Chapter 19


Howie

I didn’t expect to wake up from my overdose, so you can imagine my disappointment when I opened my eyes and found myself staring at a wall.  Despite its pristine whiteness, I knew right away I wasn’t in Heaven.  It was all wrong.  I didn’t feel right.  There was something shoved down my throat and something else stuck up my nose.  My eyes crossed as I tried to see what was coming out of me, but it was all too blurry to tell.  It made my head hurt.

Looking around, I realized I had to be in the hospital.  There was no mistaking my surroundings:  the sterile white walls, the eye-watering smell of antiseptic, the incessant sounds of monitors and medical equipment beeping and buzzing around a bed that had rails on both sides.

My heart sank as it occurred to me how badly I must have screwed up.  Fuck, I thought.  I felt like a total failure.  After all the other mistakes I’d made in the last six months, I couldn’t even kill myself correctly.  Somehow, I’d managed to mess that up, too.

“Happy New Year,” said a wry voice.  I turned my head toward the sound and saw a woman in scrubs standing on my left side, fiddling with an IV bag that was filled with clear fluid.  “Seems you weren’t expecting to see 2014, huh?”  She gave me a grim smile.  Her voice softened, losing its sarcastic edge as she added, “I’m Pauline, your nurse.”

Pauline…  The name reminded me of my mother, Paula, and my sister, Pollyanna.  This woman was much younger than both, but something about her reminded me of them.  Maybe it was her sternness, mixed with the sympathy in her eyes as she looked down at me.  I must have made for a pretty pathetic sight.  I got the sense that she wanted to scold me for what I’d done.  My mom would have done the same thing, if she were there, and so would Polly.  I wondered if anyone had called them yet.  Someone had to know where I was and why; someone had to have brought me here.

“You’re in the Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,” Pauline continued, answering part of the question in my eyes.  “You were having some trouble breathing when you were brought in, so there’s a tube in your windpipe that’s breathing for you right now.  Just try to relax and let it do its job.  Are you in any pain?”

My eyes followed the IV line down to my left arm, where it was taped to the inside of my elbow.  I watched it drip for a few seconds as I did a quick self-assessment of how I was feeling.  I was groggy, weak, and achy all over, like I had the world’s worst hangover – which was to be expected, I supposed.  Nothing hurt much in particular, so I slowly shook my head.

“That’s good.”  Pauline patted my shoulder.  “How about I go grab your doctor and see if she’s ready to take out that breathing tube?”

I nodded gratefully.  Just the slightest movement made the tube tug.  I was eager to get it out.

“Okay.  Be right back,” said Pauline.  I watched her walk away, then closed my eyes, welcoming the darkness.  The fluorescent lights were too bright; they made my head hurt.

I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew, I heard a voice saying, “Mr. Dorough?”  I opened my eyes to see Pauline standing at my bedside again, accompanied by a woman in a white coat.

“I’m Dr. Skinner,” the woman introduced herself, as she reached for the stethoscope she wore draped around her shoulders.  Slipping it into her ears, she rubbed the bell briskly against the palm of her hand, then leaned forward and slid it under the neck of my hospital gown.  She listened for a few seconds, then nodded and said to Pauline, “Set up for an extubation, please.”  Straightening up, she looked at me and said, “Are you ready for us to take that tube out of your throat?”

I nodded again.

“Okay.  I’m just going to sit you up while Pauline is setting up here.”  She reached down and pressed a button that slowly raised the head of my bed until I was in a sitting position.  I leaned back against my pillows, feeling light-headed.  Dr. Skinner peeled off the tape that held the breathing tube in place.  I could tell she was trying to be gentle, but I hadn’t shaved in several days, and it stung when the tape pulled at the stubble on my cheek.  “Suction, please,” she said to Pauline, and the nurse used a hissing little vacuum hose to suck out the extra saliva, like they do at the dentist.  The doctor fiddled with the breathing tube, disconnecting it from the huge hose it was hooked to.  “Okay, Mr. Dorough.  I want you to take a deep breath and then cough hard for me.”

It was hard to breathe through the tube in my mouth; I felt like I was trying to breathe through a straw.  I sucked in as deep a breath as I could and held it, hoping this wasn’t going to hurt.  I had no trouble coughing when the doctor pulled the tube out of my throat.  It felt like she was yanking my lungs right out with it.  For a few seconds, I couldn’t catch my breath.  I doubled over, coughing uncontrollably.  Pauline placed an oxygen mask over my face, and after a few seconds, I felt my lungs fill with air.  I inhaled gratefully, glad to be rid of the tube.

“How are you feeling, Mr. Dorough?” asked Dr. Skinner, listening to my lungs with her stethoscope again.

“Howie,” I rasped.  The back of my throat burned.  “My throat hurts,” I added, testing my voice.  It was really hoarse.  I hoped the tube hadn’t done any damage to my vocal cords.  Then I wondered why I cared.  We weren’t touring anymore.  I realized then that maybe I wasn’t so ready to die.

“Sorry, Howie.  It may be sore for a few days,” Pauline said, as she replaced the bulky oxygen mask with a thin canula that went into my nostrils.  “I’ll get you some ice chips to suck on.”

When she left, I looked up at Dr. Skinner.  “How did I get here?”

“From what I understand, some friends brought you to the emergency room.”

What friends? I wondered.  The only one who could have known something was wrong was Nick, and that was only if he’d bothered to listen to my voicemail.  “Was one of them named Nick?” I asked.

She shook her head and shrugged.  “Sorry, I don’t know.  You were treated in the ER first and then transferred to the ICU.”

“How long will I have to stay here?”  I had never been hospitalized before.  This whole situation was brand new to me, though I realized I had brought it all on myself.

“At least a few days.  We’ll need to monitor your condition closely.”  Dr. Skinner was looking at me seriously.  “I’m going to be blunt with you:  You’re stable now, but you were in pretty bad shape when you were brought in.  There was enough alcohol in your system to slow down your breathing to the point that you would have died if your friends hadn’t found you when they did.  Your blood alcohol level was .36.  That’s over four times the legal limit if you had been driving.  At that degree of intoxication, the central nervous system becomes so depressed, it can lead to death.  In your case, it almost did.  Based on the amount of pills you also ingested, I’m assuming that’s what you were going for?”

I just nodded, too ashamed to admit it out loud.

“You were treated in the ER with activated charcoal to prevent the drugs from being absorbed into your system.  We’re also giving you a medication called Acetylcysteine, which is an antidote for acetaminophen,” added Dr. Skinner, her fingers brushing the IV bag.  “In high doses, Tylenol is notoriously toxic and known to cause severe liver damage.  Acetylcysteine can prevent serious damage from occurring if it’s given soon enough after an overdose, but your case is complicated by the high doses of HIV medications you took with the Tylenol, which, along with alcohol, are also hard on the liver.  We’ll monitor your liver function over the next few days to watch for signs of damage.”

I swallowed hard, wincing as pain ripped through my raw throat.  “Thanks,” I whispered.  I wasn’t sure if I was grateful to have been saved or not, but I didn’t know what else to say.

Luckily, Pauline came back at that point, sparing me from having to say anything else.  “Here you go, Howie,” she said, handing me a cup of ice chips.  “Take it easy with those.  Your stomach’s probably pretty fragile from the charcoal right now.”

As I popped one of the ice chips into my mouth, I couldn’t resist touching the other tube that was still sticking out of my nose.  It was thicker than the oxygen line, and it tickled.  “When can I get this taken out?”

Pauline looked at Dr. Skinner, who shook her head and said, “The nasogastric tube needs to stay in place for at least a few more hours, until we see how you tolerate the Acetylcysteine.  It can cause nausea and vomiting in some patients, so let Pauline know if you start to feel queasy.”

Pauline must have seen that I wasn’t happy with this answer because she suddenly smiled and said, “Hey, I meant to tell you, two of your friends are out in the waiting room.  They’ve been here all night.  We usually only let immediate family visit in the ICU, but if you’d like to see them, I’ll bring them back for a few minutes.  I know they’ve been really worried about you.”

I wondered who was out there waiting.  Was Nick one of them?  I wasn’t sure I was ready to face him, but if he was the one who’d brought me here, I supposed I owed him something – an explanation, at the very least, plus another apology.  “Yeah, okay,” I agreed.  “They can come in.”

“I’ll go get them.  Would you mind staying a few more minutes, Dr. Skinner?” said Pauline.  Seeing the significant glance that passed between the two of them, I realized that they were afraid to leave me alone.  They must have worried I would try to hurt myself again, though it wasn’t like there was much I could do while I was still tethered to a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of me.  I figured the monitors would sound an alarm if I so much as moved the wrong way.  Still, Dr. Skinner stayed and stood guard over me while Pauline left to find my “friends.”

I was expecting to see Nick and probably Lauren, so it was a surprise when Kevin and AJ walked in with the nurse instead.  “H-hey, guys,” I stammered, thrown off by their appearance.  I suddenly felt awkward and humiliated to be seen that way, sitting in an ugly hospital gown with tubes sticking out of my nose.

“Hey, D,” AJ replied, looking as uncomfortable as I felt.

Kevin didn’t say anything at first.  I saw his eyes scan the equipment that surrounded my bed.  He looked everywhere but into my eyes.

“I’ll let you guys visit for a few minutes.  Hit the call button by your bed if you need anything,” said Pauline.  She and Dr. Skinner left together.

I looked up at my two band brothers.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered, not sure what else I could say.

Kevin swallowed hard, his adam’s apple bobbing in his throat, and finally met my eye.  “Why would you do something like this?”

I held his gaze for a few seconds before I looked away.  “You know why.”

I know why you did it,” said AJ, “but it was still a dumbass thing to do.  Your life isn’t over just because you have HIV, Howie, and if you think the world would somehow be a better place without you in it, you’re dead wrong.”

“You have so many people who love you,” added Kevin, “so many people you would have hurt if you had succeeded last night.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I failed then, huh?” I muttered sarcastically.  “Just add it to the long list of things I’ve fucked up in the last few months.”

AJ snorted.  “Your list can’t be any longer than mine, dude.  We’ve all fucked up, some of us more than others.”  He shot Kevin a sidelong glance, and Kevin gave him a grim smile back.  I knew they were both thinking about that day, over a decade ago, when AJ had hit rock bottom during our tour stop in Boston and ended up checking into rehab.  AJ definitely knew a thing or two about fucking up, but nothing he’d done even compared to the mess I had created over the last couple of months.

“You’ve never given anyone HIV, have you?  No one hates you for what you’ve done.”

“No one hates you either, Howie,” said Kevin quietly.

I shook my head.  It simply wasn’t true.  “Nick does,” I insisted.  “So does my wife.”

“They’re angry – as they’re entitled to be.  But neither of them hate you.”

“How would you know?” I muttered.

Kevin raised his eyebrows.  “Would Nick have come over to check on you and taken you to the hospital if he hated you?  Would Leigh have cried over the phone when I called to tell her what was going on if she hated you?  No, but both of those things happened last night.”

“Nick brought me here?” I asked.

Kevin nodded, confirming my earlier suspicions.  “He and Lauren did.  You look surprised.  What did you expect, after that voicemail you left him?”

I winced.  “You heard that?”

“He paraphrased for us.”

I swallowed hard, feeling the burn in my throat again.  I scooped a small handful of ice chips out of the cup the nurse had given me.  “I didn’t think he’d listen to it,” I mumbled, my mouth full of ice, “at least not until it was too late.  He’s been ignoring my calls for weeks.”

“Well, thank god he did,” said Kevin, and AJ nodded in agreement.

“Is he still here?” I asked hesitantly.  I still wasn’t sure I wanted him to be, so I was relieved when they shook their heads.

“He and Lauren went home a few hours ago.”

A few hours?  How long had I been in the hospital? I wondered.  “What time is it now?”

AJ checked his phone.  “Just after six a.m.”

More time had passed than I’d thought.  “Wow… so have you guys been here the whole night?”  I glanced from one of them to the other.  They both looked pretty ragged, I realized.  Under the fluorescent lights, their faces were pale.  Dark circles stood out underneath their puffy eyes.

They nodded.  “Nick called me a few minutes before midnight,” said Kevin, “and I called AJ.  We’ve both been here ever since.”

I shook my head, squirming with guilt.  I suddenly felt selfish, as I realized I hadn’t even thought about what I would be putting them through when I’d decided to do what I did.  “I’m sorry,” I apologized again.  “You guys should go home and get some sleep.  I’m all right now.”  I put on a brave face, trying to reassure them that the worst was over, that I was in a much better state of mind and glad to be alive.

But in no way was I all right.

***


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