Monday, October 13, 2014

In a public hospital emergency department, 3am

The cubicle is clean and off white, the floor speckled with grey mica. I'm half reclined in the bed, hospital gown and baby blue pyjama pants tucked under a thin woolen blanket, but it's not really cold, or at least I'm not feeling that way. I feel distrait - well, why else would I be here, at this witching hour? - but not cold, not that.

We're not long back from x-ray, where I wrapped my arms, lover-like, around a chest radiography machine and took deep breaths on command for the radiographer. My friend, who's brought me here, is sitting on the chair, as we exchange low-voiced remarks about family, mutual friends, my children, our work, our states of being, sickness, the heart-deep longing to be well. She's tired, I can see, but unflagging. I think to myself, greater love hath no one than this, that they should sit in an emergency cubicle all night for their friend.

I can hear various machines doing their pip-pip squeeeeeeal in the cubicles all around us. My own monitor, which is just an oxygen reader and a blood pressure cuff, is quiescient - everything is as it ought to be, no need for alarms. I am tired, but not sleepy - I'm well beyond that. My hands and legs hurt as great deal.

"I've been very good, and now I want to go outside and have a smoke. No, TWO smokes!" declaims a hoarse voice two cubicles down. "You need to come outside with me while I ..." Her voice trails off into a paroxsym of coughing that sounds like a lung is going to appear on the floor momentarily. I can't hear the nurse's soft-voiced reply, but we hear well enough her riposte: "I CAN'T stop smoking so forget about that. Anyway, I want to be discharged to home. I want to go home!"

Her voice is hectoring and aggressive, but as she marches, pink-dressing-gowned and dry-haired, past our cubicle, the nurse trailing at her heels, I can hear the fear and longing in it too, the desire to be away from this place, kind as it is, necessary as it is. In the nurses' central glass box, I see someone lift the phone and ask quietly for security to attend.

Somewhere, quite remote, a baby wails. It sounds as thin and high as a Siamese cat, and is quickly stilled.

A nurse is quizzing an older man on his pains. "Did it feel like squeezing? Or stabbing? Or -"

"Yes, yes," he says, his voice unutterably weary. "All those things. All those things".

"Well, I think you had better have an angiogram to be sure -"

We've left the cubicle curtain open, the better to accommodate my claustrophobia and to allow ourselves to feel part of the flow of this place. We've seen several patients come through - like animals to the Ark, they are almost all two by two, a patient and a carer. A young couple, holding hands, looking anxious, but no real way to tell which is the sick one. A woman with a badly bleeding hand, paced by a grim-looking middle aged man. An exhausted-looking woman of about my age, carrying a girl of maybe 6 or 7 who's croupy cough cuts the night.

"I think we shouldn't have come", I say. "I think -"

"We're here now," says my friend. "Let's see what the doctor says."

Like summoning a genie, Dr M appears - short, friendly, remarkably cheerful for a woman who's been dealing with the sick for the past umpteen hours. She talks to me, listens to my chest, and asks the nurse to run a quick ecg trace to ensure my heart is working as it should. (It is). Then she gently, matter-of-factly explains that I have had a severe panic attack; that it isn't my fault or my doing, and that they must always be checked out; that my lungs and heart are very healthy and that I may need to talk to my own doctor about what she is fairly confident is advanced treatment-worthy anxiety and depression, which may or may not co-exist with the CFS I may or may not have.

I am not surprised, or even upset. If anything, it's a relief, to give the dog a name.

As we gather our things and go, we pass an elderly lady sitting straight in the chair of her cubicle, hospital gown on, wispy scant hair feathered across her pink head. Her eyes are very dark brown, and look directly at me. I instruct my mouth to form a smile, and I see her lips move as she inclines her head gravely.

Later, drifting into exhausted sleep in my own bed, I think she might have told me that dawn was not far away.

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