13 April 2007

City of broken people

On the evening of Easter Sunday, I accompanied a friend to Washington Hospital Center's emergency room. She could certainly use the company, and I had nothing better to do but sleep. A wise man once said "Sleep is for animals and children..." So what the hell. It was about 11:00pm.

It's a very surreal thing, dialing those three numbers: NINE, ONE, ONE... Once that last "ONE" is punched, you cross over into a world that is completely out of your control. Down the rabbit-hole you go.

Ten minutes later, my friend is being helped into the back of an ambulance and I climb into the front seat. Red strobe-lights are punching electric holes in the neighbor's bedroom windows and the idling diesel thrums like a huge beast, purring in its sleep. The ambulance driver pulls his nest of dreadlocks in behind him and takes the wheel. What is it, I wonder, about dreads that make a fellow seem so damned CALM and friggin' WELL ADJUSTED?

Baah, that's beside the point. Arriving at hospital now.

Entering the Emergency Room behind the gurney pushes my surreal trance into hyperdrive. When you walk through these doors, you enter a plane of reality that for most people, only exists as a TV drama. ER, House, etc. You can't help but compare every detail to some scene in a prime-time medical show.

We part the swinging inner doors and enter the ER just in time to witness an elderly woman hurling an unbelievable amount of vomit onto the floor, over the side of her elevated gurney. Others are moaning inside. There's a gridlock of gurneys in here, and nobody knows what to do about the sick patient, who has another go at the floor. And another. One orderly shrugs as he walks by: "At least this time, it smells like food..."

The overhead speakers are crooning "Reunited" by Peaches & Herb. I was twelve years old when that song hit no.1 and infected every radio in the country. The "couples' song" at the roller rink in Laurel was always friggin' Reunited. And some Andy Gibb tune. What was that song...?

At first it sounds like someone is singing along, but turns out to be another patient groaning in her pain. She's quite old, and the pain is deep inside her head. "I have double-vision and my head......my HEAD.....ohh GOD......"

there's one perfect fit
and sugar, this one is it
we both are so excited
cuz we're
hey, hey........

Behind us, there's a guy who broke his foot in a football game. There's a young woman sobbing on a cellphone about her mother, who is in here, somewhere. Obese man snoring in a chair, pants falling down. Two people sit quietly nearby, nursing private concerns, hardly moving. Red disco-lites at the windows: another ambulance is here.

"S'cuse me, docta....she ain't breathin'...she ain't breathin' no more." Three young folks in scrubs whisk the patient away. I wasn't sure if it was double-vision woman or hurling woman.

My head is spinning at this point, the rabbit hole is quite deep this time.

Emergency Rooms are nightmare chambers. Everyone's most desperate tragedies are exposed here, competing for attention. It's a circus of despair. There is no privacy, as everyone's pain is vented freely. We feel like idiots in the middle of all this terror. My friend's complaint was relatively minor, compared with all of this.

Eventually, a doctor arrives who seems a bit too handsome to be believed (perhaps this IS a TV show after all?). I take this as my cue to stumble home, just a few blocks away.

The air is cold and raw; unseasonably so, for springtime. The chorus of Peaches & Herb's greatest hit mingle with the wail of ambulances and the mumble of geese over the McMillan Reservoir....and the cellphones and the crying.

Easter Sunday in Washington DC. It was a very strange evening.

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