"Help me, doctor. I don't feel good."
"I know you don't feel good, Mary. That's why we're at the hospital."
"Doctor...I'm in a lot of pain. You gotta help me."
"I'm sorry Mary. I know you're in pain."
"You don't know, doctor. You have no idea how bad it hurts."
We arrived and took our place in line behind another crew at the registration desk. As we waited in the emergency room hallway for a bed, Mary struggled to get off the gurney. In her weakened condition it was easy to resist her attempt with one hand. She quickly gave up.
I've been haunted by memories of Mary for a month now. Images of her thin, emaciated body seem forever etched in my mind. It's easy to forget most patients if you try. But not Mary. We picked her up at a mental health unit where she'd been vomiting coffee-ground emesis for two days.
Her hospital gown seemed to wrap around her gaunt frame for ever. I can't recall transporting anyone so malnourished. It wasn't just her size. It was everything.
Her eyes were dull and lifeless and she couldn't seem to focus on anything. When she spoke, her mouth barely moved. Her tongue was dry and cracked. Her lips were a sickly blue. Her matted hair looked as if it hadn't been washed in a month. Her fingers were bony with raw, cracked skin on her knuckles.
"I need to go home, honey."
"Mary, please lie on the bed and wait. They'll have a room for you soon."
"When? It's been so long. I can't wait any more."
"They'll have a bed soon."
"Honey, you gotta take me home, now. I don't feel good."
"Mary, please be patient."
"I hurt honey, real bad. My back hurts so bad. I need a pain pill."
"I'll ask the nurse to get you something for pain when they get you a bed."
The nurse's station was busy. It was shift change. I overheard one nurse tell her replacement that they'd been slammed with ambulances in the last hour and had no beds left.
When an uninvited guest comes to a party and there are no chairs left, one solution is to ignore them until someone leaves. We were the uninvited guest.
Mary's restlessness couldn't be soothed. Every few minutes she tried to get off the gurney or begged us to take her home. She was terribly confused, having no clue who we were or where she was. After a patient left the ER, the crew in front of us descended on the now vacant bed.
"Doctor.....I need a pain pill. I hurt real bad."
"I know you hurt Mary, and I'm sorry."
Closing my eyes, I laid my head on the rail of the gurney and prayed silently, commanding pain to leave. I felt absolutely useless, trapped in what seemed like a hopeless situation. "Holy Spirit, bring your peace upon her."
"You don't know, doctor. You don't know how bad I hurt. I can't stay here. I need to go home."
She tried to get off the gurney. I held her in place. Minutes seemed like hours.
A nurse came over and asked what her story was. I gave him what I had. He asked if she had an IV. I told him no. She was so dehydrated, that her veins were completely collapsed. My IV attempts failed. He brought an IV tray over to the gurney and tried to find a vein to draw blood from, but had no luck.
He was as frustrated as I was. He didn't like parking us in the hallway for an hour but there was nowhere else to put her. He had other things to take care of so he left.
I had nothing else to do but wait. After an hour in the hall, another crew arrived. It was the same crew that was waiting for a bed when we arrived.
"I need to go home, honey. I can't stay here."
"Mary, you're very sick. You need to stay in the hospital."
"No, honey....take me home. I can't stay here. My back hurts so bad."
"I know you hurt Mary. The nurse will give you something for pain when we get you in a bed."
"You don't know. You don't know how bad it is. I need a pain pill."
Mary's cycle of confusion and my time of testing continued for another half hour until a room finally opened up. Ninety minutes after we arrived, we moved her to the bed and gave report.
I've heard of long ER waits in urban hospitals. Legend has it the wait can be as long as two or three hours. I can't imagine working in a system like that. I also can't imagine how Mary came to be in this condition living at a mental health hospital.
In just 90 minutes, Mary had the opportunity to test just about every aspect of my character. Patience, politeness, professionalism, compassion.....and my willingness to pray. I'll probably never forget her, though I wish I could.
In eternity, I'll re-live this event one more time. And I'll get a chance to see things through Mary's dull, unfocused eyes. In that day, everything will be clear and sharp. Every thought exposed. Every detail revealed. The motives and intentions of my heart laid bare.
I can't help but wonder what that will be like.