We had arrived in Colorado for the holidays and my son had had a fever for three days. He woke up at midnight screaming and inconsolable. The last place I wanted to go was the emergency room. As a medical provider in South Central Los Angeles, I anticipated the chaos of the emergency room on Friday night, with intoxicated people; psych patients, and drug seekers clogging the halls. We would likely be there all night if they ordered blood and urine tests. From my experience I estimated our wait time to be eight hours.
We walked through the sliding glass doors under the huge red-lit sign that said: Emergency. I was astonished to see that the waiting room was empty! The rows of turquoise seats were clean and padded. The floor wasn’t littered with empty McDonald’s wrappers. I wanted to cry because I didn’t see homeless people sleeping in the corners of the waiting room or intoxicated frequent fliers crumpled in the seats.
This place was otherworldly compared to where I worked in South Central Los Angeles.
A polite young male in blue scrubs welcomed us and took my son’s oxygen saturation and temperature. Just as the nice woman in registration handed me back my son’s insurance card, a nurse arrived to escort us to our own room. I forgot what civilized medicine was like in the twenty-first century.
I was overcome with professional curiosity, making mental notes of everything. Where were the patients? I saw rows of empty beds and the floor was like the glazed sun reflecting off an infinity swimming pool. I couldn’t comprehend why patients weren’t yelling or wandering the halls muttering expletives like, “I hate this bitch-ass hospital.”
Our physician entered the room holding my son’s chart. Not only was he nice, but he also looked like he had just walked off the set of “Days of Our Lives;” Colorado skier, McDreamy version. He strolled over and wrote a time on a small dry erase board. 2:30 am. “This is the time you can expect to be finished,” he said. I covered my mouth to keep my cynical self from laughing out loud, hysterically.
The physician ordered some Tylenol and Motrin and did a thorough exam. He sat beside the bed and leaned-in at eye level, “Well, it’s not a slam dunk, otitis media (ear infection), but it’s a little red,” describing my son’s inner ear. And then, “I don’t usually prescribe antibiotics, but since you are here from out of town, I think we could give it a try.” By this time my son was content and curious, playing with the otoscope light and I agreed with his plan.
The nurse returned for the last set of vital signs. “Oh by the way, we apologize. Your prescription will be ready in about fifteen minutes and you have to walk down the hall to pick it up,” she said in a sympathetic voice. What exactly are you apologizing for? I thought to myself. Again, I compared this to what I told my patients on a night shift; “There’s a twenty-four-hour Rite Aid on Crenshaw.” Be careful, it’s not that safe at night.
The visit ended with my son skipping down the darkened empty hospital halls from Christmas tree to Christmas tree in his Denver Bronco pajamas and new snow boots.
We were exhausted the next day, but it was almost worth it just to confirm that my misery at work was real. Maybe the patients in South Central Los Angeles were being punished in comparison.
Los Angeles, CA
Stephanie Hatton is an emergency medicine physician assistant living in Los Angeles with her toddler son and husband. Previous work about the emergency department was published in Pilgrimage Magazine. She aspires to write about life and medicine and advanced maternal age. You can find her on advancedmaternalmom.net and @advmatmom1.