Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Emergency room insights

I spent yesterday in the ER, reading The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times and observing life. There is a lot of life to observe in an emergency room.

The little woman with the droopy eye, who was convinced that the reason she'd collapsed in the bathroom and her muscles weren't working was because she'd eaten canned salmon. She spoke entirely in Spanish, assuming I'd understand her. I was glad that I did.

The young man who translated for his dad, who was there because of stroke-like symptoms and heart problems and high blood pressure and diabetes. To hear the 20-something son speak about his failing father was a beautiful thing. "Before his stroke he was strong, direct, unafraid of anything..." he said to the doctors, calm and proud. Gently he helped his dad follow the directions for the neuro tests for balance and strength. He was a good and loving son.

The man with kidney stones -- huge ones -- who lay patiently on a gurney for eight hours, without complaining except to say quietly to me, "This hurts me a lot". He's having surgery on Wednesday.

The silent, elderly woman next to me, in for abdominal pain, who after seven hours had yet to be seen by a doctor. I encouraged her to speak up, and she stood by the nurses' station for ten minutes and no one paid her any attention. When I went to nag my doctor, I told the attending physician about her situation. I wondered what had happened -- or hadn't happened -- in her life to make her so passive.

Me, I'd gone in after searing chest pain early yesterday morning. The pain disappeared, and according to my Google search didn't seem to be heart trouble, but I knew I'd better get it checked. So I was there without pain or major fear, and part of me wondered why. And then I remembered that life isn't always about me, and when in doubt I can always do something for others. Perhaps the point of my presence was simply that all those worried, sick people needed my prayers. It was a fine way to fill the time.

This morning I hold images in my mind of the muscular young man with dreadlocks who was wailing like a baby; of the fretful Irishwoman with neuralgia; of the young man swaggering, handcuffed, through the ward in his gown; of the pregnant nurse from endocrinology with heart trouble. It's doubtful I will ever see any of these people again, yet for one day their lives intersected with mine.

Often we're so busy and focused on ourselves that we don't pay attention to the ways our paths cross the paths of others. Yet those intersections (and our response to them) help shape who were are.

My heart is in beautiful shape, my lungs are healthy. My discharge sheet says Chest Pain, Unspecified, because there's not an insurance code for "we don't honestly know what happened". As long as the doctors have ruled out things of potentially-fatal significance, I am content to live with the mystery.

There's an awful lot we don't know about life. There's a lot we know and foolishly discard. There are people who cross paths with us whose lives we change, for better or worse, knowingly or not. Sometimes we can focus on this person or that a little more than we might have, and that's a good thing.

Today's resolution: to spend an extra 30 seconds appreciating or praying for someone who I'll never see again. Try it.



  1. You're the silver lining in every cloud.

  2. Julia-take care of yourself, too. You have an enormous amount of stress in your life and I know from experience with heavy stress that it can play havoc with our own bodies, too. You are an inspiration to others and we all need you!

  3. So glad that you were ok. How beautiful that you took the focus off of yourself and allowed yourself to look and pray for others.