Friday, June 13, 2008
I didn't go to the hospital yesterday, because I was sick. I went today instead, because I was feeling better. Yesterday I was annoyed that my massive allergy attack kept me from volunteering, but today, I think I know why that happened.
The minute I get to the ED, one of my favorite nurses asks me to speak to a patient who's about to be discharged. I go into the room, blink, and say, "I know you!"
I'm terrible at names, but I remember yours. That's because I've thought about you and prayed for you many, many times since our first meeting. I tell you this, and you seem puzzled, but pleased. You're impressed that I still remember your name.
You're here because you fell. I ask some questions, and it sounds like you really did fall, not like you were pushed. But when I ask if your partner's still hurting you, you start to cry.
You're still afraid to tell anyone. You beg me not to tell anyone. I tell you that we know here: we know from last time, remember? You insist that you can't leave your home, because of your animals. You tell me about them. There are quite a few, of different kinds. You love them. They depend on you. You rescued some of them from dumpsters.
I tell you that there are animal-rescue organizations. You insist that no one else can take care of your animals. You have to do it. I ask if your partner has ever hurt your animals, and you say, emphatically, no.
And then I say, "Think about what your partner has done to you. If that had happened to your animals, would it be okay?"
Your eyes widen. You look horrified and shake your head. "No!" you tell me. No, it wouldn't be okay at all. It would be unspeakable. You'd want your partner to die if your animals had suffered like that.
"Then it's not okay for your partner to be doing that to you, either."
"But I can run away," you say, and then stop. We both know you haven't.
The nurse comes to discharge you. I talk to a case manager, who sighs and gives me a flier for a domestic-violence hotline. We gave you a list of shelters last time, and it didn't help, but as long as you're still alive, there's still hope.
By the time I finish talking to the case manager, you're already outside, sitting in the sunshine, waiting for your partner to pick you up. I give you the flier. "Can you put this where your partner won't see it?" You nod and tuck it into a pocket. "Will you call the number?" You frown and don't answer. "Can I do anything else for you?" You ask shyly if I can get you some water. I'm happy to do that.
When I come back with the water, you squint up at me and say, "Well, maybe I'll call. My nose has been broken twice, and my collarbone three times."
"Please call," I say, trying to keep my voice steady. "You don't deserve that. No one deserves that."
You smile and hold my hand. You still can't believe I remembered your name. I tell you that I'll never forget it. I ask you again, beg you, to call the number, to call for help.
And then I have to go back inside. All I can do is pray that you'll call the number, but at least now I know why my allergies were so bad yesterday: So I'd be at the hospital today instead. So I'd see you again. So you'd know that there's someone who remembers your name.
When I'm back inside, something else happens that bolsters my faith, but this time in people rather than in God.
You're my second patient of the day. You're homeless. You're from somewhere else, and need money to go back home. I talk to someone from social services who reminds me that we don't give out money. I already knew that, but it couldn't hurt to try.
I go back into your room. "No luck. Anything else I can do for you?"
"Food?" you ask hopefully. "I'm hungry."
"I'll have to check with your nurse," I tell you. Patients who might be surgical candidates, or who are waiting for certain tests, can't eat. There's also the problem that some staff actively resist giving homeless patients food, because they don't want the ED to be seen as a soup kitchen. "Do you know if you're being admitted?" If you're being admitted, we can order a meal tray.
You don't know. I find your nurse, who's another of my favorites. "Can Patient X have food?"
The nurse looks at the chart. "Sure. That patient just got here, but I understand the situation, so sure."
I gather my courage. "Any chance we can get a meal tray, or should I just hand out a bunch of crackers?"
"I'll order a meal tray."
I blink. We don't even know if you're being admitted yet. "Thank you! A lot of people wouldn't do that."
The nurse shrugs. "Yeah, well, I won't watch anyone be hungry. I'm a hardass in plenty of other ways, but I won't stand there and watch someone be hungry. That's not okay."
I dance back into the room and tell you that we're ordering a meal tray. You thank me, but seem puzzled about why I'm so happy.
I hope you enjoyed your meal. It may have been lousy hospital food, but it represented a triumph of human compassion over bureaucracy.