Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2012/ 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5773
The other side of the emergency room curtain
By John Kass
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | (MCT) When you're in the ER alone, do you ever listen to what happens on the other side of the curtain? And afterward, what do you tell yourself about what you've heard?
"Just wait," said the nurse.
The doctor will be with me shortly, I joked.
She gave me one of those hard, tight and polite smiles. Her face was thin, there was a tiny tattoo on her neck and she looked exhausted, like a mom with too many kids.
Is it busy?
"Oh, yes," she said. "We're extremely busy."
She pulled the curtain closed and was gone.
It was just past noon, and outside there was a high blue sky. The sun was warm. It was one of the last great afternoons of the year, too fine a day to be inside behind that curtain.
It was a day to sit in a park and watch the leaves, like those in the red maples, and other trees still in green, still holding on. A day to walk the dog in a field and kick up some birds, a day for children chasing a ball on grass, a day to watch the light change on the skyscrapers on the river. It was not a day for ER curtains.
What brought me there wasn't serious. It was a stupid, really, a stupid thumb, infected just behind the nail. I tried dousing it with iodine - the way we'd medicate our cuts when we worked in the butcher shop. But it kept swelling and finally it was like a ridiculous baby eggplant on my hand.
When you're behind the curtain with someone you care for, your spouse or a child, family or friend, you care nothing for what's outside those curtains. The universe is right in there with you. Your child is ill. There is only time for prayer and bargaining with G0D.
Yet when you're alone, and there's nothing really wrong except for a ridiculous thumb, you can listen to the monitors, and staff chatting quietly, a cough, a laugh. But you can't see anyone.
Then I heard the woman. She wasn't old and she wasn't young, but that's all I could tell of her.
"Oh, no. Oh, oh, no!" she screamed. "G0D, O G0D, no!"
And it went on, across the room, on the other side of those brown curtains.
"G0D! G0D! G0D! G0D!" she yelled. "O G0D."
I didn't want to listen, but I couldn't help it, and she went on for some time, long minutes and minutes more. I could hear staff members talking to her softly. Then more sobbing.
She tried to catch her breath. It was violent. It was the worst sound of all, that poor woman trying to gulp down some air, and anyone who heard it surely must have prayed for her. O Lord, help her, I said out loud, alone, as she sobbed.
If you're old enough - or if you've been hurt by sudden loss when you were young - you can remember that gulping in your own mouth, when breath is denied you, when someone you loved crossed over. At first I thought of my mom in an ER with my dad at the end, but then I began thinking of all the wives and husbands in a place like that, all the parents and children and friends and siblings and comrades, all those who've lost someone, and who tried to find air to scream.
If you live long enough, then you know the sound of it.
"O G0D," she said on her side of the curtain. O Lord, I answered, softly, on mine.
After a time, her sobs faded. They must have taken her to that little room off to the side. If you've been in that little room - and all hospitals have one - I'm sorry for you too.
We're told the little room is for privacy, but at that moment privacy doesn't concern us, for we are oblivious. The little room is where they herd us off to be contained and administered to. It is the room where the priest comes, the room where they give us the bad news.
After her voice disappeared, life in the ER returned. I could hear two staffers continue their discussion of presidential politics. A nurse laughed. Someone pushed a cart with a bad wheel.
After a time, the ER doc came in. He was quick and sure with his scalpel, and then he cleaned the thumb, slapped on antibiotic and wrapped it in gauze. When he finished, I asked:
How do you take it?
"Take what?" he said, examining the dressing.
That woman who was sobbing. Things like that.
"Another doctor handled it," he said.
But what does it do to you?
"You have to keep emotional distance," he said. "But not too much. Enough to do your job. And, yes, you do feel it."
On the way out, there was an ambulance driver in a chair, a short, heavy man, and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. I asked him too.
"Sometimes, new people come on the job. After a week or so, they just can't take it," he said. "But some get through it, and they can do the work."
But how do you deal with it?
"You don't," he said. "You just do the job. Then you go home."
I stood there for a second.
"Go home," he said.
Outside, the sun was still high in that blue sky. And the wind shook its fists in the trees.
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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Comments by clicking here.
© 2011, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.