by Stacia Friedman

No one likes going to the Emergency Room. It generally means that the day isn’t exactly going your way. For interminable hours, you’ll thumb through back issues of Yachting World magazine in a room full of people seething with anxiety, micro-organisms and resentment. If you ever wondered what magic words will allow you to jump ahead in line, past the six-year-old with an action figure stuck up his nose, the guy with the steak knife protruding from his forehead and the woman going into labor with triplets, here they are: “Chest Pains.”

That was what I said to the receptionist in the Chestnut Hill Hospital ER on an otherwise lovely Friday night. I was whisked so quickly into a private room that you would’ve thought I had said, “Ebola.” Suddenly, the entire cast of Grey’s Anatomy was hooking me up to machines that beeped and booped.

I felt like an imposter, as McDreamy and his assistants fired questions at me. History of heart disease? No. Blood pressure? Reptilian. How long did the pains last? Five minutes. This is a mistake, I thought. I should be home indulging in the guilty pleasure of watching “Dateline,” the series through which we women of a certain age vicariously murder our spouses. After all, that pain in my chest may have been indigestion. (Eat a meatball grinder; pay the price.)

After an hour or two of tests, I received good news and bad news.“We can’t find anything wrong,” said Dr. McDreamy, “but we want to keep you here overnight just to be sure.”

Um, thanks very much, but I’ll take what’s behind door number two. See, I hadn’t wanted to go to the ER. It was my boyfriend’s idea. Better safe than sorry. But OVERNIGHT? No way. The last time I spent a night at a hospital, I was 9 and woke up without tonsils. Who knows what would be missing now? I was ready to bolt. But my boyfriend, who is good with numbers, informed me that if I left the hospital before they were ready to release me, the entire ER tab would be on me!

It was already midnight. I figured I’d take an Ambien and wake up to breakfast in bed. But not before a nurse wheeled in a contraption that looked like R2D2 and asked the same questions I had answered when I arrived. I decided to take liberties. How often do you drink alcohol? “On days with a Y in them,” I said. Do you smoke? “Only marijuana.” The nurse did not smile. Have you ever felt suicidal? “Not until now.”

I was wheeled into a hospital room with two beds, both empty. Thank God. Except now it was one o’clock in the morning and the hospital staff had no intention of letting me sleep. Every other hour someone entered my room to draw blood, cover my body with Post-its or torment me in other nefarious ways. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really read the sheaf of papers I signed in the ER. Had I willed my body to Science? Apparently so!

At 3 a.m., another patient was wheeled into the room and deposited on the other side of a flimsy curtain. From her deep groans, I knew what was going on. Torquemada had her on the rack! “I want to go home,” she cried. Me too, Sister.

At 4 a.m., they came for blood. Again! At 8 a.m., they gave me a heart ultra-sound. It consisted of an athletic young woman pressing down HARD on my ribcage with a metallic wand for 20 minutes. When my ribs failed to crack, she unplugged the machine and walked away disappointed. A half-hour later, my long-awaited breakfast appeared on a plastic tray. Judging by the icy scrambled eggs and cardboard French Toast, the hospital chef must’ve been fired from Denny’s. The coffee tasted as if it was brewed during the Carter Administration. Even the banana was suspect.

Mercifully, my pert primary care physician appeared at 9 a.m. and, after much groveling and pleading on my part, agreed to let me leave the hospital before another team of nurses arrived to squeeze the last drop of blood from my body.

“Well, we can’t find anything wrong, but you’ll have to see the cardiologist and get a stress test in the next two weeks,” my doctor said.

I nodded but knew in my heart, which I had just viewed in all its Technicolor glory on the Ultra-Sound screen, that I had just passed the only stress test I would ever take. If they want me, they’ll have to find me. But for now, I’ve got to catch up on “Dateline.”

Stacia Friedman is a Mt. Airy resident, humorist and freelance writer. In her novels, “Tender is the Brisket” and “Nothing Toulouse,” she hones in on women writers who are, in her description, “on their way up, down and sideways.”

  • rozwarren

    Glad your heart is okay… but I almost died laughing reading this.

  • wbramh

    Very funny and well-written… and an experience many of us can relate to.

  • Jane Laurel Brydon

    Great article. Totally enjoyed it.

  • Suzanne Fluhr

    Been there. Done that. Ugh.

  • Angela Rapalyea

    Just to balance things out, I will share a terrific experience at Chestnut Hill. I was rushed to the hospital a summer ago with indescribable exhaustion and very strange and awful blood work, hovering somewhere near 1. It was a very hot August day and I had been reading and passing out from exhaustion on the living room couch in progressively longer, and worse periods, for over a month. Waking up in sweat-soaked clothes, I blamed the air conditioning, but couldn’t understand why walking upstairs was so terribly tiring. Having miraculously driven myself back from having blood taken, I couldn’t manage walking the 10 or so steps to the back door and so decided to ‘rest a while.’ Richard came out to find me in a self-locking car, windows rolled up, and passed out. I awoke to him pounding on the door to get me out, and escorting me into the kitchen. I stumbled coming up the 3 back steps and couldn’t tell him my birthday. So we flew over to the hospital.

    My partner said to the orderly, as he lowered me into a wheelchair on the sidewalk, “I think she’s had a stroke–she’s unresponsive.” Brilliant, my doctor said later. They rushed me back to Exam Room 4 where I received the obligatory, fashion-forward Gown, answered all the questions, except what year it was…I came up with 2000 and 2002, realizing both were wrong, but like a pocketbook that has no pockets and is too deep, my mind could not reach down far enough to grasp the correct answer. After several doctors looked at me, a kind Nurse Michael brought me a sandwich lunchbox since I hadn’t eaten in–I couldn’t remember when. At each change of shift, departing nurses came in to say goodbye and to introduce their replacements. If only they could figure out what was wrong with me! Richard sat there all day trying to look cheerful but was terrified.

    After obligatory tests, which apparently came back in an alarming state, all the nurses and doctors now entered my room wearing masks–to protect me from their germs, my immune system demanding protection, they said.

    At midnight I was wheeled up to the ICU, where I was greeted by some species of unlooked-for ANGEL/nurse. A middle-aged man wearing a little knitted hat gently assisted me into the bed and hooked me up to all the monitors. He spoke softly, with just a trace of a foreign accent, and let me know that, no matter what, I would be just fine, and that, no matter what I needed, I should just call for him and he would find it for me. And he did. Telling me what I needed to know but not bombing me with too much techno-babble, he explained everything that was being done and why.

    This wonderful male nurse sat just outside my full-length window ALL NIGHT. Not across the hall at the nurses’ station, but about 5 feet away outside my door. I know because I kept waking up and seeing him there. The nurse-call buzzer thingy had escaped down inside the outer side rails of the bed and I couldn’t reach it to call him. I tried to remember his name…”Sellay,” and like Superman, he materialized instantly by my bed. Whatever it is I thought I needed, he found. Instead of an extra pillow, he managed to find me 3!!! from where I didn’t ask. It took him some time, and he was justifiably proud. He was quick to bring me little bits of food and praised me for eating, saying I was getting better already.

    The next day he checked in with me again and quietly, unobtrusively, interviewed me, asking me pertinent details of my life and earlier years. After I had told him I’d quit smoking in 1975 when I was in a particular apartment, he concluded, “Well, there is nothing at all wrong with your mind…you know everything you need to. That’s one of the jobs of nurses–to connect mentally with their patients.” I know he had one other patient to attend to but never found him missing when I needed him. Exceedingly respectfully, he explained that he would be giving me a sponge bath and did so with aplomb. He handled me like fine china. When did he eat? At quiet moments, little bits of cracker and grapes, outside my window.

    We discussed the exquisite poet Rumi, reincarnation, the journeys of the soul, and other metaphysical topics. I asked him how long he’d been a nurse. He thought a minute and said something like 25 years. Personally I think it was 25 centuries…surely he wasn’t from the earth plane! All along the way he reminded me that I would absolutely get well and forbade me to worry.

    Finally, several hours beyond quitting time, he shouldered his backpack and came in to say goodbye. (He had wanted to make sure the incoming nurse was fully briefed on my situation and needs.) I was crushed that i wouldn’t have him with me for the 2nd night and resolved to write One of My Letters, as an old friend likes to say. They are always well received and effective. I did it and also had a long chat with the woman in charge of the ICU, praising his saintly attention and asking about him. She didn’t know him well, thought he was newly arrived, and couldn’t think where he had come from. I smiled my best pussycat smile and said I thought I had it figured out.

    My 2nd night nurse came from another region of Heaven. Vivian was another Gift from Above and took great care of me, with Uber-efficiency.. I pity the germ she finds and corners, or any nurse not operating at optimum level! She left no administrative detail to chance, crossing the hall to the nurses’ station to make sure everything was done on my behalf in a complete and professional manner. We quickly recognized each other as ‘family members’ and ended up showing each other our Kitty Photos on our phones. She was mentioned in my Letter too. And, like Sellay, she stayed with me until the last possible minute as I was transferred to the 4th floor. When an overzealous and slightly mendacious Blood Guy vultured over me, eager to do a bone marrow biopsy, he said off-handedly, ‘Don’t worry, it’s no more troublesome than a bee-sting.” she waited until I had asked him to leave and then hissed, “That man lied to you–don’t believe it–it’s very painful and you need to be sedated.” I was surrounded by protectors!!

    My life was also saved by a doctor called in as an Infectious Disease specialist, since my atrocious blood results were so puzzling. He went downstairs to actually LOOK AT the blood sample slides, something he told me few doctors do nowadays. Triumphantly, he exclaimed into his cell phone to one of my medical team, like a boy finding a train under the tree on Christmas morning, “It’s Babesiosis!!!!” You’d think he’d won a prize. This very sneaky and not well-known tick-borne illness was the root cause of my troubles, and now he knew exactly how to cure me,

    My nurses on the 4th floor were all fantastic and went into The Letter too. So, people, do not worry that all hospital experiences will be cosmetically awful…