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by Fred Wistow
It's 1:30 in the morning. I'm sitting in the waiting area just outside the emergency room.
A friend's inside. Terminally ill, with cancer, she's been bouncing in and out of the hospital for what feels like a thousand times now over the last few months. Tonight, a combination of respiratory and excretory dysfunctions has led to a sudden collapse and yet another panic-laden trip to the ER. The helplessness, the uncertainty, the ignorance and fear, the heartbreaking fragility of it all—hospitals are bad enough, but is there any place more filled with despair and anxiety than an emergency room in the middle of the night?
Yet, despite its name, the emergency room often seems, as it does tonight, a place where things move slowly, glacially, a land of limbo, characterized mostly by interminable waiting. As tests are being conducted off in a corner somewhere (or are they?), you wait. As results are being assembled (or are they?), you wait. Not wanting to alienate the caregivers by appearing to be too demanding, you control your almost uncontrollable longing for clarity and stifle your questions. And you wait. And, in stark contrast to your diffidence, medical personnel—for whom crisis is as commonplace as a bus ride and who are understandably, though nonetheless infuriatingly, matter-of-fact—seem almost intentionally blind to your concern. So you wait.
Time stretches on.
And you wait.
And your friend—catheterized, on oxygen, IV'd, semiconscious—does the same.
There's a limit on the permissible number who may wait by a patient's bedside, so that means some of us—me—have to do our waiting in the adjacent "waiting room."
I take a seat there.
And as I envision alternative outcomes for my friend and her family—not just for tonight, but, if she somehow manages to rebound, for however many more nights she may still have—my mind begins to drift, and I start to take in my surroundings.
The waiting room, I notice, is small. Crammed as it is with chairs much too large for the space, it feels even smaller. And—what's this? there's more to the world than just my friend and her condition?—I'm not the only one here. About half the seats are occupied by the similarly discombobulated, their inner clocks and compasses thrown all off-kilter by where, at this ungodly hour, they find themselves. Numbing their spirits still further, fluorescent lights glare down, making the room look like a laboratory and the people in it so many lab specimens. Their inner calculations—what time they'll be getting home, the horrors and burdens they may soon have to bear, the what-if's, the if-only's—are almost palpable presences.