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E.R.

a big city nightmare

by Paul Vee

I got doored. I had just mounted my bike and started rolling away from my 
apartment when I was suddenly impaled on the top corner of a Lincoln Town Car's door.

I was not thrown. I let the bike fall and slumped against the car, hanging by the soft spot right below the Adams' apple. I couldn’t even brake, the timing was that exquisite.

It was an ugly scene. A passing friend who came to my assistance said he actually heard the noise of metal hitting my chest. I thought of my windpipe. I thought of how vulnerable we are. I thought, "Maybe I just took my last breath."

The driver was contrite and offered to hold my hand for "as long as you need." My friend offered to get the police. He looked at my wound and made a face, saying, "I think you'll need some stitches."

He helped me carry my bicycle back up to my apartment. I made a mental note that, if I lived, I would have to have the front brake repaired. I brushed off his help and insisted on walking alone to St. Vincent's Hospital, ten blocks away.

Seventh Avenue swam by me as I hobbled to the hospital. I stumbled through the glass doors of the emergency room and showed my bleeding throat to the triage nurse. She was not impressed. I suppose it was small potatoes for a big city emergency room.

She sent me over to the rows of fixed seating that face the glass wall on the avenue.

A guy next to me stared straight ahead. He was wearing odd bits of clothing that looked like they all came from different garbage piles.

A young girl and her mom came in and sat down across from me. The girl told the nurse she was thirteen. She was pregnant. Aside from that, she seemed fine, and was smiling and joking with her mom.

She recited a list of junk food she wanted: "Potato chips and Kit Kats and Chicken McNuggets and hot dogs and ice cream. I want to be a big-butt mama. I want all the weight that I gain from this baby to go to my butt and my thighs."

I wanted someone to know where I was, so I stiffly walked to the phone and left a message on a friend's machine saying, "I was doored by a car. I'm at St. Vincent's. I'll call you later." At least someone would know. If I weren't single, I'd be calling a girlfriend or a wife. That's what I used to do.

Some guy behind a glass window called me over and questioned me about insurance stuff while I kept reminding myself to breathe. Then he sent me inside to see a cute nurse with an Irish accent. Even in my debilitated condition, I wanted this woman. I parted my shirt collar and showed her the wound. She leaned in to look at it and it almost felt like intimacy. Not a big step from there to having sex, really, at least in my head. It was probably a different experience for her.

A male doctor popped in with a question. They seemed friendly enough to be rude with each other and I instantly felt jealous and resentful.

She led me into yet another room. This was where the action was: Machines! Bandages! Sinks! The patients here sat at school desks that lined the two walls, facing each other. Curtains hung from the ceiling on tubing and divided one patient from the other.

Across from me was an old guy whose left pant leg was pulled up to reveal a leg that was swollen double the normal size and dead white. The kind of condition you occasionally see on homeless people. I don't know what it is, but it's scary as shit.

Next to him was a very young guy with a shaved head. He was reddish-looking all over, as though someone had just dropped him in boiling water. He wore an odd mix of pseudo-designer sweat pants, a tiny tank top, and hospital slippers. It could have been a major fashion statement but it was actually cobbled together from the hospital's freebie pile. When he arrived at the hospital, they stripped him for a delousing, and threw out his original clothes. He was agitated and angry. He said he had AIDS. He kept asking for things, and he spoke to the hospital staff as though they were his personal servants.

"HEY....HEY....yeah....over here. Get me some food. I need some food." And they would get him some food. "HEY....HEY....I need some socks." This was the theme for the next hour.

Next to him, separated by a thin curtain, was a nervous-looking guy with glasses. Woody Allen might have played him in a movie. He kept looking around when he was left alone. He kept asking if the blood pressure machine was accurate.

A doctor came by and asked me to take off my shirt. She was far from cute, but it still felt kind of intimate for a woman to be asking me that.

I took it off and she winced when she saw my wound. She seemed very professional, accomplished, and compassionate. I was happy to have someone checking me out, making sure I would live. She said I'd need an x-ray, did some paperwork, then left me for a while. I put on a hospital robe, surrendering my identity as a civilian for one of a patient. It was scary.

While I was waiting for my x-ray, the doctor ministered to the guy with the giant leg. "In your learned opinion,” the patient asked, as if he'd been rehearsing, "will this ever get better?" He sounded like Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons -- slow and tipsy.

She replied, "I'm afraid not, it's too far gone for that." I was kind of impressed by the matter-of-factness of it all. It was still shocking, though. We are so often shielded from sickness and chronic illness that it's a bit surprising when it comes up. Will this get better? No. Jesus. Life is brutal.

The X-ray room was a bit like Dr. Frankenstein's main lab in the original movie--dark, with a mechanical table in the middle, and full of odd instruments that seemed to use a lot of electricity. The x-ray tech was a pretty woman, and I immediately felt self-conscious about being shirtless, especially when she treated me as a patient and not a sex-object. She, too, winced when she saw my wound, although she quickly reverted to a blank professional face.

When I returned to my post, an aide was mopping up the area where the nervous-guy had been, the one who'd been wondering about the blood pressure machine, and someone yelled out, "Did psych take care of that guy?"

The young AIDS patient in the middle was eating some hospital food off a tray, and demanding to see a doctor. He was yelling that he was ready to leave, but he just needed some pain killers. And he kept asking for socks, as well. He wanted to go, but he also wanted some pain-killers and some socks. The nurses had stopped being so solicitous with him and they were talking about calling security.

The doctor she'd have to give me a tetanus shot. Five minutes later, an aide returned with the needle and a photocopied sheet explaining tetanus. I marveled at their thoroughness and looked straight ahead as she plunged the needle into the meat of my left arm. "Do you feel that?" she said. I did my best to act nonchalant. “Sure," I said.

I went for another round of x-rays and when I returned, the room was empty except for my doctor and some guy who looked like he was meeting her for a drink. The room was half-dark and they were cleaning up. I was the last business she had to take care of. She explained that I had sternal contusions and something else which I forgot. Nothing was broken. She asked me if I had any trouble breathing and I said it was a little tight, but I thought I'd be okay. She told me to come right back in if I had any trouble breathing. "No shit," I thought.

The she paused for a second and added, "If you feel any crunching in your neck or hear anything like bubbles in bubble-wrap being popped, or if you can't breathe, come right back in."

I walked out of there, grateful to be alive, instantly thinking of how I could spin this into a story for Tag, and vigilant for the sound bubble wrap popping.


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