Midnight at the Veterans Hospital

A photo-essay from the first week spent with my father at the Veterans Hospital in Wisconsin, where we would wait nine months for a lung.

Madison, Wisconsin. The William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital does big business during the day. Disoriented veterans from several wars crowd its labyrinthine halls, trailed by anxious wives and husbands. Doctors and nurses race along the edges like ghosts, a streak of white polyester clutching a cup of coffee and a clipboard. There are long queues for the cafeteria, the vending machine, the coffee stand, and the Patriot Shop, where you can buy a tax-free blender or flatscreen television. The place hums with the chatter and clang of a small city until five o’clock when everyone disappears, leaving only my father and me on the sixth floor where we sleep in a hospital room, waiting for the next day’s tests on his lungs.

78 percent of lung transplant patients survive the first year. About 63 percent of patients survive three years. A little over 50 percent survive five years. I cannot sleep with these statistics. I look over at my father in the next bed, curled on his side and quietly snoring. He looks like a little boy. He’s been so brave since his lungs began to fail, diligently hauling his oxygen machine while walking the dog, shopping for groceries, or fishing on the bayou. When I encouraged him to slow down, he told me that he might as well die if he’s going to spend his days sitting in a chair not doing anything.

After midnight, I give up on sleep. My footsteps and the occasional fritz of a fluorescent light are the only sounds as I wander the empty halls of the hospital. The address is 2500 Overlook Terrace and my thoughts cannot escape the Overlook Hotel, where my mind races through deserted corridors before an axe-swinging Jack Nicholson or something worse catches me. I ponder the signs on each stainless steel door. Amputee care. Diabetic foot management. Electroencephalography. Former prisoners of war advocate. Infusion clinic. Military sexual trauma. Radiology. Sleep study section. Cashier. Stars, eagles, flags, and grinning soldiers decorate the walls. Christ, we’ve fought so many wars.

There are two worlds. There is the daily grind with its people worrying about traffic or a sour remark from a colleague or lover, a world of office hours and restaurants and treadmills and car maintenance and knowing the latest headlines and weather forecasts. Then there is the world inside hospitals where people are at war with their bodies, monitoring oxygen levels and viral loads while counting pills and searching their doctors’ faces for clues. Walking these empty halls in suspended time, I finally understand the word limbo. When I return to our room, I am grateful to find my father still snoring and I begin to pray.

More Photographs