The consultant stamps down the wheel lock of Karin’s 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. You’re 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. She’ll get all the help she needs now, she says. Yes, thanks. Okay, well, I’ll be off then. Okay, thanks. Karin has electrodes attached to her chest.
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. Who’s that? That’s me, the consultant calls out: we’re giving your wife Tazocin and Tamiflu, painkillers, sedatives, and some other things—we’ve various different drugs on the infusion rack here, but there’s no time to talk to you right now. We’ll update you 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 Karin’s 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 don’t 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 Karin’s 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 Karin’s 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 patient’s. The patient’s? Yes, the patient’s, he says, and stares at me, only not into my eyes but at one of my shoulders. I’ve lived with her for ten years, and she’s carrying my child. There’s 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. I’ll come and get you when I’m ready. He shoos me out without even touching me, and closes the door.
“We’re treating you for all the things we suspect may have caused your breathing difficulties, but this is serious; a young woman shouldn’t be breathing like this even if she is pregnant.”
There’s 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 cleaner’s trolley and start mopping it up. The consultant comes out of the intensive care ward just as I’m rummaging about for some more coins. He glances down at the file he’s resting against his belly. Haven’t you passed out yet? he asks, apparently expecting me to laugh. When I don’t, he says: Your wife is in very serious condition. So it isn’t pneumonia? I ask. Pneumonia can be pretty serious, he replies. It’s curable, though, isn’t 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 he’ll 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 can’t 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 don’t understand why I can’t 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 wouldn’t be standing here, would I? I’m 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 don’t 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 they’ve given you morphine. She points at her stomach—it’ll be okay, I say, I promise, everything’s going to be fine. She gives me a thumbs up. The guy with the tattoos is talking on the phone, he’s 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 Karin’s puffer jacket. The consultant stands with his back to me waiting for a colleague who’s 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 Karin’s 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: I’ve checked you over now, Karin, and think it sounds like you’ve got serious pneumonia, maybe even an embolism. It’s 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 that’s what we think at this stage. We’re treating you for all the things we suspect may have caused your breathing difficulties, but this is serious; a young woman shouldn’t be breathing like this even if she is pregnant. I try to establish eye contact with Karin but she’s staring up at the ceiling, not passively but as if she’s 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 I’m holding Karin’s puffer jacket in my arms, and grimaces. There’s a locker further down the corridor, you’re welcome to use it, he says. No need, this is Karin’s. 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 she’s 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 a doctor appears and asks if I am Karin’s next of kin. Has something happened? I ask. He’s 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. It’s 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 what’s been happening, then says: So the doctors suspect it’s pneumonia? Yes, she’s having an X–ray now. Thanks for ringing, Tom. It’s 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, I’m the one who called you just now—sorry, I only said that because you’re apologising. Anyway, he continues, is there anything else you can tell us about her pneumonia? I’ve told you everything I know, I say. I see, he answers, and asks if it would be all right if they come in. That’s probably not necessary, Sven, it’s only pneumonia. Where are you now? he asks. Söder Hospital. Where exactly? I don’t remember, Mum dropped us by the maternity ward. I don’t know, somewhere below ground level. ‘Centre for Nuclear Medicine and Imaging’, it says here. She’s 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? That’s 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, I’m 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 Karin’s eyes. Can you hear me, Karin? She nods. Good, I’ve 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, I’m 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 Karin’s stomach. You have a perky little baby, she’s fine, I can’t 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 Karin’s 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 I’m worried, but don’t 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 don’t know how long I’ve 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 don’t improve, he says, and turns to Karin. I’m 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.
I suggest to Sven that he stop the car and pass the telephone to Lillemor. We’re in a taxi now, but hold on and I’ll put her on, he answers. I feel nervous when I hear Lillemor’s 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 I’d better call before you got here. Uh-huh, well? It’s really difficult to say this. Well? It’s 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.