Saint Francis is the closest ER to my apartment. In fact, if I could have taken more than two steps without feeling like my head was going to roll off my body, I could have walked there. As we came to find out, so could the rest of the people that live in my neighborhood.
When Ryan and I stumbled into the waiting room, everything looked quiet. I gave my list of symptoms to the most disinterested nurse they had available, accepted my hospital bracelet and took a seat next to Ryan on a clear plastic chair about as comfortable as concrete.
To our left was a large white, but red-faced man groaning in between each of his saturated hacks and to his left was an older African American man with a drawn face almost as grey as his beard. Two men, who looked more homeless than sick, occupied the far corner and there were couples of college kids sprinkled around, some sick, some injured, the rest texting. To our right was a young preppy couple who looked scared of everyone.
I admittedly was having a hard time holding it together. The fever had taken control of my brain and was insisting that all bodily functions shut down till further notice. In response, my neck went on strike and refused to hold up my head, so I ended up face down with my forehead on Ryan’s knee.
At this point, one of the homeless “men” named Carla moved to the ground and began eating a sandwich he or she had procured from his or her jacket pocket. With his/her mouth full and a white substance, one hoped was mayonnaise, dripping down his/her chin and onto his/her tattered pants; “Carla” began to shout greetings to each one of the patients. I lifted my head, nodded in acknowledgement and then went back to resting my eyes.
Apparently, Carla is a regular at Saint Francis. An EMT walked up and addressed him/her by his/her name and kindly asked that he/she take a seat. But Carla didn’t want to take a seat. Carla wanted the floor, and he/she said so, loudly, spewing white substance all over the EMT’s uniform. Another EMT entered the picture and not so kindly asked Carla to get off the floor. He then walked directly at the preppy couple, who looked like they are about to have a seizure, and asked if Carla could sit next them. He might as well have asked for their first-born child.
It’s ok though because the second EMT recognized Carla. Carla is not supposed to be at Saint Francis, he/she is supposed to be at the methadone clinic.
“But I need a ride!” He/She protested.
“Take the bus,” they suggested.
“I’m not allowed,” he/she countered.
“I’ll get arrested.”
After some incoherent story about why he/she will get arrested if he/she steps foot on the Muni, one of the EMTs broke down and offered him/her a ride. But Carla wasn’t done yet. On the way out, he/she purposefully upset a tin of supplies that sent crashing sounds reverberating through the bodies of his/her audience.
On the heels of this altercation, I hear my name called from the ether and think I will finally get to lie down. That is until I see the admitting nurse, whose bad day has pulled all of her features to the center of her face where they threaten violence if anyone gets in her way. I have no interest in being that person. I just want to lie down. I just want to feel better. But when she shows me to my section in the triage room, she peppers me with barbed questions until I start to feel like my illness is my fault. Like I somehow deserve to feel this bad.
“Are you pregnant?” She accuses. I tell her no.
I want to tell her that I’m sorry for whatever I did to deserve this, but she’s jerking my arm and taking my blood pressure and then shooing me back out into the waiting room where Ryan and I stay, slumped over each other, for another 45 minutes until they are ready to see me.
The next nurse is no better than the first. She thinks I’m faking it. She thinks I have the flu. She too thinks I did something to deserve this—maybe drugs, maybe sex, maybe I’m just a bad person. Again, I want to apologize, but I just tell her I’m not pregnant and lie down, close my eyes, and listen to my fellow patients respond to their diagnoses and treatment options.
One is arguing about whether or not he’s sick or having withdrawals, another has glaucoma, and the guy next to me needs a shot in his butt, but he resists with venom. Twenty minutes pass, and no one comes to my curtain. I hear people shout, I hear wheels rolling, the only thing I don’t here is someone addressing Ryan or me, asking why we’ve come.
Finally, the curtains part and in pops a guy who looks like a high school chemistry teacher. His name is Charlie.
“Well, let’s see here, you don’t look so good.”
“Yea, I’m not feeling well.”
“Yea, I can see that. You look positively miserable.” His voice was so sing-songy, I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me, or just really happy to be at work.
“Well, I’d love to smile and pretend I’m having fun, but that’s a lot of effort at this point.”
“Oh no, you don’t have to pretend to have fun. We’ll getcha aaaall better. Now what seems to be the problem?”
After reciting my list of symptoms to the fourth or fifth person that day, Charlie says, “Oh my, you’re a bit of a mystery.” He does a pelvic exam, at which point I practically jump off the bed and then announces he thinks I have a kidney infection and kidney stones.
“That’s really bad,” he says with his hands on his hips and head tilted like I’m a 6 year old with a scraped knee. “We’re going to run some tests.”
Then my worst nightmare ensues. Nurse #2 takes blood from one arm and 20 minutes later another nurse enters to pillage the other. As the third nurse approaches the inside of my elbow with a needle the size of the TransAmerica Building, Charlie pops his head in and sings, “Young lady, could you be pregnant?”
“No!” I shout, a little too emphatically. “Try again.”
More blood is drawn, I’m hooked up to an IV, I’m given antibiotics. As a nice woman is wheeling me to receive a CAT scan, she asks, “Are you pregnant?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yea, I’m pretty sure.”
“Well, I can’t open up my uterus and look inside, but according to the normal pregnancy markers like periods, yea, I’m sure.”
“Okaaay.” She didn’t seem convinced. Neither did my radiologist who asked me the exact same questions.
I was starting to think that maybe I was pregnant so I prayed for kidney stones instead. I promised God all sorts of things, things I didn’t really want to promise, if he could just let it be kidney stones. If he could let me escape the responsibility of another mouth to feed, there were things I would change. “I just can’t do this right now.”
Luckily, it turned out to be neither pregnancy nor kidney stones. About 30 minutes after I was back in my cozy section of the triage room, watching “Cupcake Wars” with Ryan, Charlie bounded through my curtain like a Labrador with a bone.
“It’s a hemorrhaging cyst!” He exclaimed with too much verve.
“Oh, ok.” Charlie seemed puzzled by my lack of concern, but I’d had a burst cyst before so I knew what I was getting. Plus a cyst meant that all previous negotiations with God were off.
Charlie explained the cyst was responsible for my abdominal pain and that he would put me on antibiotics, painkillers and anti-nausea medicine for a week, until the infection cleared up. In his enthusiasm, he forgot to tell me that I also had a kidney infection, but at least he put it on my discharge papers.
When Ryan and I stumbled out of the ER into a misty rain, it felt like a week had passed. We were both tired and little worse for the wear, but there was the promise of feeling better, and that was all we both really cared about.