Last night my family and I descended into a previously unknown circle of the Hell Dante so extensively described in his infernal Inferno. Yes, we visited the dreaded emergency room.
And without a long-dead poet by our sides.
Allow me to back up. Last time we visited an emergency room my wife was not well. Our daughter wasn’t even a year old. It was the middle of the night. We chose a hospital close to the university, rather than going to the larger, and closer, one just down the street. Why? We had heard that it was faster. It was. We waited for barely a half hour before the courteous staff got us into a bed and got busy diagnosing the problem. Everything seemed pretty fine and we got to go home after a short period of time. By morning, it was almost like a fuzzy dream, except for the antibiotics.
Cut to last night. Our son, who is three, slipped in the bath and banged his chin, splitting it wide open and bringing forth a flood of his bright red life-force. With a wound that seemed like a second mouth we rapidly got dressed and got in the car, heading for the same not-so-local hospital. This experience was substantially different from the previous expedition, but first let me assuage your fears. Our son cried initially, but then he was a brave and patient little, well, patient. He was eventually treated and his chin was glued back together. Didn’t even get stitches. In truth, he probably would have been fine. Upon inspection the cut was not very deep. But at the time, it looked like his tongue could come poking out at any moment. With blood gushing down his neck we were left with no other option. Yeah, we panicked. So what?
We were confident that at 8pm on a Thursday night this hospital that was so lovely last time would be the way to go. As we drove up I noticed a lot of cars in the lot and I got nervous. I pushed back my anxiety and pulled in. Surely, it wasn’t going to be a big deal. We entered through the accordion door with the automatic fan that is supposed to keep all the bugs out. That fan may as well have blown all my hopes and dreams of a quick visit away into the night.
Welcome to Dante’s vision of medical care.
The waiting room was filled to capacity, which wasn’t much since it was about the size of a closet. A small closet. The walls were painted a dingy gray, with periodic splashes of 1980’s burgundy. The flourescent lights were set to William S. Burroughs dimness. The vending machines glowed obscenely from the space between the restrooms. All manner of lost-souls inhabited this cave of doom, hacking, moaning, sitting shell-shocked, watching CNN, looking for all the world like Death was hovering just out of reach near the dusty ceiling tiles.
All four of us were there. We stood in the doorway, the auto-fan winding down and the sudden stifling ickiness enveloping us. Our daughter’s eyes darted about the room taking in the grim pallor of each and every person seated in every chair except for three right in the middle of the muddled mass. She looked up, confused. Her expression seemed to say, “This is not a happy place, is it?”
Forms were filled out with the competent, yet unfriendly clerks and then we gingerly stepped to the remaining seats in the center of the pit. Unfamiliar faces stared, uncaring, at us. The blood on my son’s chin was obvious, but there was no sympathy. Dull eyes and pursed lips indicated that the overall sentiment was basically, “Boy cut himself, huh? Well, we all got problems. Get in line!”
Three or four prospective patients looked so green in the gills and I worried that sudden eruptions of bodily fluids could spill forth. I knew that if this happened, there would be no escape. We were trapped. And me in flip-flops! The following is not to poke fun or pass judgment on anyone, it was just the nightmarish quality of the whole affair that, frankly, spooked me. I know there are better places and I know there are much worse, but to be slapped squarely in the face with misery and desperation on a weeknight was a true reality check.
A woman in a wheel chair looked gray, not like the sky on a beautiful rainy day, but like ash, like this is it. As though at any second her spirit would slip the bonds of flesh and become one with the universe. Yes, that bad. She was on an oxygen tube and seemed spent. Her sputtering cough and witch-like voice made it easy to see why smoking is a bad idea. Both our kids were visibly concerned, though they didn’t say a word.
The guy in the corner who kept clutching at his belly seemed to be barely hanging on as well and, in truth, he frightened me more than anything. I’ve seen too many sci-fi movies not to worry. Maybe he was a student-researcher just back from the wildest, remotest jungles of Northern-Wherever and that whatever super-virus had him in its grips was bad news for the entire population. I can count. We would be patients 7, 8, 9, and 10, though it wouldn’t matter because we wouldn’t see the sunrise, except as zombies.
A family in the other corner sat stoically waiting, as if they had been there for centuries and knew they would never be going anywhere. How can they just sit there? I wondered. They had the look of contentment and calm that presides over yoga class, not waiting rooms. They were like characters from a medicinal Hotel California. I started to feel antsy. We’d been there less than 30 minutes.
A little while later, two young men entered in quick succession.
The first wore all black. His head was shaved and he breathed deeply through his previously-broken nose. By this time we had switched seats and we were now seated along the outer wall of the room. The room itself stank of disinfectant and old cheese, but we were next to the door now so, every time someone walked in or out the fan blew the stench away for a moment or two. Everything felt vaguely sticky. This guy in black concentrated on each face. He was visibly drunk, so it took a few uncomfortable seconds to allow his eyes to adjust. His eyes were the eyes of a man who knew violence well and who was unafraid of it. He seemed to be looking for someone. I hoped it wasn’t me or anyone in my family. Of course, there were other chairs available, but this simmering young man full of booze chose to sit down, like a gargoyle, right next to me on a table, rather than a more appropriate piece of furniture. I wasn’t going to argue.
I tried to play it cool, watching him from the corner of my eye. Really. I know people always say that in books and stuff, but I really was. I had thought he looked drunk, but now his deep exhalations left no doubt. His whiskey-scented breath gave me visions of darkened taverns and wretched barrooms from gangster movies. (Or college.) He giggled and talked to himself and he seemed to be watching my every interaction with my kids. I took a picture of my son’s wound with my phone so he could see it. Mistake! Seconds later my new neighbor spoke.
“I don’t mean to beg or nothin’, but can I use your phone?”
I politely declined.
“Alright then,” he snapped with a sinister chuckle. I’m pretty sure I gulped.
I am not sorry I said no. My concern was for my son and I did not want any drama. He was sitting right next to the door and I just knew that the moment he had my phone he was gone. Or it would have been an ordeal to try to get it back. Anyway, his stay didn’t last long. Somehow he leaned back and knocked the fire alarm halfway off the wall. The piercing siren gave us all a surprise. Every eye in the room glared at this man, clearly in the midst of a very bad night, (life?), as he struggled to set the alarm back in order. He flailed with his arm for few seconds and then just stood up.
“Guess I’ll be going,” he slurred with a sort of twisted smile that was part anger, part disdain, part mea culpa. A hospital attendant/P.A. came out and fixed the alarm. We all cheered. Murmurs of, “Idiot!” rumbled through the room.
The second man blew in just about then.
He was tall, thin, and dressed in a button-up shirt and a pair of jeans. ASU was just around the corner. He looked like a student without an ounce of joy in his heart. His pinched face was gaunt and sad. He had a large styrofoam cup in his hand. He stared around at our miserable faces for a moment and then mumbled that he needed the restroom. He returned and went to the counter. He filled out his forms, sharing information with the clerks, his neighbors and nearly everyone else. (Sometimes it’s okay not to talk, you know?)
He had set his drink on a table and when he returned to his seat after visiting the counter again he knocked the drink over, spilling the contents across the table, all over the pile of old magazines that no one had looked at in years, and down onto the floor. Over the course of the next hour, the puddle would expand in an ever-widening circle beneath the chairs and table. The guy muttered an apology and informed the women behind the counter, but no one ever came to clean it up. That sticky puddle is probably still there now.
That wasn’t so bad, but this guy was impatient. He kept getting up and down, going to the counter, complaining, announcing his business to everyone. It was like he just had to tell everyone what he was suffering from. I think misery really does love company.
“I’m going for a smoke, okay? It calms me down,” he said to me. “Come get me if they call my name.”
Do I have a sign that says “Trust Me” on my forehead?
Eventually things worked out, but by the time my son actually got into the treatment area we had been there for close to three hours. As we entered the velvet-roped shrine of medicine, the thin guy was practically bawling to be seen. I felt a tad guilty as we passed him, but I didn’t stop. My son needed help. This guy would be all right. My son was my only concern.
Into the labyrinth of curtained beds and soft-sounding pleas for relief we went. A cop sat scribbling in his notebook. The prisoner he was waiting for was about to be released. I felt like we’d gone down the rabbit hole.
The cleaning and the gluing happened fast. I tried not to focus on the dirty floor or the stringent odor of alcohol-infused cotton swabs emanating from the trash can. Soon it was over, then came the Kafkaesque wait for the bureaucratic paperwork to be finalized. By that time, I swear I could feel the germs crawling across my skin, looking for the ideal purchase to settle in and give me the works! As we approached the door I half expected it to be locked or blocked by a tired and unbending guardian of the medically damned. Would we be allowed to leave? Maybe we had entered a type of Purgatory from which there would be no escape.
Then the door opened, the fan whooshed to life and we stepped into the brisk, fresh air of the night. And you know what? We ran for our lives, not once looking back. I wondered if anyone envied us for breaking free. Probably not.
I’ll bet no one even noticed.