Still Breathing

Names changed to protect the guilty.

Mr. Thomas was in his 60’s but he looked much older. Standing over 6 feet tall, he probably was an athlete when he was younger. Tall and slim, the build of a runner. He spent most of his time in the church. Sharp-minded if a little quiet. Now he didn’t make a sound other than the occasional moan, the only indication of his constant pain. The tumor in his brain had grown so large it was just a matter of time before the pressure it applied was too much for his life to sustain.

He had been admitted for inpatient care for several months deteriorating. Lucid moments ceased weeks past, so Mr. Thomas spent his days, and nights, in oblivion. “How am I supposed to care for a man who pulls feces from his shorts just to drop it on the floor?” The orderly would think to himself. The obvious answer was: humbly. So he spent time with him, washing him and feeding him. There were other men to care for as well, prison infirmaries are always full, but Mr. Thomas was the one nearest the end.

His shift ended, but the orderly stayed with Mr. Thomas. He could tell it was imminent. His face was drained of any color, but full of pain. The orderly began to pray. Worship songs were next. The melodic resonance of his voice seemed to relax Mr. Thomas a bit. As if the reverberation of the deep tenor bouncing off the concrete corners of the cell brought a tiny bit of respite from the ever-present pressure inside his head. Peace was entering the space as the warm soothing comfort of hot scented water fills a bathtub. The oppression of imprisonment was slowly disappearing. The overwhelming screams of pain slowly faded into the background. Nothing existed but the inviting darkness of death. There was no fear. No chaos. No more humiliation. Mr. Thomas’ eyes shown as they stared off into the abyss, not blankly, but with full understanding that his journey and discomfort were ending.

“INMATE!!” the yell ripped through the reverie with shocking sharpness. The officer called from his station. “The Lieutenant wants you to go to the chow hall and clean up some puke!” Back to reality, the orderly, also an inmate, must comply with the commands of security. “Yes sir,” was the only available response. He made my way down the hall with the appropriate chemicals for dispatching vomit.

Suddenly Nurse Tonya spoke up from the office in which she and two other medical staff were talking. “Do not go down there,” the nurse directed the orderly, “he can get his own people to clean that up. You are assigned and needed here.” To the officer she said, “He is not going to the chow hall.”

The orderly was relieved, he just wanted to sit with Mr. Thomas in his final hours. The officer didn’t know how to respond to the nurse, so he just relayed the message over his radio. In the back of the orderly’s mind he knew that this was not the end of the discussion.

It wasn’t long before Lt. Waters came barreling into the medical department. “INMATE! Come here!” he shouted. “And bring your cleaning supplies.” This encounter was as inevitable as Mr. Thomas’ soon coming freedom. Making his way down the hallway the orderly was stopped again by Nurse Tonya.

“He is not going,” she told the Lt. briskly. Lt. Waters did not even acknowledge her at first, “get your stuff Inmate. Let’s go.” He directed his conversation and attention away from the nurse and directly at the offender.

“NO, you are NOT going! The kitchen staff can clean up their own messes!” Nurse Tonya was becoming more forceful, and secretly the inmate kind of liked having someone stick up for him. These moments are rare inside. It was this comment that made the Lt. engage with Tonya finally.

This commenced a screaming match that lasted 15 minutes at least. There were threats and epithets. Most directed at the inmate from the Lt. Both the Nurse and the Lt. gave him “direct orders” to go or stay and he felt like a child caught in a custody battle. “of course l’m with mom,” he thought to himself.

Finally, Lt. Waters stormed out of medical, but he did not leave without a final word. “Inmate this is not over! Get your sh** together and be gone before l come back. You are fired!” Ultimately security wins.

Well there goes any thought of staying with Mr. Thomas in his last moments. In prison helplessness is a constant companion. Tonight was no exception. All three of the nurses told the orderly to stay, saying that nothing would happen, but he knew better. “Im gone.” He told them. “I gotta get outa here. He can make my life a living hell.”

After he gathered the few items that he had brought for the shift, the orderly stopped back in to check on Mr. Thomas. He said a quick silent prayer. His eyes were shut, but he was still breathing.

That night was rough. Lt. Waters came back to medical with a slew of other officers to find that the inmate had gone. His anger was abated for a time, but even after he got off duty for the night the incident continued to play in his mind. He went home and “tied one on.” He spent the next few hours steaming about the fact that the inmate had defied him, all the while he took shot after shot of cheap whiskey. The drunker he became the angrier he got. “Who does this inmate think he is?!” He swam in liquor and stewed in anger.

Mr. Thomas life drifted away at some point in the night. Alone and unattended he stopped breathing.

Meanwhile, the orderly spent the night worried what was going to happen next. When your life is in someone else’s hands these moments are full of dread and anxiety. He had seen men beaten to death because the officer felt offended. Torture was not uncommon. The best and brightest do not generally go to work inside prison, sometimes the difference between officer and inmate is negligible. Its Napoleon Complex in the flesh. So the orderly passed the night trying to prepare for the inevitable fallout.

The next morning was cold and cloudy though the mood in medical was on a fire’s edge as the orderly was buzzed through the door. The officer looked at him sternly and directed him to go stand at the end of the hallway and wait for the Chief of Security to get done talking to the Head of Medical. It was the proverbial clash of the titans! The orderly could hear the screams
from both staff members through the heavy door. He couldn’t make out the words that were hurled back and forth like short range artillery rounds. All he could hear were the explosions and the aftermath.

Suddenly the door burst open, and in a rush of rage and defeat the Chief of Security plowed through it. If a person could physically look fire red he did. The flood of rage was only contained by the microscopic film that separates the eyeball from the outside world. The Chief blew past the orderly, noticing him only at the last possible instant. He stopped, glared, and gritted. His face taught with murderous anger he seethed at the orderly, “don’t forget where you at!” It was almost inaudible but the message was clear. It was a thinly veiled threat, but the orderly knew the Nurses had won that round. The Chief disappeared.

Several moments passed before the orderly realized he was holding his breath. GASP! He was still breathing. Time to get back to work.



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