We lived very close to Methodist
, but her doctor told us not to go there. "Go to LICH
instead," he said. “I know some people there. It’s a better hospital.”
”Just one thing,” he added, a little sheepishly, I thought. “Tell her to moan.”
”What?” I asked, stupefied.
”You know, they need to know she’s in pain. I’m going to call ahead, of course, and you’ll tell the triage desk that she’s a serious case, in potential need of emergency surgery, but I just don’t want them to keep you waiting longer than necessary. So tell her not to be quiet. She should moan as loud as she can.”
”I… OK,” I said, dumbfounded. He gave me directions, in case the taxi didn’t know how to get there.
So I held her shoulders and walked slowly with her to the car, and watched her eyes as we bounced along. She was quiet and had dried her tears and was being stoic enough to fool even me; I realized she couldn’t bear to let the cab driver see her in pain. We were dropped at the emergency room entrance. A small crowd was milling about outside, like the entrance to a club on Saturday night. We walked in carefully, one step at a time.
The room inside was 30 feet by 30 feet, with a low, crumbling drop ceiling. There were three vending machines, three pay phones, two single person restrooms. The floor was crowded with dirt and, oddly or perhaps not, band aid wrappers. There were roughly 20 metal seats. Perhaps 50 people milled about. Five baby carriages. Children ran in circles and shouted. Obese parents screamed at them to shut up. A critically retarded man of early middle age grunted, moaned, and drooled copiously onto the floor as he sat, unattended in his wheelchair, in the corner of the room.
A large television hung from the ceiling, blaring NBC. I vaguely wondered if later, ER might come on. Or perhaps a guard would come and change the channel first.
I walked to the window in the corner marked as “Triage” and recited what the doctor had told me to say to the blue-suited intern, knowing already what would happen but also knowing I had to play this out to the end. The man stared back, asked her name, and told us to have a seat. Our name would be called.
I repeated the part about surgical emergency. He’d asked me to repeat her name twice, after all.
He stared at me hostilely, waving at the crowd, at the pile of sheets strewn recklessly in front of him, over an inch thick. “Look, there’s nothing I can do. Go have a seat.”
”It’s just what the doctor told me to tell you,” I said, and I saw his face soften a bit as I turned around.
There were no seats. No one got up.
I walked her carefully over to the empty metal table between rows and propped her on it. She was doing exactly the wrong thing, of course. She was stoic, silent, dry eyed. I kneeled and tried to prop her head and arms up with my shoulders. Children ran back and forth, bumping into her. The two people on either side of the (6 inch wide) table jostled rudely to have their space even further invaded. The metal frame of the table shifted. Her face stayed plain, clear, and she leaned her head down on my arm, holding her waist with the other.
We looked at the floor. It was too dirty, too crowded to consider lying on just yet. Perhaps someone would get up.
Forty five minutes went by.
Her name was called. We were walked behind the glass into the hallway beyond and interviewed for five minutes. Blood pressure. Temperature. Obviously, they had not talked to her doctor. She tried to explain to them that she needed a bed. Asked them to call her doctor.
They looked at us patronizingly. Behind us, along the wall, were a dozen chairs, with people wincing, sleeping, and leaning on each other.
”There are no beds,” they said.
”How long will we wait?” I asked, as he was waving us back outside.
He was silent, looking at me with a particularly blank expression I recognized, oddly.
He handed me some forms to take to the registration window. “She has to register.”
“Look,” I said, waving to one of the two empty seats in the corridor. “Can she sit here? I’ll register for her.”
”Yeah,” he said, “if they let you,” already moving away. As the guard opened the door for me, a policeman walked in, handling a ragged looking man with pupils the size of quarters, his hands discretely handcuffed behind his back.
“Have a seat,” the cop said, intending to put him next to her.
”I will not,” the man said. I wandered past them.
The crowd was growing.
I waited to register for an hour.
I answered a series of questions whose only obvious intent was to make it easier for the hospital to track us down should we choose to skip out on the bill. The interviewer behind the glass had bits of the ceiling in his hair, like oversized dandruff. Once it was finally done, I walked back in to see her. The guard let me in, I realized, only out of confusion. There were no seats. All of the people who had been there when I left were still there. I held her hand for a moment, then the guard threw me back out into the waiting room.
I waited for another hour.
I watched her occasionally through the glass, curled up impossibly on the little chair, between a ragged old man and a little boy who was cradling his leg, thinking quietly. Sonogram. CAT scan.
A woman with a baby carriage started banging on the wall, shaking it, and shouting “I’ve been here since two o’clock! What the hell is wrong with you people!” After a moment, she stopped again. The guard didn’t come out.
I listened to another man, straining to hold a three year old in his arms argue with the triage intern about who he had let in first. A young teenager came in with his parents, holding a bloody compress on his forehead. They stood and waited.
I discovered one of the payphones was actually working. Thank God, Brian was still at the office. And actually, I might have been too. It was only 10:30pm. We paged the doctor, and Brian conferenced him in.
The best he could come up with was, “I can’t account for the triage decisions at the hospital.”
”Tomorrow,” I told him, “I’ll rent a car and drive to Westchester. It’ll be faster.” I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was her, holding her side, standing gingerly. I almost jumped. “Hold on,” I told him, expecting him not to.
”Did they see you?” I asked, noticing she had got her coat and scarf back on (it would not have been easy).
She shook her head. “There are 10 people in front of me,” she said softly.
We had been waiting for three hours. It might be another four. Or six.
”We’re leaving now,” I said into the phone. “We’ll call you in the morning.”
He hung up without saying goodbye.