The first thing that hits you is the smell. The doors are automatic, no force is involved. When they open, with or without your consent, the push of the air blasts your hair back, saturates you, finds its way deep into your pores. It smells like old wine, like that sickly sweet medicine that helps your cough but gives you a stomach ache, like vomit, like pine sol, like despair. Strangers are coughing and you’re afraid to breathe in, your mind begins a mathematical rant concerning the ratio of germs to clean air contained within these off white walls. Under the din of the staticky, decrepit TVs you can hear moaning, crying babies, the whispers of strangers that contain words like “pain,” “blood,” and “insurance.” If you can bear the harsh flourescent light long enough to look up you find that everyone’s eyes are yellow and bloodshot, hopeless, tired. Everyone’s cheeks are tear-stained and wrinkled with worry.
You choke back the urge to vomit and begin the endless wait in a line filled with fear and ailment. The line moves slowly, as if everyone were underwater. The standing makes the pain in your abdomen worse and the fever starts to take hold. They all become ghosts, reflections, transparent. Your vision dims just a little around the edges and you fight back the need to turn and run or pass out.
The man in the stained, torn shirt and mismatched shoes in front of you smells like stale corn chips. His tattered baseball cap must have once been white, but the yellow around the edges speaks of sweat and cigarettes. He’s alone here, just like you. You look around and realize that most of the people here are alone, except for poorly dressed children with only their mothers.
It starts to piss you off then; the smell and the despair and the stereotypes. Why are we here? A few people here and there have a visible emergency; they’re incoherent or bleeding or with a terribly sick child. But the man behind you in the dirty Raider’s jacket is talking about a sore wisdom tooth. The lady three seats away is putting on too much makeup and telling her neighbors about that check that hasn’t quite come in yet. Your own fever is de-prioritized by the triage nurse. You can see the dirty edge of bandage showing from beneath the soiled grey sweatshirt of the man talking to the triage nurse, his brows are pursed together with frustration. The clean, well-fed nurse shakes his head; he and the bandaged man are speaking different languages. The bandaged man’s grammar is making the nurse angry, there is disbelief in the nurse’s response when the undereducated man tells him of his illness, how the doctor he had seen earlier that day told him to come to the emergency room for treatment. It doesn’t occur to the nurse that the doctor may have known the man had no insurance, he didn’t want to perform a service for which he knew he wouldn’t get paid.
It is then that your anger comes to a boil. The fever in your head is feeding the fire when you realize that you are one of only a small handful of Caucasian people in the stinking crowded little room. All around you are conversations that you only understand single words from; Spanish, Swahili, and array of Asian and Middle Eastern languages that you can’t quite place. These are our nation’s discarded, in an ethnic ratio disproportionate to the ethnic ratio of it’s citizens.
And why are we all here, hurting and moaning and sweating on these cracked vinyl seats? Why are we stranded here uncomfortably for nine, ten hours, waiting to be rushed through treatment and then not given enough information about our illnesses once a young, clean doctor has time to see us? Do we have life threatening emergencies in this emergency room?
Yes, we do. Our emergency is simple, common, and deadly. We have no insurance. We, who have less income and less time than those who do have insurance will be charged hundreds of dollars more for basic services because we can’t get those services anywhere else. We will give up the few hours of sleep that we get, or time with our children in trade for simple medical care that those with insurance could take care of on a lunch break. Our emergency is that we live in a country where it is not considered a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people to be denied preventative medical services when they need them. Our emergency is that we live in a country where people have to balance out going for a preventative medical checkup with whether or not they will be able to pay for this month’s groceries.
Our emergency is that we live in a society that condones making its citizen’s health a for profit enterprise. A society wherein the ability to obtain the medical services one needs is not based on the condition of one’s health, but rather on their ability to pay for it. A society wherein greed supersedes need.
That’s why I’m sitting here, almost delirious with fever, in this stinking, rotting, sick yellow room. These strangers, badly educated and full of despair, are my brothers and sisters in pain and abandonment. We will breathe in each other’s illnesses under these horrible fluorescent lights, and when our bloodshot eyes meet we will recognize each other’s hopelessness. We’ll all know that later, in some shitty, windowless, tiny apartment we’ll be crying in the dark after the kids are asleep, our tears smearing the dollar signs on the letters from the debt collectors that hold sway over our health.