I spotted her on the opposite sidewalk, standing right next to the idling police cruiser. Petite. Brunette. Late 80s and leaning over her red walker as she stared, transfixed, as the EMTs eased her husband into the back of the ambulance.
A few minutes earlier, one of the many sidewalk onlookers had explained: “Poor old man was just crossing the street. Someone said he’d just gone to buy a bagel for him and his wife, and then …”
The ambulance’s double doors slammed shut. Then, one by one, the other bystanders moved on.
I crossed over there and enunciated carefully because, in addition to the COVID-protective mask, my Irish accent can still confuse.
“Would you like me to go to the hospital with you?” I asked the wife.
She nodded silently while staring over my shoulder at the departing ambulance.
I asked again. “I don’t mind going. But only if you’d like me to.”
Another nod. A tiny smile. “I’d really like that.”
So off we went — the wife in the cruiser’s front passenger seat, her red walker in the trunk. Me in the back as the young cop followed the ambulance to our town’s community hospital.
Four months earlier, I would not have been walking through town on a July weekday. Instead, I would have been sitting in a cramped cubicle in the air-conditioned office where, back then, I worked in health care communications.
Lucky me. Before that 2020 cubicle job, during a two-plus decades’ career, I had held jobs in which I got to work with inspiring clinicians and interview some of health care’s most vulnerable and marginalized patients. Some were in long-term treatment for substance use. Others had family members receiving treatment for mental health disorders. Still, others had a long, long list of co-occurring conditions.
I had no clinical training. Yet, over the years, more than one patient had said, “There’s something about you.” One man, when he got re-admitted for opioid use detoxification, asked the night nurse about “that girl with the weird accent.” Later in my career, I got to work on an interdepartmental project to address the complex medical and psychosocial needs of frequent emergency department (ED) users. Later, I was privileged to work on a project narrative to fund, hire and install substance use recovery coaches in our local EDs.
Then, exactly a year before the World Health Organization declared a worldwide COVID pandemic, I ignored the job-interview warning signs to accept a position in an organization that sounded great but turned out to be one of those McHealthcare gigs but without the Happy Meal.
In my native Ireland, we had a saying, “He’d sell his own grandmother for tuppence.” As I settled into my McHealthcare job, it felt like this motto should be engraved on all the marketing swag. Then, after many months of anxious days and sleepless nights, I landed a new community-hospital position. For the first few months, my only ambition was to feel human again.
However, just before my new job’s start date, I got notice that, like 30 million other Americans, my non-clinical job was COVID eliminated.
So here I was now, a middle-aged, unemployed woman sitting in the back of a police cruiser, hoping I wouldn’t see any of my neighbors and where the wife and I introduced ourselves. For this writing, let’s say the wife is named Julie.
This was in the heyday of our petrified, pre-vaccine days, so imagine my surprise when the ED staff let me accompany Julie into a small, interior family waiting room where she told me how she and her husband had married right after the end of World War II when she was just 19.
“So he swept you off your feet,” I said, teasing, before realizing awful timing and even more awful blooper.
“Oh! No,” she answered with an impish smile. “I was actually the catch! I swept him off his feet.”
I scanned her face for signs of distress or shock. Keep her talking, I told myself. Just keep Julie talking.
Marriage. Fashion. Skincare. Restaurants. In that tiny, air-conditioned room, we covered it all – as if we were just two friends catching up over coffee. As if, across the hall and through a set of double doors, a team of clinicians weren’t hustling to save Julie’s husband. As if that young cop wasn’t out there in the corridor, scrolling through the husband’s retrieved cell phone to locate a number for one of the couple’s adult kids.
Back to the chatter. “Who wants to be one of those joined-at-the-hip couples?” Julie and I asked each other. Hey, not her. Not me. Except that, last year, she had to give up her driver’s license, and now, her husband must drive her to the beauty salon, which really irritated her.
Plus, each week, it was always him who drove them up the highway to this seaside town where he parked, then settled her and her walker onto a waterfront bench while he went off to buy their daily coffee and bagels.
Damn. The bagels. Have they triggered something? Yes. Across that tiny room, I watched the slow wave of reality creeping across her pretty features.
Just keep her talking.
She set her hand on mine. “You have such a nice voice,” she said. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
Behind my clinical mask, I wanted to laugh out loud, because, in that McHealthcare job, my annual employee review said that I talked too softly in meetings.
“I’m wasting your whole day,” she said. “You must have other things to do.”
I paused. Did submitting job resumes qualify as actual work? “No,” I said. “No, I really don’t think so.”
Later, we step-stepped down the hallway toward the ladies’ toilet. There, we maneuvered her red walker, and before she closed the door, she handed me a just-met stranger–her black leather purse.
Back in the waiting room, two clinicians had come to deliver an update.
One asked me: “You’re family, right?”
“No,” I said. “No, I’m not.” Then, I offered to step out of the room.
Julie’s eyes widened. I saw that frantic child look, just like, earlier, when I had first spotted her in the street.
So I stayed and listened to their report on oxygen levels (good) and alertness (also good) and how they had summoned a medical transport helicopter to transport the patient to a big-city hospital. Before the chopper, they would bring the husband out to say “goodbye.”
Afterward, Julie asked: “What did they say? Can you please tell me what all that means?”
As I told her, she listened and nodded along. Again, I thought about all the reams of paycheck-earning narratives I had written over the years — including the narrative to underwrite a recovery coach who would play ED liaison or “translate” between the medical world and a withdrawing substance user.
But who translates or plays ED navigator for women like Julie who land in a foreign, indecipherable country populated with blue-scrub clinicians and speaking medical terminology?
The cop had located her adult son. When he arrived, we all walked back out toward the hospital’s ED entrance. In the hallway, she hugged me hard and called me an angel and said, “What a way to meet a new friend!”
Three weeks later, I was still home, unemployed, when I found the thank you card in my postal mailbox. Julie’s three adult children signed it, but the card didn’t mention what I already knew from Google. Shortly after his admission to that city hospital, the husband’s obituary was in the newspaper.
A year later, on another hot summer day, I received an email from a big-city law firm asking if I could give information about the pedestrian car accident and what I had witnessed. I wanted to ignore that email and lawyer. But when I called, the young-sounding male lawyer questioned me about dates, times, what I had seen and if, between the bagel place and the waterfront, there had been a city crosswalk.
I was hanging up when the attorney asked, “Look, can I ask you something else?”
“Sure,” I said, in a tight, office-y voice and ready to defend myself if needed.
“Why did you do it? Like, why?”
I said that I hoped someone would have done the same for my late mother, who got equally flustered when she landed into a world of blue scrubs and medical terminology. The lawyer said something Hallmark-y sweet, and then we both hung up.
What I didn’t tell that lawyer was this: That July day in 2020, as frontline workers and persons of color, and the elderly bore the first brutal brunt of a worldwide pandemic, as some of our so-called leaders fueled an infodemic that stymied our nationwide infection control measures, as I got dressed up and Zoomed up for a number of unsuccessful job interviews, I needed to be good — or at least adequate — at doing something.