Alas, I ended up in the emergency room (or department, as they’re calling it these days) on Saturday night at 2:30 am. Long story short, the hives that emerged out of somewhere had taken to my lips, and my husband and I worried they might make it to my tongue and throat, so off we went. And then, because the kid was home alone (sleeping through all the drama, thank goodness) he left me there as I requested.
The guy behind the glass – which I assumed was possibly bullet-proof – was as calm and collected as can be. Not a lot of warmth, but efficient. The nurse who saw me in triage was as cheerful as a 7-months-pregnant woman can be at 2:45 in the morning, normal and professional, talking to me, all of which was part of her plan to assess my situation. Then she said, “I’m going to take you to the lobby while I check on a room in the back.”
She wheeled me back to the lobby. And what a sight it was.
A social worker was talking to a woman about anger management with children. I did not want to know what that story was about, but since they were standing two feet in front of me, it was hard not to listen. A homeless man was stretched out over several chairs, getting a good night’s sleep in that clean, well-lighted place. A person who did not speak English waited too, and I wondered how that was going. In the 15 minutes I waited there, two more homeless men came in, and the guy behind the glass was as calm and collected – and not warm – with them as he was with me. The security guy walked through a couple of times. And then there was me, with my Angelina Jolie puffy lips and my itchy hands and knees, anxious that my throat might close and things might go south, quickly.
But they didn’t. Instead I spent a few hours waiting, not sleeping, thinking. Had I caught a glimpse of heaven or hell there in the lobby of the ER? As far as I could tell, each of us who came through that door was treated equally – assessed, evaluated, left alone, tended to, cared for without a lot of warmth but cared for nonetheless. Each of us who came through those doors needed help – for medication, for treatment, for sleep, for counsel. Each of us left our full stories at the door – who we were, what made us laugh or dance, who were the people we counted on, what our last meal was, and with whom. When we walked in, we were patients with a presenting condition. That’s all.
Did I get a glimpse of hell in the lobby of the ER? There were people whose bodies were breaking down, people who didn’t have a place to sleep or a community that would take them in, people who didn’t know how to manage their anger or their immaturity. Were we a collection of souls in despair, cut off from the wholeness intended for us?
What I know is that I have a lot of resources and know a lot of people who would come to my aid in a heartbeat, especially my spouse, who shows his love for me every single day, even at 2:30 in the morning when I’m asking him to drive faster on our way to the hospital because I’m not sure if my shortness of breath is anaphylaxis or anxiety. The church provides health insurance that will cover the majority of this bill that will be coming our way. I know how to assert myself, and ask for what I need. I am not an addict. I have a home. My life is good; heavenly, some of those people in the lobby might say.
When I left at 6:00 the lobby crowd had cleared. The homeless men had found somewhere else to go. The staff was in the middle of a shift change, so I didn’t get to thank the doctor or nurses and really, I just wanted to get home. But I wonder where that woman went, if the conversation with the social worker helped her, helped the situation. I wonder if the men made it to a shelter, or found a kindly person who would buy them breakfast. I wonder if the nurses and doctors crawled into bed after their shifts ended, knowing they had done some good in the night.
Heaven or hell? Maybe the difference between the two has less to do with judgment than with community. For all of us fall short of the glory of God – the addict, the foreigner, the pastor with hives; all of us might deserve condemnation.
Yet all of us are beloved too, and maybe hell is nothing more than not having someone who will drive you to the ER in the middle of the night; not having someone who will take you in; not having someone who speaks that truth to you in love.
Maybe you and I will be the difference between heaven and hell for someone else.