I had been running late on another busy summer day. The type of day where you gain one step and lose two. Meetings and paperwork had filled up another summer morning. Baseball games, swimming practices, and soccer scrimmages had filled up another summer afternoon. And for this particular summer evening, I was scheduled to work an odd emergency room shift from eight p.m. to four a.m.
While driving to work, I had gotten stuck in a construction zone that had taken much longer than usual to get through. And, like Murphy’s Laws would dictate, I had gotten stopped at several intersection lights that took forever to rotate back to giving me the green go-ahead. So, after finally arriving to the hospital and parking my car, I hurried into the emergency department, hopeful that all would be quiet.
The waiting room was jammed. The sounds of chaos hit me immediately, several TVs competing for dominance (Maury Povich vs. Headline News) while multiple conversations in multiple languages lingered heavily in the air. I had to step around several waiting patients while I dodged angry glares. “Excuse me,” I said repeatedly, stepping around one patient with a bandaged, bleeding scalp and another sitting in a wheelchair, holding a vomiting bin, before finally making it to the double-doors that connected the triage station and waiting room area to the emergency department’s active hallways.
I held my electronic ID badge up to the monitor and deeply exhaled as the double doors opened wide for me, taunting me to step forward into more mayhem. “Come, Jim,” they spoke, willing to remain open until I took that first step through, “we’ve been waiting for you.”
I walked into the ER’s hallways as the doors clicked shut behind me. Locking me in. A good thing, too, since the hallways were lined with more wheelchairs and multiple cots, all filled with patients waiting to be placed into treatment rooms. The overhead fluorescent lights had been dimmed to create a warmer atmosphere, but failed miserably. Patients were writhing in their cots, holding their aching body parts while the wheel-chaired patients’ bodies were slovenly tipping to one side or the other, like wilting flowers in the sunshine, obviously tired from maintaining an upright posture.
For a few brief seconds, I stood there, in the middle of this crazy hallway, taking inventory while rebuffing further angry glares. It seemed that people were quite frustrated and openly showing it. A nurse walked by in this instant. “Hello, Dr. Jim,” she said, nodding at the lined hallway, “it’s a rough one today.” “Hi Kelly,” I answered, “how long is the wait?” “Over six hours,” she said, hurrying away with one of the wheel-chaired patients. Can you imagine, at eight at night, waiting over six hours to be seen in an emergency department?
And then, among this havoc, where multiple eyes were dancing around looking for the next person to direct their anger towards, I saw it. A sweet and tender moment. Between a mother and daughter. One of those little spaces of time where a typical and mundane, yet incredibly special, happening occurred that was missed by everyone else. Where I was reminded, once again, of our humanity.
They were halfway down the lined hallway, about twenty or so feet from me. The mother was sitting in the wheelchair, attempting to stand. She was fragile, polyester pants and a buttoned-up sweater clinging to her slight frame, with pursed lips and determined eyes. Beside her, standing, trying to help, was her daughter, obviously tired, middle-aged, in capri pants and a short-sleeve shirt, wearing the same pursed lips and determined eyes as her mother.
What made this scene remarkable was the intimacy of their moment despite all of the obnoxious stimuli that bombarded them. While a patient near them dry-heaved into a big pink basin and another grimaced while tightly gripping her head between her hands, this daughter wrapped her thin arms around her mother’s waist, gently guiding her to her feet while leaning into her, chest to shoulder, her nose buried into her mother’s short hair.
Oddly, as much as I wanted to help, I also wanted to continue watching. “Breathe in,” I thought to myself, willing the daughter to inhale the scent of her mother’s clothes, of her hair, maybe of the perfume that in years to come the daughter would casually smell and be taken back to this moment of familiarity. “Hug tighter,” I willed the daughter’s arms, wrapped around her mother’s waist, hoping that they appreciated the inherent core strength of this woman who raised her. “Whisper something encouraging in her ear,” I willed the daughter’s lips, watching closely to see the mother lean even moreso into her daughter before successfully standing. She turned to her daughter and smiled. Soak this all in, I willed the daughter, this little moment of having your mom need you.
Maintaining her tight embrace on her mother, the daughter kicked up the foot pedals on the wheelchair before turning her mother toward where I was standing, guiding her several steps in my direction. As they approached me, the daughter and I gained eye contact.
I shifted my work bag over to my other shoulder and approached this patient’s left side, opposite the side where the daughter was being supportive. “May I help either of you?” I asked, hoping to help this patient from the middle of this hallway. I could picture a runaway cot or a hurried tech clipping her and, despite her daughter’s support, this patient falling to the ground.
“I think we’re okay,” the daughter answered, “we’re just going to the bathroom.” They were but ten feet from the bathroom door and looked comfortable enough to make it there. “How long have you been waiting?” I asked, grasping the patient’s left elbow to help them the last few steps.
“Too long,” the mother blurted out, showing her piss-and-vinegar. I laughed. It seems that an elderly woman’s gumption is indirectly proporionate to their physical size. This woman, I had no doubt, had big gumption. “Probably a couple hours,” the daughter added. I explained to them that I was one of the doctors and asked them what brought them to our ER. Plain and simple, it was a UTI. The mother had several days of burning and frequency of urination, and her family doctor “couldn’t fit her in.” Thus, the ER visit. And long wait.
After helping them into the bathroom, where the daughter would stay until her mom finished, I wished them luck and left them to their privacy. I found a tech who was able to wait by the door to help this patient back to her wheelchair from the bathroom, once they were finished.
I plugged myself into my hallway computer, sat down, and found this woman’s results, confirming that she had a simple UTI. Thankfully, she was only a few patients down on the waiting list and would be discharged from our ER in the next hour from our express side.
As they left, I got a message sent to me from the daughter through one of our techs, thanking me for my help in the hallway and for “speeding them through.” Although I would like to think I yield such power, I don’t. It is the result of a cohesive, hard-working staff.
I jumped from my chair and ran to say goodbye to these people, only to find that they were already gone. I was disappointed I had missed them.
That still didn’t keep me, though, from willing this daughter to cherish her care-giving role. And remaining time with her mother.
StorytellERdoc is an emergency physician who blogs at his self-titled site, StorytellERdoc.
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