Behind The Mask

Albie knew exactly when the insect bit him. He was on the thirteenth hole of the golf course, four shots under par, beating his friends by a couple of strokes when he felt the sting on his calf. It was a warm Saturday afternoon and, with the perspiration, his leg began to itch and welt up. It affected his swing and Albie dropped three strokes the rest of the way, losing the round to Nap who beat him by two.

Nap, Skeet, and Raj ribbed their friend for using the bite as an excuse for his late round choke as they enjoyed a few beers in the clubhouse after the match. Albie wasn't one to sulk about a loss and by the second beer he was laughing with the rest of the guys about his misfortune.

But later, the bite swelled and Albie awoke in the middle of the night with a high fever, chills and aches—even his teeth hurt! He toughed it through the night - not sure if he slept or was unconscious - and when he came to in the morning he was still feverish and sweating like a fish. He foolishly drove himself to the Emergency Room even though he was weak and dizzy, He was thought to have a strep infection resulting in cellulitis.

The ER Doc pumped the patient with antibiotics and IVs as Albie was dehydrated too. They did a CAT-Scan on the bite and he was admitted into the ICU in an isolation room as the doctors weren't sure if he was infectious. Albie's temperature was nearly 103 degrees, his heart rate was off the chart, and his white blood cell count was through the roof.

"We're concerned you could die from toxic shock," The ICU Physician warned. "This is pretty serious."

The medical staff wore hazmat gowns, gloves and masks when entering Albie's room so all he saw were the people's eyes and the movement of their eyebrows to express various thoughts and feelings. Albie found himself to be surprisingly calm and collected as he pondered death, unexpectedly unconcerned about the possibility of his demise, figuring it was now in God's hands.

One particular nurse among his care team was noticeable attentive to his needs, showing compassion and sympathy in Albie's hour(s) of need.

"I see you're wearing a wedding ring," she said. "Where's your wife?"

"I'm a widower," Albie reported.

"Oh." The nurse seemed taken aback by the revelation. "Well, how 'bout your parents? Have you called them?"

"My father left the family a long time ago," Albie sighed. "Mom passed a few years back."

"I'm sorry," The nurse said with sympathy. "Surely you have other family."

"My sister lives in California," Albie informed her. "We're kind of estranged. I don't want to bother her with this."

"What if something happens to you?" The nurse asked.

"Then she'll be bothered."

The nurse stared at him but all Albie could see was her eyes and eyebrows. The eyes were strikingly blue and strangely penetrating as she stared at him.

"My name is Kirsten," She said. "Let me know if you need anything."

"I will," Albie replied with appreciation.

"What about friends?" She asked, clearly concerned about Albie's situation.

"I don't want them feeling sorry for me," Albie said. "I'll be okay. Thanks for your concern though."

"I hate the thought of you being in here alone like this," she said.

"In case the Angel of Death comes?" Albie asked.

"Don't joke about such things," Nurse Kirsten protested. "You're very seriously ill."

"It wouldn't be such a bad thing to see my wife again," Albie admitted.

"You're not even forty yet," Nurse Kirsten said pointedly. "It's not your time."

"You know, there was a time when I was physically unstoppable," Albie bragged. "But here I am waylaid by some stupid insect bite, wondering how it came to this. Alone in the ICU, facing death. You might be my guardian angel just by being here like this. I appreciate your presence."

Her eyes went wide. "I've never been anybody's angel before," She admitted.

The fever grew worse and the next few days were confusing for Albie. He was in an out of consciousness and it was hard to remember what was real and what he had imagined. He sensed that Kirsten was the one who brushed his hair and kept cool compacts on his forehead. He remembered hearing someone humming by his side and he assumed that was Kirsten too. The other nures were compassionate and caring but they were professional in their duties while Kirsten appeared to break that wall and offer a more directly humane and connected care agenda to him.

All of the nurses including Kirsten were unfailingly kind, knowledgeable, and accommodating in their around the clock care, bringing Albie ice water an ice packs, switching out his meds, injecting his abdomen with heparin to prevent clotting, and stopping the IV machine from beeping. It was humbling to be so weak and vulnerable, dependent on the care of others during his extreme illness. Albie wasn't interested in the television and he barely ate. He felt like a Borg from Star Trek being attached to so many IVs and chest telemetries and sometimes the sensors would fall off resulting in warnings to the nursing station that he was flat-lining!

Various doctors came and went - physicians, the infectious disease doctor, internists – Albie couldn't keep track of any of them! But his fever broke on the third day and the doctors pronounced him out of immediate danger. They also determined that he was no longer infectious or contagious and they allowed the nursing staff to remove their protective garb.

Nurse Kirsten happened to be in Albie's ICU Room when the initial okay was given and Albie watched with interest as she removed her cap and her mask and her gown and her gloves to stand before him in her normal purple scrubs.

"Nice to see you," Albie quipped but then he looked at her again, realizing that she looked familiar and she sheepishly glanced down at the tiled floor when she realized he recognized her.

"Mac," Albie said with disbelief.