Emergency rooms don’t have to be so depressing. I mean, clearly, if you’re in one, you’re probably already feeling pretty bad, but the waiting rooms themselves could be so much more cheerful. Instead of gray or beige, adorn the walls with bold blues and soothing purples. Grass green or poppy orange. Rotate fresh flower arrangements to fit the season, reinforce the idea of LIFE! Toss badly worn magazines and if a TV is non-negotiable, make sure it’s set to Nickelodeon or the most innocuous channel possible. News is not what people in pain need – and how is it decided which news channel is appropriate? History, Discovery, Animal Planet? All subject to displays of blood and violence. Once I sat in the ER waiting room with Nick as a war movie unfolded on AMC. Around me, people moaned, cringed, hunched, looked on the verge of collapse. On the screen, corpses littered the runway as pilots dodged bullets with varying degrees of success, some dying in each others’ arms. This was not the sort of juxtaposition one appreciates.
Bobby and I had a lot of time to fantasize various improvements during the six hours we spent nestled against a wall in the ER hallway, him on a gurney, me perched on a chair that inevitably needed to be scooted out of the way so other patients could be wheeled by. Meanwhile, across from us, folks came and went. First the poor fellow I can only think of as Emphysema Guy, although I don’t know that he suffered from that particular disease. He stumbled in wearing a green medical mask across his mouth, presumably to contain the germs spewed by his constant coughing fits. When he spoke – and located as we were, we couldn’t help but be privy to everyone else’s intimate details, particularly as all the patients seemed to be elderly and hard of hearing, necessitating the nurses to ask them questions at top volume. “DO YOU HAVE UNDERWEAR ON, SIR? DO YOU HAVE DENTURES?” – his voice scratched out deep and full of gravel. “I slipped” – hack, hack – “and hit my head,” he kept saying. And certainly he did. We witnessed the damage repeatedly as he kept staggering out of his room, a bloody mess on the back of his head, gown agape, pants slipping down to reveal an alarming amount of butt crack despite the suspenders he clenched in one waving fist. His buddy who’d brought him in loitered near us, covered in boils. The woman I had to ease past to reach the other side of the room was complaining to her friend, “Goddamn, can’t believe I broke my foot the same day they shut off the water and heat in my apartment!” Oh, the poor, the downtrodden, the folks who’ve inherited the murky side of the gene pool – these are the faces most seen in the ER.
Of course, other, less dramatic folks waited as well. A couple parents with feverish-looking children. A dad trundling around his toddler, keeping a stiff upper lip as he asked how his wife was faring. A little old lady cute as a button holding hands with her similarly cute little old friend. Watching them, I flashed to a future where my girlfriends and I clung to each other in our own, not that far off, silver-haired years. A round elderly gent in overalls, the sort of fellow for whom a corncob pipe wouldn’t have been a stretch. I imagine he hated troubling anyone and was slightly embarrassed, yet sweetly matter-of-fact when describing his symptoms to the intake nurse.
Our own experience consisted of waiting interrupted by blood draws, an IV insertion and a pronouncement by the hospital doctor that Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the likely culprit behind Bobby’s mysterious collection of symptoms. Shock transformed to tears stifled by the need to keep a brave face on. Eventually, they admitted him to a second floor room, promising to run a CT scan around 10 p.m. in hopes of further diagnosing the chest mass his earlier X-rays had revealed.
10 p.m. rolled by.
10:30 p.m. arrived. “They’re fixing the machine,” our very kind nurse said. “Apparently something’s not right with it.” I remembered this one time I sat stuck on a plane on a St. Louis runway. “We have a problem with one of the engines,” the pilot announced. “It’s not a big deal, but as long as we’re here, we might as well let the mechanics take a look at it.” Confidence was far from inspired. When one is trusting one’s life to a hulking piece of machinery, the hope is that the machine is running in the most well-oiled possible way.
11 p.m. Still waiting.
Midnight. Really? They’re really making us stay up all night to wait for this? Don’t they know sick people need rest? And on that note, what the hell is up with the constant noise and lights? Do they not think maybe suffering people could use a little peace and quiet?! Meanwhile, the construction work thunderclapped across the ceiling every five minutes.
“Go home,” Bobby said. He stroked my hair as I curled against him in the hospital bed. “I’ll be okay.” We’d talked for hours. I’d cried several times, worry ravaging my body. This was so wrong, so unfair. How many times had we sat in that ER room? We counted six for Nick alone – including the day they discovered his diabetes and Medivac’d us to UCSF. That was the rub: much as I craved to stay with Bobby, to somehow distract him from the great unknown-but-serious attack on his body with the warmth of mine, we worried about Nick’s blood sugar. Who would check him late at night? He and his sister were both sound asleep. I’d called home to no avail, hardly reassuring. With more tears, I shouldered my bag, slipped my phone into my pocket and walked away from my husband, leaving him to face both the still-pending CT scan and the long night ahead.
1 a.m. They finally wheeled Bobby across the hospital, out the door and over to the radiology department for the procedure. I do not understand what time zone they live in where this makes sense.
I steeled the kids that Something Serious was wrong with Dad between serving them breakfast and dropping them at school. Kaylee teared up. Nick retreated into stoicism. I hugged them both. An hour later, I arrived back at the hospital with scrambled eggs, fried tofu, mint tea and a bag of books. Bobby ate, happy to have my food instead of the hospital’s (although kudos to St. Joe’s for offering a diverse menu and accommodating special requests). The morning doctor stopped by, shared his interpretation of the CT scan: “You have a mass in your lung. It’s either a major infection or cancer. Better to be direct about it. But no use speculating beyond that.”
We held on to each other, as if our physical connection could ward off whatever had already taken hold. A dear friend arrived with flowers, chai, soup and conversation – a welcome visit and needed distraction. The morphine-riddled roommate was exchanged for a much mellower one, whose recent life story as relayed to his nurse unfolded like one of those poignant character-driven films I’m so fond of. As his wife faded from cancer, back in ’96, he reassured her he’d find a good home for her dog. “I want you to keep him,” she insisted. He didn’t even like the darn thing. Tiny little dog, cost $250, can you believe that? But he kept the dog after his wife died and did in fact grow quite fond of the little mini-Daschund. He had to walk him every three hours, which, combined with the grief, helped him shed a couple hundred of the over-500 lbs. he then weighed. He was so lost without her, but at least he had the dog. But when the dog died, a few years ago, oh, that was hard. That was really a rough time. But, other than the heart attack, he was going along.
I sent many emails, received many texts, realized I should have appointed someone to field all the offers of help. Working out logistics of all the offers wore me out. When they took Bobby for an MRI, he asked me to dash home, make him one of my awesome smoothies, maybe some more food. I raced to our house, zoomed into action, only to be derailed by concerned phone calls and visitors – people whose help I need, whom I love and appreciate, but to whom I could barely speak, so focused was I on trying to get back to Bobby.
He was loopy from the sedative, happy to eat the sandwich I brought, exhausted from the turmoil of the day. Another doctor came by, said, “Even the worst case scenario is completely treatable.” I would like to hear that a few thousand more times, please. Maybe by the time the repetition ends, we’ll actually know what’s going on. I’m hoping they’re preparing us for the most awful diagnosis so that when we find out it’s not cancer, we’ll be overjoyed.
The biopsy happens tomorrow. They’ll pierce his lung, snip some tissue, send it off to the lab. They say it’s a simple procedure. Days will likely pass before we know anything definitive. I hope they let him come home while we wait.