At each other’s mercy

It wasn’t what I had in mind. It’s never what anyone wants, friends kept telling me. Nobody wants to have to go to the hospital. And nobody wants to be taken to the ER.

But there I was, in the ER. It wasn’t so much that I was there—that was bad enough—it was the fact I was there again, yet again. This was the second time this year I was in the emergency room. I had already gone once in January, and I was really hoping I would make it through February without having to go. But no. I was right on track to meet last year’s record, when I went to the emergency room 13 times.

As I’ve said before, they should just reserve a bed for me (preferably in a private room). “Oh, yeah, that guy. Right over there.”

This trip lasted five hours. Only five hours. That was well short of the usual eight or ten hours. In January, I was there all night. Literally. And at least I didn’t end up staying at the hospital, as I did for a week in December and three other times last year, once for three weeks.

Still, I didn’t get home until almost 9, when I was starving and finally able to have dinner.  And I wasn’t able to do pretty much everything I was planning to do, I was looking forward to doing, for those five hours.  Good thing that I was able to eat what I was planning on and looking forward to eating and that it didn’t take long at all to get ready.

Still, it was five hours, I felt, taken from my life.

I have come to realize that this was perhaps—but hopefully not—a new norm in my life. Let’s just say this was one of the dramatic changes in my life since having to have spinal surgery three years ago on February 28. 

As I have written about in recent months, the surgery left me much more disabled, needing much more help and having to adjust to, or find, a new life. Yes, I was already disabled before the surgery but didn’t have all the medical problems I now have. Before the surgery, I usually saw a doctor perhaps two, three times a year. Now, in addition to all the ER visits, I seem to have a doctor’s appointment once a month on average.

As I said, not what I had in mind. None of this was.

Then, as I was lying there, something else happened I didn’t have in mind. I heard moaning and screaming and saw someone writhing in pain on a gurney going by. Nothing unusual, perhaps—this was the ER after all.

But it was disturbing. Even more disturbing, from all the commotion and what I heard being said by the staff and sometimes the woman, including profanities as well as pleas and expressions of gratitude, it was quickly evident that this wasn’t a normal ER visit. (Or was it?)

After a short while, it became clear that the woman needed to go, and perhaps was having difficulty, going to the bathroom—did she have a bad urinary tract infection?—and I saw her being supported as she stumbled back down the hallway, apparently to the restroom.

Was this woman homeless? Was she mentally ill? Was she coming down from a trip, bad or good? All of the above? Regardless, she was having a physical problem, was in serious pain and needed help.

She continued to moan and cry out and to say “thank you, thank you” and to politely make requests (“May I have a female nurse?”). The male nurse kept urging her to use the restroom and told her that she would be taken to “another unit” where “we can give you a shower.” The commotion continued, with a staff member wondering if a gown should be used when dealing with the woman and another woman complaining there was “a woman in the men’s room.”

I heard all of this and saw bits and pieces of it as I laid there, waiting for the help I needed, wondering how long it would take, thinking about I was once again having to rely on the care and expertise of others, and I wondered. Was this woman getting all the help she needed?

Why was there such a commotion, in this place, of all places, where anything could happen? Was the staff really prepared to deal with this woman? Or was it that the staff was not prepared for such situations?

I have read that hospitals and jails deal with and accommodate the homeless and mentally ill on pretty much a steady basis. It is said that the homeless and mentally ill routinely go in and out of hospitals and jails, sometimes going from one to the other. It’s also said this is more or less passing the buck, that it isn’t the way for the homeless and mentally ill to get the help they need.

Was the woman, I wondered, not what the ER staff had in mind, just as she wasn’t what I had in mind, that afternoon, that day, ever? Why did it seem like this?  I wondered as I laid there waiting.

Let’s face it: the homeless and mentally ill are never what we have in mind. It is upsetting when we see someone walking by aimlessly, muttering or shouting to no one. It is disturbing when we drive around in Los Angeles or Pomona and see tents lined up along the sidewalk or clustered in medians.

It’s not what we have in mind.

It’s certainly not what we have in mind here in Claremont. But, as was discovered about ten years ago after years of denial, a fair number of homeless people, some of whom are probably mentally ill, are in Claremont. We just don’t see many of them. Many spend the night in Claremont, where they feel safe, then make their way to Pomona, where there are more services for them (not to mention perhaps less notice from police), for the day.

We all need care, we all need help, at least every once in a while. Some, like me, may need more assistance than others, and some may need even more and more. As Governor Newsom pointed out at length recently, we have the responsibility to see that everybody, especially the homeless, gets the support they need. We are at each other’s mercy.

Or, as I once heard it put and as should be all the more so here in Claremont, we are each by all the others held. 


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