The ER is a dreary place. Even more so at 2:00am. It was quiet. Eerily so. I don’t know what I was expecting. A scene from the television show perhaps. Blood, guts and gore spilling from victims of violent Chicago crimes. A young George Clooney flashing that seductive smile my way as he shouted a litany of incomprehensible medical terms at the actors pretending to be medical professionals. There wasn’t any of that.
We spoke in hushed voices and politely waited our turn at the admittance window. Victims of our own personal trauma unfolding. No blood, just drowning in fear. There was a surreality to the scene. A bit like a lucid dream. We could have been waiting to buy a ticket at a Greyhound station. Abysmal. Everyone looked forlorn. Like we were all buying tickets to the worst place in the country. Fill in the blank. We all know the place.
I remember feeling tired. Deep into my bones. I wasn’t up for this. Whatever this was.
Our fellow sojourners that night were all equally fatigued and battle-worn. There was the middle-aged woman holding her side. She couldn’t conceal her pain. It was written all over her face. Her son sat next to us on the bank of stiff chairs attached to the wall, secured to prevent theft I suppose. You never know in a joint like this at 2:00am. She gave her details to the nurse behind the wicket. I listened attentively to the conversation, as though this were my mother. Hung onto every word like it was my business. I’m a hopeless eavesdropper. I can’t help myself. It’s all fodder for stories. You never know when or where this little scene, this bit of dialogue, these crestfallen characters will show up in my next story. I’m always on the job.
On the other side of us was a drunk in a wheel chair. He had “attendants” who were some sort of hybrid of a cop/EMT/ambulance driver. It was hard to tell. There were two of them. Burly but soft-spoken. They were taking a kid gloves approach with this guy but at the same time you could tell they weren’t to be messed with. The drunk guy was paranoid. The nurse needed to take his temperature but he refused to let anyone touch him. He told everyone to ‘fuck off.’ I wanted to oblige but we needed to get E admitted.
At one point the drunk pulled a disappearing act while the attendants were discussing his situation with the nurse. He vanished like Houdini through the hospital green doors right behind their backs. There was a tattle tale, or two, in our paltry group. When the attendants realized their charge was MIA, sly index fingers were pointed in the direction of the door. Not a word uttered. Just poker faces and sleight of hand as we easily gave up one of our own. I learned that waiting room bonds are easily forged and just as easily broken. The attendants swiftly retrieved their drunk guy. He managed to spit a few more ‘fuck offs’ before they wheeled him away. I don’t know where he ended up. There’s always one rowdy in the crowd. He was a good distraction though so in a kooky way I’m grateful he was there.
It was finally our turn at the wicket. I did all the talking because by this time E was incapable of doing anything but drool. Questions were answered, temperature taken, plastic identity bracelet attached to his left wrist, and then our weary little band of three followed the footprints to “room” 15, the vast repository for the suddenly stricken. E stretched out on the narrow bed while M and I grabbed chairs and positioned them on either side. Enclosed in white curtains on three sides, we were directly in front of the nurses’ station and had a panoramic view of the entire room.
The place was full but it too was uncannily quiet. Occasionally someone moaned or coughed. At one point the person next to us started to snore. I found this comforting. There was a scruffy bedraggled guy, who looked like he had spent one too many nights on the street, sleeping peacefully on a gurney in the open space next to the nurses. An elderly woman was slumped in a wheelchair. There were two little kids playing with another wheelchair nearby. It was as if they had been scooped from a playground and transported to this place for my amusement. It made me smile.
There wasn’t a doctor in sight.
E was hooked up to a machine that monitored his vitals. I watched it carefully for clues. If the top number goes up, is that good or bad? Why is the smaller number changing constantly? What’s going on inside of E’s body?
A lovely, kind nurse came and took E’s temperature and checked his blood pressure. She made the usual cheerful chitchat that people in the profession of caring for others do so well. Calming. Reassuring. Soothing.
Everything was going to be okay.