The Tech didn’t notice new patients any more. This hadn’t always been the case, and the Tech knew it reflected poorly on not only work performance but also the Tech as a person; however, the only difference this made to the situation was to add an element of self-loathing to it all. Although the inhabitant of each wheelchair rolling down the Wing’s fading eggshell corridor had a different cast, a different tilt of the head in their neck brace or scar where their limb used to be, to the Tech they all were anonymous, just parts sliding down a conveyor belt. The Tech needed to service them and send them on their way, to follow the OT and nurse’s instructions, but that was all.
Because of this, the Tech didn’t notice the Patient upon first arrival, much to the Tech’s regret. The Patient could have been in any of the chairs that day, passed by in the corridor while supporting someone’s weight or pushing them to the elevator for one-on-one. Or they could have arrived while the Tech was cordoned off in a room, cleaning a mess or lifting a leg. It didn’t matter. What did was what happened when the Tech entered the Patient’s room for the first time. The Tech was there to change the Patient’s diaper and check for bedsores. They weren’t beautiful eyes by any means, not something out of a movie or even a fashion advertisement, but there was something to them, some glimmer of intelligence, that gave the Tech pause. The Patient did not speak, but the Tech knew they communicated in some way, that their glance was more than just apprehension about what the next ten minutes would entail.
The Tech arrived for work at 7:00 a.m. and didn’t leave until at least 5:00 p.m. It was always more than a 40-hour work week, which the Tech didn’t mind, dutifully picking up holidays and shifts for co-workers without a second thought. That wasn’t to say that the Tech liked the job, because that would be patently false. Enjoyment had never been part of the equation. Rather, the Tech didn’t mind it, and didn’t see much point in avoiding the work. During those ten or more hours spent in the Wing, the Tech was there to assist with whatever the nurses and OTs and PTs and MDs needed. Primarily this meant lifting the patients. The Tech lifted them from their wheelchair to the bed. The Tech lifted them from their bed to the wheelchair. The Tech held them aloft while the PTs moved their leg and foot forward, simulating the work that their muscles refused to do on their own, pretending that the neurological signals were correctly travelling through their body (or even there in the first place) and “walking” them across their tiny room or down the hall. The Tech took them upstairs to the gym and held them while they tried to grasp parallel bars, while they tried to touch their noses. On the Tech’s first day of work, the other techs had said that the most important part of the job was not dropping the patients. The Tech could be surly or nice, professional or sardonic, but should never loosen a grip or let them realize that falling was a possibility. The moment a patient knew that their tech was struggling to keep them aloft, that their grip was slipping and on the verge of releasing altogether, their trust in the entire process would be gone forever.
Other parts of the job included cleaning the patients, muscle massage, and more lifting. Ideally techs could help with the exercises or offer other forms of assistance, but the myriad of nurses and physical therapists were much better at this than techs, so this rarely came into practice. The Tech didn’t ask questions of the patients or the therapists, and they didn’t ask questions back.
At the end of the day, the Tech returned home exhausted and made a quick dinner with the TV on. The Tech didn’t have any hobbies because the job didn’t leave time for them, with all the lifting and moving for ten or more hours five, six, seven times a week. Instead, the Tech watched TV and heated dinners up in the microwave or, when feeling ambitious, warmed a flash-frozen meal on the stove. Sometimes the Tech fell asleep in front of the television and sometimes made it to the dirty sheets and rumpled covers on the bed, but always the Tech was showered and ready to leave the house at 6:18 a.m.
Sex had always been difficult for the Tech to manage. It wasn’t that the Tech didn’t desire some sort of contact, some sort of relationship, it was only that it had been so long, so many years alone that the Tech no longer held many illusions about that aspect of life. The Tech knew not to get any hopes up, not to believe that attraction was mutual, because it so rarely was. And in those few cases when it had been, those many years ago, the Tech hadn’t known what to do about it. No one who knew the Tech at work would’ve used the word “shy,” but outside of its sterile hallways the Tech had few friends and fewer romantic interests.
On the Patient’s second day, though, the Tech believed to have seen another look. It was hard to say what the look meant, or if it had been there at all, because the Patient could barely move, could neither speak nor walk nor hold a pencil. Most of the Patient’s time was spent asleep. But when the Tech came to lift the Patient into a chair for the 4:30 group exercises, the Patient seemed to enjoy the contact. What might have been a tiny smile, were it voluntary, slipped over the Patient’s lips. Or maybe that had been imagined, too. What was undeniably true, though, was the way the Patient’s eyes followed the Tech around the hallway as other patients were lightly placed into their chairs, the way the Patient always seemed to be staring straight at the Tech throughout the group exercises.
When the Tech laid the Patient back into the hospital bed, sheets changed during their absence, the Tech sensed that leaving would be cruel. The Patient was exhausted, but didn’t relax, so the Tech reached out to the Patient’s hand and held onto it until hearing a nurse call for help in the hall. The Tech left, but looked behind to see the Patient still watching from the bed, eyes clear and full and intelligent while everything else in the room stood perfectly still.
Just out of college, with a degree in philosophy and no real idea what to do next, the Tech heard about the job from an acquaintance and took it as a good stopgap before moving onto a real career. The pay, for a position that required no experience, was excellent, a huge step up from waiting tables or anything else the Tech had considered. Plus, the Tech liked feeling that going in to work made the world a better place, in some small way.
The Tech’s acquaintance had long since moved away, attending a post-grad program somewhere out east with hopes of becoming a physical therapist. The Tech had, at one time, considered following in these footsteps as well, but it never seemed like the right time. After car payments were finished and student loans were a thing of the past and the Tech was stable enough to consider going back to school, it felt too late. Thirty-six-years-old seemed too old to start a program that would take three to five years to complete. The Tech figured that it was probably just as well that the applications had never been completed, because the Tech no longer really cared about the patients. And the Tech didn’t need a raise now, with no debt to worry about or family to feed. It would’ve been nice to have a bigger apartment, or maybe a house, but the Tech wouldn’t really know what to do with more space anyhow. Everything the Tech needed, the bed, the computer, the TV, the microwave that would be thrown out soon so as to avoid cleaning it, was already there.
Maybe it had been imagined, but the Patient seemed to respond better to therapy when the Tech was there holding or lifting. Even one of the MDs had noticed this, had asked if the Tech could come and assist when they planned on attempting a walk down the hallway. Other techs had been closer, had been available, but the MD said that the Patient’s muscles seemed stronger when the Tech was around. And maybe, just maybe, the Patient had faintly smiled after hearing this.
The Tech began teasing the Patient, playfully joking about the Patient when they were together. One of the nurses noticed this and criticized it as detrimental, but a PT later said that the Patient seemed to respond well to this stimuli, and the Wing’s policy was to never question what worked. It was impossible to tell what the Patient thought about this, whether it was merely another form of encouragement or if there was something more, but the Tech thought that the Patient would have poked fun right back, if only it were possible. When they were in the gym, it seemed like the Patient intentionally stumbled into the Tech, that there was some impulse in the Patient that wanted this physical contact between them. When, later that evening, the Tech had needed to move the patient so they could clean the bed off from the latest round of fluids, the patient’s face, lolled to the side as ever with a line of drool dribbling out of an open mouth, flushed bright red.
The Tech stared at the Patient all through cleaning, and when it came time to place the Patient back onto the hospital bed, had blanched at the intrusion of this touch. Still, it was the job, so the Tech pretended the Patient was the huge punching bag in the gym and dead-lifted from the chair to the bed, unable to meet the Patient’s gaze.
“I… I have to leave now, my shift’s almost over,” the Tech stumbled out. The Patient didn’t respond in any visible fashion, but the Tech made an immediate exit regardless.
The Tech wasn’t used to being distracted. At home, the Tech concentrated on the shows and movies on TV, even the commercials. But that night, the Tech couldn’t keep track of the on-screen action as thoughts kept returning to the Patient, the blush, the look, the pleasure of touching again the next day. The Tech couldn’t stand the thought of other techs and nurses holding the Patient, even though this made little sense.
When it came time to sleep, the Tech tossed and turned in bed, eventually throwing off the sheets altogether and lying fitfully in only underwear. When this, too, became too much, the Tech masturbated, hoping that this would help. It didn’t. The Tech stared straight up, imaging the Patient doing the same thing, 5.6 miles away and in a different bed but perhaps with the same, desperate ache of longing.
The Tech had never been in love before, and was surprised to find out that it was one of the few things in life that actually lived up to the hype. The Tech couldn’t know for sure that the feeling was mutual, that it wasn’t the projection of an overactive imagination, but still believed deep down that this had to be the case.
What the Patient thought of this, and every other development for the past week, no one could say.
Some days it didn’t seem possible how much came out of their bodies. The most normal part, the one that almost wasn’t worth talking about, was the sweat, which streamed down from their heads until it pooled onto their shoulders and joined up with tributaries on their chests and arms. They kept the rehab ward at a constant 73-degrees, but half the patients had fevers and even the ones who didn’t seemed to exude liter after liter of smelly salt water, which stuck their limbs to the beds when you tried to pry them up.
The ones who couldn’t move their arms, sometimes you had to stick a Q-tip up their nose to keep their clogged snot from suffocating them. It would get rock hard up there, taking five minutes or more to clear the passageway. With others it came down even faster than the sweat, resting on their upper lips before diving over their mouths. You’d have to clean it off again and again, and if this happened while no one was around, when you came to take Room #327 to group, you’d find them doused in their own mucous.
Speaking of which, fewer patients drooled than you might expect, and even with the chronic droolers it wasn’t really a big deal. The small trickle of saliva that made it out of their unclosable mouths was thin and clear and honestly not that disgusting at all, relatively speaking. A quick brush with Kleenex worked fine. The only problem this ever caused was the embarrassment of patients, who for some reason seemed to think that drooling was some sort of character flaw.
They threw up, but so does everyone at some point or another. The sheer constancy of patients puking meant the hallways always smelled either of its acidic stink or the ammonia used to clean it from the gray tile floors. The omnipresent mops and slop buckets that adorned every hallway were a testament to the volume of puke, but because few of the patients ate well most bar janitors had a far worse time of it. Cleaning it off of patients was pretty quick, too, aside from the ones who somehow managed to get it in their hair.
Then there were the wounds. Mostly it was just gowns coated red you tore away and disposed of, but occasionally they were also white or black or yellow or even green, and you needed to call a nurse or doctor. Because they were always right where you expected them and almost always looking similar to previous wounds, they caused little pause. Many techs preferred changing bandages to anything else, as it felt clean and productive. By the point patients reached the rehab ward, blood usually wasn’t that big of an issue.
Theoretically speaking, urine shouldn’t have been a big problem, either, because patients no longer able to control their bladder were affixed with catheters. But an awful lot of otherwise model patients turned out to have bed-wetting problems during their sleep or even, in the case of stroke victims, while they were awake. Usually it came as a surprise, and meant an incredible amount of work, though fortunately techs weren’t the only ones dealing with these situations. Pee-soaked patients needed to be lifted so that their bed could be changed and their clothes taken away, then showered, which meant you ended up covered in piss as well. All told, this was the worst part of the job.
Changing diapers, by comparison, was simple and quick and, while humiliating for the patients, not a particularly terrible job for those on the other side of things. Unless, of course, it overflowed their diapers and onto their legs and feet and shoes and bed and floor, in which case an experienced tech knew that the best choice of action was to trick someone else into being the first one to respond, because even after decades of the job some things never stopped being good-god-fucking horrendous.
The Tech and the Patient had their first fight on the sixth day since the Patient’s arrival. They had spent much of the past three days together, and the Tech enjoyed every minute of it. But the Tech had been busier on the sixth day, and hadn’t been able to stay with the Patient for more than a couple minutes at a time. When the Tech’s shift ended, exhausted and relieved, the Tech headed straight to the Patient’s room. Once there, though, the Patient refused to meet the Tech’s gaze. It might have been in the Tech’s head, but the Patient seemed impatient and completely obstinate. The Tech decided that the Patient may have merely been annoyed with the current situation and wished to move, so the Tech picked the Patient off the hospital bed for a walk. The Patient resisted this, though, and refused to cooperate so that the Tech ended up doing everything while the Patient pretended to be dead weight.
“Fine, suit yourself,” said the Tech before returning the Patient to the bed. The Tech began to leave the room, furious with being treated so rudely, but was ultimately unable. Now the Patient looked less angry than sad, and the Tech walked back to the bed in order to ask for forgiveness. They sat together for the next two hours, as the Tech told the Patient about how busy work had been and that the next day would almost certainly be better. Eventually they both fell asleep, and after waking up the Tech made a hasty exit, discovering upon arrival at home that it was less than three hours before the next shift.
Despite the Tech’s certainty that their feelings were mutual, they didn’t attempt anything that might have been considered improper. That wasn’t to say that they weren’t physically intimate, though, only that this intimacy was marginally less than sexual.
The Tech did have some friends, though, or at least was familiar enough with a few people that they would call the Tech over to their booth at Tractor to share stories of what had transpired since they had last seen each other. Were they real friends, people who would help the Tech out were there a real jam, people who would have the Tech’s metaphorical back? These were uncomfortable questions, easier left unasked. So the Tech did not ask them.
The friends were used to the Tech’s silence, and as such the Tech’s company was prized. Within Tractor’s loud, crowded space the Tech had an aura of mystery because so little was known about the Tech. A good listener, they liked to say. Almost everyone liked the Tech, even those who said that there definitely had to be something dark in the Tech’s past, some shadows that lingered around the Tech to cause such unexplained introversion. Despite the many years the Tech had been walking down to the bar for a glass of whatever was on special, no one considered the Tech a regular.
People didn’t seem to mind the Tech’s presence, and that was all that really mattered at the end seven days of work in a row. The Tech preferred listening to speaking because no one wanted to hear about shattered bodies and malfunctioning minds, including the Tech. And now that the Tech did have something to talk about, mentioning it in the bar seemed like a way of ruining it all. They weren’t likely to approve or understand. Instead, the Tech just listened, as usual, and no one noticed any difference.
A week after the Patient was admitted, the Tech spotted another attractive patient wheeling down the wide hallways with a co-worker. Prior to the Patient’s arrival, the Tech had long stopped noticing how they looked. Although the Tech would’ve been chastised to mention it, the Tech had long ago stopped learning their names, instead thinking of them as The Shoulder in #312 or The Brain Hemorrhage in #320. This new one, though, the Tech ended up dubbing The Perfect Face in #303.
Immediately afterwards, the Tech hurried back to the Patient’s room. Afraid to apologize, the Tech held the Patient’s hand, worrying that maybe the Patient could sense the Tech’s guilty thoughts. Nothing happened, though, and eventually the Tech calmed down. That evening the Tech masturbated while thinking about the Perfect Face and spent a fitful night worrying about whether this constituted betrayal. The next day, though, the Tech found that while the Perfect Face was still beautiful, it was like looking at a profile on a magazine cover. The Tech visited the Patient before attending to other duties, and kissed the Patient’s lips without a moment of hesitation.
The Tech spent most of the afternoon in the gym, whose vaulted ceilings belied the room’s ordinary usage. On one side of the room, PTs and techs worked with a pair of patients to insert pegs into a board, stack cups, and attempt a ring toss. A tech took Spinal Injury in Room #201 over to the exercise bike and kept the patient from falling over while a PT shouted encouragement.
Today, the Tech’s first patient needed help navigating through the obstacle course. Its theatrical-style facade of a convenience store took up the back half of the room, and within was a gauntlet of shelves and racks filled with boxes of cereal and plastic-sealed toilet paper. The patient’s goal was to enter the “store,” pick up an item or two in a basket, and proceed to the cashier on the far side of the obstacle course without knocking down anything. Usually this took several days of practice, and Stroke Victim in #237 was attempting it with an aluminum walker and having difficulty getting around the turns. Afterwards, they practiced sitting down on a couch. Stroke Victim in Room #237 spent eight minutes sitting down, standing up, sitting down, standing up, until completely exhausted.
Later, the Tech offered advice to Paraplegic in Room #230 on navigating the same course in a wheelchair controlled by tiny motions made by the left hand. It didn’t go well, though, and the Tech ended up spending just as much time picking up boxes and replacing them on the battered shelves.
After that, the Tech worked with Stroke Victim in Room #325 at the mirrors. The Tech maneuvered parts of the patient’s left side while the PT worked at getting the patient to acknowledge their existence. The mere act of bringing the patient’s left index finger and nose made SViR #325 angry and confused, necessitating a break. By the end of their session, though, SViR #325 cried with relief and astonishment while the PT smiled broadly at how much progress had been made. The Tech smiled, too, because this would make the patient feel good and, as such, help facilitate a faster recovery.
The Tech had to admit that, while on the whole their relationship was fulfilling, sometimes it would be nice if the Patient seemed to give as much as the Tech did. They had passed their one-week anniversary, so the Tech had bought the Patient flowers, but soon left for home anyhow. There was a movie on TV that the Tech wanted to catch, and while it would’ve been nice to watch it together, it didn’t seem like the sort of flick the Patient would like.
When the Tech noticed the attention being lavished upon the Patient by a co-worker, at first there was no hint of jealousy. This was their job, after all, and eventually every patient needed assistance from every tech, sometimes every staff member. But later that day the same co-worker was at it again, and then the next day, so that the Tech couldn’t be certain whether this was merely a series of coincidences or if there was something going on, a possible relationship developing. Had the two have them been, amidst the lifts and the cleanings and the immobility, flirting?
The next evening, the Tech couldn’t concentrate on any television shows and kept considering the possible options. Could it be that the Patient was doing this intentionally, using the same methods that had led the Tech into such a deep infatuation? Perhaps the Tech had been lacking, and the Patient had grown bored, listless. The Patient might desire extra attention and wasn’t picky about who offered it. Could this all be just a sick game, and the Patient was trying to incite the Tech’s jealousy?
As mysteriously as it started, the co-worker, the other tech who had always been lousy at this line of work anyhow and should really have been fired long ago, seemed to have better things to do than helping out the Patient. The Tech was needed once more and they were together in the Patient’s room, if anything, longer than they had been before.
Protocol broke down completely when the Doctor was admitted following a horrendous and utterly debilitating motorcycle accident. The whole Wing shifted into action and did their best, working unpaid overtime and offering top trainers and trying to get the doctor adjusted to a life without legs and only minimal upper body control as soon as humanly possible.
The general surprise came when, after a few days, it was clear that the Doctor wasn’t going to be cooperating with anyone. Some patients were inspiring and worked hard to regain some semblance of their previous lifestyle. The Doctor was not one of these. The Doctor, by the fourth day, was no longer on speaking terms with anyone in the staff and demanded to leave the Wing even before insurance ran out. Once wheeled out to a newly adjusted car and an unhappy spouse and family, no one in the Wing ever saw the Doctor again. A few weeks later, the Tech saw the Doctor on the local news, or what was left of the Doctor, drowned to death in a partially filled bathtub. The story mostly displayed a photograph of the doctor taken, by the look of things, five or six years earlier, but for a few brief seconds the crime scene itself appeared on-screen, the Doctor’s face fully submerged in the shallow water.
The day after the Tech and the Patient reconciled, the Tech didn’t show up to work in the morning. The Tech hadn’t taken a day off for vacation in years, nor a sick day, and didn’t know the protocol for those things anymore. The Tech also knew that co-workers would be angry, especially when the Tech failed to answer his cellphone, but the Tech just wasn’t up for any of it that day, couldn’t make it into the car or even out of bed.
For some reason, the Tech had become convinced that the Patient really had been cheating, had been looking for contact from someone else. Even worse, the Tech couldn’t take the way the Patient hadn’t acknowledged these sins, that the Patient seemed to think things should go on as before, as if nothing had even happened.
After three hours of lying in bed, the Tech turned on the television, then the computer, then made lunch. Nothing worked, nothing made life more bearable, so the Tech got in the car and headed to work, well aware of all the excuses that would need to be made. The Tech wanted to be anywhere else, but it was impossible to think straight while things remained unresolved between the two of them.
The Tech walked straight to the Patient’s room. The Patient’s eyes were open, and the Tech screamed at the Patient. This lasted for five minutes, and even with the door closed the Tech knew that everyone in the Wing would know what was going on. It didn’t matter, this was more important. The Tech needed to get all of this out, to have what people on TV liked to call a “clean break.”
It took no more than two minutes, in truth, though later the Tech had no memory of what was said or done, and this lapse seemed massive in retrospect, a Grand Canyon shorn from the most important moment in the Tech’s life. The Tech couldn’t even recall later what expression had been on the Patient’s face on their last parting, whether it was bitterness or elation or, quite possibly, nothing at all, not even a tear running down the Patient’s cheek.
Sometimes a patient would be going along just fine, walking down the hallway almost as if they were ready to be released, and their clothes would slip off. It was as if their hips had suddenly disappeared, and their pants and underwear were on the floor, completely out of their reach. Other times the ties on their gowns unraveled and they would billow down onto the floor, a good five or more feet away. Then techs and PTs and whoever else was nearby scrambled to re-clothe patients as fast as possible. This was the one part of the job that never quit surprising and amusing the Tech. A patient would be discussing, to the best of their ability, plans for rehabilitation or frustration with their bed or even sports scores, then woosh, there were their genitals hanging out for the world to see.
Getting the clothes back on the patients as quickly as possible was no small part of the job. This happened a minimum of once per shift to every tech working in the Rehabilitation Wing. Sometimes it happened so frequently that it seemed like some prankster ghost haunted the Wing’s halls, tearing the clothes off everyone it came across without a care for the embarrassment and suffering caused in its wake.
The Tech pretended nothing had happened. The Tech tended to all of the patients with equally attentive care, offering neither special care nor disdain for anyone. The Tech did not “cop an attitude,” and no one spoke with the Tech about the events of the previous day. At first it was difficult, but the next day it was far less so and the one after that even less. Soon, any residual anxiety was hardly worth mentioning, though it could never be said to have truly, completely abated.
The Tech was not a religious person, nor so far as the Tech was aware was anyone else working in the Wing. The few co-workers who’d once been seemed to stop soon after they began with the Wing.
The Patient used to wear a necklace with a crucifix on it, which might have meant religious affiliation, or it might have been sentimental or even ornamental. The Tech never thought to ask about this until it was too late. It had been easy to ignore the pendant, even though the loose gold chain circling the Patient’s neck had been impossible to miss.
Without notice, the Patient was gone. This was always how it happened, as insurances offered a set amount of time in the Wing, regardless of how far along a patient’s recovery was coming. Once they left, patients took up less intensive physical therapy elsewhere on their own, or if their insurance didn’t allow it, they dealt as best they could with their new situation. Either way, once a patient left the premises, they never returned; even the grateful ones who made astounding progress seemed to forget the people who’d inspired them and lifted them and cleaned them and given them a second chance. Or else, they remembered, but preferred to be anywhere else at all. The Tech couldn’t be sure.
A month afterwards, the Tech put in two weeks’ notice, which came as a surprise to the rest of the staff, all of whom had assumed that the Tech was a fixture at the Wing until retirement. The Tech found work at a warehouse, using a forklift to move boxes filled ostensibly with paper, though their contents were never revealed and made no difference. The more regular hours there meant the Tech had more time off, though, and the Tech joined a kickball team and began trying to attract someone. The Tech never married, so far as I know, but neither do a lot of people.