Still, sitting on a rolling stool in the ER while the doctor set up to perform an ultrasound on my neighbor, I was overcome...by fear.
I can feel my chin soften, my lower face sag. My eyes fill with tears. I look down to hide my struggle. I remind myself that I am not the first fearful person to cry in an ER.
But I'm not afraid for my neighbor. I'm afraid for myself.
My neighbor is 75, widowed, alone, belly full of radiating pain. Only a step-son on her list of contacts.
I am not even 60, married, happy, in a rewarding career. I live in a warm house with a caring husband, a dog and a cat. (His son, my step-son, is 24 and living with his mother---another story.)
What have I got to be afraid of?
Doctors and nurses and orderlies (Do they still exist?) pass me in an array of pastel with business on their minds. A Candy Striper (Okay, a Comfort Service Volunteer) asks if I'd like some water. Yes! She brings water with that wonderful hospital crushed ice and a cellophane-wrapped packet of graham crackers. Pathetically, I drink, peel back the cellophane and eat on the stool, distracted, feeling a little better. Another patient rolls through the sliding glass doors, morose, an EMT pushing his wheelchair.
The doctor draws the curtain back and smiles at me. I can return to my neighbor's side. She smiles at me too. "They've ruled out gall bladder," she says waving the arm with the blood pressure cuff, not the bruised one with the IV drip and the shunt.
When she speaks she lifts her head off the pillowless bed and the monitor behind her shows a fluctuation in her pulse. I watch her blood pressure rise on the screen from moderately high (in my estimation) to high...what number will finally trigger an alarm?
I go out again when technicians come with a portable x-ray machine, set up, step away, tell my neighbor not to breathe, and to breathe.
One of my neighbor's friends arrives. Seventy-five, creased pants and a cashmere V-neck over starched white shirt, YSL glasses. The three of us chat. Movies, shopping, home maintenance. Care in this hospital. "Oh, they're very attentive," says my neighbor. "They're very thorough."
"I remember sitting in this Emergency Room with Ed before he died," says her friend. "We were here 12 hours before they put him in a room. Twelve hours and I became quite a bitch," she says with a rueful smile. "Then they moved him."
It grows dark outside the double sliding glass doors. Drizzle falls on the EMTs readying their van for the next outing.
I decide to hand my neighbor off to her friend. "I think I'll go," I say. "I've got to go to the store and fix dinner."
"Oh, thank you so much! Thank you for coming. Thank you. You have my keys? Would you turn a light on in the house tonight? Oh thank you!"
As I walk toward the double doors I keep my head down. Sooner than I expect they hiss open and I fairly run to my car.