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TODAY

Saturday, December 15

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Detour

"Hopefully this won't take too long," I said to my boyfriend, Eric, as the two of us walked toward the sliding entry doors.

"Yeah. I mean, it's only nine o'clock," he said. "Maybe we'll beat the Saturday night rush."

As we entered the emergency room at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center, I noticed at least 15 people seated in various clusters in the waiting area to my right. Hmmm, I thought. I wonder if that means they're already busy. Still, I walked straight ahead to the receptionist and gave a brief explanation of my ailment. She immediately directed me to a private room down the hall. Wow, I don't have to wait at all. This really might not take that much time.

Oh, how much more naïve I was then.

I gave a quick good-bye to Eric before making my way to the sage-green private room. Furthering my optimism, I was joined almost immediately by what must be Masonic's answer to George Clooney. Nurse John, with his cropped salt-and-pepper hair and chiseled jaw, stared right at me with his deep chocolate eyes and asked me... something. Ummm, I'm a Capricorn, I like long walks on the beach and cheesy horror films. He kept staring. Oh! Right! Why was I here? I explained.

"I was at my friends' wedding and I was drinking a glass of water without really paying attention. I felt a long, sharp something in my mouth but before I could pull it out I started reflexively swallowing and it went down and stuck in my throat. So it hurt and felt weird but I kept eating to push it all the way down." Nurse John nodded like people did this all the time. "But I still have this sharp pain in my throat so I can't tell if it's lodged in there or if I really did swallow it and the pain is just from where it scratched me on the way down."

He began typing something into a computer while taking my blood pressure and asking follow-up questions. "Was I coughing up blood?" Nope. "Was I breathing normally?" Yep. And so forth until I was asked to sit in a much smaller waiting room where I pretended to watch some football game on a flat-screen TV for an hour. (Seriously, why are these TVs always tuned to sports and not, say, a "Project Runway" marathon?) Finally, a nurse called my name. Now something will happen! I was brought to a gurney parked in a hallway.

"Sorry," she said. "We're all out of rooms."

"No problem," I said, hopping on. I was right by the main information hub: a low-walled square with computer stations lining the outside and three desks in the middle. There were always two or three nurses at computers throughout the night and others were constantly buzzing around. My gurney was tucked in the opening of one of the hallways leading to this main area like circuits to the mainframe. The nurse came back with a gown to replace my shirt and had me change in the bathroom down the hall.

The last time I was at the Masonic's ER was four years ago on New Year's Day accompanying a friend with stomach problems. We waited three hours. Surely the holiday had something to do with the wait time, right? Now that I was in the main area where all the action happens — nurses, doctors, security officers and cops constantly criss-crossing through the halls, talking, joking, analyzing information on clipboards, selecting supplies out of what seemed like medical vending machines across from me, pushing and pulling wheelchair-bound patients sprouting medical through the halls, everyone busy with higher-priority issues — I realized the night was just getting started.

After 45 minutes of twiddling my thumbs (curse you, cell phone, for not automatically offering Tetris), an Asian man in a lab coat and bright blue scrubs approached me.

"Hi, I'm Dr. Tim," he said, using his first name. He held up a tongue depressor and a flashlight. "Do you have a strong gag reflex?" he asked. I briefly considered responding "No, I have a boyfriend," but decided against it. After examining me, he said he didn't see anything so he suggested an X-ray.

I was really hoping this would not turn into an extended stay. I did not want to waste a Saturday night sitting in a hospital, especially when Eric and I were all dressed up and ready for post-wedding cocktails. At the same time, if I was already here, I may as well do what I could just in case this mystery object was still lodged in my esophagus, so I agreed. "I'll go get it set it up," Dr. Tim said as he left.

And then I started counting floor tiles. I got to 216 before Nurse John walked past me propping up a scruffy white guy who looked like Shaggy from the "Scooby-Doo" cartoons. Shaggy seemed to be walking fine on his own so I immediately pegged him as a drama queen. They turned around the corner just as I was considering faking a limp next time Nurse John walked past again.

From around the same corner where they disappeared, two cops were escorting a man with a thin cast on his arm. As they passed in front of me, with no expression on his face, the man calmly dropped to his knees.

"Come on," one said. "You're going to jail anyway. Might as well not fight it."

One pulled up on the back of the man's pants like he was giving him a wedgie. The other tried kicking and sliding his feet under the man's to prop them up but the man was still silently resisting. A young, freckled nurse with a ponytail and mismatched scrubs walked right up to him, bending over to get in his face.

"What's the problem?" she asked him. "You want me to get some women, some female nurses, to carry you out? Would you want that? Would you want to tell all your buddies that some girls had to carry you out to jail?" Mr. Silent Protest started silently cooperating.

"Thanks, Carrie," one cop said.

"No problem," she said with a smile. Carrie giggled about her approach with her fellow nurses as if it was just yet another funny incident on the job. I couldn't exactly relate. Instead of dealing with potential criminals, funny incidents on my job involved things with copy machines and middle fingers.

I was directed to the X-ray room down the hall. Shaggy appeared at the end of the hall, shuffling toward me. He was pulling on his t-shirt and arguing with a tall, stocky security guard following him. I looked down to avoid eye contact.

"I have to go! You can't make me stay! I'm going home," he whined. When I returned to my gurney a few minutes later, Shaggy was sitting on the floor at the opposite end of the hall. The guard stood across from him with his arms crossed and a smile that said, "I'd like to see your skinny ass try to leave."

Shaggy kept protesting the injustice of being kept against his will until a nurse reminded him that they were keeping him there because he might harm himself. "I'm still not going to take my meds," he declared. Bingo! Off his medication. His story was becoming clearer. I heard bits and pieces of Shaggy's unsatisfactory romantic life.

A few minutes later, the guard chuckled. "Sorry, man, I don't play for the home team, know what I'm saying?"

A dark, middle-aged man with a stethoscope around his neck approached me. "Hi," he said, shaking my hand. "I'm Dr. Robert." Again with the first names — they're so friendly around here. He led me into another room, only this wasn't a small private room. This was the trauma room - a big, bright white cavern with two separate stations of monitors, supplies and endless tubes surrounding empty gurneys. I sat on one, intimidated by surroundings clearly meant for problems much more serious than mine, and went through the questions-and-examination routine with Dr. Robert. He said the X-rays did not reveal any foreign object in my throat so he recommended a CAT scan.

Before heading back to my new four-wheeled home, I asked Dr. Robert if I could talk to the person who was waiting for me. (Bad reception in the hospital had rendered text messages useless.) On my way out, a young nurse stopped me.

"I just wanted to update my boyfriend," I said.

"I can do that for you. What's his name?"

Right as I was about to answer, out of the corner of my eye I saw a young woman with short blonde hair and blue scrubs pushing a wild-eyed, heavyset woman in a wheelchair right at us

"I got the HIV virus!" the woman yelled at us, spreading her arms out to form a V. She said it with such zeal I almost blurted out "congratulations" before catching myself. I jumped back to let them pass. As they made their way through the double doors to the front waiting room, I heard her bellowing her statement over and over again to either the whole room or to no one in particular. I looked at the nurse in front of me who hadn't even flinched.

"Eric," I told her.

And back to the gurney. After half an hour of trying to find a sitting position that didn't hurt my back (decorative molding running horizontally along the wall and the gurney's guard rail raised behind me made it impossible to comfortably lean back), the same nurse walked past me, her wavy dirty-blonde hair bouncing behind her. "What's his name again?" she asked without stopping.

"Eric!" I called out.

I found out later she warned him I might be here a lot longer.

"How much longer?" he asked.

"Well, he's not exactly dying, so it could take a while," she said. Interestingly, this was never said to my face, but I already figured out this was the case. I considered dramatizing the pain to get things moving (squeaky wheels, you know?) but figured, despite what felt like a tack lodged in my throat, there were other patients far worse off than me.

In fact, one of them was shoved up against the end of the hall right next to me. His hands were handcuffed behind his back and the same two police officers from earlier were taking personal items from his pockets and putting them in a plastic bag. They were apparently waiting for something (discharge papers?) before taking him to jail. The man, in a long white shirt and baggy jeans and reeking of alcohol, sat on the edge of my gurney. I drew in my breath.

"Hey," immediately snapped a male doctor from one of the computer stations. "A patient is using that. Stand up."

"You're not the police," he told the doctor, emphasizing the first syllable. "And only the police can tell me what to do."

"Listen to the doctor," the older, thinner cop told him. "If he says it, you better do it." Mr. Police stood immediately. I exhaled.

"I got the HIV virus!" The Wheelchair Cheerleader was back. The same cute nurse, who now wrinkled her brow in apparent frustration, was pushing her in the opposite direction. The woman, with withered skin and a nest of gray hair, kept pumping her arms out with every declaration down the hall, including once right at Mr. Police.

"Well, good for you," he muttered to himself.

"Hey," the officer snapped at him just as Eric, looking anxious, made his way between the cops and their handcuffed quarry.

"Hey!" I said.

"Hey," he said with a pitying look in his eyes. "How are you?"

"Pretty much the same." I explained the situation but he already knew about the CAT scan. Apparently, after the nurse told him what was happening, Eric had insisted he speak with me.

"Sorry I'm ruining your Saturday night," I said. "You really don't have to wait. I have no idea how much longer this will take. Things are kind of crazy..." And on the last word, I motioned with my eyes to Mr. Police next to me who was still muttering under his breath. He nodded without looking directly at him, as if to say, "Oh, yeah, I noticed that guy." Eric promised he would stay up until I called, kissed me on the cheek and left.

Quite some time later, after reading every single poster on the wall behind me, I was asked to follow a young male nurse with short dreads, a polo shirt, scrub pants and a lot of cologne as he pushed an older woman on a gurney who apparently also needed a CAT scan. She was either sleeping, unconscious or faking it to be a higher priority. Well played, ma'am. We took an elevator to the basement for our CAT scans. I was told to wait in the hallway while Miss Squeaky Wheels went first.

I sat in the least dirty chair and waited with my layers of clothes folded up on my lap. The basement was empty. The rectangular fluorescent lights in the low drop ceiling were covered with plastic scenes of blue skies, white clouds and fighter planes flying in formation. Pastel floor tiles were scattered in with white tiles. I looked at the end of the hallway to my right, where the tangerine wall was aglow from an unseen light source around the corner. I looked to my left and the windows in the double doors at the end of the hallway were pitch black, as if leading to nothing. All I heard was the buzzing of the lights. This is it, I thought. This is where some psycho killer is going to chase me and kill me and no one will even hear it happen. I'm tired, I will soon be able to whistle "Welcome to the Jungle" through the hole in my esophagus and now I'm starring in a Hostel sequel that will probably go straight to DVD.

After visualizing my dismemberment for who knows how long, I was brought into the room and told to hang my clothes behind the door and lay on the bed. I slid into what was more of a large plastic doughnut than the narrow tube I was expecting. Looking straight up, I noticed dark spots of actual blood splattered on the inside of the scanner. Exactly.

"You're done," the scanner guy said to me, sliding me out.

"I know," I whispered to myself.

Hurrying back to the main floor, I noticed another gurney next to mine occupied by a young, chatty Mexican guy and a woman. I couldn't tell what their relationship was but he would not stop talking about his painful ingrown toenail. That and the chaotic energy of the ER snapped me out of my paranoia.

All of a sudden I heard sirens, doors slamming open and a lot of commotion. People started yelling urgent medical-lingo things: Stat! 1000 cc's! Pituitary! Various hospital employees, Dr. Robert among them, calmly yet quickly made their way to the trauma room around the corner from my usual post. A nurse, a doctor and two people wearing CFD jackets wheeled a gurney right by me to the trauma room. On it was an unshaven man face down and facing me with a glazed look in his eye. That could be someone's father, I thought. Or he might not know anyone. I wasn't sure which thought made me sadder.

The amazing thing was watching the hospital staff. Some kept right on staring at their computers or clipboards. Everyone knew exactly who was to respond to the emergency. There was no discussion, no questions, no debate. Once the patient was in the room, the man and woman from the Chicago Fire Department started joking with loitering nurses. A fourth-year intern talked to the young man with the ingrown toenail. Everyone knew their roles and slid into them as smoothly as a pair of old scrubs.

It was now about 1am. I sighed, adjusted my 127th sitting position to ease the pain in my back and resigned myself to the idea that I had no idea how much longer it would be. A third gurney had been placed in my hallway, this one with a man having breathing problems. He looked basically unconscious and the staff seemed barely able to attend to him. If Mr. McNoBreath was now low on the totem pole in the ER, then I knew I'm not even on the totem pole at all.

That's when I heard a nurse talking to another about not having enough restraints. "We're going to need another pair for the one coming in from the back," she complained. I was wondering who she was referring to when I heard the screaming. If I was just in a Hostel sequel, this new patient was a thousand horror movies on wheels.

"DON'T TOUCH ME! DON'T TOUCH ME!" she screamed. Since my gurney was basically located in the Times Square of the Masonic, she was of course wheeled right by me. Thin, blonde and bug-eyed, she was strapped down and twisted onto one side with an arm extended past her head. As the hospital team wheeled the screeching woman past me, they were actually joking with each other.

"Stephen, if you step on my foot one more time..."

"Well, then pick it up, slow poke."

"I'M NOT STEPPING ON YOUR FOOT! LET ME GO!"

"I wasn't talking to you, sweetie."

As they placed Miss Congeniality in a room around the corner from the end of the hall, the yelling only stopped when she needed to take a breath. One nurse explained to another that they were expecting the woman's father to show up soon. As if possessing supersonic hearing, the woman started yelling "I WANT MY DAD! I WANT MY DAAAAD!"

"'I want my beer?'" the young man next to me wondered out loud. "She's drunk. And stoned, probably." The intern was now applying anesthetic to his toe. Next to him, even though Mr. McNoBreath could barely open his eyes or, you know, his lungs, a doctor was trying to extract information from him. And, as if feeling upstaged by someone crazier than himself, Shaggy reemerged from the ER's netherworld.

"I really have to go! I have things to do. I really should be going," he was telling the same security guard who stopped him from proceeding.

At the same time, Miss Congeniality had resorted to just yelling "AAAAAA!" at the top of her lungs non-stop. I was wondering when they were going to bring her sedation. If she didn't want it, I'd be happy to take it. A policewoman walking back from the woman's room was shaking her head with a smile on her face.

"Welcome to the world of the ER," she said to the Mexican couple next to me and myself, and yet, at the same time, to no one in particular.

Finally, both Dr. Robert and Dr. Tim approached my gurney.

"Don, so sorry it's taken so long," Dr. Robert said. "As you can see, we've been pretty busy." I just nodded. They discussed my situation as if there wasn't both a hysterical woman down the hall shredding our eardrums just for kicks and a toenail removal procedure happening four feet away. They explained that the CAT scan didn't reveal anything so I must have swallowed whatever it was that had started this whole adventure. They said my throat would heal, prescribed a painkiller for the meantime and told me I could change out of my gown.

Half an hour later, a tall, husky doctor that I had seen walking around all night gave me my prescription and discharge papers. "I know you waited a long time," he said, "but we knew you were having so much fun you didn't want to leave! We could bring you more crazies if you want."

"Oh, please? Could you? 'Cause tonight has been pretty low-key," I said.

"Well, just think," he said, looking right at me. "You could write a really great book, or an article, about this."

At two o'clock in the morning, I climbed into my boyfriend's car. Five hours after we stepped into the Masonic's ER, I was now a wiser, more experienced free man thanks to the good people at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center. (Albeit a free man with some kind of small object swimming in his belly, but whatever!) And you know what? It was worth it. "I'm expecting a blog post about this," Eric said. But, like the good doctor suggested, an article will do, too.

 

About the Author(s)

After swallowing glass (or something like it), Don Baiocchi will next attempt breathing fire. If that doesn't work, he'll still blog at donbaiocchi.blogspot.com.

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