In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

Tom Malmquist, Trans. by Henning Koch

January 31, 2018 
The following is from Tom Malmquist's novel, In Every Moment We Are Still Alive. Tom is shuffled around the hospital and shooed out of rooms as his pregnant partner is diagnosed with an incurable disease. Tom Malmquist is a Swedish poet and sports writer. In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is his first novel.

The consultant stamps down the wheel lock of Karins hospital bed. In a loud voice he addresses the intensive care nurses, who are cutting open her tank top and sports bra: pregnant woman, week 33, child reportedly in good health, started feeling ill about five days ago with flu-like symptoms, fever, cough, slight shortness of breath yesterday, which was put down to her prenancy, condition severely deteriorating today, acute respiratory difficulties, arrived at the maternity unit about an hour ago. With powerful hands, he unscrews a cartridge-like bottle and continues: Sats about 70, ambient but responds to oxygen with higher saturation, RR about 40 to 50, BT 140, HR 120. The midwife who helped with the oxygen in the ambulance stops in the doorway. She gently takes my arm. Youre in Ward B at the ICU now, would you like me to write that down for you on a bit of paper? No need, thanks, I answer. Shell get all the help she needs now, she says. Yes, thanks. Okay, well, Ill be off then. Okay, thanks. Karin has electrodes attached to her chest.

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The monitor is beeping shrilly. What drugs have you given her? I ask. You have to ask Per-Olof about that, answers the intensive care nurse. Whos that? Thats me, the consultant calls out: were giving your wife Tazocin and Tamiflu, painkillers, sedatives, and some other thingsweve various different drugs on the infusion rack here, but theres no time to talk to you right now. Well updatyou properly soon, just stay calm now and let us get on with helping your wife. What about the baby? I ask, but no one answers. I sink down onto the floor and lean against the wall beside a waste bin for used needles. I hug Karins quilted jacket for a moment then suddenly drop it and run out of the room. I see the sign for the handicapped toilet further down the sharply lit corridor and dive in and dont even have time to close the door behind me before I vomit and piss at the same time. I gargle with some water from the tap but my breath still stinks so I wash my tongue with liquid soap. The white double doors of Ward B are closed when I come back. I knock once, open, and peer inside. One of the intensive care nurses is sitting on a stool between Karins parted thighs. Tattooed sword blades coil around his muscular arms. Karin is wearing an oxygen mask with a reservoir bag, her eyes are shut, and her face suddenly seems like that of a stranger. The nurse, wearing latex gloves, is prising open Karins labia. He catches sight of me, drops the urinary catheter, stands, and walks right up to me. His eyes are vacant. I have to ask you to wait outside, he says. Why? Privacy, he answers. Whose privacy? I ask. The patients. The patients? Yes, the patients, he says, and stares at me, only not into my eyes but at one of my shoulders. Ive lived with her for ten years, and shes carrying my child. Theres still the matter of patient privacy, he says. If patient privacy is so important, why are you here alone with her? I ask. I try to step forward but he blocks my way and says: I have to ask you to wait outside. Ill come and get you when Im ready. He shoos me out without even touching me, and closes the door.


Were treating you for all the things we suspect may have caused your breathing difficulties, but this is serious; a young woman shouldnt be breathing like this even if she is pregnant.”


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Theres a coffee machine opposite the lifts. I insert a ten-kronor piece but forget about the plastic mug. The coffee goes everywhere, all over the machine, and down onto the floor. I get some paper towels from a cleaners trolley and start mopping it up. The consultancomes out of the intensive care ward just as Im rummaging about for some more coins. He glances down at the file hes resting against his belly. Havent you passed out yet? he asks, apparently expecting me to laugh. When I dont, he says: Your wife is in very serious condition. So it isnt pneumonia? I ask. Pneumonia can be pretty serious, he replies. Its curable, though, isnt it? Most of the time, but not always, he says and walks past me into the lift. He presses one of the buttons, nods at me, and adds that hell update me as soon as they know more. I sit in a chair outside Ward B. Every inch of the corridor is greyish blue—the plastic floor, the skirting boards, the walls, the guard rails, even the food trolleys. There are three windows behind me but I cant see out of them, the evening darkness has turned them into mirrors. I stand up and knock on the white door, wait, and sit again. Eventually the intensive care nurse emerges. I notice his tattoos again, almost like warpaint. Can I go in now? I ask. No, he answers, then fetches something from a cupboard beside the door and disappears back into the room. I look at my telephone, answer a couple of text messages, then walk up and down the corridor until my legs feel tired. Again I knock at the door. This time the other nurse answers. Sorry, I say, but I dont understand why I cant come in. This is ridiculous, I know Karin wants me there with her. Oh, did no one come to get you? If they had I wouldnt be standing here, would I? Im sorry, do come in. Karin is already a bit better, she says, and insists on getting me a cup of coffee and a cheese sandwich. Thanks, but I dont want anything, I tell her. Karin sees me and starts waving. An assistant nurse has loosened her oxygen mask and is dabbing her lips with a sponge stick. Karin is gasping for breath but seems happy to be free of the sweaty mask. I go over to her and take her hand. Darling? At least theyve given you morphine. She points at her stomach—itll be okay, I say, I promise, everythings going to be fine. She gives me a thumbs up. The guy with the tattoos is talking on the phone, hes sitting in an observation room, the windows of which overlook the ward. His face is stunningly beautiful, his thick hair perfectly combed, his skin smooth. I pick up Karins puffer jacket. The consultant stands with his back to me waiting for a colleague whos pulling along something that looks like a defibrillator. He seems to be from MIVA in Cardiology, taciturn and a bit odd. After a quick examination of Karins chest, he turns to the consultant: We need an emergency spiral CT. Is that serious? I ask. He gives me a look and turns to Karin: Ive checked you over now, Karin, and think it sounds like youve got serious pneumonia, maybe even an embolism. Its difficult for me to say with absolute certainty at this point, we have to take an X-ray first. Could you repeat that? I say. The consultant answers while keeping his eyes on Karin: Pneumonia or a blood clot, maybe both, at least thats what we think at this stage. Were treating you for all the things we suspect may have caused your breathing difficulties, but this is serious; a young woman shouldnt be breathing like this even if she is pregnant. I try to establish eye contact with Karin but shes staring up at the ceiling, not passively but as if shes noticed something. I look up as well, but all I can see is a fluorescent tube and an immaculate, blindingly white ceiling, not a single crack in the paint. The consultant sees that Im holding Karins puffer jacket in my arms, and grimaces. Theres a locker further down the corridor, youre welcome to use it, he says. No need, this is Karins. Well, as I say, there are lockers available. No need, but thanks anyway, I answer and sit down next to her bed.


Karin is wheeled off into a room with a steel door, as if shes being taken to a bomb shelter. She coughs so hard that her chest bounces up from the bed. I sit at one of the tables in the corridor and can hear a droning sound through the walls. After about half an hour doctor appears and asks if I am Karins next of kin. Has something happened? I ask. Hes bald, wears oval glasses, and introduces himself as the radiologist. He stammers while telling me this could take some time, because Karin, on account of her breathing difficulties, is having problems lying in a horizontal position. Okay, I answer. So you understand it could take a while, then, yes? Okay, thanks. Its hot and stuffy in the corridor. I take off my cardigan and get my phone out. Sven answers on their landline. He listens as I explain whats been happening, then says: So the doctors suspect its pneumonia? Yes, shes having an Xray now. Thanks for ringing, Tom. Its not long before he calls back. Hello, Sven, I say. Lillemor must have been frantically pacing around their terraced house in Lidingö until Sven felt compelled to phone back. Sorry for calling you again, he says. Sven, Im the one who called you just nowsorry, I only said that because youre apologising. Anyway, he continues, is there anything else you can tell us about her pneumonia? Ive told you everything I know, I say. I see, he answers, and asks if it would be all right if they come in. Thats probably not necessary, Sven, its only pneumonia. Where are you now? he asks. Söder Hospital. Where exactly? I dont remember, Mum dropped us by the maternity ward. I dont know, somewhere below ground level. Centre for Nuclear Medicine and Imaging, it says here. Shes probably only being X-rayed there, do you remember the name of the ward? No, Sven, look, can I check and text it to you? Thats fine, thanks. I think I might have left a hob on in the kitchen, I burst out. Sorry, what? I made her tea, I probably forgot to turn off the hob. Oh right. . . Sven, Im going to go, I have to call Mum, she has a spare set of keys.


The consultant has been waiting for me in Ward B, and wants to talk urgently. He rubs disinfectant gel into his rough hands from the pump-action dispenser by the door. Everything about him is grey, apart from his white hospital clothes. He has brought a doctor with him, and explains she’s an obstetrician; she stands by a mobile ultrasound machine, which she plugs in by the hospital bed. The consultant shakes his hands dry and says: Karin, we just got the X-rays and have had a preliminary assessment of your blood tests, it’s not looking good. Karin is strangely calm. I rub her feet. The consultant leans forward, so that he can look into Karins eyes. Can you hear me, Karin? She nods. Good, Ive discussed it with haematologists both here at Söder Hospital and also at Karolinska—they’re blood specialists. You have a massive increase in white blood cells, it’s highly likely that you have acute leukaemia. Karin looks at me and I hear her say something very faintly. Darling, Im here, I say, reaching out to caress her cheek. We’ll sort this out, I promise, we’ll sort this out. Karin waves her hand. I try to read her lips behind the oxygen mask. She’s asking about the baby, I say. Karin gives me a thumbs up. My priority now is Karin, says the consultant. The child is well protected in the uterus, adds the obstetrician, even against leukaemia. She has long brown hair and a straight little nose. She doesn’t seem entirely comfortable that the consultant is there, and only relaxes once he’s left the ward. She works an ultrasound device over Karins stomach. You have a perky little baby, shes fine, I cant see anything to indicate otherwise, she says, wiping off the gel with tissue. At the door she turns to us, as if intending to say something else, but just stands there looking for a long time at Karin. Thanks, I say. She hesitates, then says: These days they’re very good at treating leukaemia. Thanks a lot, thanks. A loose white thread curls up the neckline of Karins hospital gown. I tuck it in under the fabric, and smooth over her fringe. She’s drenched in sweat and tugs at my hand. Is everything all right? she asks. Are you really asking me that? She nods. Darling, of course Im worried, but dont talk now, concentrate on your breathing. On a trolley I find a laminated sheet showing the emergency exits. I use it as a fan. Karin likes the air wafting against her. I dont know how long Ive been standing there fanning her when she opens her mouth. She makes a smacking sound. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but it sounds like “live.” She tries to take off her mask but I stop her. She groans. Darling, what is it? I ask. Her name, she says. Okay, okay, you want to call her Liv? She shakes her head and exclaims: Livia. Livia? She nods and lifts her wrist. Livia, she says. Okay, Livia it is, I answer. An alarm on the oxygen machine goes off and one of the intensive care nurses comes rushing in. What’s going on? I ask. She calls out towards the monitoring room: She’s working too hard. The consultant strolls in, he’s chewing on something, he swallows it, clears his throat, pauses in front of one of the monitors with his hands folded behind his back. She’s doing well with the oxygen, she’s still managing, but we’ll have to intubate if things dont improve, he says, and turns to Karin. Im sorry to talk about you in this way, we don’t mean to, it’s just habit, but the situation is, Karin, in spite of the help we’re giving you you’re struggling to oxygenate yourself, so we may have to sedate you and use the respirator.

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I suggest to Sven that he stop the car and pass the telephone to Lillemor. Were in a taxi now, but hold on and Ill put her on, he answers. I feel nervous when I hear Lillemors deep voice: Yes, hello. Hi, we’ve had a diagnosis, I say. Okay, she answers. I wanted to call right away, but it was difficult, I say. Okay. I thought Id better call before you got here. Uh-huh, well? Its really difficult to say this. Well? Its not pneumonia. Lillemor goes so quiet that I have to ask: Are you still there?


From In Every Moment We Are Still Alive. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2018 by Tom Malmquist.

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