Last Thursday I received a call from my daughter. She is four and a half months pregnant and had started spotting. It wasn’t the first time but the worry that it engendered in everyone sent her off to the emergency room at Marin General Hospital. I got in my car and made the trip through the rain and arrived at the hospital around nine in the evening.
I was worried that my daughter was not ok. I pulled the car into the dark, wet parking lot and took five minutes to put my pretend brave face on. I walked into an emergency room that was slammed with patients. A child sat in a chair holding his broken arm. People were scattered around the waiting room in various seating arrangements. Wheelchairs held the weary and broken. There were probably forty people in the place. It was like purgatory. Waiting to be seen. Waiting to go home.
I spied Amy’s boyfriend, Rico. Next to him sat his father. I recognized him from pictures I had seen at the couples apartment. Rico introduced us and we hugged. He seemed like a very nice person. I sat between them and Rico updated me. Amy was in a room behind the “do not enter” double doors being attended to by nurses, doctors, scanners, readers of scans, phlebotomists, and more.
The double doors opened and an attendant wheeled a young man out into the waiting room. He looked tired and had a badly swollen leg. I took the opportunity to slip past them and into the back. I walked down the hall and found Amy in Room 10. As soon as I saw her I felt she and the baby were going to be fine. The first thing I said to her was “You look beautiful”. She smiled and said “Thanks, Mom”.
Emergency rooms are strange places. They are these little feeders that lay on the periphery of the hospital. I find them to be almost silent, catatonic places rather like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The people are pale and introspective. Often they are worried and, of course, they are waiting. The folks that work there are usually very nice in a detached kind of way. And there is all of that poking, prodding and nakedness going on. Things are being stuck into people, things are projecting from people or being feed to people. Most are passively hoping for the best.
We spend the next several hours waiting for test results and evaluations to come back. I moved from Room 10 to the waiting room to occasionally update the worried men. The longer we were all there the more relaxed we all got. The ultrasound showed a vital little critter growing in her belly. So far, so good. We began to breathe normally.
I noticed the young man in the wheelchair with the bad leg. He was about five feet away from us. I asked him how he was doing. As soon as he had gotten a sentence out of his mouth, I knew he was from my hometown, New Orleans. “You are from New Orleans, aren’t you?!”
He was happy to tell me he was. His leg was propped up in front of him. It was swollen, angry and scary. The more we communicated, the more I realized he was delusional and homeless. His tattered backpack was draped across the back of the chair. I found that he had refused treatment for his leg. The doctor had told him he would either lose his leg or die if he left. The young New Orleanian told me that all he needed was his own wheelchair to take out of the hospital and that would cure him. He also believed that any medicine they wanted to give him would make him worse. Rico and I gently tried to talk him into reconsidering being admitted and taking the antibiotics the docs wanted to give to him. He declined.
As we talked and waited for Amy, I noticed an extremely thin young lady sitting down the hallway in a chair. She had purple hair with a knit cap on, a mask to protect her from contagion, and was clutching a teddy bear. She was very, very quiet, still and yellow. She seemed frozen in place.
Amy finally appeared through the “do not enter” doors with her discharge papers and a good report. As we left, Rico again encouraged the young man to give the meds a try.
I wondered what happened to him. Did the hospital admit him? Do they have to take care of people who can’t make decisions due to mental illness? Did he die? Did he lose his leg? And what happened to the skinny, purple haired girl?
When I got back home the next day, I read an article online about The Very Wealthy who had started to build emergency rooms in their own homes, staffed with their own doctors. These private e.r.’s cost around $30,000 a month to maintain. They don’t want to have to rub elbows with the likes of me or the boy with the angry leg or the girl with the teddy bear. They wouldn’t want to catch what humanity might have to offer. They can’t risk the exposure.