A Long Day, Two Long Days.
If you drive past a modern hospital you have to marvel at the shiny facade. The gleaming, polished, glassy exterior suggests a bright wholesome inside. It is not really true, though. Step inside and the truth is obvious and painful. All of the beauty is outside.
Yesterday my wife had chest pains, a headache, stiff, sore arms, terrifying symptoms for a woman who is hardly ever sick. It was urgent enough we went to after hours clinic at our doctor’s office. A sullen, irritable doctor told her “we don’t do heart attacks.” Not really our first choice either, doc. He told us to drive to the emergency room. Where it could be hoped they “do heart attacks.” We weren’t informed of the the “no heart attack” policy until after we surrendered our copay, though.
So, we drove to the big, shiny wonderful building. It was glorious. Until you get inside. Security, metal detector, gray bin for your keys, change, cell phone, belt, jacket, threat control triage at its finest. Finally, clearance. Hand my wife to the reception person with very little personality, go find a spot in the parking garage.
Hurry back, surrender my belongings and dignity to the inescapable security machine, explain to a different person at the other desk, who is equally curt, and cross (where do they find all of these cranky people? Maybe they train them, angry indifference for dummies). She says, “she is having an EKG. She’ll be out soon.” Not only do they “do heart attacks” here, they have an express lane to expedite the process.
What if there was an emergency? What if there was an emergency and the patient had too much stuff in his pockets, and a large belt buckle, and metal tips on his boots? And what if he got stuck going back and forth through the metal detector until the pale rider caught up, and he joined the choir invisible, trying to get past the gateman. I pity that guy.
Wait in a dingy cream waiting room. Uncomfortable chairs, everything is uncomfortable. Everything has the same level of bland. This building is almost new, but from the seat in the waiting room it could be ancient, no 1950s sanitarium ever looked bleaker, more desperate. You might get well just to get out.
I sit, wait, stare at the unimpressive walls, the sad, forlorn roommates I have adopted. Listen to the bitter complaining of those fortunate enough to have someone to call. And wait. For hours, years. And it becomes obvious that the employees manning the desks could not care any less about the lonely, frightened people waiting in their terrible little hovel.
Soon, my wife’s face peaks through the door, between the smiling faces of the enforcers determined to keep us out. “That’s my husband. He is coming back to wait with me.” She tells them. My wife is fearless. They let me pass.
More waiting, in a long, mostly empty hallway. It is the same color as the waiting room, a sort of bland, unappealing beige. The chairs are almost as uncomfortable, or maybe a little more uncomfortable in that place under those circumstances everything is painful. People walk past, sometimes in pairs, talking, no matter how quiet they try to be the words echo up and down the long empty tunnel.
Nobody looks at us, we might have been invisible. The tomb like quality of the place is horrible. Mix the complete indifference, the bland, blankness of everything with the crushing silence it seems like a nightmare. If someone would stop and say something reassuring even if they had to lie it might ease the surrealism.
This is an emergency room? This doesn’t even seem like an urgent room. It is hard to imagine a more apathetic place.
Eventually they come get my wife for a blood test. Then we wait, in the same purgatory. Nobody says anything.
They come take her for chest X-rays. Then we wait. The same limbo. Occasionally someone will roll a huge, complicated, expensive looking machine past us. Slowly, methodically, indifferently. It is their job to roll that machine through the hall, it cost too much to just sit there.
Finally, they take my wife back to a room. Miles back, winding through labyrinthine hallways to the deepest pits of the building. All of the halls look like he same. All of that glory, opulence, glamour was left outside. In here nothing is bright, cheery, even remotely reassuring. Would it be so hard to add a splash of life in all the oppressive gloom? If we had to crossed the River Styx it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Here is a bright spot, surprise, the nurses and doctors were extraordinary. Kind, gentle, concerned. They explained their concerns, described what they intended to do, without too much detail. I never thought I would say I was happy to see a doctor, but I was. Giving their reasons compassionately, succinctly’ reassuringly. She had to spend the night, way back there, in the depths.
The rest of the story is still being written. My wife is back from her stress test. Soon the doctor will come and share the results. Maybe she can get some lunch and go home.
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