A day can turn like spilling coffee. It’s dry one minute, wet and hot the next.
My wife Ann and I were planning to see the play The Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum when two hours before the performance, she said her stomach was suddenly queasy. She didn’t feel sick per se but was worried she’d have to use the bathroom in mid-performance. We thought of seeing the play another time, but she said with Thanksgiving coming up, we were booked every day, and she suggested that I take our son, who was at a college nearby. He was busy, but I found someone else.
The play was fantastic—dark, funny, surprising—but that’s not the spilled coffee. When I returned home, Ann was in bed in deep pain. She said her back felt like a knife was in it, her lower abdomen hurt, too, and she felt nauseated. I took her temperature: 100.2. She said she hurt as much as being in labor. Instantly, I thought of the kidney stones I’ve had and, more darkly, how a friend of mine had been rushed by ambulance to the hospital recently with similar pain, only to find he had bladder cancer.
“I should take you to the ER now,” I said.
“I’m thinking if I sleep, even though I can’t really move, maybe it’ll go away.”
And maybe it’ll snow marshmallows, I thought. “Look at how bad it got in two hours,” I said. “In two more, an ambulance might be needed.”
She agreed to go. It was a Sunday night, and the ER staff at the nearby Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena welcomed us. It was a quiet night and only one person was ahead of us.
In no time, Ann had a room in the ER. She laid on a gurney and I sat in a blue chair. A friendly nurse took Ann’s blood and urine for analysis and gave Ann a shot of morphine for the pain. Ann kept apologizing for being sick. "That’s nothing to feel bad about,” I said. “We all get sick—a natural course of things.” As Susan Sontag begins her book, Illness as Metaphor, “Illness is the night-side of life, an onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well, and in the kingdom of the sick.”
Of course, I didn’t quote Sontag, whose grave we saw this summer in Paris. Here at the Huntington, though, we got to be in a literal kingdom of the sick. As the night unfolded, we got to experience the bizarre dreamlike quality of an ER when it gets swamped. This is the spilled coffee.
Dr. Asbasia Mikhail, who I later learned was the chair of the emergency medicine department, soon saw Ann, and she said the blood and urine analysis showed no kidney or liver problems, so they were going to do a CAT scan. Ann’s nurse came in to have Ann drink 500 cc’s of water in prep for that. Five hundred cc’s—interesting how the ER worked in the metric system. I hadn’t considered before how drugs are given in cc’s or in milligrams at all hospital and pharmacies. Why can’t the rest of America go metric?
When thirty minutes came and went, I went to find out what was going on, and the hallway was filled with cops standing over patients on gurneys. Of course, no one could tell me why, but from the dialogue I gathered as I walked down the hall toward the nurses’ station, all these were separate cases.
One California Highway Patrolman, his hand on his gun, walked an affable and apparently healthy man in a Hawaiian shirt into the bathroom. The officer stayed outside of the bathroom but kept the door open a crack to make sure the man was doing his duty. Would there be gunfire in the hospital?
A female police officer was questioning a young woman, telling the girl, “Take some responsibility. If you don’t want sex, and yet you always have sex after you smoke pot with him, why do you smoke pot with him every day?” The girl said, “It’s not my fault.”
Another woman, perhaps a mother, was talking with her teenage daughter whose eyes were closed. “Why did you drink so much? Don’t you know that that can kill you?” The girl didn’t say anything. She was unconscious.
That reminded me of swimming that afternoon at Occidental College, and the locker room there had been totally covered in smashed Gatorade cups where clearly a party had been. When I later spoke to a security guard, he said the party the night before had been so wild that after four ambulances had been called, paramedics had set up a field hospital in a tent to take care of students with alcohol poisoning.
As I approached the nurses’ station, a bed surrounded by nurses and doctors swung into an operating room, and the woman in her forties on the bed, propped up by pillows and yet totally out and on a ventilator, looked terrible.
I asked a young man at a computer when someone would be getting my wife for her CAT scan. He said that the order was in, but transportation was a separate department. They would arrive when they could.
I wondered was transportation busy adding WD-40 to wheelchairs to get rid of annoying squeaks? Or perhaps they were busy in the transportation bay working on a new oil pump for a Humvee? Come on, I thought, we’re just talking about a guy to push my wife’s bed down the hall. Tell me where it is and I’ll push her. I didn’t say any of this, of course. I thanked him and told my wife we had to wait.
A half hour later, someone came and took Ann for her scan. I’d brought papers with me to correct—there’s always papers for college English. It was much better than looking at the flat line going across a screen to a lead that wasn’t connected.
When Ann returned twenty minutes later, I asked the transportation nurse when we’d next talk with a doctor. He said that it takes a radiologist to go over the more than 400 scans about two hours. Then Ann’s doctor had to go over the analysis. He said he’d once seen it done in twenty minutes, but realistically, it would be about two hours.
Ann rested, and I corrected, but by 11 p.m., my eyes and brain couldn’t do anymore. I closed my eyes and let my head rest against the wall. Now I noticed and could hear what was happening around me. In the room next to us, someone was vomiting violently. I grimaced.
Then I heard again the female officer talking with the girl, saying, “You’re lying. You’re seventeen, and you’ve had sex every day for a month? What about your period?” I couldn’t hear what the girl said, but the officer responded, “No way. No woman I know has a period for just two hours. You’re lying to me. When did you have sex first with him?” A few more beats then, “Last Friday? That’s not a month. You told me a month. How many days are in a month?... No, not six, try again…. No, not seven. Why are you laughing. This isn’t a funny matter.”
(For Part Two of this adventure click here.)
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