Those of you who are Facebook friends with my mom – a disturbing number of you, I might add – know that she was whisked to the emergency room a few days ago. Here is the story in her own words:
Notes from a Medical Gulag
Remember the train station scene in “Gone With the Wind” where the mass of injured, suffering soldiers are laid out in rows on the ground? Replace stretchers with gurneys, and that’s what it looked like in the Emergency Room of the “best hospital in New York City” this past week.
The ambulance paramedics wheeled me in after a scary “episode” at home in the middle of the night. I was going to be fine, with a manageable health issue, but I didn’t know it at the time. And I had no idea what the next 40 hours were going to be like.
I was evaluated, hooked up to monitors and IV saline, “admitted” and told they would take me upstairs as soon as they found a bed for me.
Now in a corner cubicle smaller than my coat closet, still on the gurney. Nothing like a bed, a gurney is narrow, hard, and uncomfortable. And the ER is cold. The lights are blindingly bright, the noise of beeping monitors, calls for help, moans, coughs, retching… I am really looking forward to going “upstairs” to a real (if still hospital-style) bed.
End of Hour 1: Nothing.
Hour 2: “There are no available beds but we’re looking.” (Feeling woozy but OK. Need sleep but waiting for the “bed upstairs “.)
Hour 4: “Still looking for a bed.” (Still awake).
Hour 6: Grateful that Sean has followed the ambulance bringing along one of my own pillows, my iPod full of music and books, and my phone. (Still no sleep.) “We’re still looking for a bed.”)
Hour 9: So many people in the ER that the halls are full, the aisles are full, there are no gurneys left, so people who can sit up are strapped in wheel chairs in nooks and corners. (Sean tells me I’m well off, since I’m next to a wall, and have only one other patient on the other side of my curtain. But she is barfing.)
Hour 12: (I’m a little hungry. But not completely miserable. Both ear buds in, listening to “A Team of Rivals,” alternating with Brahms.) “We’re still looking for a bed.”
Hour 14: (Cheered by Sean who assures me that what ails me is manageable and I’ll be upstairs soon and they are, yes, still looking for a bed.) Barfing lady replaced with moaning man who keeps asking, “What happened? Where is this place? Somebody!”
Through all of this, an inadequate but plucky and compassionate team of nurses, doctors, and helpers are doing their best to keep the place functioning. This includes the young male nurse who blew up a vein in my arm trying to find a place to stick another IV. “Oops! I’m so sorry.. You’re getting a little hematoma there, and I’ll keep an eye on it.”
As good as his word, he is back every half hour or so checking the swelling bulb of black and blue on my arm. “Not so bad. Call me if it gets worse.” Of course in the ER there is no way to “call” anyone. Jordana suggests that I throw my paper cup at the first medico who passes my alcove. Mostly I wait. “We’re still looking for a…”
Hour 17: Still nothing to eat, and nothing to drink tomorrow. Doing tests in the afternoon, but “We’ll find you a bed upstairs as soon as we can.” I call Sean nearly in tears. “My iPod and phone batteries are dying. And I have been stuck on a bedpan for 30 minutes. I’m not doing too well.” (A cleaning crew guy tries to find someone to help and can’t, so he takes the bed pan himself. What a guy!)
The tedium is sometimes relieved by the reality show just outside my little alcove. A huge, jolly African American man says he needs to go home and take care of his dog. (He has been brought in because he has no doctor, no insurance, but fainted on the sidewalk). He is released “against medical advice,” but becomes distraught when he can’t find “my special cane that I brought from Africa.” The overworked nurses promise to contact the ambulance crew.
Several overheard conversations go approximately thus:
Nurse: “Tell me why you are here.”
Patient: “I got sick. I have a bad (fill in blank).
N: Have you seen your doctor?
P: No doctor. No insurance.
(I’m totally miserable, but starting to feel really lucky.)
Hour 20: A weary Sean and Jordana appear with power cords and encouragement. (They are beautiful– better than an enchilada dinner and a feather bed. I can do this.)
Hour 23: I’m cold, but don’t ask for another blanket. They are out of blankets, and I wonder what they are throwing over the newcomers. (I begin to listen to “A Pinch of Snuff” and realize I’ve already read it. Switch to last weeks audio “New Yorker.” My back aches from gurney syndrome, but I know I’m relatively well off.)
Hour 29: A sweet nurse with amazing dimples brings me a cup of tea from the nurse’s lounge. Better than a raisin bagel with cinnamon cream cheese. “We’re still looking…”
All day I have been hearing loud thumps behind my wall. Apparently I’m next to the CatScan room. Not too loud, but who can tell in this din?
Hour 30: Lights are always on full. This is prison. I want a pencil to cross hatch the passing days on my wall. (I have a splitting caffeine headache. But the man in the next slot has cancer, and they can’t find him a bed upstairs. I decide not to bitch.)
Hour 31: “We’re still looking for a..”
Unhooked from monitors and IV’s I can at last walk to the bathroom. WA-HOO! Free at last! (Hematoma on my arm looks like I’ve been in a bar fight, but they say it’s OK.)
Hour 33: (Still trying to get to sleep. Switch to Ravel on the iPod, but even “Lullaby for Babes in the Wood” can’t compete with Catscan thumps, beeping monitors, moans, coughs, loud PA. I switch back to audio books. “Middlemarch.” If that doesn’t put me to sleep…)
Hour 34: Sean wants to know if he should come in. No, there is no place to sit. Almost nowhere to stand. The place is Gone With theWind again. Distracted from sore back and caffeine headache by panorama outside my alcove.
Patient wearing large hat, clutching big purse, sitting up on gurney. (I’m thinking maybe she collapsed at Bloomingdale’s) “My god,” she bellows, “I’ve been waiting TWO hours for a bed!” I think of new patient next door. Cancer man has been taken elsewhere, replaced by cancer/chemo lady who can’t keep anything down. I want to throw my pillow at purse lady.
Elderly lady lying on gurney on the aisle outside my cave. She is surrounded by three very concerned sons, lovely young men, none of whom look racially connected. The mom is old, but lovely. And I’m thinking either the sons are adopted or mom was really busy in her prime. The boys are so protective, so sweet to her that I want to tell her “Aren’t we lucky to have such sons!”
Cancer Lady’s daughter comes to see her, greets her with annoyed “What now, ma?” But she does go find a chair and sit by her. I know it’s hard…
Hour 36: “We’re still looking for… ” (By some miracle, I finally fall asleep.)
Hour 40: Shake. “We’re taking you up to GI floor for the tests now.”
And an hour later I am pronounced OK and sent home.
Now I know this New York hospital is a victim of other hospital closures, and hospitals elsewhere may not be that spectacularly dysfunctional. I know there is an unimaginably huge national deficit. I know it’s “complicated” and all the other talking points. But I’ve been the beneficiary of free public health care in other countries, both as a resident and a visitor, and those systems are working. I know our own health care system is broken.
I am actually a grateful participant in a U.S, “Public Option”: Medicare. It doesn’t cover everything, so I pay for a supplement. And Medicare isn’t free, either. Around $100 every month is deducted fro my pitiful Social Security benefit.
I am in my mid 70s and still working. I also have an astoundingly wonderful family who are there in a crisis. I’m very lucky. Still, some months, when there are no royalty checks or contract work is slim, my income is down to poverty level.
That said, I’d be perfectly willing to be taxed on whatever I earn to provide universal health care for all the citizens of my country. For the same reason, I think it’s fair to pay for public education, even when I don’t have school-age children. I want to live in a country whose citizens are healthy and well educated.
When I look at some of the mean-eyed, slack-jawed, often unhealthily obese participants in the anti (fill in blank, but currently “health care”) rallies–many exhibiting semi-literate, misinformed, even misspelled, hate-filled signs and T shirt slogans–I feel that we are failing on both counts.
There is no hope of reaching these rally people, especially when they are egged on and misinformed by the wealthy, well-fed radio and TV rabble rousers, and even many of their lawmakers.
I just wish Limbaugh and Glen Beck, insurance execs, and the obstructionist lawmakers, could be forced to spend 40 hours on my gurney in the ER, with lines in their arms, stuck on a bedpan, surrounded by moans and cries, and barfing. Ironically they would be cared for, as I was, by fantastic medical workers who do a terrific job under impossible conditions.
But they, especially the well cared-for lawmakers, would have to encounter, first-hand, in the relentless bright light, the cries, the smells, the pain, the frustration, the need, the broken system they have the power to fix.
Linda and Sean unpack at the farm