Good friends say I’m stubborn as hell. My own mother has slightly less choice words for it — pig-headed, she says, and I guess she knows best.
Either way, as a result of my unwillingness to acknowledge I am struggling, or asking for help last week, I ended up in the back of an ambulance headed to the ER.
I knew I was sick. Even after I regained consciousness, vomiting on my bathroom floor, I thought sleep and a NyQuil would sort me out…pig-headed, you see.
I was wrong. Do not fear, this is not a splurge about myself and the inner workings of my intestines or nasal passages. Nor is it a self-pitying lament about how jolly hard it can be on the road. My affliction was my old adversary, meningitis, returned to remind me I am mortal and need to be a great deal more grateful to be alive.
Rather, this is a glimpse into the inside of an American ER, and a peek into the inner workings of a hospital, in the grip of the COVID storm.
The ambulance men were brusque on arrival, finding my British accent indecipherable and unable to fathom how I had washed up at a hotel on the Oklahoma border without car or a loved one to get me to the hospital. Impatient with my feeble answers, they marked me down as homeless and warned me the hospital was swamped, I should be prepared for a 6-hour wait, and that I should watch my back because “this place is COVID soup.”
Feeling like death and willing it to come, I thanked him anyway, wondering if all American ambulance-men have this kind of bedside manner. I’ve met more sympathetic butchers in the abattoir, but I don’t doubt this has been a year from hell, and perhaps he is just sick of the sight of sick people.
Oblivious to the signage, I sat in the area that seemed emptier than the rest. Only when another woman who appeared to be bleeding from the ear gestured to her husband to come sit away from the COVID plague area did I realize I was in it. How COVID is supposed to know there are different seating areas for the appointed and the not-appointed I am unsure, but in the Age of Insanity we stopped questioning such details a long time ago.
A woman rushed in briskly, half poking, half pushing her companion towards an oversized wheelchair. Her friend was rasping, struggling for breath. Like a fish pulled from the water, she was gasping open-mouthed for air that would not come.
“She can’t breathe” informed her friend, without drama or emotion. No time for that right now, all that mattered was getting help and fast.
The nurse went straight to the public address system. “Shortage of breath, area 4, shortage of breath, area 4.”
I heard other PA announcements during my time in the ER. Two were “Code Blue” with their associated room number and I wondered about those souls. I don’t think I want to know what Code Blue is, or why it needs to be fanned across a big building with such urgency, but I hope those people are OK.
Ushered to a temporary bed in a makeshift ER ward and shivering like a newborn, I was surrounded by the sick, some of them very sick indeed. One was calling out in pain and my whole heart wanted to mend her better. I remembered my last little lecture to my elderly parents, that the last place you go if you are sick is the hospital. There is a reason for that.
This place used to be a break room, now hastily filled with temporary beds circled by curtains, nothing quite fitting the way it should. One lady asked when she would be transferred to the “real ER” and was told this is as real as it gets, under COVID. Nurses remembered how they used to eat their snacks in this space, before it was overrun. There is no break room now.
A nurse brought me a blanket all warm and comfy and my tears just wouldn’t stop coming: gratitude — partly, self-pity — no doubt, but mostly the kindness of this stranger on her twelve-hour shift, and the overwhelming sense they really are up against it in these places, deluged by the COVID sick and the otherwise unwell.
Across from me a husband was helping his cancer-stricken wife, reduced to a rail-thin shadow of herself, barely able to get to the bed. He sat quietly, uncomfortable in his chair, curtain annoying his face, just holding her hand. I am certain he is an angel.
Next to me a blind man with a suspected heart attack, his grown son never leaving his side, like a loyal dog ready to defend his master.
People need an advocate in these places, or they do not stand a chance.
All about I could hear the painful sighs of the others, and the sounds of struggles. The PA blasted the emergencies of others across us all, and the hurt never seemed to stop. And yet there was one sound that was louder than all the rest. It was the sound of kindness.
I have been guilty of suggesting hospitals are all exaggerating the struggles they face, beset only by inefficiency and COVID melodrama.
But I have been served a lesson, cold. The ER is overwhelmed; I suspect it was long before COVID and will continue to be long after. But in the face of it all, and despite it all, somehow basic humanity prevails.
I sense that at the edge of life, we are reminded about just how great humanity can be.