Going through some old files I found this. It documents a night back in 2004.
Just another New York night. A true story.
If we are lucky there are experiences in life that we avoid or at least minimize. And a visit to the emergency room at the hospital is just such an experience.
I’ve been very lucky and can count on the fingers of one hand my number of hospital experiences.
So last night had a major impact on me.
My mother had a little episode in a local restaurant. They had to call 911 for an ambulance and I ended up being with her in the emergency unit of a major New York hospital for several hours. Thankfully, she came through it okay.
But what struck me as I sat there for those hours was the constant stream of human clichés.
If I were to put these characters in a book, nobody would believe them. But this isn’t a book and these were the real people I saw in just a few hours on a single night in one hospital.
Of course there was the aggressive young drunk, angrier than his angriest tattoo. He was there when we arrived but I paid him little mind. Later he was snoring loudly with no obvious medical attention being paid to him.
There was the homeless guy who wandered in around midnight complaining that he “didn’t feel well” but giving no further clues to what ailed him. He was ushered into the unit by a smiling attendant. For some reason people speak to me, even when I don’t particularly want them to. And after seeing the newcomer to a curtained-off bed, the attendant told me out of the blue, “That’s Harold. We know him. There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s a slow night so we’ll let him sleep there a few hours and he’ll be on his way.”
There was the very young woman – girl would be a perfectly correct word – with her crippled mother who walked in together. The slightly older woman had trouble walking because of a twisted and shortened left leg that caused her to walk on tiptoe but on that side only. Her daughter had trouble walking because she was tiny, hugely pregnant and her water had just broken. They’d walked to the hospital from somewhere, alone, no father present. The stone-faced young woman, dressed as though she were on her way to a party, her belly bulging above her conveniently low-rise blue jeans and stretching her low-cut top making it even more revealing than intended, flopped uncaringly into a wheelchair and was taken away. I found myself whispering “Good luck kid.” But I wasn’t sure who I was talking to.
There was the early thirties woman with the slashed wrist. She was crying. She wouldn’t stop crying. A man was with her. The wrist was examined and it was decided she had missed the major pipe and that she would wait a while to be stitched up. She was quizzed by a doctor who kept asking “Did you do this to yourself?” He told her that if she had they would have to treat her as an attempted suicide. He never made it clear what the result of that definition would be. But the woman cried louder. And the man looked nervous. He answered for her, “Yes, she got angry and cut herself.” Between sobs the entire unit heard the woman respond loudly, “No I didn’t.” I think at that moment we all knew who had used the knife.
There was the young man who knew more than all the doctors. “I’m having a stroke,” he kept yelling. I was surprised how little attention he got despite this rather frantic self-diagnosis. A paramedic walked past me and said to nobody in particular – that would be me – “No he isn’t. Fucking idiot plays basketball all day, eats nothing and don’t drink and wonders why his body fucking freaks out!” The man’s girlfriend sat devotedly by his bed as he continued his loud assertion that he was having a stroke. I think she inwardly agreed with the paramedic’s assessment.
There was the young Chinese woman. She sat very quietly next to the bed that shared the alcove in which my mother was now sleeping, wired to the hilt and, for the moment, looking every one of her eighty-one years. A curtain divided the two beds. It was a cultural divide, or so I first thought as I smiled at the girl. She looked very tired. “You okay?” I asked. “Yes thanks,” she said in perfect English with an American accent. I learned that the woman in the bed was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother. They’d been waiting here since four in the afternoon – it was now approaching one in the morning – for her grandmother to be found a bed so they could admit her to the hospital. We talked. I told her my wife was Chinese – from Hong Kong – she told me she was born in America, her parents were from mainland China and she was studying law. Two bored people who would rather be somewhere else, we chatted about anything either of us could think of. Then a doctor came by and asked me my mother’s address. I told him. After he walked away the Chinese girl said “I used to volunteer at your mom’s senior community – I went to High School across the street. I used to do the art classes…pottery.”
“They do that in the basement” my mother said awaking from behind the cultural divide.