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Emergency Room: Contagion in Room 223

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

If... If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same...

They were lining up quickly. Some were dropped off by car, and others arrived alone. They lined up outside to make their way into the Emergency wing of my local hospital. They were all ages, all weights, and all colors. It was Sunday night. Evidently, the entire community gets sick on Sunday nights.

The harried, middle-aged, graying woman in charge of welcoming us did her best. Each individual’s health circumstance is unique and tonight we all think we’re in the midst of an emergency. If necessary, she points to others to hustle up a wheelchair or barf bag, then collects just enough personal information for the triage nurse to assess further. She smiles at us, quickly collects name and birthdate, finds us a wheelchair, and tells us they’ll call our name when it’s our turn. Even emergencies take a turn.

If you come in complaining of chest pain, shortness of breath, clutching your chest, all making you look like death warmed over, you are going to the front of the line as it should be. If a heart attack has just occurred or is about to, the ER is the best place to be.

But on that particular Sunday night, most visitors were there for other reasons. Those with pale skins looked pale. Having darker skin can make it tough to tell how crummy someone might feel. Sometimes, the eyes will give us a clue. Red puffy eyes know no prejudice. It's the same with gagging into a blue barf bag. A distinguished-looking old man with silver-white hair sat in the middle of the ER waiting room, gagging his poor guts out. Dozens of his fellow ER visitors would look up from our smartphones to see if he survived his last fit. So would the brown eyes of the triage nurse. But there were others in front of him. Poor guy.

A young couple, teenagers perhaps, sat in the corner sharing a chair intertwined like lovebirds. Who was the sick one? It must have been him. The way she was stroking his locks tenderly, looking into his bloodshot eyes- compassion on full display. Her love pecks would find his pale cheeks as she rubbed his back. If he was contagious, she appeared determined to get what he had. That’s what it means to be lovebirds- everything must be shared.

It is hard to know where to sit in an ER waiting room. The sneezing, wheezing, and coughing of nearly everyone convinces me that every seat is dripping with mucus and virus and maybe a fungus or two. I imagine mushrooms growing underneath. You soon feel you’re in the unsafest, most contaminated room in all the land. I look up and dern near see every pathogen known to man floating, swirling around to assume a new home well up my nose. Ominous drum beats rumble from the depths of my being as I plot my escape. It might even cause more than a few to reconsider the ‘emergency’ nature of their emergency. Maybe I should have stayed in bed or called my neighbor the veterinarian. She’d have some pill meant for a horse I might be able to swallow if broken in quarters.

But I am not the sick one. I am the transportation, the help mate, the hand holder, the source of unhelpful medical advice and opinion. I am here to render emotional assistance by any means necessary. To stand guard against the vultures of fear and apathy that circle humanity at its most vulnerable. I must stay strong as there is no turning back. Yet I grow weak. All I see is the mortal danger of sitting amongst the sickest of the sick because I made a vow many moons ago. “… and in sickness and in health.” Is that what this means?

But I was young and stupid -full of hubris and sick in love. Of course ‘I do.’ Sick? Waiting rooms? Doctors? The ‘C’ word? Ahh… will never happen in my lifetime.

I finally find a seat beside some snifflers but far from the old man clutching the blue bag. It was then that the public address system asked all available staff to respond to room 223 for a code. I see some running. It quiets the waiting room. Even the old man perks up to see if he can see anything. Perhaps he’s not the sickest man alive. Then the din resumes. Suddenly, the sick dude beside me grabs a blue bag and lets loose. I see a few of my fellow ER room dwellers pondering briefly the life that is apparently being fought in a room down the hall. I’m just trying not to breathe.

Maybe the lack of oxygen to the brain caused me to briefly hallucinate. I closed my eyes and imagined that the life on the edge in room 223 was pulled back to this side. The breathing side. I imagined that a dozen or so emergency room folks in the room did their magic with needles and medications and electrical pulses in a desperate attempt to restart a dead man’s life. The eyes opened, color returned to the skin, and a smile curled weakly. Naked. Helpless. Like a newborn.

Maybe it was the smile of the patient and the happy sobbing of the family that had stood frozen with fear on the periphery that caused the room to combust. Maybe it was a profound spiritual swelling from the release of the immense tension everyone in the room had just experienced. For some reason, an inexplicable force subdued all protocol, all semblance of professionalism, and caused the room to burst! You’ll find what happened next nearly unbelievable.

It was weeks later when the story made it to the local media. The front page article, 'The Miracle in Room 223,’ told of that Sunday evening. It told of the unbridled joy that erupted from room 223. It told of the two doors to the waiting room swinging open and releasing a pathogen of joy, hope, and optimism. Surrounded by nurses and doctors and family, they pushed the bed with the man who had died but lived still attached to gangly wheeled contraptions on which hung bags of liquid swinging precariously.

Harry was grinning ear to ear. He sat up as best he could as he was swung into the waiting room for all to see. For all to celebrate. Out of nowhere came balloons and sparklers and noise makers. Out of nowhere came Happy Birthday Harry signs. Soon, everyone was jumping up and down and cheering for joy. The staff high-fived and hugged each other and the sick. The noise was deafening. Even the old man with his blue barf bag in one hand was dancing a jig with it.

The ER erupted into a party. Spontaneously and with great joy, the crowd of well over a hundred folk broke out in ‘Happy Birthday.’ The sick, the pale, the red-eyed, the slim, the heavy, the heavers, the farm worker, and the love birds, in surprising harmony, sang ‘Happy Birthday Harry’ in two, maybe three languages over and over.

The writer found the doctor who had applied the electrical pulses with two paddles to the dead man’s heart. “While I’m pulsing Harry’s chest coaxing, wishing, demanding the heart to beat again, I always pray,” said the doc. “It’s always personal for me. I figure I can use all the help I can get. When the monitor indicated a heartbeat and the patient opened his eyes and gave us his smile, I don’t know why, but this inexplicable force settled on the room causing us to celebrate spontaneously. I can’t explain it. I guess it got out of hand. I promised the administration it wouldn’t happen again, but I don’t think I control things like that. It caused quite a scene. Truth be told- it was an amazing experience!”

Like any powerful contagion, the infected soon grew in numbers- quickly and exponentially. Throughout the hospital came nurses and orderlies and cleaning staff. The elevator door slid open and out poured shuffling besocked hospital patients. Some look bewildered but excited. Most held tight the back of their yellow hospital gowns, protecting their modesty. Some completely forgot in the excitement.

The party in the ER waiting room spilled into the parking lot. Nearly dark, the light from sparklers danced across the hospital brick. The crowd, led by some force other than mere human agendas, followed the sidewalk along the parking lot and down to the road. Sunday night drivers were treated to a spectacle they weren’t expecting. They slowed and soon smartphones were being held out of moving windows. Some honked in support of what appeared to be an uprising. But for what cause?

Nurses in blue garb amongst sick, sullen but joyful patients in flowing yellow gowns held up sparklers and sang loudly. Banners bobbed up and down, and on one was written “Harry Has Risen.” In the midst of this growing sea of humanity was a hospital bed with a beaming Harry.

A big bearded man stuck his head out the window as he slowly passed by and yelled “What is this anyway? You’all staging a walkout or sompin?”

“No,” answered a nurse. “It’s a celebration of life!”

Harry was also interviewed for the newspaper story. “How has this experience changed you?” he was asked. Looking down with a broad smile, “Oh my. Where do I start?”

“In a very real sense, I was dead. Not breathing and my heart had stopped. I should be six feet under now- food for worms. In another sense, equally as real, I was reborn. I know that sounds hyperbolic but let me explain.”

“In a literal heartbeat and the ones it missed, my world is completely different. What was once important to me no longer is. What was unimportant now is.”

Harry did his best to explain his changed ‘new’ life to a journalist who was skeptical. Unless you experience what Harry experienced or told you’ve been diagnosed with the ‘C’ word or an incurable disease, our mortality is seldom confronted- we’ve made it a forbidden dimension of our human condition. Have someone throw in their notions of what a miracle is or a belief in an afterlife, much of humanity will glaze over with discomfort. They haven’t died and been brought back. They haven’t met Harry.

There is so much more to this story, but I heard a name I recognize. It was our turn.

Have a great weekend!

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