Earlier this week we had an extended experience in the Emergency Room and I feel compelled to write about it, more to purge it from my psyche than anything else.
Last week I had a laparoscopic procedure and have been recovering fairly well at home but the other evening felt like I was getting warm and discovered I had a slight fever. Hannah and David have been a little sick since I returned home and I figured maybe I had caught what they have. But, I thought I better run it by my surgeon, just in case I was developing a little infection from the surgery. I would definitely want to nip that in the bud if it were the case. I texted him, and he called immediately. He asked me a series of questions, didn’t like a couple of my answers and felt it was extremely important that I go to an emergency room immediately to be assessed. Dave and I got the kids semi-in bed – thank goodness for Grammie who could stay with them while we spent the evening at the ER. We left to their screams of protest and hoped they would settle quickly. (They did.)
We arrived at the ER around 8 p.m. It looked pretty busy – but it was only Tuesday night – how bad could it be? We live in Winston-Salem – not Chicago, not New York, not Los Angeles (Code Black, anyone?), not even Charlotte. It isn’t that big a city – but it seemed like there were a lot of people sitting around. We were shuttled through Triage within 15 minutes and sent over to the main waiting area. Surely these were “extra family members” waiting for people who were already back in the ER, Dave suggested hopefully. We sat down – I looked through the catalogs I had brought and tossed them over on an end table – after tearing off our address. You can’t be too careful these days, you know. I pulled out my Kindle and started reading. I was actually reading a John Grisham novel! I haven’t read a whole book in a long, long time. Convalescing has it’s perks! Maybe this wasn’t so bad. After about 45 minutes or so someone called my name. See! This wasn’t going to be so bad. He led us to a desk and proceeded to register us in the computer – for billing purposes. Thank you, he said. Go on back to the waiting room.
We went back. Our original seats were available, but had been slightly drafty, so I asked David if we could move a few seats over. We did. Some newcomers had arrived. They were very large and the odor in our section of the waiting room was becoming a bit … earthy. We waited. We played each other in some games on our cell phones. I read on my Kindle. It was around then I began to notice that the cross-section of humanity represented in that room was not a group I typically hang out with. I was a little uncomfortable. But, I’m a Christian – I can be patient and tolerant, right? I can be mature about this. After an hour or so my name was called again. “I’m taking you to Fast Track,” the man said. “Follow me.” We did. Fast track, eh? That sounded good! That must be where they take people who aren’t that sick and won’t take much time. We were put in our Fast Track room and about a half-hour later a Physician’s Assistant came in. He explained that Fast Track was sort of a second level of Triage where someone could take a look at us, order blood work and urine cultures and then by the time we got to the REAL ER, those results would be back and the doctor could handle things a bit more directly. He pushed on my tummy. It hurt and he didn’t like that it hurt as much as it did. Hmm. He’d want them to order a CT once we were back in the real ER. Another guy came in to draw my blood. With a thyroid condition I’ve had my blood drawn fairly often over the years and it rarely hurts. This guy did NOT have a minimal pain approach to needle sticks. Wow! Worst blood draw in years. Owie. Okay, that’s over – back to the waiting room.
It was now approaching 11 p.m. And we were starting to realize this could go on all night. But surely not. At least the blood work was behind us. We pulled out our chargers, found an outlet behind our chairs and started charging up our electronics. I glanced around again. I felt so out of place. There was a nice older couple waiting quietly. Nicely dressed. There was the woman with the weird colored dyed hair slumped in the wheelchair and her tattooed biker-dude partner trying to sleep in the chair next to her. There was an athletic looking black guy trying to sleep across corner chairs. Didn’t look very comfortable, but I was impressed by his flexibility and balance. Down the row from us were some very worn looking old women – maybe they weren’t really all that old but the hardness of life had not been kind to them. They hacked and spoke in gravelly voices that suggested much cigarette smoke had passed through their lungs in the last 50 years. There was the youngish woman sitting alone in the wheelchair. She was vocal and sort of silly – in the way that made me think she had probably had some drugs earlier, but not the kind distributed in the ER if you get my drift. She called out to the neat older couple, “Hey did you just come from church? (Giggle.) You look like you just came from church! What are you wearing?” She asks the man. “Are those tights?!” His wife quietly answers, “Those are stockings.” The young woman turns her attention to others. I am disturbed by my feelings – what am I doing here with these people? I feel superior to them. My beliefs start causing a moral quandry in my head. I am pro-life. I believe in the inherent value of every human soul. I believe that God loves every person equally, for we are all his created children. I cannot be better than any one of these other people. I am dressed better than most of them – hmm, okay, maybe not – I’ve had these sweatpants since college, I think. But my slippers and fleece jacket are from L.L.Bean (course I’m a Mainer (pronounced Main-ah), before we left Maine half my wardrobe was from L.L.Bean ) and between David and me we have enough electronics in our possession to cover the rent for one of these people for the month. How do I make sense of this? In the eyes of God each person in the ER is precious. Why do I have so much more? God doesn’t love me more. I am not more special to him in terms of inherent worth. If I just say, “Well, I am very blessed” does that mean that some of these other people aren’t blessed? If I say “I have made better choices” then I somehow put myself above them again and consider my preferences superior. Do these other people have the life they want and I have the life I want so it’s all good? I don’t know. I’m not getting answers to my spiritual questions, so I just pray for forgiveness for a judgmental spirit and ask God to help me love and value these other people. I find it interesting that in the ER the playing field is pretty leveled – if you’re gushing blood or are brought in via ambulance you get seen first. Otherwise, whether you have a migraine, appendicitis, blurred vision from a possible brain tumor (or so your eye doctor might have said earlier), or you are just trying to be sure you don’t have a post-operative infection, you get treated when they get to you. And it might be a long time. But being old or young or wealthy or poor or well educated or a high school drop out it doesn’t matter – it’s first come first served here, Baby.
Midnight is approaching and we get a little comic relief as the two college students across the room describe for a friend on Skype what brought them to the ER this evening. The one has the dental impression of the other embedded in his scalp, and the other has one of his teeth in a cup of milk, since someone told him that was a good way to preserve it. Who knew? I make a mental note in case I ever get a tooth knocked out.
I try snoozing on David’s shoulder. We are both quite cold. David gets up to walk around a bit to try to warm up. I try the athletic black guy’s technique trying to use the corner chair to put my feet up and try to semi recline. It doesn’t work very well for me. Finally someone calls my name and Dave and I follow that person to the REAL ER. I feel special. I feel like I have finally been chosen! Somehow I have earned a spot over where everyone wants to be! Yay! I have made it! We settle in to curtained off area 7A, which will be our spot for who knows how long. Dave chooses to stand instead of sit in the folding metal chair reserved for him. It does have a padded seat and eventually he will sit there for a while. I feel bad for him and invite him to join me on the stretcher. It may be only one person wide (and I am seriously thankful for that rail to keep me from falling off), but I am sure we could somehow fit on there. At least he’d be able to recline for a little while. He shakes his head and declines my offer. What a realist, that one.
Finally around 2 a.m. someone tells me that they’ve ordered a CT scan with contrast, but I’m bordering on dehydration so I have to drink a cup of water. Someone comes to start an IV. Dang! Another bad stick-er! What’s with this night shift crew, anyway? Do all the skilled phlebotomists get the day shift? Four sticks in the same spot in the last week have made that arm a little sensitive anyway. (The other arm has oddly placed veins that are hard to get to.) Somewhere in there I fall asleep for about 45 minutes. Finally Dave decides he needs to go to the car to try to get warm and to try to sleep. We obviously aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. He leaves and I wait. I read. I listen to what is going on around me. I observe. I don’t like it. It feels like a prison ER. Doesn’t feel crisp, clean, pristine. Anything but. The curtains are stained. The floors are dirty. The equipment looks well used. Finally the lady who made me drink the water comes back and wheels me down the hall to CT. It is obviously busy – I heard the guy two beds down get diagnosed with appendicitis after his trip to the CT scanner. The lady next to me with the possible brain tumor is maybe in one of the CT rooms now. One room opens up and they wheel one person out and wheel me in. I am instructed that this is all going to be super easy and I just need to shift myself from my stretcher to the CT scanning table. Hmm – I’m like a turtle on its back and I do the “I’ve-got-four-incisions-in-my-tummy shuffle” over to the other bed. They tell me they are going to put the contrast agent in my IV and that I am going to feel warm and to tell them when I feel the warm sensation. Yup, I feel it – especially in my bladder which is extremely full and I think I am probably going to wet my pants. Ugh. I don’t like this feeling and I want to cry. I wish David hadn’t gone to the car. The technicians are very nice and the study is done very quickly. I am told to choose whether I want to scoot myself back over to the stretcher or stand up and transfer, but suddenly the water lady rushes in and says to get me over there quick. A trauma is coming in. Oh! I do my shuffle as fast as I can and the man wheels me out asking everyone he passes what kind of trauma is coming in. Most people ignore him, but one lady answers “GSW”. Hmm. GSW. I wonder what … oh! Gun Shot Wound! Things are getting interesting! Back I go to 7A, but on the way I notice a bunch of paramedics, stretchers, policemen and I am glad to get back behind my curtain.
There I stay. I try to snooze. I read. I hear screaming. Loud agonized screaming. Did the GSW die? Is this the screaming of losing a loved one? Or is this the screaming of someone in pain? Is someone angry? Suddenly I don’t feel safe and fear retaliation and really wish David were not off in the car. The screaming stops and I try to be patient. THREE HOURS LATER someone comes and tells me that my CT is fine and I can go home. I don’t have an infection.Finally someone comes to take out my IV, which I have seriously considered doing myself so I can just go. I am dazed. I am exhausted. I head for the door and some lady catches me and says come over here to discharge please. Huh? I thought I just got discharged in there? Out here discharged is a fancy word for “Pay your $200 ER co-pay.” Ugh. I get outside and wait for David. He hasn’t slept well either. We drive home, both frustrated and exhausted. Over breakfast I tell him, “It’s gonna take a knife wound to the chest for me to ever go back to that ER.”
I am wrong. All it takes is a doctor calling on the phone saying, “A supervising radiologist read your CT scan this morning and found some abnormal lesions on your spleen. It may be nothing, but I need you to come back to the ER for an ultrasound.” I politely don’t tell him he must be out of his freaking mind to tell me to come back there. I ask what other options I might have. He tells me none that would produce a rapid answer to their questions. I call my doctor’s office and ask for a call back. Can she work some magic so that this can be done someplace else? No. She can’t. We drive back to the ER, grumpy and defensive. The doctor had told me that he would let the charge nurse know that I had been “recalled” and was just there for an ultrasound. We are prepared to storm in there and make it absolutely clear that under NO circumstances were we going to wait in that waiting room for another five hours before going for the ultrasound. Thankfully the doctor was true to his word and they were expecting us. We were taken right back to the real ER, this time to bed 7B. The ultrasound order has been placed. Someone should be coming shortly to take me for this quick test. After about an hour someone does come and says this will be very quick. I leave David with all of my stuff – purse, cell phone, Kindle, fleece – and tell him to get on the bed and sleep while I am gone. The very nice transport guy stops to get me a blanket from the warmer and I want to hug him. Off we go, and it is very far away. It probably took a good ten minutes to wheel me to wherever and on the way we passed many other transport type workers. It is apparently a special day, and they are being treated to a Chick-Fil-A lunch. That’s nice, I think. I’m sure they deserve it. He drops me off somewhere and after a little while someone comes to do the ultrasound. “This will be very quick,” she tells me, “since I am only looking at one organ.” Good, I think. We can soon be on our way home in time for David to go pick up Daniel at school at 12:30. She does the ultrasound and it is not quick. She scans and scans and scans. She goes to ask the radiologist if they have all they need. She comes back, cleans me up and gets me another warm blanket. That’s so nice and it feels really good. She takes me back to where the other guy dropped me off and signs a notebook. “Someone will be along shortly to take you back to the ER. Have a good day!” she says. I notice it is about 11:45. Dave will need to leave by 12:10 to get to the school in time to get Daniel. I wait until about 11:50. Transport staff come and go – they chat and discuss the Chick-Fil-A lunch. They joke. They occasionally move someone. One of them comes and sits right behind me. Finally I ask one of them if she is going back to the ER. She says no, but someone will be along soon. NO! I say, “My husband has to leave to go get my son and he has all of my stuff back at the ER. I need to get back to the ER!” She says she’ll check into it. She asks someone at the desk and comes back and tells me someone will be along soon. I’m on the list.
I am starting to lose it. The lady beside me really starts to lose it and the sound of her vomiting is pushing me over the edge. I struggle not to join her. It is now after Twelve and I know David has to leave any minute, but I have no way to contact him. I decide to take things into my own hands, hoping to stir up enough trouble that someone will take me back to the ER. I start wheeling the wheelchair myself. I make it past our holding area and hear a voice call out behind me, “Can I help you?” “Yes, please tell me how to get to the ER.” She tells me that I am not allowed to go there myself and I must wait for transport, and if I try to go any further myself she will call security. I consider this option – “Will they take me to the ER?” I ask. She tells me no. I do not try to keep going because truthfully, I have no idea where I am or which way I need to go to get towards the ER. I sit there and I start to cry. I feel like I am being held prisoner. I am kept from my husband. He is going to have to leave before I can get back to the ER. I don’t feel safe there and he will have to take my stuff with him and I will have no means of contacting him. I am wheeled back over toward the holding area and I beg to not be left next to the poor lady throwing up. The prison guard tells me that I will be next and someone will be along very soon. I am so mad at this point. I have been lied to for the last 45 minutes about someone going to be “right along”. I can’t do anything. I can’t go anywhere. I just start bawling and I can’t stop. Someone comes along who really is going to take me back to the ER and asks if I am okay. I bawl that no I am not and she tries to comfort me that they will make me feel better soon. All I can do is cry and wipe my nose on my previously warm blanket. She drops me off back at 7B and I see that David has left my purse on the stretcher wrapped in my jacket. It was a daring move as nothing felt safe at that point, but I was so glad it was there. I got myself up on the bed and grabbed my phone where I saw his texts about having to leave and to let him know when I had been reunited with my phone. I texted him and then just sat there on the bed and cried and cried like a baby. I was spent. Exhausted, scared, manipulated, lied to. I had to get out of there! Shortly the doctor who had called me to come back in that morning came in. He told me the ultrasound looked great. I have hemangiomas on my spleen and these are probably benign, but I should have another ultrasound in 3-6 months to be sure they aren’t progressing or getting really big. He tells me that I can go and someone will come soon to give me my discharge papers. Someone does. She is very young and doesn’t seem to know much about medical terms or the documents she is giving me. She tells me to be sure to check in with my gerontologist and I catch my breath, about to laugh at her. My general practitioner does specialize in gerontology, but not all of her patients are elderly. I know it is just a mistake, but it seemed a hilarious insult to top everything off.
I stumbled out of the ER. I knew David wouldn’t be back for a good 45 minutes, but I could not stay there another minute. I started walking, heading toward sunshine. I didn’t know which direction I was going or where I could find a bench or something to sit on to wait for David. I was shuffling along, my abdomen sore from my surgery and my head a little woozy from fatigue. I realized I must look a sight – unshowered, old sweatpants, a long old hooded sweatshirt of David’s, my slippers. I kept looking over my shoulder afraid someone from the hospital would think I had escaped and try to get me back there. I got oriented and began shuffling down a street toward David’s former office building where I knew there was a gazebo outside where I would ask him to come meet me. Some professional folks came out to eat their lunch in the gazebo and I was afraid they would try to shoo off the riffraff – me. How strange this all was. I had gone from feeling like the superior one in the ER the night before to feeling like I was a homeless character hunkering in the gazebo hoping to not be kicked out by the professionals. What a miserable study in the human condition this had been. I had failed the test, whatever it was. I was weak, scared, lonely, hurting, so tired.
What really does separate us as people? One lost night of sleep, a challenging set of circumstances, a surgical procedure, a missed shower – and I felt as low as those I had been sizing up the evening before. I still don’t have answers. Maybe these sorts of questions are borne more out of pain medication than anything else but really – we are just weak, needy people, sitting and crying in our lostness and need. Our props often work to keep us up and looking good, but take a few of them away and it can crumble pretty fast. We’re coming up on Easter weekend. I don’t know if I am going to be strong enough to go to the church service, but I am weak enough to be thinking about how much I need Jesus and how grateful I am that he died for me and rose for me! Hallelujah! God loves me. I am just one person, but each person has inestimable worth because God made each of us, and I am special to him. I’ll move beyond this crazy experience, but I can be a little changed by it in a good way. I might see it all with clearer eyes when I’ve had more sleep and the drugs have cleared my system.
If you read this whole thing you should get a prize. You won’t, but you should.