Hospitals and humanity
My husband’s recent trip to the emergency room seemed like a kind of parable to me. Or maybe I was just looking for parables, rather than wanting to sit helplessly beside him. But he was a rock .. or rather, a human being. And that’s the point.
Greg’s back troubles had been building up for weeks, but we hadn’t noticed. We didn’t even see that things were building to a crisis when we went on vacation and the pain became worse, with insignificant causes bringing significant sharp pains.
But on the evening he returned, it became obvious that a crisis was upon us. When he couldn’t find relief in any position and even the subtlest movements made him gasp as if he had been stabbed, we both knew it couldn’t wait. The decision was made for us, and 20 minutes later, we were in the emergency room with about a dozen fellow sufferers.
I will leave out a lot of details about our time there, because they’re not part of this story. I’ll even give the happy ending spoiler that Greg’s pain turned out to be something temporary and easily remedied.
But I want to draw attention to three data points about that night. Greg and I went to the emergency room …
- on a Saturday night
- on Memorial Day weekend
- in Las Vegas (where we live)
So we were in “interesting” company.
Iceberg, dead ahead
Some of our fellow patients looked to be mentally ill. Some appeared drunk or had some other reasons for diminished capacity. One young man came in plaintively cradling a bloody hand that he had used, he said, to punch a wall. I saw three women who seemed, shall we say, to work nights … and I don’t mean at the donut shop.
The wretchedness of the place was heartbreaking and a little scary. But of course, Greg and I weren’t in a position to complain. We were all, come what may, on the good ship Titanic, so there wasn’t much point in telling the purser that a mistake had been made and we weren’t supposed to be in steerage.
Not that I would’ve said much of anything. As the night wore on, it would have been easy to unravel — I saw one man do it and erupt into some very blue language, which had no effect whatsoever on the harried staff. But as much as I would’ve liked to give someone a piece of my mind, I couldn’t. Greg bore everything with such patience that it would have seemed dishonorable for me to do any less. And for another thing, the nurses and paramedics had the air of people who had seen much more than they ever wanted to, certainly much more than I could imagine. I wouldn’t have had the heart to start in on them about my husband’s pain — if they started telling me one fraction of what they saw in a week, I’d have probably wanted to curl up in a ball on the floor.
“We’ll do anything to help …”
When we’d been there about seven hours and the daylight was beginning to break, a nurse came out to put Greg into a wheelchair yet again. At first, she just asked him from across the room and was annoyed that he didn’t comply. As Greg began the excruciating maneuver and I stood by to offer what help I could, she realized the level of pain he was in and his quiet struggle with it. I could feel her demeanor change subtly but significantly. She asked, “Are you moving that slowly because you have to?” in a tone of wonder, but we didn’t need to answer.
From that point forward, Greg was treated with every courtesy. (I wonder if it would’ve bolstered Greg’s case if they had known he couldn’t resist taking a cellphone picture of himself in the waiting room to post to friends. Maybe it’s just as well they didn’t see that.) The nurse immediately took steps to get him the heavenly boon of painkillers. They saw to it that he could get a place to sleep and even went to great pains to find me some coffee. I didn’t have to guess at the reasons — the nurse offered the explanation unsolicited. She said, “When we ever see anyone that isn’t a drunk or a druggie, we’ll do anything we can to help.”
Maybe that’s an impolitic thing to admit. I’m certain that the hospital’s brochure doesn’t say that they give top-notch care as long as you’re not a drunk or a druggie. But I couldn’t judge her for saying it. And what I have thought often since that night is how much there is these days that can steal the humanity of any of us, and how little we know when we will need it.
The little things that undo us
Think about it: We live in an age of technology and freedom that our ancestors never could’ve imagined. But these things have come with a price that snuck up on us. Western civilization has meant that we have lifesaving medications and free wifi and speedy cars. But it has also meant that we have nine-hour ER waits, cyberterrorist attacks, and road rage. I often wonder how I would handle the temptations of the martyrs, but then I also wonder how they would deal with having their car stall on the freeway. Their stories contained enormous challenges to their faith; mine contains many, many small challenges to my humanity. Taken individually, they are so ridiculous that it sounds idiotic to complain. But in their totality, these stupid little things from the temporal world can corrode the eternal aspect of my being that God gave me.
Undoubtedly, God knows best, and I am given only such things as I can handle. I hope I am handling it. Some days I feel I am, and others … well, other days I suppose I’m the man in the ER who lost his temper, or the one who bashed his hand or the woman who makes her living by selling her body. I might even be the supposed caregiver who has seen too much and struggles with cold-heartedness. Sometimes I swim, and sometimes I flounder, and sometimes I feel like I’m going under. Given how small the world is getting, we’re all likely to see each other in good times and bad. Sometimes I think to escape that sad spectacle in church, but given our fallenness, a church may look a lot like a kind of hospital.
When it’s our turn to be the patient, will we hold on to our humanity? When we are supposed to be the caregiver, will we be able to see the humanity in others? I pray God I have the strength to keep trying, and I thank God that He pours out such grace on my weak efforts.