Perhaps it is because I am the caretaker type, but I have actually spent quite a bit of time in emergency rooms, hospitals, and nursing homes. Always, eventually, the scenario comes down to the same thing: the person I am with gets enough pain medication and dozes off. By then of course, it is close to dawn. I go off to find a vending machine or telephone. I never remember to bring a sweatshirt, so I borrow a white blanket, which I wear draped around me. Because I have a horrible sense of direction and because I am desperately tired, I get lost trying to find my way back to the room, and end up wandering the hospital in the middle of the night in a dazed stupor, trailing a white blanket like I am some kind of ghost.
The hospital setting brings back all kinds of unsettling memories. Wandering around bleeding and crying and feeling utterly alone the long night of a traumatic car accident. Trying to get information from doctors about whether or not my aunt was dying. Talking to my father-in-law as he was admitted, gasping for air, just before he died of lung cancer. Bringing my kids and my brother's stepkids to visit my sister-in-law in the hospital day after day when she would not get better. Trying to find my grandmother in the intensive care unit and realizing I could barely recognize the contorted and bloated body in the bed.
The worst part of an emergency room, though, is seeing so many people in pain. I don't mean the physical pain. Almost every person I saw last night, many of them quite old, was alone. The woman in the next bed kept calling, "Someone help me." The overworked nurse was doing her best to chat with every person in every bed, but clearly there was no way she could give emotional support to that many patients. Especially when the cops started bringing in the drunk and unruly patients.
When I was taking care of my aunt in a nursing home during the months before she died, I got to know many of the other patients. Because I was a regular, none of the staff minded me talking to other patients. I could jump in to help move a woman who was being washed. I learned how to help change a catheter tube. I would talk to the women who wandered the halls.
But in an emergency room, every bed has curtains around it. I could talk to the woman in the next bed, but I could hardly pitch in and start helping. My palms were tingling, but I could not go over and start doing reiki on someone when I didn't know what she was being treated for. Standing by and just watching all that pain and loneliness was difficult for a caretaker like me. Because I have a big support system of family and friends, it is hard for me to imagine what it must feel like to be alone like that.
I tried to get a little sleep by getting into my usual hospital position: sitting in the stiff hospital chair, leaning my head against the bed, and letting my hair shield me from the light. My hair smelled like campfire smoke (I never did get that shower), and that was comforting. My husband, in his drugged state, was sort of rambling about stuff. He kept saying to me, "You are good at this. You know how to take care of sick people."
And I guess, thinking about it, that he is right. I get angry at myself sometimes for being such a caretaker, but it's also one of my strengths. It's not such a bad way to be. I don't always remember that.