I need a smoke. I don’t carry any on me, trying to quit and all. God, I know it’s not a great habit, especially when you have two kids, but right now I just need one. Nerves and all. It’s important to start at the beginning of this whole mess. The beginning doesn’t happen at the hospital. That’s where everyone thinks it starts, and that’s why they all think I’m some evil person. It’s not fair. They don’t know what I went through and what I still go through. That man, if you can call that a man, may have died, but it wasn’t my fault. My story matters; it’s not fair. Why can’t I be heard? You can’t just take some events out of context and make a judgment. Some lives are worth more than others. I should know. I’m a nurse.
My children, they are my life. Yes, I have a job, but they are my life. Cheryl, she always gets up first. She’s such a good girl, gets up makes her little bowl of cereal, and even washes out her dish. She’ll help with lunch if I’m there in the morning and I have a 9 to 5 shift. Jackeline, she’s only four you know, if I’m home and awake I’ll wake her up. The place is still a mess. I do the best I can, but they still leave their toys out, mostly Jackeline anyways. Sometimes it’s like walking through a minefield of dolls and plastic kitchen ware tossed all over the place. It’s a tiny place, the kind of setup where you can take four steps on stained carpet and you’re in the bedroom, take five more to the left and you’re in front of the tv. Though, the only real difference is the cramped kitchen with white linoleum blotched with what look like urine stains. Well, that morning Cheryl started moaning from her room calling out, “Mommy! Mommy!” Turns out she had an earache. Poor girl had her hand pressed against her ear, so I brushed her hair back to check it out. She never had an earache before and it’s one of those pains that you can’t really do anything about. You can’t put ice to it, you can’t rest in a quiet room or take chicken noodle soup or drink Seven-up, nothing. I tried to hush her and get her to get up. It was a struggle. You have to understand that from the start it just kept mounting. Then Jackie heard the commotion and walked into the room and started asking me questions.
“Why is Cheryl crying mommy?” She asked.
“Her ear hurts honey. Go downstairs. I’ll be down in a sec okay.” I said.
“Oh okay. Mommy?”
Her feet stood still as she twirled slightly with her head bent.
“Yes Jackie?” I asked.
“Can I make breakfast?”
“Sure baby, just give me a minute with Cheryl.”
After I said this, she scampered into the kitchen. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but I had to take care of Cheryl, and I’m doing this all alone for your information. No, Jackie’s daddy couldn’t help with breakfast that morning. Like most men, he went after a life with less baggage. He left a tv, a sofa, two children, and a month behind rent. After Cheryl quieted to a whimper, she borrowed an old shower cap and got in the shower. Jackie trashed downstairs. She didn’t know what to make and got half way through waffles, eggs, and cake before realizing they involved the stove or oven, and being a good girl she stopped before the flame was needed. She greeted me with “I’m hungry” and sat in her chair at the kitchen table.
I got close to wiping away the last remains of batter and tossing the eggshells when Cheryl screamed from the bathroom. “I needed to wash my hair,” she got out between sobs, “It hurts mom, it hurts so much.” The earliest Cheryl could see the doctor was 2:15, and I work in a hospital. Go figure. Anyways, I told her she had to tough it out at school till it was time to go to the doctor’s. She’s very mature. After a little spat with Jackie about her outfit, Mrs. Thompson honked outside. They carpool to school. I had about half an hour to iron my clothes, clean up the kitchen, take a shower, do my make-up, call the school to tell them I was taking Cheryl out early, and maybe, just maybe put something in my mouth before work. I grabbed a granola bar on the way out the door, and it’s still in my purse.
Of course, the traffic crawled. It’s just one of those things we have to take on a daily basis in LA. Nothing like the 101 at 8am to make someone pro-choice. The whole time in the car the only thing that I thought of was Cheryl and all the noise at school and the children not understanding and the unsympathetic administrators. They all treat her differently since her dad left. It’s unchristian to be from a broken home.
The hospital is understaffed. That’s the polite thing to say, although we do have quite a few people who seem to know how to run it, and how to fix it. All of it, not just the doctors, every area, except for management needs more people. That was my first day shift after two back to back midnight shifts. Maria asked me about a month earlier if I could cover for her since it was her son’s high school graduation. I didn’t know I would be asked to do the second midnight shift till I finished the first. Carolyn Schaffer, the floor supervisor in ER, told me they were shorthanded that night and I was the only one available. Maria held the floor with me that night, the second night. Talk about an awkward silence, but it wasn’t her fault. God, I just needed some sleep to clear my head. Ms. Schaffer has us on such a tight leash and this job meant too much. The union is too busy with important matters like determining who has more credibility to hold power and all that nonsense. Not like they have time for some little nurse getting paid overtime. So, literally I get to work the next day on an hour sleep.
He was there. I blame him for what happened.
After I clocked in, I walked up behind the front desk to look at charts and say hi to the other girls. His smell hit me as I entered the waiting room. They, the girls, told me he was the only patient in at the moment. God, the stench didn’t leave my nose for days. I hated going near him, I hated going near the smell of rotten meat. And his clothes, the layers hung tattered and patched. A few times a spider or ant would crawl from a jacket pocket and disappear in the opposite armpit or dart out of his beaten shoes. He sat there dying. Sandy and Gigi, the two girls, talked as I continued to recheck the charts from the few hours I missed. Sandy continued to chat with Gigi.
“Of course he’s dying.”
“We’re all dying sweetie. What do you think he’s got?”
“Yeah, but what do you think: virus, bacteria, infection, cancer?”
“Let the doctor touch him, I ain’t going near that thing.”
“I don’t want to either.”
These two weren’t the brightest bulbs in the bunch. However, their incompetence left me with unwanted responsibility.
“Lydia sweetie, can you take him to room 20?”
I reluctantly but politely agreed. His reeking disgust just made me angry. He couldn’t open his eyes from what I saw because his head jerked to the tv or someone walking by, but his eyes wouldn’t open. A crust formed at the edges of his eyelids. The leather face wrinkled and quivered spastically ruffling the twisted mangled clump of hair on top of his head that extended into a beard. I didn’t like to look at him. As a nurse in the ER, you see a lot of bad things, but this was unnatural. Not once did he make an effort to wipe the yellow mucus running through his beard and over his lips that landed on his clothes. I asked for his chart and they couldn’t find it. The man coughed sharply and phlegm bubbled in his throat. While Gigi kept looking, I cornered Sandy behind the front desk.
“He hasn’t filled anything out?” I asked.
“No, he was here when I got here and he hasn’t responded to anything I’ve said, just twitched his head.”
“Well, how can I take him to room 20 without a chart?”
“That’s where the next patient goes.”
“Yes, but if he doesn’t have a chart, what is Dr. Grey supposed to use as a reference?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t check him in without a chart.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll give him one…can you do it?”
“Are you kidding me? It’s your fault, take care of it.”
There was something about this man that just ticked me off, and I took it out on the poor girls working with me. This diseased old man was getting help while Cheryl suffered at school. All that noise. It was their second week and they seemed to have a rough time adjusting. The chart sat on his lap for a while.
Not long after, the place was infested by paranoid hypochondriacs. I must have missed the news, but apparently a special report warned of the eminent threat all of us had from E.coli in fast food burgers. Of course, the symptoms according to the news included mild stomach discomfort and slight nausea, so we were flooded by case after case that trolled into the ER insisting urgent medical care. I sprinted all over the place, no lunch break, till I realize it’s half past one.
It turned out that the old man became a bigger nuisance. Title after title passed him up the chain hoping to wash their hands of his disgust. The issue, like most real issues, rebounded back down to my supervisor, Carolyn Schaffer. She called our desk and requested me in her office. So, I left the two poor girls alone with the mob dying down and that sad old man in the waiting room. He sat by the magazines, so no one had the courage to breach his foulness for a three-month-old People.
I opened Carolyn’s door and she greeted me with her bright smile and folded hand on top of her desk always void of any serious paperwork. I hated her smile. Her dirty blonde hair was in a bun and her bangs just covered her eyebrows. I noticed her blue contacts. She wore too much jewelry for a hospital. Men loved her because they didn’t realize her perky aw-shucks act tossed through bright red lipstick hid a calculating bitch. Most of the women couldn’t stand her.
She told me I had to take the old man away and the smart thing to do would be to use my lunch break hour so I could get back to the hospital and not miss any work. Cheryl’s face in pain pulsed in my mind.
“Mrs. Schaffer,” I said, “I’m really sorry, but I have to take Cheryl in.”
“No one else can take her?”
“What about her father?”
“No.” I didn’t explain since she’d known for a month by then.
“Just move the appointment.”
“I can’t, this is the only time all week Dr. Estrada is available.”
“I don’t understand why you can only take your daughter to him. Just take her after your shift to a walk-in center.”
“I’d have to wait for hours and I’d have to bring Jackie.”
“Do you have a problem handling two kids at once?”
She has no children.
“No, are you telling me I can’t go?”
“And when were you going to tell me you were leaving early? This is exactly the kind of irresponsibility we don’t need here. This is a hospital gosh-darn-it, and an irresponsible person, like you, could get someone killed.”
“Isn’t this man a patient?”
“No, he has no record and has failed to fill out a form. He is endangering the other patients, so he must be removed. Thank you for your assistance in the matter.”
“Why can’t one of the ambulance drivers take him somewhere else?”
“Goodness Lydia, that would make him a patient. You’ll take him in your car. That is all, you may leave now.”
I started to walk out the door when she called me back. She advised that I use a medical mask and latex gloves. It wouldn’t be hygienic to bring back whatever he had to the hospital she said. Before I left, she expressed her version of sympathy.
“I suppose you can use your fifteen minute break too with your lunch time, so you can take your child to the doctor. Although, I still don’t know why you can’t use this hospital.”
I could have responded, but she already started to flip though some papers on her desk. Bitch.
No one helped me move the man to my car. I walked through the waiting room holding his elbow. His whole body felt stiff and frail like it might collapse on me any moment. Everyone avoided me. They couldn’t even make eye contact. I’m not sure if it was pity or hate or both. I took some paper from the tables in one of the doctor’s offices to line the passenger seat. I laid him on the side of the car while I put down the lining. After he sat down, I noticed stains on the side of the car.
Poor Cheryl waited in the Health Room at her school. Who knows what else she caught in that place. All those children sniffling and coughing and sneezing and rubbing their eyes and touching everything went to that room and touched everything. She sat there waiting in pain. While she sat there on the verge of tears I’m sure, this man, this filth, writhed in my car shaking his shit all over. I clenched the steering wheel as I drove somewhere. Where could I take him during the day? What could I possibly have done?
The more I thought of Cheryl, the easier the choice became. I’m a mother first. God, he just sat there dripping and coughing and twitching. The man rotted there in the seat. My daughter needed to see the doctor. She was in pain. I pulled into an alley.
I drove past a large green trash bin. I stopped the car and got out as dirty-old-fish smell of the trash hit my nose, and for a minute I felt relieved of the man in my car. After walking around and opening the passenger door, his stench stung. I grabbed the lapels of his jacket and pulled. He felt like dead weight. I panicked. Somehow he became a jelly mass of dead waste dripping into my car. I saw his filth drip into the seat. I saw Cheryl waiting. I pulled. I yanked. I cursed. The lump of disease leaped toward me and his eyes opened. The glassy film of soulless eyes starred at me as his weight pushed down on me. I heard Cheryl’s cry in the shower. I spun away and the man fell down. He didn’t even put out his hands to stop the fall.
I drove to a carwash. Then I drove home and showered. I scrubbed till my skin burned. At Cheryl’s school I signed her out from the main office. She had tears welled up in her eyes. I made her sit in the back.