If you read the headline on this column expecting a rant, please back up.
I spent 15 hours in Erlanger hospital's emergency room one day earlier this month, but I came away inspired, not angry or frustrated. I went in expecting awful and walked away in awe.
First, some context. I was there with a family member who was experiencing severe back pain. We spent most of those 15 hours — 9 a.m. to midnight — waiting for diagnostic testing about the source of the problem.
Once our mission was accomplished, we returned home and were in bed by the wee hours of the next morning. It was a long, draining day, but the experience also left some lasting impressions. Good ones.
Observing small dramas unfold in the ER waiting room was like watching a reality TV show. An urban ER is a microcosm of society, in all its diversity and chaos. In an ER, homelessness, mental illness and entitlement are all balled into a clinched fist.
On the other hand, pain and suffering are great levelers. In the ER, people who would seldom talk to one another in real life come together in close quarters seeking relief. And no one is turned away. This creates an almost heavenly undercurrent of kindness, which is modeled and encouraged by the doctors and nurses.
Honestly, I saw more Bible virtues on display in the ER that day than I've encountered in entire years walking around in everyday life.
Midway through the day, a man in a baseball cap sat down across from me in the waiting room.
"You don't have COVID do you?" he asked.
"Not as far as I know," I said.
"Good, I didn't take that shot," he said. "... You know they are saying now that people who took it are having all sorts of problems."
I held my tongue. Our family had a loved one die of COVID-19, but I knew that arguing with my new friend would be fruitless.
Later, a man with tattoos appeared, ranting, waving his arms and cursing about needing a drink. Nursing and security staff talked to him gently, almost like you would console a toddler having a tantrum. Soon, he was gone, but he would return a few hours later with more energy. He was met with more stoic kindness and eventually retreated into the night.
A non-English-speaking woman, her face filled with pain, sat quietly in a wheelchair while a man — maybe her husband — tended her infant child for hours. The baby only fretted for about three minutes all day. There was a family love bond there that was palpable. Meanwhile, my anti-vax friend amused himself by making funny faces to keep the baby smiling.
For hours, an older patient fumed that she was fed up with waiting to see a doctor and threatened to push her way through a locked door.
"Ma'am, you just have to wait your turn," a security officer said.
Later, the woman tried to leave the building while still tethered to an IV pole. Staff went outside to gently coax her back inside. Eventually, she settled down and even smiled a bit.
A grown woman with a teddy bear tried to engage others with news of her health issues. Some people talked to her, and some didn't, although the ER was clearly a place of social solace for her. She needed people to talk to, and some of the others in the waiting room sensed it, and obliged.
At points, people entered the ER clearly in emotional distress.
"God, please don't take my baby," a woman exclaimed as she entered the waiting room with hands on her head. A few steps later, she disappeared into a hallway.
A blind man sat alone with his hands folded over his lap.
"Can I take this to the trash for you?" another patient offered, picking up the remnants of his boxed lunch.
"Yes, please," he said, before falling silent again until his ride arrived.
You wonder what it takes to work at a place like this. All day and halfway through the night, I observed nurses and doctors showing deep reserves of patience — a virtue that otherwise seems to be leaking out of American life.
It was impossible to watch them without absorbing life lessons: Be patient. Help others. Open your eyes to people who are hurting, or lonely. And be especially kind to people who have lost the ability to regulate their emotions.
A couple of days later, I was talking to a new friend about my experience in the ER and she nodded knowingly. Before her husband died about 20 years ago of heart disease, she said, she took him to the Erlanger emergency room 150 times. It was no exaggeration; she has every visit written down in a journal. I tried to imagine her experiences, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the number — 150 ER visits.
Those of us who live lives of relative comfort have no idea what it is like to watch suffering in an unending loop.
If you are person of faith, please say a prayer of thanks today for our ER workers. If you are not a believer, please summon a grateful heart for them.
Emergency rooms are heaven's triage. Spend a day there and you will witness true virtue. Make 150 visits there and your heart will be changed. Spend a career there and you might just glimpse the divine.
Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645.