looked up from a catnap to see her, in her hospital bed, glide past the sliding glass doors. She was lying down, covered in white sheets. A person in green scrubs pushed, while another balanced IV equipment next to her head. There was no noise save the sound of Ralph’s labored breathing and the ding of the machine that recorded his vital signs. I went back to sleep. Four hours later I awoke and drove home. The sidewalks along Telegraph Avenue were empty. Our house was dark and silent. I fell into a coma-like trance.  

In the morning what I remembered was my friend sailing past Ralph’s room, her bed pulled by regal white horses. She was sitting perfectly erect, as if she were a queen. As she passed by she smiled and gave me a dignified wave. Her crown was slightly askew, but other than that, she looked just fine.  

I rushed to the hospital to make sure she was all right. She was. Then I went up to the sixth floor to check on Ralph. He was there, struggling to breathe, fighting to keep the aliens from taking him away.