“It’s a mild, overcast December morning. It is not a good day to die or to do anything else in particular. It’s a real nothing day,” Robert Samuels recalls about the morning, early in December 1981, which changed his life’s course forever.
In “Blue Water, White Water,” Samuels recounts his dramatic experience of agonizing illness and painstakingly slow recovery when he’s stricken with a severe case of Guillain Barre syndrome. Left only with the ability to move his eyes left and right, Samuels spends over a year completely dependent on nursing and medical care. Although his total paralysis leaves him bereft of any independence, his sharply intact mind must deal with the pain, frustration, and fear that accompanies such a loss of health and ability.
Samuels manages to make a book about laying still for months on end a page-turner. It’s a feat, in no small part, credited to the myriad of ridiculous characters he must entrust his life to on a daily basis. If he seems critical, he is. And rightfully so. Most of the nurses and doctors he has the poor luck of crossing paths with are equal opportunity offenders. The things they say and do in front of a man who they forget is there are so shocking, it seems unreal.
One such character, a nurse named Clare Ann, regularly “teaches Samuels a lesson” by refusing to turn him when he asks, insisting that he’s spoiled and needs to build stamina. This is the ultimate source of powerlessness for a man who experiences intense pain when left in one position for any length of time. There’s also the nurse who terrifies him because she smashes his face in the rail every time she turns him and the nurse who almost kills him due to her lack of knowledge when it comes to ventilators.
But Samuels isn’t anti-nurse. He’s just anti-bad nurse. He’s not anti-doctor. He’s just anti-stupid doctor. He succeeds in communicating just how helpless and hopeless it can feel to be at the mercy of whoever happens to step into his hospital room. Little information is communicated to him. He undergoes numerous bronchoscopies (with what sounds like lavages) with no medication whatsoever. Multiple painful EMG tests are performed, which yield little to no information about his own prognosis (he implies that the data was for the physicians’ self-serving purposes.)
And yet through it all, Samuels maintains a sharp wit that is, no doubt, the reason he remained sane.
“I have some strange nurse who doesn’t even bother to tell me her name. She’s so mechanical. I call her The Robot…To get her attention, I swing my eyes back and forth like a spoiled kid banging his fist on a table. She reads the list on the poster to find out what I need. Sometimes I need suctioning, but usually what I want is turning. ‘Roll me over in the clover, lay me down and do it again.’ She does it a lot. She does it mechanically. What is it she does, you ask? She turns me. I love The Robot.”
I sincerely hope that Robert Samuels’ experience was an isolated and bizarre one, a series of strokes of bad luck. Or at the very least, that in the 30 years since his arduous hospital stay, we’ve come a long way in healthcare. But even if that’s the case, “Blue Water, White Water” is a powerful reminder that there is always a human behind the patient; that medicine is grossly fallible, and that compassion and kindness are invaluable when it comes to survival.