It’s a brisk afternoon in January and I’m waiting on the curb in Southern California for a taxi. I get stares from other cars passing by. In my mind, I think they’re asking what the hell I’m doing because I’m holding a backpack, barely, and looking sickly. That’s probably because I’m sick. The taxi, whenever it gets here, is going to take me to the Emergency Room.
I’ve had a cold for the past few days and my asthma has flared up. It’s not the kind of asthma that kills you swiftly. It’s the kind that crushes you slowly. I can count on at least a day’s worth of time before I’m in real trouble. At least that’s been true so far.
This is the first time I am going to the hospital alone. Before you ask what the hell I’m doing, please understand this wasn’t on purpose, but a confluence of bad-timing and an unwillingness on my part to notify others in the area. I’m not sorry, although I probably won’t do it again if I can help it.
An ambulance would have been safer, but those things are expensive and not nearly as fun to ride in as one might think. The siren isn’t too loud from the inside. When the taxi arrives, I congratulate myself on the savings. On the way to the ER, the Driver suggests I eat bowl after bowl of chicken noodle soup. I tell him I forgot to bring soup. He offers to take me to a restaurant. The Driver is a soup enthusiast. I decline. Before I regret not calling an ambulance, we pull up at the Emergency Room.
I think chicken noodle soup looks like the guts of the frog we dissected in grade school.
The Admitting Nurse at the ER chides me for showing up in a taxi. I try to explain the difference in cost, but she’s busy putting one of those identifying wristbands on me. I think about how long it’ll be before I can cut the plastic wristband off. Projecting a timeline in the hospital is a risky venture. Sure, it can give you a structure to count on, but setbacks are inevitable. Things happen. I’m aware some day they may put one of those wristbands on me and I’ll never cut it off.
They wheel me into an ER bed.
The beds in an emergency room aren’t built for comfort or privacy. It’s like sitting on a firm slab positioned at an angle to give you a wedgie. Ever wanted to be in a human zoo? Visit the ER. Here time ceases to make logical sense. I’ve waited in the ER for ten hours before and it’s felt like three, tops. Or I’ve waited for three hours and it’s felt like ten days. I imagine most people in this situation try to sleep, but for me, sleep holds a danger all its own.
In the ER, I stubbornly insist on sitting in the chair, not the bed. I’m not taking off my underpants when the problem is in my lungs, thanks. The nurses hook me up to oxygen, I can only handle about 2liters. Any more oxygen and I begin to retain carbon dioxide in my lungs.
That’s when the weird stuff happens.
Inevitably, I get sleepy. However, because I’ve been struggling with asthma for the past few days, the carbon dioxide levels in my lungs are elevated enough to cause reality to break down, slightly. I think this is why I start seeing things as I drift off. I don’t know for sure and my attempts to ask often get ignored in favor of more pressing issues, like my insurance coverage.
As the hours slip by, they bring me asthma treatments on a regular basis. Meanwhile, I try not to fall asleep.
Normal sleep is a downward sensation with the eyelids drooping and the body sinking into a pleasant slumber. Falling asleep in the ER is a sideways sensation. The eyes don’t really close, but the mind starts dreaming. I’ve watched cracks begin at a power outlet and form a small tree pattern along the wall. One brutally chilly morning, in a different ER, they kept wrapping me in warm, off-white blankets to keep me, well, warm. As I drifted sideways to sleep, in my mind I wasn’t wrapped in blankets, but thick, warm cheese. Havarti.
This afternoon in the ER, I wake myself up from a drowsy state when I notice a nearby alcove has become a giant anime nun.
Eventually, they put me in a regular room, which is a bit of an anti-climax. You spend hours waiting in the ER to get admitted and then, when you finally do, there’s a tangible feeling of now what? It’s past dinner. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. The shift nurse offers me a selection of turkey sandwiches. I decline. I’m not crazy about turkey, especially when it’s been sitting in a sandwich all day.
Instead, I feast on milk and graham crackers. It may not seem like enough, but you can’t do much better at night in the hospital.
The next morning brings a slew of asthma treatments, IV steroids, and nothing for breakfast. I rectify this immediately by buzzing my Nurse. She brings me a menu, but time is running out to order breakfast so I make my selection without browsing the delicious cuisine available for lunch or dinner. If you’ve never had hospital food, then you need to know when I say “delicious cuisine” I am being supremely sarcastic. Hospital food is the worst. People who say it’s not are lying either to you or to themselves. I realize the venom I’m injecting in the matter may cause you to despair, but, fear not, there is a deep fried, silver lining. While hospital food is terrible, without violating Geneva conventions, there’s no way to screw up chicken tenders.
All other emotional constructs are overshadowed by the human capacity to eat our feelings. In the hospital, it’s something you can count on.
Except when lunch rolls around, I can’t find chicken tenders on the menu.
What the Friar Tuck is this shit? No chicken tenders?
The Nurse assures me they exist in the cafeteria, but aren’t available on the patient menu. I ask her for the wine list hoping there are appetizers on the back. Often restaurants list chicken tenders as appetizers, which is wrong because cheese sticks are appetizers, chicken tenders are a meal.
Sometimes I think I’m the only one who understands the rules of the Universe.
The Nurse laughs at my joke, which is good because I’ll need her on my side. Staying in the hospital has a way of making even the pettiest of goals feel vitally important. I suspect it’s the urge to make ourselves better being stymied by the fact we don’t have Wolverine’s healing factor and thus must find something else to accomplish while we wait for the medicine to work.
We determine the Boss Nurse needs to approve the special diet request as the next step in acquiring the chicken tenders. In the evening, when the Boss Nurse is bossing about, I make my case for the chicken tenders.
I want them, I say. She looks at my chart. Okay, she says, but-
We need the Doctor to sign off. I spend the next day waiting for the Doctor and eating sub-par grilled cheeses.
The Doctor doesn’t see a problem with my ordering of the chicken tenders. However, he insists the chicken tenders are on the patient menu already. Swift to rebuke his ignorance, I call for the nurses to have a menu brought in. Sadly, they are busy doing their jobs. The Doctor leaves, promising to come by later.
If “we can still be friends” is the biggest lie in the world, a doctor saying “they’ll come by later” is probably the fifth biggest lie. Not that I blame them of course, except when it’s me.
Later that evening, in the clean halls of the hospital, something wonderful happens. The Boss Nurse, a busty middle-aged babe of steel, comes across the Doctor, a guy, during his evening rounds. Their eyes meet. He says his wife has left him on a rocket to Mars. She says she hates Mars. They’re getting married this November.
Just kidding. That didn’t happen, but she did get him to sign off on the special diet request. Nurses are awesome.
For breakfast, I order breakfast. For lunch, I order chicken tenders. The Nurse calls it in. The covered tray arrives. I’ve been speculating on what kind of tenders these will be. Some are thick, juicy with a soft breading. Others are thin, stringy with a crunchy coating. Will ketchup go well? Honey mustard? These mouth-watering possibilities lay before me. I put my hand on the cover and lift up to reveal-
A damn cheeseburger. Apparently, I’ve been given the wrong tray.
Every time a nurse or staff administers a round of medicine or record your vitals, they check your wristband to identify you, even if they’ve been in your room before. Every time they take you out of the room for tests or therapy, they check your wristband. And yes, when you order food from the menu, they check your wristband. But mistakes happen.
The hospital is another world with its own rules and its own way of doing things. When we enter that world, we’re desperate for something to hold on to, something to rely on now that the thing we have always relied on, our body, has let us down. Outside of the hospital world, it’s easy to see the place as a safety net. That no matter how bad you feel, as long as you get there, they’ll make sure you keep on living. Of course, we know that’s not always the case. When you’re inside the hospital world, you can see the holes in the safety net and it’s utterly terrifying. No wonder we reach out for a structure we recognize be it a person or a faith or a chicken tender.
At dinner, I get the glorious chicken tenders. They’re not bad. It takes a few more days before I’m well enough to leave the hospital. I ask the concierge at the front desk to call a taxi. I go home and back to the real world.
That night in my apartment, I feast on milk and graham crackers.