I went to the E.R. prepared last night. I brought a sweater, granola bar since I’d missed dinner, and a novel. I brought my sister’s “barf bowl” and a box of Kleenex. A parade of need hit the waiting room at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The boy who might’ve broken an arm at soccer practice escorted in by his mother, the husband experiencing chest pains wheeled in by his wife, they arrived after us and were seen before us. Of necessity the broken, bleeding, life threatening takes priority over pain.
We had a two and a half hour wait in the sea of noise and bright fluorescent lights. I looked at my sister wearing her noise-cancelling headphones, the sash of her robe pressed over her eyes, flinching at the constant slamming of the outer doors as patients kept coming, and thought the E.R. was the wrong place to take someone with an excruciating migraine. I should’ve taken her to a spa with dim lights, a burbling fountain, warm blankets, where people would murmur in low voices, apply a cucumber eye mask and caress her with lavender lotion. A spa where the aesthetician would insert a painless I.V. in the dark and administer narcotics along with hot stones.
The tattooed twenty-something who had fallen or been in a fight and was in so much pain he wanted to kill himself. The heroin addict who’d tried to cut something out of her arm rolled up her sweatshirt sleeve to reveal an arm not round, but swollen square. The alcoholic behind the curtain in the other half of our room (when my sister finally was seen) who’d burned herself cooking drunk was ready to go home. She was freezing, threatening to rip-out her I.V. and belittling her husband when he asked her to calm down while they waited for a nurse. The E.R. was the wrong place for them, too.
Here they would be stitched and salved, patched, shot with antibiotics, and sent home with discharge instructions to get help for depression, addiction, alcohol abuse, which I thought they’d probably ignore. They needed help, but as I’ve struggled with my own issues, I’ve come to believe no one can save anyone else from their brokenness, or themselves. I wasn’t in the mood for compassion. I’d missed dinner and the premiere of Top Chef Just Desserts. I wanted to sit on the couch with my husband, a cat in my lap, drinking a cup of tea, watching a T.V. show where life’s biggest challenge would be who got sent home for poorly tempered chocolate, not immersed in this world of pain and suffering, a never-ending stream of people in and out of the automatic doors and an audible fire alert on top of all the beeping equipment.
Once her meds kicked in my sister dozed for a few minutes, and I took the headphones from her hands, placed them over my ears and tried to block out the alcoholic vitriol on the other side of the curtain. I thought that working in the E.R. must be one of the most horrendous jobs around. Helping people who weren’t going to help themselves. I thought about rescue and saving and power and powerlessness while I read and re-read pages of my book, not really absorbing the words on the pages, or finding clarity in my swirl of thought.
This morning, safe and quiet at home, I think about my lack of compassion, about the barriers I put up in the E.R. so I could separate myself from the patients. Set apart I wouldn’t have to recognize our common humanity or remember Jesus’ words about the least of these. Today I have no doubt that Jesus sat on the arm of every chair in the waiting room, at the foot of every bed, looking at his children, so fragile, vulnerable, broken by the world and their own perceptions. He sat there, willing each one to recognize his presence, to view his or her life and one another through a lens of love and healing, to accept this gift in addition to the medical care they sought.
It is only today that I know this. Last night I was blind.