A Night in the ER

January 4th & 5th

Four days into the new year and here we are already back in the UCSF Parnassus hospital ER (Seonok has intense abdominal pain and fever). After an hour drive in the rain, it is now 7:30 pm. 

One hour goes by before we even have the emergency 'triage', 8 hours or more wait time for a doctor, no beds available. This is not a war zone in a third world country, but it might as well be. 

In the waiting area with us in the late night: 3 same-sex couples, one old Chinese couple, 3 old women alone in their wheelchairs staring at the walls, five homeless (one of which is shacking uncontrollably), and a dude with blue hair and painted nails that looks like he just got beat up at a rave. All of us shoulder to shoulder on small chairs, coughing and sneezing. The smell of sweat and sickness overpowers the deodorants and strong air conditioning. And by the way, has anybody told site maintenance that summer has past, it is close to freezing outside, and heating might be much more appreciated inside the building at 11:00 pm?

Doctors and nurses walk by like construction workers at the end of their shift: dirty, bored, red eyed, dragging their feet, avoiding any contact. I get the feeling that they would show more interest in us if we were a group of stray cats, or cows with bowel movements? This must be how compassion dies, by slowly building an invisible wall of indifference. 

A homeless decides to cross the room to come sit next to me. A very pungent smell of alcohol and urines hits me as he leans over to whisper in my ear 'I had to move, some of these people really stink!'. He then removes one shoe only and within minutes is snoring on my shoulder. 

An old lady falls off her wheelchair and sits on the floor right next to a nurse that keeps talking on his cellphone. I go to help her and the nurse acts like he just noticed. 

More homeless walk in, there are about 10 now. It is cold and raining outside, only cold inside. Everyone is shivering, us included. AC still blasting. In a society that glorifies individualism, selfishness is the inevitable byproduct and no pity is reserved for the sick, the weak, the homeless. 

Midnight and after considerable negotiations, diplomacy and bargaining we are finally admitted in (four hours 'early'). Now we are inside the ER: blood, pain, fear and boredom in the eyes of those in the beds, lined along all the corridors. But hey, it's warm! And a lot more humane. Finally real nurses ready to help. I start to get the feeling they keep the waiting area cold on purpose, to make it unbearable for anyone to be there. 

It is 1:00 am when we finally meet the first doctor, for about 4 minutes. Then a long wait for the blood test results, while muted screams of pain surround us from every side. Then on to the CT scan with the Russian technician. Then back to waiting. A lot of waiting.

It has been eight years since we were hit by a drunk driver and yet the painful memories overwhelm both of us like it was just a few days. 

3:00 am and I am getting sleepy, down to taking selfies in the corridors corner mirrors. The loud beeping of some alarm being ignored is echoing in my head, 20 minutes ago another one started. Feeling like 'The Shining', slowly going insane. 

4:00 am and Seonok is finally sleeping peacefully in her cot. Me on the plastic chair on the other hand... Can you believe there is no coffee or food or vending machines at all? Luckily I had a coffee 16 hours ago! We as a society think it is normal to spend billions to develop phone apps and gadgets nobody needs but cannot afford one coffee machine every 30 nurses on night shift?

At 6:15 the nurse drops by to tell us that Seonok will be moved to a different hospital in a few hours, and that the small caffe is finally open. Warm drink feels amazing. Cancel all appointments for the day, then R&R is over: back to the chair designed by the (unknown) fan of de Sade. Or just an accountant somewhere in the Midwest trying to save a few cents in all the wrong places. 

Another hour goes by. The beeping is back. 

Then another hour goes by. 

Finally around 9:30 an ambulance brings her to Mission Bay hospital, treatments are performed, in a few days she should be back on her feet. The new hospital feels totally luxurious.

The great mystery of life: one moment celebrating with friends, the next fighting pain. No matter how many plans we might make and how strongly we feed our own illusions, the truth is none of us has any control. Existence above survival is somewhere between meaning and celebration, neither alone will get us there.