My Basal Metabolism


EVERYONE who has lately been in a hospital knows, of course, what a basal metabolism is, but I was one of the outsiders until last week. I did not know what doctor or nurse meant when they announced that I should have to undergo the thing next morning. I made the usual feeble effort to penetrate their veil of kindly reserve — a thicker than ever veil in this case, for half the fun in that scientific practical joke called basal metabolism consists in keeping the patient doubtful and wondering.

‘Quite a simple test,’ the nurse murmured smilingly, when the doctor had left the room after explaining that the whole affair was ‘merely a register of functional activity.’ ‘Go to bed now,’ the nurse continued, ‘and keep as quiet and calm as possible. That means everything.’

Of course men of science know best. Otherwise I might have had my doubts about the calming effect of being roused at 6 A.M. by the tramp of feet, the clatter of a stretcher laid down outside my door, and a confused hum of voices. My door flew open and two nurses and two orderlies, with determined faces, advanced to my bedside. I sat up hastily.

‘Lie down!’ the head nurse commanded. ‘Calm yourself!’ She took my temperature and pulse with a dubious air. The other nurse gave directions to the orderlies, who now picked me up and laid me among some particularly cold blankets upon the stretcher. Basal metabolisms were taken in another hospital building from the one in which I lay. The stretcherbearers airily raised and bore me along halls and corridors, outdoors, and into a motor ambulance. The bright blue October sky shone overhead. The air was crisp and chill and I shivered in my cold bedding, inwardly trying hard to be calm, so as not to bring upon myself grave symptoms of functional disorder. A short, jerky ride, during which an orderly tried to cover my head with the sheet ‘to keep out the light,’ and we were before another door through which I was carried to a bed in a bare, white-furnished room.

A new nurse, gravely smiling, bent over me and felt for my pulse. Then she remarked reproachfully, ‘Why, you’re shivering. That won’t do.’

‘I ca-can’t help it.’

‘We’ll wait until you can,’ she said firmly. ‘Lie still and keep mentally calm. The test is not really painful — just a little unpleasant.’

She withdrew to confer in whispers with a second white-robed figure. I stopped shivering and looked around me. Against the wall hung a long, jointed tube made of something like rubber cloth. The window beside the bed was pierced by a round hole the size of the tube, and, screwing my head about, I saw a large shiny metal tank standing behind the bed. Then the nurse came back, felt my pulse, straightened my knees, took down the tube, and began lowering a sort of hook-and-ladder system to within a few inches of my face. Seizing the coils of tubing, she thrust one end out the window-hole, a second end out of sight somewhere near the tank, and a third, furnished with a flat mouthpiece like a teething-ring, into my mouth. ‘Bite hard on it,’ she advised, summoning a perfunctory smile. ‘ Keep it well between the lips.’ With a deft gesture which took me completely by surprise she now snapped a heavy clamp over my nose, effectually closing it. Then, hanging the loose festoons of tube over the apparatus above my head, she stood back and smiled at her handiwork.

There was no way to breathe but through the tube, so for the next few minutes I and my lungs were kept busy — I trying anxiously to persuade them that they took in air enough from the tube by means of the window-hole, and that getting rid of the air afterward was a possible job; they indignantly puffing remonstrance at the close breathingquarters, while my throat put in its word with a strangling, gagging sensation which from time to time threatened to cut off the air-supply altogether. Meanwhile the two nurses stood by the tank behind me, whispering: —

‘Patient breathes very slowly.’

‘Thirty-five— do you make it?’

‘One more round.’

Then they left the tank-side and seated themselves — to judge by the scrape of chairs — somewhere near. I pricked my ears in the midst of my struggle for breath to learn what they were saying about me.

‘ — very difficult,’ were the words I caught next.

This held no surprise, for I had been previously told — in a veiled fashion — that computing a basal metabolism requires hours of calculation in higher mathematics. The nurses were working out some former patient’s test, I decided, for the next words which reached my ears above my labored breathing could hardly apply to my own case:—

‘A city in China.’

The patient had been living in China,

I deduced. Had been sent from China,

in fact, for treatment. The nurses’ next remark was commonplace enough.

‘ Dr. Ascot was awfully pleased I’d got so much done.’

Obviously he ought to be pleased at the young women’s industry. One of them thoughtfully went on: —

‘A kind of fish —’

Fish — I had it! The patient from China had upset his or her metabolism by eating bad fish — such strange, mummified sort of food, I fancied, as would be popular in small inland towns of the great old country. However, I began to feel that in these tense calculations the nurses were forgetting me, and, distract my thoughts as I would, I had more than enough of the savage grip on my nose and of the tube-end stuffed into my mouth. My case was of equal importance, I felt, with the one they were engaged upon. Indeed the importance of the whole proceeding, I had often been told, was enormous.

With courageous effort I screwed my head around to command a partial view of my attendants and recall their attention, if possible, from the study of the Chinese patient’s ruined digestion. At last my eye, strained painfully backward, fell upon the two white-capped heads bent over a small enameled table, and at the sight my reverent forbearance changed in an instant to a truculent heat which threatened to choke me then and there inside my tube.

The nurses were doing a crossword puzzle!

So now I am writing this to warn basal metabolism sufferers not to get excited when the talk behind them veers to fish and China. It’s a case of ‘never mind this one.’ And, after all, perhaps guesswork is good practice for the higher mathematics that come out of the tube and tank. I, the doctor later told me smilingly, was quite normal.