All of Los Angeles County’s sufferings come through the doors of the emergency room.
Accidents, shootings, heart attacks, beatings, rapes, suicides—just as gory and heart-stopping when I was covering the police beat for People’s Tonight of The Journal Group in the Philippines, before I defected to Hollywood. Stories that would make you clasp your chest and spit out your coffee over breakfast when you read it.
I was giddy with the drama of it all, temporarily forgetting reasons for admission at the emergency ward’s Trauma Unit last Sunday evening.
The countenance of Florence Nightingale still floats in the corridors of this great county hospital, as she had designed herself. Doctors assigned to the wards of LAC-USC Medical Center for their first clinical experience find it a colorful place to work, like Dickens in modern clothes. Here, they learn a lot of medicine and other things as well.
The emergency ward had major and minor trauma units with a huge room of beds—one along each other of the sidewalls. It was like a place of refuge, and in spite of the advent of managed care, it was not uncommon for people to be treated at the hospital with a chief complaint of cold and hungry or even homeless in fall, with fever. It was a place with its own culture, its regulars and newcomers, and its politics.
Good and bad news, examination and treatments, family relationships—happened in full view of everyone. It was an extraordinary experience of community.
As a story unfolded, I was there. A young woman was brought in comatose, having taken a massive overdose of anti-depressant pills. Shortly after she arrived, her heart stopped. The ER staff worked to resuscitate her for some time, not because they had much hope of success, but because they knew it was important to those who survived to feel that everything possible had been done. They weren’t successful.
It fell on the physician, who led the Code Team, to tell her husband that his wife had died. The doctor sat there with him for a while and listened to his story. That’s what doctors are for.
The couple had come to California with the hope of making something better for themselves. Both their parents had a history of violence and alcoholism. He was a mechanic, she waited tables in a bar. All they owned was a truck, which was more of an apology, and his tools. A week ago, the tools had been stolen and there was no money to replace them. Welcome to the human race!
They both had suffered from depression. She would wake in the night and wander in their hovel; he would always hear her and wake to sit with her in the dark. They were all each other had.
She had gone to the medical cabinet and taken down the whole bottle of a four-month supply of pills that had been given at the mental health clinic a week before. She had swallowed it all. When she didn’t wander that night, he tried waking her up.
The man thanked the doctor for his efforts. It had been too many pills, too much pain, many years too late to bring her back. Once again, the doctor assured the man that “everything possible had been done.” The man sat quietly. Nodding, he said “Everything? Then she is healed and in heaven now.”
The doctor told me how deeply he was moved by the simplicity of the man’s life and depth of love for his wife. His heart went out to him in his loss. He had been a devoted husband, but she had been mortally wounded, long before she had been loved so completely.
And it was while I was lying down by the gurney of the emergency ward last Sunday, yielding to unbearable anxiety between blood tests and all the poking and prodding and humiliating assault to one’s body—while fluid drips down from a plastic bag into your arm—that I found myself thinking of that man and his wife.
I sensed in him a sort of acceptance that was bewildering. He was young. Perhaps it never occurred to him that some pain might be beyond the power of love to heal…the thought was humbling. Is that what her husband had known? Is that what he had accepted? If so, how had he found the courage to love her so completely? And having loved her in this way, how could he go on?
In the anguishing aftermath of a spouse’s suicide, surrounded by many well-intentioned and impotent words of comfort, the man must have understood the power of acceptance as the only way for those who survive to find peace and heal.
In time, he will be able to go on, because he knew that he could not haveloved her more. No one could have. But, she had been mortally wounded a long time ago—long before he even knew her name. Now, he would have understood.
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