At about 3:20 on Tuesday morning, the phone rang, and then rang and rang, piercing the silence and finally my sleep which was much deeper than usual. An unfortunate stroke of good fortune—my deep sleep, that is—because it took me a while to emerge from it.
This wasn’t a problem for my ever-vigilant husband who snapped into alertness and rushed to the ringing phone (we don’t keep one in our bedroom). I heard him speaking quietly and heard the seriousness in his voice.
He came back to our room and said, in French: “It’s your mum. She’s had a heart attack and there’s blood everywhere.”
His words exploded the quiet of night. But it still took too long for me to activate—precious, dangerous minutes for me to become fully coherent and functional. Mostly, as I struggled to get dressed and clear my head, all I could say was oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…Imagining terrible things. Unable to reconcile the cardiac event with the blood—why the blood?
Because my mum lives so close by, we were there in a flash. It was a terrible time of transition and my husband drove too fast and not fast enough. With our own key to her house, we let ourselves in and there she was, lying on the sofa covered in a blanket, her bloody head on a smeared pillow.
Waiting for help.
This narrative ends well. I’ve no desire to build suspense. My mum had passed out twice. Falling to the ground in her kitchen, she’d hurt her face and ribs. She then made it to the bathroom and tried to wash the blood from her nose, her face, her hair—she’d lain in it. The second time she lost consciousness, the water was still running in the bathroom sink and soon spilled onto the floor around her.
Blood and water.
She woke up again and thought to turn off the tap, got herself to the sofa and waited till… (I can’t finish this: I can’t explain her reticence to call us asap).
And then she phoned us.
There was an ambulance and paramedics. Two women working in tandem like they’d always been a team, with very few words—spoken with equanimity—probing, observing, evaluating. And my mum answered every question with perfect lucidity. Out came the spinal board, the cervical collar and a long, narrow, dark oval wrapper that enveloped my mum like a giant synthetic canoe.
My husband and I reached the hospital before they did. He went to park the car and I walked into EMERGENCY. It was a weirdly dissonant, anticlimactic moment. Except for a security guard behind glass in his booth off in a corner, the emergency waiting room was empty. I’ve never seen this before and don’t expect to ever see it again. Stranger than fiction. There was an aura of calm after a storm. I was thrown by the sudden deceleration.
The ambulance arrived without fuss, or flash, or drama. My mum was unloaded right in front of me. The medical baton passed from the emergency medical technicians to the nurses, one woman and two men, all working the last few hours of their night shift.
I stayed close, then was sent to an out-of-the-way corner to sit quietly, and then allowed back to be with my mum. All permissible because it was so quiet everywhere in triage. Pumped up on adrenaline, my husband just couldn’t sit still and so he was released to go back home and try to sleep.
My mum and I had now entered the stall zone, an area of time existing only in hospitals, which probably feels like an endless succession of shifts to the medical personnel, but is a state of static, passive half-life to patients and those who love them.
With her preliminary examinations and tests done, my mum and I moved to spot 15, one space from the window at the far end of the Emergency ward and right next to where I had spent several scary hours at my husband’s side along with my sons, in December 2012, after he suffered a serious, amnesia-inducing concussion.
Being in Emergency stirs up all of those past memories—layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue: a child’s badly broken arm, a slashed eyelid, a gashed finger, a scary virus and more. Long days, long waits and feelings of helplessness.
Enough time had passed so that the ward had filled up again. When we’d first arrived, my husband had read on a monitor mounted on the wall that Emergency had operated at 211% of its capacity the previous day and into the night.
During the twelve hours that my mum and I were there together, I came and went, getting tea, getting food, walking through the rows and rows of people on stretchers as I exited and returned, realizing that my mum had lucked out, that she was in fact in a sweet spot in the ward. Because by midday, there were patients everywhere, filling not only the small spaces defined by curtains, but what remained in the aisles between them.
Whether patients or loved ones, we all shared the same sense of unease. Emergency is a terrible place to be and while we’re there, we’re trapped—by our injuries, by disease, by the ties that bind us.
Emergency is the ground zero of health care and government bureaucracy, and everyone who enters knows this and feels the first tingle of fear. It’s a place of serious and possibly critical illness, trauma and pain. Sometimes, it’s just the first part of a long and harrowing passage toward death.
Every new person on a stretcher who gets wheeled into its corridors pushes every other patient that much closer to the indignity of anonymous suffering. Of being overlooked. Of being left alone for hours, exposed and vulnerable.
It’s a place where discretion and compassion must constantly be exercised. Women and men leave decades of conditioning behind and suffer constant assaults to their sense of personal modesty within view and earshot and smell of each other. Bodies are not beautiful in Emergency.
While I was there with my mum, I was struck by the number of older men who’d been admitted, having been fitted with oxygens masks or else tubes in their noses; many with COPD, diabetes, failing kidneys. Some with concerned and tired-looking wives by their side but too many, alone.
Such solitude is unimaginable to me.
My mother didn’t have a heart attack on Tuesday. For want of a better explanation, the most likely reason for the two periods of unconsciousness she experienced was a vasovagal reaction to a bacterial or viral infection. As her condition improved and my focus was able to shift a little, I abandoned discretion and began looking at faces. When you look closely enough, you can see the invisible walls that some have built around themselves with the intention, I think, of containing the scale of misery and worry they have to endure. It looked to me like most of the time, the wall builder was the companion, not the patient.
On most faces, you can read tension, fatigue, worry, restlessness and fear. Sometimes, submission. Sometimes, combativeness.
As I came and went and even as I stayed by my mum’s side, I decided to make eye contact and smile at people. That’s how I met 89-year-old Mr. Pilkington, his wife and youngest daughter, and that’s how I met the tiny, mischievous Italian woman who immediately took to calling me la bella signorina every time she stopped by on one her short and restless walking tours.
My mum was badly shaken, but has bounced back. She’s such a marvel. I didn’t realize how affected I was by it all until the following day, when it was all I could do not to cry when my thoughts slid just slightly sideways to her and how close she’d come. I was so tired.
Emergency is a reminder that our daily wellbeing is built on clouds and can be undone by something as simple as a night-time walk to the kitchen for something to settle your stomach.
It’s a place full of dangers, the very worst of which, in the tumult of medical care, may be the breakdown of human solidarity.