Watson, our cat, is walking around the house, making his morning announcements. I pry my eyes open, and see that there is the faintest hint of soft, grey light pushing itself against the edges of our bedroom shades.
I don’t feel too tired, surprisingly, and I lie in bed while I decide if I’m going to just go ahead and get up. I have a commitment in the evening, and I’ll probably be really wiped out by the time it’s over, but on the other hand, I won’t be struggling to fall asleep before midnight … unless my brain pulls the same bullshit it’s been pulling for weeks.
The next thing I know, the sun is blazing through the windows and I can hear Anne. She doesn’t sound good. She’s breathing heavily and making sounds like she’s in pain. So I get out of bed, and I’m in the other room before I’m fully awake. She’s clutching her side and writhing in pain.
“Something’s wrong,” she says. “I need you to take me to the emergency room.”
That’s all it takes for my brain to throw off any lingering sleepiness. Before I realize it, I’m dressed and ready to leave. We drive to the emergency room, and she’s in so much pain now that she can’t stand up. She tells me that her hands are getting numb and she feels like she’s going to pass out. The ER receptionist doesn’t seem to think any of this is serious, and barks at me to sit down and wait.
I know that everyone who comes into the ER is certain that they have the worst thing that’s ever happened, and I know that it gets tiring for the receptionist. I also believe that if you can’t be compassionate and patient, maybe it’s not the best job for you to have. I also know that there’s no point in having an argument right now, and my energy is better spent trying to help my increasingly panicking wife.
So another hospital guy comes over and asks what’s going on. I tell him, and he calmly listens. He tells Anne that she’s going to be okay, and he’ll get her into triage as quickly as possible.
There, I think, that wasn’t so hard.
Time takes on the strange malleability that comes with intense stress. It slows down and speeds up and doesn’t seem to move at the fixed rate I’ve come to expect from a lifetime of existence. After some amount of time that isn’t as long as I think it is, but not fast enough for me, we are in triage. The nurse is gentle and compassionate. She asks Anne lots of questions while I sit quietly and try to stay out of the way. They take her vitals. She has no fever, but her pulse is as high as you’d expect.
We are moved into a room, and they put her in a bed. She’s crying harder than I’ve seen in over twenty years together. I remember the last time we were in this ER, our roles reversed. I vaguely recall that Anne remained calm, and it helped me, so I do my best to do the same.
A nurse puts a needle into her arm and draws blood. Another nurse comes in and puts some morphine into her. It doesn’t help, so they give her more. That helps a little bit, but it’s still not enough. They can’t do anything else until a doctor gives the okay, and someone has just come into the ER who is in a more life-threatening situation, so we wait.
More time passes, and a doctor comes in. He gives her all the same tests she’s already been given. She continues to endure the worst pain I’ve ever witnessed in our twenty-plus years together. “This is worse than both times I gave birth,” she says, trying to make a joke to the doctor, but the clear agony in her voice claws at my heart. She’s suffering and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Finally, the doctor orders some more morphine, and now time becomes very clear because I count each of the twenty-seven minutes she waits until someone brings it in for her. I know that she isn’t in life-threatening danger, and we both know that the ER is very busy, but our emotional brains and our rational brains are experiencing that knowledge in very different ways.
She gets another push of morphine. The nurse tells us that once the morphine starts to work, they’re going to get a urine sample and then do a CT scan. Another twenty minutes goes by, because everything happens in twenty minute increments when you’re in pain but not in danger. They take her to get a CT scan, and I walk out to find something to eat.
It’s a beautiful day. It’s one of the most beautiful days we’ve had in a long time, sunny but not too hot. We had planned to spend it working in the patio garden, and building a window box for our front porch that will get filled with sunflowers. I walk up the street and into a cafe, where I get a coffee and a sandwich. A lady behind me is impatient. She has the voice and body language of someone whose experience at the hospital is not as routine as ours is. I pay as fast as I can so I can get out of her way, and I silently wish her well. I get my sandwich and my coffee. Neither is as good as what I’d make at home, but I don’t complain. I remember the lady behind me, the people in the ER who have sick babies, the woman the ambulance brought in who had a stroke, and doesn’t know her name or where she is. Her adult daughter, who is more tired and sad than worried.
I finish my sandwich on my way back to Anne’s room. She isn’t there when I sit down. I open my phone and start reading a book I’ve been wanting to read. Another twenty minutes goes by and they bring her back in. The meds are working, and she has her humor back. She isn’t as pale. She looks like my wife again. We wait for an hour (three blocks of twenty minutes) for the test results. Patients fill up the hallway, and we’re grateful that we have a room with just one bed in it. A woman in the room next to us can’t stop throwing up. Someone at the nurse’s station has an alert on their phone that sounds like the Hanna-Barbera running in place effect when they get an alert, and they seem to be getting one about every thirty seconds or so. A nursery rhyme tune plays in all the overhead speakers, because someone has just given birth. I email the people I’m supposed to be working with in three hours and tell them I have to cancel because I’m spending the entire day in the emergency room.
Anne drifts in and out of sleep, and I read until my battery dies. The doctor comes in and tells her that there isn’t anything on the CT scan, or the MRI, and that her blood and urine are all clear and normal. She’s presenting all the symptoms of someone who has a kidney stone, but they can’t find anything in her tests to confirm it. Apparently, this happens in thirty percent of cases. That seems like a lot of percent, I say. The doctor is not amused. I shut up and try to disappear again.
They give her more pain meds because we’ve been there so long, the first two doses are wearing off. We have to wait another hour, and then we can go home. I get my notebook out and break a story that I’ve been thinking about for awhile. I get up and walk around a little bit. I begin to worry about my wife, because she’s clearly having a problem, clearly in distress, clearly in all kinds of pain, and the doctors and nurses can’t tell us, definitively, why. I decide that she’s suffering because of a small dwarf, or spirit, living in her stomach. I am not amused. I get a brain zap, and realize that I forgot to take my antidepressants before we left, and I have just about ninety minutes (twenty times four plus half of twenty minutes) before the dizziness, nausea, and other fun withdrawal starts. I don’t tell this to Anne, because she doesn’t need another thing to worry about.
An hour later, we get ourselves together so we can leave. A lady I haven’t seen before wheels in a computer and tells us we have a co-payment. She’s friendly, but all business, very different from the rest of the staff. I pay her. She gives me a receipt and I tuck it into a folder that we’re to take to our doctor within three days if Anne doesn’t improve. Neither of us knows that we’ll be at the doctor in less than 24 hours, because she won’t be better.
Anne leans on me as we walk out of the room. I’m ready to get home, eat some real food, and take my brain pills. Sounds are starting to feel louder than they are, like they’re echoing down long metal tubes. I’m going to have a headache soon. In the next room over, the vomiting lady is asleep, the stroke lady is holding her daughter’s hand. Down the all, a little boy who broke his arm is looking at his cast over tear-stained cheeks. A guy about my age who looks beaten up is in a gurney near the end of the hallway. There are two cops standing next to his bed. “I think I’m going to throw up,” Anne says. I try to find her a barf bag, give up, and ask a nurse for help.
The nurse brings her a bag, and Anne sits down in a wheelchair that is luckily next to her. The nurse is kind. She gets Anne some medication that helps with nausea. She doesn’t vomit. We both thank her, and I wheel Anne out into the parking lot. The sun is on its way down the western sky, the hospital casts a long shadow over the parking lot. I help Anne into the car and take the wheelchair back to the entrance, where an orderly takes it from me.
We get home. The dogs are on alert when we walk into the house. They can tell that something’s wrong with their Alpha Female. The sniff at her, follow her back to our bedroom, lie down at the foot of our bed when she gets into it. They don’t move until it’s time for them to eat, later, and then they go right back to where they were.
I am grateful to be home, and remind myself that we didn’t have it nearly as bad as some of the people around us today … but the worry that something more serious is going on with the most important person in my life, something that I can’t do anything about, something that I can’t identify … that worry begins to really flare up. It will continue — is happening right now, 36 hours later — and there’s nothing I can do about it but hope for the best. I take my pills, and twenty minutes later my brain is more or less back to what passes for normal in my skull. I go to the pharmacy and fill her prescriptions. I get her some soup. I come home. I make myself a basic dinner and give her canned soup because that’s what she wants when she doesn’t feel well.
I eat my food, and try to watch TV, but I can’t really focus on much of anything. I try to read more of the book I started, but I realize that I’ve gone through several pages without paying attention. I tap around on a mobile game until midnight. I wake Anne up to give her more pain pills, and then I go to sleep, myself.
It is 9am, and she’s in bad shape. We call the doctor for a 1045 appointment, which I cancel at 10 when she can’t get out of bed because she hurts so much. I finally take her at 2pm, and the doctor tells us the same thing the ER doctor told us: he doesn’t know what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to be more serious than a kidney stone. All she can do is manage the pain and wait for the stone to pass, if that’s actually what it is. Here’s a pile of pills to try. Good luck. I am not satisfied, and want to know more, but he doesn’t have any more answers. At least he doesn’t seem concerned, so I do my best to put my trust in his professional knowledge. It doesn’t work as completely as I hope, sort of like the meds they’ve been giving Anne.
I take her home, go and fill more prescriptions, and give her more pills when I return, hoping one of them will work.
The twenty minutes I wait to find out if she’s feeling any relief seems to stretch out forever, so I sit down and write out the last 36 or so hours, because that’s how I process things.