E.R.: Life Abbreviated

They rushed her in quickly. I can’t remember who it was that informed the doctors that she had arrived. It was probably an EMT, one of the ones who pushed her stretcher through, bypassing the triage station in search of the empty room.

Suddenly everyone was moving.

I stood where I was, at the table next to my mentor Dr. L. She wasn’t Dr. L’s next patient. This was Dr. N’s patient, so I stood at the opposite end of the emergency room, peeking across the desks and people, trying to get a look into the room. After all I was just a shadow, a silly college freshman, whose two semesters of biology meant absolutely nothing to a dying patient. I stood where I was.

“You’re going to want to go see this,” Dr. L swiveled his chair and faced me. “They just brought a women in with a brain aneurysm.” He got up and began to move.

My body was walking briskly, trying to keep up with Dr. L’s quick pace, ignoring my mind’s plea to slow down.  I just wanted to respect my distance, respect her space.

My feet felt heavy as I walked to the room, standing just outside the open curtain, aware of where the hallway ended and the room began, afraid to take even one step across the barrier into her territory. They left the curtains open at first, in their haste to get her in and hooked up. I don’t remember when they closed the curtain but I know that I had found my way inside with Doctor N and a team of nurses.

The doctor intubated.

The nurses cut the clothes.

Layer by layer they stripped her. Blouse, skirt, stockings, bra, underwear, naked. In just seconds she had gone from person to patient.

Her wispy blonde hair fanned out above the table, a stark contrast to the dark pubic curls that were suddenly visible. She had pubic hair, and breasts. The most private parts of her body exposed. She didn’t even know she was naked, bare in front of all of these people who were covered from head to toe in scrubs and white coats.

The doctor intubated her. The nurses cut her clothes. The paramedics emptied her purse. They stood slightly outside the room, one of them dumped the bag on the floor, and then they both began sifting, mining through the contents of her life. Ignoring anything that wasn’t important in figuring out her identity.

Identity is a strange word. I never knew how many different meanings it could have until I watched them search for hers. To the paramedics, her identity was tucked away in her wallet; her driver’s license, insurance card, cell phone. But to me they had simply scratched the surface of her life. Sure they knew she was a female woman in her fifties, who was found by her coworkers in the bathroom of her office, covered in her own vomit, completely unresponsive. They knew what type of insurance she had and the year she was born.

Perhaps it is because I am a female, that to me, a woman’s purse is a gateway to her life. The brand and color of lipstick she carries, the store credit cards she has signed up for, the dirty tissues she forgets are at the bottom of the bag, that hold the history of past colds, tears, winter wet eyes. The picture she may have tucked away in her wallet, the lists she scribbled on old receipts. Those are the details that matter. But I guess they only matter when you are a person who breathes without help from a machine and cries at the touch of pain. When you are a victim of a brain aneurysm, your life is summed up in one small bracelet they tie around your wrist.

But even that is somewhat meaningless. Only remembered for a brief period of time. In the emergency room basic information is easily forgotten. Even I couldn’t tell you her name. I wonder if I ever even knew it. She was and still is a patient. The woman with the brain aneurysm in room 10.

She lay on the table in the emergency room, hooked up to machines, dependent on the nurse who pumped air into her lungs with nothing but her hands, waiting for the result of the cat scan they had just performed. Well, she wasn’t waiting. But everyone else was curious of the extent of the bleed. Most of the people had cleared the room, including Dr. N. and me. We went back to the desk, where Dr. L. sat inputting the data of the patients he had seen in the interim. It was strange, that he had gone so quickly to his own patients, just a few rooms away, while I had stood watching a woman deteriorate.

 

“They have to drain her head.” Dr. L explained to me. “Normally, they would take her upstairs to an OR and the surgery team would work there, but she doesn’t have a lot of time, so they’re going to have to do it down here. In the ER.” The way he said it made me realize that it must have been rare for surgeons to come downstairs to the ER to perform a procedure.

“You are definitely going to want to see this.” He lead me back to the room where a team of surgical residents stood huddled around the bed, trying to be as close to her head as possible.

They all stood in blue scrubs, hair tied up in mesh like caps, mouths covered with masks. Dr. L gave me a mask and hat of my own.

I stood in the corner, in my street clothes, skirt, blouse, black flats, hospital mask, hair covering.

I was struck by how many women stood around the bed. The main neurosurgeon was a man. But the rest were almost, if not all, women. I expected there to be more men.

The neurosurgeon stood behind the patient, wearing a plastic mask, holding a tremendous drill. One resident squeezed the tube attached to the patient’s throat, carefully pumping oxygen into her system.

Then the surgeon began to drill. Calmly, he inserted, this tool, and began to crank, like he was screwing a nail into a shelf. He drilled a hole into her head. Nonchalant. Blood began to drain from her head and traveled through the thin tube that led to somewhere that wasn’t her body. I couldn’t see the hole they drilled, but I could see the motion of the drill going in and out. And I could see the blood flowing through the tube that was not her artery and not her vein. The surgeon calmly explained what he was doing, and the residents listened excitedly. I decided it was time to leave.

When I returned to the hospital the next week, everyone seemed to have forgotten her. I never officially learned her fate, although I didn’t need to be told. I knew. I felt it every time I passed the newly filled bed in room 10.

I still think about her sometimes. But, every time I see her she is naked. The image of her frail frame seared into my memory, immutable. I don’t know why, but for some reason, when she pops into my thoughts I need her to be a person. And so I try to place her somewhere appropriate. Imagine her changing in the JCC locker room, or sunbathing on a beach in Europe. She must have been confident in her own body, I tell myself. I’m sure she hated the way clothes felt on her soft skin.

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