The businesslike, clipped tones of the desk clerk at the Emergency Room entrance, greets me on my entrance.
"And what is the nature of your emergency?" she asks me as she thrusts a clipboard into my hands.
"Nothing at all, ma'am," I respond. "I'm a reporter for a local newspaper and I am writing about emergency rooms and the amount of time it takes to be seen and get treated. A little bit about each person, why they come to the ER. I promise I won't be a bother to anybody."
The lady gives me a strange look, but she lets me sit in the waiting room, where I then begin observing people and taking notes on my laptop once I get it plugged in and ready to go.
On this particular day, it is a Friday afternoon, around 3:00. It is hot, humid, and particularly oppressive outside, rather unusual for this time of the year (second week of May).
The air conditioning in the emergency room feels good.
The plastic Naugahyde chairs are occupied by tired, sick or bored looking people. Some are lying down across sevreal rows of chairs; others are sitting up, with dazed, confused, or exhaustion expressions on their faces as they wait to be seen or wait for family members or friends who are currently being treated.
Let's meet some of them.
One young man of about 13 years of age leans over a hospital-issued basin, throwing up pink-tinged vomitus. His girlfriend (who looks like a young teenager but is dressed up as if she were much older) looks over at him with a look of concern on her face and wrinkles her nose in disgust. An elderly lady sitting close by the teen couple quickly rises from her chair and moves to a different area of the ER. Wait time: 15 minutes.
A young Hispanic boy, roughly eight years old, sits with his head between his knees, his right leg clumsily wrapped in what appears to be yards of thick paper towels, which are soaked in blood. His mother berates him in a rapid flurry of Spanish.
When asked what happened, the mother says she dosn't speak English. The boy tells me he fell and severely cut his leg on something sharp that had been lying around in the yard at home. The boy looks to be on the verge of tears as his mother's harsh words wash over him.
"Moldonado?" Wait time: 7 minutes.
A young mother, perhaps in her teens, holds a screaming baby girl in her arms. The baby tugs violently at her right ear; it is clear that the baby is miserable and in a great deal of pain. The mother looks very annoyed and angry. Several times she marches to the desk and demands to be seen, but is told the ER is busy and she will have to wait. Mother curses, then flounces back to her seat, her screaming baby girl still in her arms. The baby continues to scream without any sign of letup.
People are talking amongst themselves and pointing. I hope they call her name soon.
Wait time: 20 LONG minutes, for the Mama, baby and us in the waiting room.
A disheveled middle-aged man sits in a chair, drumming his fingers, which are stained from years of heavy smoking, and bounces his legs in a rapid, syncopated manner. He is awaiting news on his wife, who had been rushed here by ambulance. Apparently, the man's son had found the woman lying unconscious and unresponsive on the kitchen floor. Scared, the son called for the paramedics, then notified his father. This happened only a few hours before. Tears pool in his eyes, then spill down his cheeks as he fears the worst for his wife. His son sits next to him, clenching his jaw.
Suddenly, the pneumatic ER doors swish open as a man carrying a limp child in his arms bursts in. The man is screaming for somebody to assst him and to help his boy. The desk clerk gets up and calls for a nurse; the nurse quickly takes the child back into the bowels of the ER, where all the action is.
The man starts to follow, but is told he has to wait. He sinks into an empty chair and cries. A woman sitting nearby comes over to the man and offers him a tissue and words of comfort, to try to ease his anguish. He is beside himself., terribly frightened for his little boy, who is only two years old. He tells the woman the child's name is Joshiah. The man wants nothing more than for Joshiah to be okay.
An elderly man sits by the television set, watching the latest severe weather information. (The area is currently under a tornado watch until 11:00 p.m. The air is certainly primed for storms. The bad weather could last well into the night.) He is well into his eighties and tells me he is a widower. He came here, not because he is sick, but to wait out the weather. He lives in a tiny, older model mobile home with his handicapped daughter, and feels safer here. His daughter snoozes on a couple of chairs. He comes here because 'There are more walls between him and all the chaos outside."
The ER staff knows him. A man dressed in scrubs comes out to get a snack from the vending machine, sees Billy, and gives a wave, asks Billy if he or his daughter want anything. Billy orders a coffee.
Another man sits by the TV as well, also watching the weather conditions as they develop. Supercell storms are forming to the west of the area and they look as if they mean business.
He is holding the hands of a woman (his wife, he tells me) who is sitting in a wheelchair, gasping for every breath. The woman is large. Very large. It's safe to say she's morbidly obese. The oxygen she is wearning does little to relieve her suffering. Her head is thrown back as she loudly gasps for precious air. The man is hoping his wife can be seen soon; he is scared that she will suddenly collapse and die, right there in the middle of the emergency room. Ah, good. They call her name. Wait time: two minutes. (Bet it seemed longer to him.)
A very rough-looking drunk gentleman reeking of booze, grime, and dirt, sits propped up in a corner chair, snoring so loudly he can be heard halfway across the waiting room. A little girl sidles up to him, sniffs him, and, in a very loud, high, piping voice, announces that "he STINKS like a piggy." Chuckles break out from several directions; the child's mother covers her face with her hands and wishes the floor could open up and swallow her whole. Her daughter is only three years old; she is not known for tact. The man continues to snore, unabated, unaware of everything going on around him or what the little girl said.
A woman in her twenties barges in, pushing a wheelchair. In the wheelchair sits another woman of roughly the same age. The woman in the wheelchair is grunting loudly and uncontrollably flailing her arms and legs. Seizure? Looks like one.
The woman pushing the wheelchair screams: "SEIZURE!! I need help, please!" The clerk gets a male nurse to take them back to the treatment area.
The excitement aside, I notice two middle-aged sisters? Mother-daughter? Twins?? sitting in a corner of the ER, reading magazines and talking softly among themselves. They strongly resemble one another. One is heavier than the other and has short, wavy hair and wears glasses. The other woman is chubby as well, but has long hair tied back in a pony tail and wears a headband that has a flower perched on the side of it. She wears glasses as well.
Both are disabled: one walks with a cane; the other, with forearm crutches. The shorter haired one glances at the television screen and listens to a little radio; both are discussing the weather and other things.
They tell me that they come to the hospital to "wait out the weather:" the apartment complex where they live was hit by a tornado back in January of 1996. The shorter haired one tells me they lost the roof in that one. They have a shared fear of storms, life long, they say. It's only gotten worse since moving here, first one, then the other. The one with long hair tells me that her twin (ha! I was right!!) joined the military to travel, but never left Texas and has been here nearly 30 years. "I've been here 14 long years," she says. They'd been apart for 17 years, and the older one (short hair) moved her twin down here to be with her, so they could be together.
They share a very close and loving relationship with one another. It's obvious.
A gentlemen wearing sagging jeans, oversized tank top, and a backwards facing ball cap comes in, holding his arm. He is accompanied by three other similarly dressed individuals, who are cutting up and cracking jokes about the one's supposed basketball skills. The first one tells the others where to go and how to get there. They raid the vending machines, dumping quarter after quarter, getting enough snacks and soda to supply the whole waiting room. Wait time: 22 minutes.
A doctor wearing a white lab coat and a purple stethoscope walks over to the man whose wife had been brought in and calmly but efficiently tells him that his wife, regrettably, has died; there was nothing that could be done to save her.
The man emits a loud moan and bursts into tears. The doctor offers words of sympathy and comfort, but it does little to ebb the man's grief; people look at him with glances of sympathy and empathy as he sobs into his hands and moans the woman's name over and over. The son holds his father in his arms and cries right along with him.
As far as the wait times, they're not as bad or as long as I feared they would be. You know, you hear all the stories ... obviously quicker if the situation is urgent. Not bad for a busy Friday afternoon. It will probably get worse the longer the day wears on. The bad weather will bring even more people here, and it's the weekend.
Back to observing ... the desk clerk told me that if things slow down later, she might let me observe things inside of the ER.
~End of part one.~