The next time you’re in a moving metal object which makes contact with another moving metal object and lands you in the Emergency Room, make sure to get a cubicle near the nurse’s station and leave your curtain open. Ignore the clinicians who slither up to your bedside one white coat after another and relay all manner of fact and opinion to your dazed head. Listen instead to the real truth of what ails you; what the doctors and nurses say at the station because they think no one is listening.
The medical heads mouthed ‘lumbar compression’ and ‘burst fracture,’ to my face, the sort of words that imply extensive treatment and hefty bills. But nurse-to-nurse, behind the counter, I overheard the more ominous diagnosis. “That guy, the cyclist, broke his back.”
A broken back is a fantasy diagnosis. People don’t break their backs; we break our extremities: our big toe, our right arm, our nose. A broken back is a mythical injury, the stuff of childhood games. ‘Step on a crack, break your mothers back.’ Our back is our core, our thickest part. We can survive a dangling limb but we cannot survive being broken in two. The nurse’s schoolyard epithet made me laugh; my cracked ribs ached. I pondered my nursery rhyme condition. Could I be put back together again?
All ER diagnoses should be couched in fairy tale. A concussion is nothing more than Jack breaking his crown; falling from a ladder is itsy-bitsy spider syndrome. Storybook labels reinforce that being a patient in an emergency room is an infantile experience. Despite rejecting the morphine a mousy nurse tried to pump into my veins, trauma shock alone made me loopy enough to behave like a child.
An ER patient is an infant or a puppy: helpless and in need. It’s an unbalanced relationship with the staff. You have nothing to offer them. Actually, their day would be easier if you’d never arrived. You can gain attention by screaming, or you can smile and coo. I chose to be accommodating and friendly, chatted up every person who came into my room, asked their name and tried to repeat it at least three times. A way to keep my mind sharp while my body was whack; with the side benefit that familiarity might earn me favor.
I don’t know whether my stratagem worked. I received good and prompt attention. Possibly because I was so docile; probably because I had injuries that trumped everyone in the waiting room. Anyway, at midnight the community hospital slid me back on a stretcher and ambulanced me to a trauma center in Pensacola; Winken, Blynken, and Nod sailing off in a wooden shoe.
Just imagine how my mind would have raged if I’d accepted that morphine.