Sunday, March 8, 2009

Like being behind the scenes of 'ER'

Being unemployed, you tend to be volunteered as a responder to any family situation, no matter how silly, vexing or time-wasting. Yesterday was the classic example.

It started off as what seemed to be a true crisis. Spring made a surprise appearance in New York, with temperatures climbing to a record-tying 69 degrees. My wife and I decided to enjoy it by driving into the country.

But halfway into the outbound trip, she fielded a call from the son of her father’s girlfriend. Her father, 89 years old, was in the emergency room. He’d taken himself there because of pain in his fingers, explained the caller, Javier, whom we’d never met. Because of language problems, we couldn’t get any details, but feared that we’d be dealing with a serious heart problem.

Then we got the hospital’s input, though it could’ve come from Larry David. My father-in-law had gone to the emergency room not because of pain, but because the tips of his fingers were tingling. Three weeks earlier, he’d explained to one of the nurses, he’d gone out without his gloves during a cold snap. I must have frostbite, he informed her.

Amazingly, the ER suggested he get an MRI to see if that was the case.

We trucked into Queens to be of assistance, despite an occasional suggestion—from me, if you hadn’t guessed—that frostbite might be a little far-fetched. Indeed, it seemed bizarre, given that we weren’t wearing coats. Might it just be another in a long, long string of hypochondriacal panics on her father's part?

But we dutifully drove to Elhurst Hospital, one of New York’s more infamous institutions. The ER care there is top-notch, perhaps because the staff is so fire-hardened. It’s the facility where gunshot victims are usually taken, as we’d seen firsthand in earlier visits. It also serves as the hospital for Riker’s Island, the city's notorious prison. We had no idea of its adeptness at treating frostbite, but confidence was high.

They allowed us back into the treatment area, where my father-in-law was lying in a bed, talking to everyone and seemingly having a decent time. He confirmed that he feared the onset of frostbite, and had been worried about it for the last three weeks. But we couldn’t get an reply to our queries about why he’d waited to seek attention, or why he didn’t call his doctor instead of going to one of the world’s busiest ERs.

We got there about 2:15. He’d been there two hours already. But the wait was just starting. As we sat in the grim, windowless room, I tried not to think about the weather outside. That task was eased a bit by distractions like the guy who waddled past in ankle chains with a police escort, or the fellow in the orange DOC (Department of Corrections) jumpsuit. There was also the obviously troubled soul who loudly demanded to be released. He shut up after the staff pointed out that he was there voluntarily and could leave at any time.

Sadly, because I had to make the hour's drive back to our house to tend to the dogs, and then trek back, I missed some of the entertainment. A high point was my father-in-law’s revelation, after persistent prodding, that he’d sought help that day from the ER because he thought gangrene had started to set in.

He did get his MRI. And a diagnosis. No, it wasn’t frostbite. The problem was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

We thanked everyone, said we’d pick up a wrist brace for the patient, and left the hospital—at 9 p.m.

I, personally, plan to see that he also gets a new pair of warm gloves, just in case.

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