King of the Ward


“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and ran away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

Having reread the same paragraph about a hundred times, I decided I didn’t really give a rusty rip where Sam was and what Boromir needed. Escapist reading isn’t much help if you are so preoccupied with the things you need to escape from, you end up reading the same paragraph a few dozen times before you realize you’ve not only already read it, but still don’t know, or much care, what the paragraph said. I loved Tolkien and still do, but good old Frodo, King Aragorn, and the rest of The Fellowship had their problems to deal with, and I had mine.

I thought I’d talked myself out of the “Back in Shriners Blues” this time. There were many reasons not to be as bummed out about this particular hospital stay. The blues never lasted more than a week or so and it looked like I might be able to pretty much forego them all together this time. But things weren’t working out as planned and I wasn’t a happy patient after all.

“Harry!” It was Posey! No one told me he was here!

“Karl!” How have you been! Who else is here?

Karl rattled off a few names that didn’t sound familiar before he asked, “How come they have you in isolation instead of the Ward? You haven’t been here long enough to be in much trouble.”
“I’ve only been in that much trouble here once. This time I’m quarantined so stay outside the doorway or we’ll catch hell. I’ve kinda outgrown my legs and the bad fit is causing problems, especially the left one. I’ve got this big crusty sore over the whole end of that stump. There’s all this green gooey shit inside. It hurts a lot to wear that leg and I was getting behind from missing so much school. The leg was getting worse instead of better, so the folks drug me down here on checkup day, and some doctor decided to admit me. Surprise! I guess the good news is, they’ll just fit me with new legs this time, no surgery.” I was glad to see someone I knew and practically jabbering. Ok … I was definitely jabbering. Being bored out of my mind, totally bummed, and all, I was desperate to get some good conversation going so Karl wouldn’t leave.

Karl was pleasant enough but not all that talkative. “I hate that when you come in for a checkup and end up getting admitted.” “Yeah, it’s happened to me more than a couple times. I guess I wasn’t too surprised about having to stay. Actually, I was so far behind in school, landing here almost looked like a way out. Report cards were taking a beating, teachers getting surly, and all that. But I wasn’t expecting to be banished from the ward.” Blah blah blah! There was school time here of course but Karl and I both knew it wasn’t as demanding as what you had back home if you were gonna be a computer programmer or an attorney someday.

“Well, sorry about the double surprise but it’s good to see you.”

“You too.”

Karl promised we’d play a game of chess later and left. The chess would be good but the leaving part hasn’t much help.

Still, it was good to see him. It always helped to know someone familiar was here. I did feel a little better and decided to encourage that train of thought. Reviewing the positive aspects of this stay seemed like a good idea. No sense being miserable if you can pull yourself out of it. There were actually a few good things for a change this time.

Escaping from report card hell was a definitely a positive thing, but failure wasn’t. It became immediately apparent that the topic of report cards wasn’t going to cheer me up at all. I quickly moved on to more pleasant thoughts.

I was going to be turning sixteen soon so this was to be my last “tour of duty.” There was something empowering about that. Once I made it through this stay, I’d never be summoned back here again. Misunderstandings that arose between myself and staff, couldn’t come back to haunt me during subsequent visits. There would be no subsequent visits. Now that … was a pleasant thought.

There was also an if-only-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now quality about this visit. I knew the score and didn’t need to repeat previous mistakes or be encumbered by rules I’d already figured out how to work around.

Yeah but misunderstandings can still screw up this stay, and just what big fancy schmancy workarounds were really going to make my life so dang much easier this time around?

Ok … all these negative thoughts aren’t helping. If I can’t stop playing “Yes but!” and sabotaging all the good stuff with “Yes but … what about this other rotten crap!” I’ll feel lousy for the next three or four damn months, or however long it takes me to get out of here. A little self-control is in order. A positive patient is a happy patient … happy thoughts … happy happy happy! Let’s try again.

Why should there be any misunderstandings? I’ll charm the heck out of the nurses. I can do that. I’ll convince them that my present level of maturity, negates any previous indiscretions and renders any careless blunders on my part, highly unlikely this time around. Yeah, that’s it! I can, and will, be very careful not to inadvertently get myself behind the eight ball. I’ll fly low under the radar with anything that might cause concern. Ok, misunderstandings are covered.

Wait a minute … once Karl leaves I’ll be the oldest patient. I’ll be King of the Ward! What will that be like?

As for workarounds, I had implemented one already. The last time I was here a couple of the older guys kept a lockbox stashed in their nightstand. So I brought one with me just in case I got admitted. I could secure money, food, assorted other contraband, and no one would know. I was contemplating desirable contraband options when a pair of rubber-soled shoes squeaked up to the open door of my small prison room we called a cube and stopped.

“Hi, Harry!” It was Mrs. Polson. You always watched yourself around her, but she was one of the good ones. Actually, they were, pretty much, all good ones, most of the time.

“Hi, how have you been?” I gave her a heartfelt, good-to-see-you, and no-trouble-from-this-kid grin. I meant every unspoken word of it too.

“Good! Welcome aboard, and I thought you might like to know that Dick Dickson will be joining us in two weeks.”

Now that was good news! Dick was almost my age, a great guy to have around, didn’t stir things up, slow to anger, but able to get plenty hot about the right things for the good of the ward. Dick had a soothing effect on the powers that be and fellow patients alike. He was a good person to have in the ward and a good friend. He tended to offset and defuse some of the more dysfunctional types, again … patient and staff alike. There is nothing worse than a dysfunctional ward. “That’s great, but how do you know so soon? I only get a week notice.”

“Oh, we have ways. Besides, we usually know about the Canadian patients sooner. It’s such a long trip they have to spend the night or two on the way. Because the extra time, I can take longer to make arrangements. The admissions fairy understands all this and gives them and their families more advanced notice so they can get here on schedule.” I was contemplating what the admission fairy could do with her flipping schedules when Mrs. Polson noticed my belongings at the foot of the bed. She didn’t miss much. “What’s this?” Her eyes were on my lockbox … not good.

“Oh, just something to keep a few things in.”

“That’s what nightstands are for.”

“Uh, well yeah … but, some of the guys had boxes like this last time I was here. I thought it was kinda cool.” Mentioning the lock feature seemed like a bad idea so … I didn’t.

“Yes, that’s true. But we don’t allow containers that lock anymore.”

Yep, I was right, the lock was a problem. We talked it over for a bit and before long the lockbox was an unlocked box and Mrs. Polson had the key from my pocket. The following Sunday, I would send the lockbox home with my parents. Mrs. Polson would give the key to my parents and explain about all the interesting things they found in lockboxes during a nightstand search they’d conducted a while back. I would be very interested in what they found, but she wouldn’t define interesting and asking wouldn’t seem like a good idea given my flying low under radar strategy.

For what it is worth, the key that wasn’t in my pocket, the one I didn’t mention before, and she didn’t ask for, didn’t go home until I did. The extra key was of course pragmatically useless since I had nothing to lock up with it. But keeping it secret and safe seemed symbolic of something. I’m not sure I ever did figure out exactly what. But it was always there to cheer me up if I felt the need to gloat. Gloating to oneself about the shortcomings of folks in charge can be important to one’s mental health. I’m sure fondling my extra key would have also been very comforting if any of Frodo’s unpleasant cousins, the Sackville-Baggins, were in the area.

So much for the lockbox plan. Workaround number one was blown out of the water before my first meal.

I spent the rest of Thursday, all day Friday, and most of Saturday morning reading the first chapter of The Two Towers. There was also 6 meals, two lousy night’s sleep, one visit from Orville the bloodsucker, and a rousing game of chess to break up the monotony. Two days is a long time to spend reading one chapter, but when you read each paragraph a hundred times or so, it takes a while.

Saturday morning was Doctor Rounds just like all the other times I’d been here. I didn’t even bother trying to read. Instead, I followed doctor rounds progress by sound as the Doctor’s, Miss Andrews and various other dignitaries worked their way to me via all twenty or so patients in the big ward. My sore stump was healing up nicely with the aid of hot hydrogen peroxide compresses.

The Doctors were very pleased my stump’s improvement. Their wisdom in having me admitted and thrown in isolation like a death row criminal, so they could have nurses administer hot water, gauze, and other crap in the family medicine cabinet back home, was paying off nicely. They began moving off to the small ward and the next patient. “Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! When can I get out of here?” Not very eloquent or diplomatic I suppose, but isolation is harder on a guy’s mental health than you might think.

I looked around my room like a trapped animal and wondered when these evil creatures would allow me out in the ward. Apparently, in spite of my verbal outburst, I was hiding my frustration quite well. They seemed oblivious to the fact that the wings of the angel of death had swept firmly across them all.

“The head nurses are in charge of bed assignments.” The previously pleased doctor looked puzzled.

“Actually, when Harry was admitted it was decided to quarantine him because of the infection. It’s much better now.” Head nurse Polson to the rescue! All lockbox nonsense was instantly forgiven.

It suddenly became unclear to everyone present but me, who had established the quarantine. I knew exactly who made the call, but I personally couldn’t see what the establishment of the decree had to do with the removal of the decree. I made a conscience effort and kept my mouth shut, hoping they’d get it worked out. It’s always better to have adults and others in general, come to the conclusion you want them to come to, on their own, than to argue them into your way of thinking. I soon began to regret my discretion. Establishing the decree-establisher had become a high priority with everyone present, except me. I just wanted the hell out of this damn cubicle and out into the ward with the rest of the inmates.

After an eternal eternity, of no more than thirty seconds, it was decided that the quarantine could be lifted without absolute agreement on how it had all come about. I was released and moved to the large ward within the hour.

I was out of isolation, back in the ward, and riding high. Those pesky blues were over and it was only a little more than two days. It was some kind of a record. I’d had a couple minor setbacks, but they were behind me and from now on it was going to be smooth sailing. Things were good and about to get better.

“Hello, Harry!” That voice always made me smile and I was smiling before it fully registered with me exactly who it was. I had to look up from nightstand organizing activities before I knew … there stood Miss Elbert, smiling sweetly, cute as ever. Suddenly I knew what I was going to do next.

Miss Elbert had started working here as an aide during my previous stay. She was a favorite among those of us who had outgrown the “girls are yucky” stage of life. On her first day, she was barely over the designated lower age limit for nurse’s aides. This made her a mere two years older than the oldest male patient. Now a year or so more had gone by. Our age difference was way too much for a high school setting, but given the circumstances, and my current dynamic positive attitude, I was going to ask someone out for the first time in my life.

I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. But right then I felt like all obstacles, major and minor, could be overcome with a little creative thought and planning on my part. This King of the Ward thing was really good for a guy’s confidence.

This sounds like stuff from a corny movie, but everything went out of focus except the two of us. We entered one of those parallel time-space continuums like when Superman breaks the time barrier by flying really fast. We talked, and we laughed. She didn’t seem to notice that we were flirting. At the same time, I felt like she was letting me know she didn’t mind. Conversation flowed freely between us, and yet for me at least, the specific words exchanged didn’t seem important. Towards the end, she knew I would like to see her socially when Shriners was behind me. She seemed to like the idea, but there were issues.

More conversation, consisting of flowing 4unrememberable words, was exchanged until she had to tend to some of her duties in another ward. We wouldn’t be going out. Somehow it was a pleasant mutual decision. Miss Elbert’s recollection of this conversation is undoubtedly different than mine, but I’d like to think it is a fond memory for both of us.

As I watched her leave and the rest of the ward came back into focus, I knew that watching her going or coming was always going to be a joy, but we weren’t going out. Fellow patients were all acting like I too had gone fuzzy, and hadn’t quite snapped back crystal clear again. Or maybe they were just giving me my space. We did that for each other a lot. I personally don’t remember giving anyone space so they could ask a nurse out … but it could happen.

I’d been shut down. But it didn’t feel that way. My confidence seemed to grow even in defeat. Once again I began to review positive things about this stay and the whole situation.

I’d be sixteen in a month or so. Posey was older than me but they’d given him his walking papers during doctor rounds today. I was going to be the oldest patient. I’d be king of the ward. Not that I ever wanted to be king, it’s just that I don’t much like being a vassal. Don Payton was a decent king once he got to know you. But he was a couple years older than me and wouldn’t be back. It was my turn to wear the crown.

I surveyed my vassals. Mental note “Try not to refer to, or think of fellow patients as vassals. It’s bad for morale”

As it turned out, I did know two or three of the guys from before. But except for Mallard, the other guys had been in the younger wards, so the names didn’t click at first. Karl had mentioned Maynard Winston, but everyone had called him Mallard then, so his name didn’t seem familiar either, at first. Maynard didn’t like being called Mallard last time, but without thinking I greeted him with “Mallard!” and a big grin he could hardly take offense to.

“Harry!” he didn’t seem to mind the Mallard crack. The dynamics had changed a bit and he wasn’t required to play whipping dog this time around. The ward had been kind of cruel and mean to him at times during the previous stay we had shared together. But whipping dogs come and go and Maynard had paid his dues.
Amusing nicknames seemed ok with him this time around. Mental note, “No whipping dogs during my reign as king!”

I spent the rest of the day settling in. The comic book drawer in the area of the ward called the back porch was in pretty good shape. The cupboards on the west wall of the main ward had the usual assortment and a few new additions of Hardy Boy Books and board games. I claimed an empty drawer on the drawer wall under the cupboards. Besides my entire Tolkien library of four books, I had a brand new deck of cards, a cribbage board, and a few other high priority hospital survival kit items, all neatly stored in my nightstand.

By the time the day was over I’d visited with most of the other patients. They seemed like a good bunch of guys, the kind of bunch that could make for a nice mellow easy ward. Dickson was coming too. My kingdom was looking good.

From my intelligence gathering activities, I now had a pretty good idea about which nurses were still here, which ones weren’t, and what some of the new ones were like. This was all great information. Also, some of the good nurses, from before, were getting bad reviews, and some of the bad ones were getting good reviews. Go figure. I wasn’t sure what that was all about, probably nothing, but I would find out later.

After lights out, I lay awake for a while listening to the night sounds I’d come to know over the last 14 years or so. The massive glass doors opening and closing. The big grandfather clock, sounding off down the hall by the elevators. The night nurse’s uniform rendering up its various pleasant rhythmic sounds as she went about her duties. Some kid in the little ward strongly sang out “I need a bottle!” A golden oldie you might say … or a golden puddle and a bed change if the bottle didn’t arrive on time.

I still wanted out in the worst way. That part could never change. But I was feeling good too. This was going to be a stay to remember. I made a few kingly observations and decisions, sketched out some plans for future work around implementations, thought about Miss Elbert, and drifted off to sleep.

In my dreams that night, over fine ale and pipes full of the best pipe-weed the Shire had to offer, King Aragorn and I discussed our respective quests, conquests, and kingdoms. We conferred in a well-equipped room in one of the castles of Middle Earth. My personal kingdom didn’t have appropriate facilities for heady conversations of such magnitude.



4 Responses to “King of the Ward”

  1. Susan Gregory Says:

    What a wonderful story, and your memory seems to not have suffered too much from any mis-treatment it may have received! I need to go make John’s lunch, then I’ll continue on the next ‘issue’!!

  2. Jane Catherine Rozek Says:

    Wow! Have you entered this into any short story contests? It held my interest fast. It’s awfully good writing! Or maybe it’s in a book already?

  3. cannarile Says:

    Great story! One I can relate to on a personal level. I have a near teen grandson who has spent a great deal of time in Seattle Children’s Hospital and has passed much of his time writing short stories. I would like to share this story with him. Vicki

    • the epistles of harry Says:


      I hope he enjoys the story. They used to keep us for 3 or 4 months at Shriners hospital because that’s how they did it. Things are different now, the stays are much shorter and instead of being a patient I’m one of the guys in the funny hats.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: