The Place Where They Have To Take You In

Days and nights on the front line at Minnesota's busiest emergency room.

It's the wee hours of a cold Saturday night; the stab cases are all gone, the drunks are all sleeping. Jeanie, who came in four hours ago complaining of blood in her stool, finally has a doc in with her. "I'm sorry you had to wait," he says, cutting off remonstrations. "But we had four critical cases in the last two hours, and you're doing better than they are right now." "I don't know about that." "Yes. You're talking to me." "But I had to wait for hours. I'm sitting here and they don't even give me a pill." "Yes. But your heart is beating, you're breathing, you're better off. Believe me."

Later, Jeanie ends up sitting next to me by the main desk, waiting for her discharge papers. The doctor gave her some Maalox, which she thinks probably would work to hang wallpaper with. But she's feeling much better, and very talkative. She has three kids, and a 57-year-old mother who's had a triple bypass. "She calls every day between 7 and 8 a.m. 'I'm feeling sick this morning,' or 'I'm feeling a little better this morning.' It's always something.

"Then one of my kids is asthmatic, and two are hyperactive, and their dad isn't worth two cents so I do everything. My mother lives 20 miles away, so I take the bus, and then I come back and take care of my kids. I'm always in between."

I ask if she's been here before. "Oh yes. My doctor's here. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. I don't like the waiting. But I guess there's nothing they can do. There's a woman in that cube over there, tried to do away with herself or something." She looks around knowingly, then lets out a long sigh. "I don't know what's happened to me. I used to be a healthy woman. But now--they must think I like to come here or something." She falls silent.

This is the time of night when you suddenly realize you've been staring at the same blemish on the vinyl floor tile for about five minutes. No amount of coffee will work. The hands on the wall clock are frozen. Your ears seem wrapped in cotton, yet you suddenly notice the elevator music playing overhead.

Out at triage, an early-fortyish woman in a red coat leans on the counter, her whole body heaving. A man walks up to her, puts his hand on her shoulder. "Can I help you?" the nurse asks. "Yes," she sobs. "I think I may be having a miscarriage." The aide gets her vitals wordlessly and pushes her in.

Then it's quiet again. Back inside, one of the docs looks up from his chart. "Is there any sense to what we do?" he asks matter-of-factly. Two of the nurses and a secretary are making arrangements for breakfast after the shift. Someone is talking about this wind machine you can get, to make a soothing noise when you sleep during the day. A maintenance man pushes around a gigantic broom, spreading a smell of stale blood and lemon. CP

News interns Mary Ellen Egan and Neil Sexton contributed to this article.

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