A few weeks ago, I found myself overwhelmed with dizziness
, and extreme exhaustion
. It was the kind of sickness
that doesn’t let you get out of bed to go to the bathroom. As I didn’t have a doctor in Dupont Circle
, I sought one out – or rather, Pantaliamon
sought one out for me. The doctor didn’t instill a lot of confidence in me, but he did have the sense to send me to the emergency room at George Washington University Medical Center
. What a strange and scary place that was.
The waiting room looks like something you’d find in an unemployment office or automotive garage – it even had a vague oily smell to it, as if many years ago it had been a maintenance bay for the hospital’s fleet of ambulances and had been turned into a waiting room when hospital officials realized they didn’t have one. Strewn haphazardly throughout the room were rows of folding chairs, and on those chairs sat an assortment of sick people -- many appeared to be in terrible shape. Everyone’s attention was on a single Magnavox television set mounted high on the wall, the picture tube turned so green from overuse that the image was nearly bleached out.
Pan and I sat down and waited for the triage nurse to call me. We watched a young man in a suit who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a chair lean up against the wall and clutch his stomach. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, and sweat drooled down his forehead.
The others didn’t look much better. There were elderly black women in wheelchairs, surrounded by doting families who’d come possibly to say goodbye, and college students from George Washington University talking to their parents about colon trouble on the waiting room pay phones. There were also two construction workers laughing heartily about how they were going to get workman’s comp. They didn’t appear sick at all and had come to the hospital after their shift ended. I would later see one of them in the emergency room itself, unable to tell the nurse his specific symptoms. “It just hurts,” he said.
Hours passed, and no one was called. It occurred to me then how people really do die in hospitals – they sit bleeding internally in the emergency room without ever getting an attention. I felt my own mysterious illness wash over me and recede dozens of times. “Any of these people could die,” I said to Pan. She patted my leg. “Don’t think about it,” she said.
After five and half hours of waiting, I was finally admitted. The doctors argued with me about my irregular heartbeat, accusing me of being on cocaine. “I’ve never done drugs in my life,” I said, honestly. “I don’t even drink.” After further protest, they pretended to believe me.
Once the cocaine misunderstanding was resolved, they decided that all signs showed that I was dehydrated. So they hooked me up on an IV and rolled me out into the hallway. I saw many strange things while I lay there with saline dripping into my veins. A neighbor of mine whose bulldog plays regularly with our boston terrier was hooked to a morphine drip and pretended she’d never seen me before -- when I tried to speak with her, she coverd her face with a sheet. A sorority girl hooked to an IV flirted with a police officer who was watching over a jailhouse suicide attempt. I also saw a dead person.
A stoic orderly wheeled the body out of an operating room. It was wrapped in a sheet, reminding me of the bodies the French serial killer in the film Man Bites Dog dumped into a reservoir. It was clearly the body of one of the elderly black women I’d seen earlier in the waiting room. She had chatted with her family as though there was nothing much wrong. Now she was dead.
I wondered if she would have survived if the doctors had seen her earlier. Maybe if they hadn’t taken so much time to argue with me about whether or not I used cocaine they could have done something to save her. I later asked the head nurse about how the old woman died, but she didn’t reply. She just shrugged. I tried imagining what it was like for her – seeing people die every day. How it would feel to do her job. But for some reason I couldn’t.