If someone asked me what I would be doing at 6:00am on Christmas Day, I probably would have told them all about a really comfortable pillow.
Instead, I am sitting in the waiting room of my hometown’s new hospital that I fondly remember as a really nice field when I was growing up. While I was the only one in the ER sitting room when I first walked in, that has since changed:
One lady sits on the phone. Her short hair is almost evenly divided between black and grey, and she wears a hastily-put-on pink jacket.
She had rushed into the ER lobby while I was still checking in at the desk. She was frantic, as her husband had been rushed in on an ambulance. She asked the receptionist to see him immediately, but that apparently wasn’t possible. The woman broke down, and I stepped aside to allow her to approach the counter, but the receptionist was resolute and insisted she finish with me first. I can only imagine what it is like working in this high-intensity place day-in and day-out.
But just five minutes after composing her own emotions, the woman in the pink coat is on the phone, reassuring various relatives and telling them to do stuff that will get their mind away whatever has happened. She’s telling them to enjoy their Christmas. There is something spiritually remarkable about her. I’m not as religious as I used to be, but I say a pray for her.
The only others in the waiting room are a man and a woman sitting next to each other in a chair facing the television. I’m not sure what brings them here this morning. They arrived just a few minutes after the lady in the pink coat. They are watching the TV, where there is a story flashing on the morning news about a family whose entire house burned down on Christmas Eve. Unsurprisingly, their local community has come together to make sure the kids still get a Christmas.
I don’t say “unsurprisingly” as a bad thing, but just as an acknowledgement that in trying circumstances, people can generally be counted on to do the right thing. The banal predictability of humanity’s selflessness reassures me.
The couple who were facing the television are now being taken back to triage. They came here after me, but I’m not complaining, my problem is relatively minor. I’m basically shelling out a copay for peace of mind and a prescription I couldn’t otherwise get until Monday. Don’t worry about me.
A large family just walked through the door. There are six of them total, and I have no idea who is actually here to be treated. I think it might be the man with short jet black hair. He looks the most serious of all of them, staring off into the distance. There is a little girl playing on her phone, and an older woman is drinking out of a plastic water bottle.
The desk attendant who had been working the emergency check-in is done with her shift. She walks over to the woman in the pink coat and puts a hand on her shoulder and gives it a slight squeeze. They share a moment, and I honestly choke back tears.
The TV is blaring the story of the Christmas Eve house fire again. The coverage is kinda starting to irritate me.
“After a devastating fire, a local community wants to make sure this family has a Christmas to remember.”
The family ALREADY is going to have a Christmas they’ll remember. Their fucking house burned down. They are going to remember it. Remembering isn’t the problem, forgetting might actually be preferable. Maybe I’m just being pedantic. Maybe I’m tired.
The large family sits down a few rows away from me. They are making casual conversation as if just shooting the breeze over breakfast.
A paramedic has walked into the lobby and started talking to the woman in the pink coat. She gently cries out, but I can’t tell if it is in relief or grief. They walk off together. My heart drops for her.
A nurse is taking me back to a room now. She sits me down and takes my vitals and does the usual stuff. She seems dismissive about my symptoms. In my experience, healthcare professionals are either doing one of two things:
- Scoffing at you for coming in for something relatively minor
- Scolding you for not coming in soon enough
I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced the middle ground of “OMG you are so medically savvy, you did the totally right thing by coming!” Maybe it’s just hard to welcome people to a place they only come when they are ill. Maybe I am just a difficult patient. Maybe I need to block WebMD.
The nurse leaves and pulls a curtain in front of my room, so I can’t see much anymore. Another lady comes in, who I assume is the “master of getting my money,” and asks me the Very Important Questions:
- “Can I see your health insurance card so we can charge you?”
- “Can we have an address that we can mail if you don’t pay?”
- “Can we have your place of employment we can harass you at work if you don’t pay?”
- “Can we have your phone number we can call if you don’t pay?”
- “Can you sign here agreeing we can send a hit team of paralegals after you for a pound of flesh if you don’t pay?”
I will pay, because I go to a university and my student health insurance will cover virtually everything. Not everyone is that lucky. I used to not be that lucky. Just a few years ago my mother had been in this exact emergency room. Dehydrated and infected, she escaped within a hair of her life and with a $40,000 medical bill we would never pay. I want to hate the world for tagging a monetary value on people’s lives, but I know it’s more complicated than that.
The doctor finally comes in and he is very cute. He tells me that he wants to slice my finger open and I say ok. He leaves, probably forever, and I get very bored and reply to an earlier received text from my friend Cam.
Cam is that friend who blurts out the off-color joke regardless of the situation, the one who values adventure and spontaneity above a 401k or clean record, the one who savagely pokes fun at you, but would actually do absolutely anything for you.
I smile, because I am lucky.
There is a patient down the hall who is causing quite the commotion. From the information I’ve been able to gather from the nurses’ shouts and an elementary comprehension of conversational Spanish, apparently this patient had run his vehicle off into a ditch and was brought to the ER because he was drunk as a skunk.
A nurse yelled for another bucket, as he had apparently filled the first one up fully with his piss. The man doesn’t know a word of English, and the nurse who is working with him knows about as much Spanish. It’s a frustrating situation to overhear.
I had tried to get some sleep, but 100% failed.
Actually, I don’t know if it is possible to 100% fail at falling sleep, but I definitely 50.1% failed. That’s just a needlessly roundabout way of saying that I haven’t yet fallen asleep.
The patient from a few doors down seems to be walking about, yelling “mi casa, mi casa” at any person who will listen to him. Translated from Spanish that would be “my home, my home.” Translated from Spanish and intoxication I think it would be, “Let me GTFO out of here right now please.”
One of the nurses asks him where he lives, he replies with the name of a local super market. The nurse asks if she should call the name listed as his emergency contact, a girl named Winnie. The intoxicated man issues a sound of disgust. Someone who speaks Spanish finally shows up. Apparently Winnie was an ex with whom the man did not leave on good terms.
I had finally drifted off in a short nap. While sleeping my mom texted me three times. We were supposed to open presents at 10:30am.
The doctor returns to my room. He apologizes for the delay, he says it has been a very “active” morning. I believe him. He gives me two painkiller shots in my finger that feel awful. I cringe, I don’t like shots. My finger goes numb and he promises to be back in just a few minutes. I want to go to sleep again, but I can’t.
I hear voices outside my room again. Someone had called the police to take the intoxicated man home. I laugh to myself, but then stop.
We are all here needing help. Me, the lady in pink coat, the others from the waiting room, the intoxicated man; we are all here because something happened that we can’t handle ourselves. Isn’t it all just a matter of degrees after that?
The doctor finally returns right around the time my anesthetic wears off. He told me that people rarely need it anyway. Forty seconds later it was over. He had sliced under a part of my hangnail and let the infected pus and blood ooze out. He applied pressure and a bandaid, and suddenly he was summoned away, and so off he went in his New Balance shoes and cute scruffy beard.
A nurse comes in with my prescription and Wikipedia-sourced explanation of my infection. I thank her and she leaves. It occurs to me that I can leave, too.
I feel emotionally exhausted. Not because of my long wait or relatively simple procedure, but because of the raw humanity. The humanity I work so hard to compartmentalize and hide away. The humanity that made me shed tears for the woman in the pink coat, that made me cringe for the family who lost their home in the fire, that made me empathize with the drunk man pissing in a bucket with no way to communicate, and that allows me to value and take meaning from my priceless friendships. That humanity.
The humanity that I shove away when I cross the street to avoid homeless panhandlers, or when I scoff at those who embarrass themselves, or when I try to draw my world into boxes where I am different (i.e. better) than those around me. The humanity that says, “Yeah it sucks donkey balls to be sitting in an emergency room on Christmas Day, but open your fucking eyes and realize that a lot of people have it a lot worse than you.”
The humanity that says things like, “Be grateful,” and “pay it forward,” and “don’t be so damn jaded, the world is good,” and “meet people where they are and try to love them for who they are.”
Humanity can be v. specific sometimes, right??
The world is a complicated place, but it seems so much more redeemable when we are connected. When we see each other not through our filtered, jaded lens of “life,” but through the pure lens of love. When we see each other’s flaws as merely the crust around a perfectly worthy human being.
Maybe the more “together” we are, the better our world will be.
Maybe I am them, and they are me.
Maybe, in some fucked up way, this ER visit is what Christmas is about.
I walk out the hospital’s front doors and then toward my 2013 Ford Fiesta.