Video from a surveillance camera at a Brooklyn, New York, hospital shows a woman dying on the floor of a psychiatric emergency room while people nearby ignore her. The video was released Monday by lawyers suing Kings County Hospital. The lawsuit alleges neglect and abuse of mental health patients at the facility. The video shows the 49-year-old woman keeling over and falling out out of her chair on June 19.
Yeah. I had a similar experience about a year ago at a hospital in Brooklyn. I sat in the waiting room at New York Methodist for over an hour with - unknown to me at the time - a perforated duodenum and sepsis, really only a few hours away from death. You would have thought that the spectacle of me slumped over a table, giving delirious one-word answers to a gruff old lady (her voice an octave below my own) would have clued them into the seriousness of my condition. Nope. I laid, near unconscious from the pain, across several seats in the waiting room as the few other people present watched television on those little waiting room TVs. After about an hour and a half, when they finally let me in and performed a couple tests (after waiting in the emergency room another hour or so), I remember shocked exclamations, "Oh my, your septic!" "We need to get you into surgery!" "You need a lot of morphine!". Um, yes.
I'm pretty good with pain and discomfort - not naturally, I made it a point a long time ago to learn about the management of pain - so I'm never really one to bitch and moan about it. I will with just about everything else, but I have a certain conservative pride against showing or acknowledging debilitating pain. In this particular example I downplayed the very real pain I was feeling to a large degree, so that I went to the hospital several hours later than I should have, I waited patiently in the waiting room instead of demanding to be seen, and felt a certain shame in requesting pain-killers when I obviously needed them. I remember being asked what my pain level was on a scale of one to ten, having just enough mental coherence to be shocked at such a ridiculous subjective question. I think I said my pain was an '8', knowing that perhaps this would doom me, but seriously, was my pain as bad as being burned alive? As a frequent tourist to the many Torture Museums in the various cities of Europe, I can think of several situations in which my pain would be exceeded: boiled alive, skinned, impaled, etc. Compared to those, how could I honestly say that the throbbing fire that was enveloping my torso was a '10'? Sure it was a '10' in my experience, I had never experienced anything worse, but even in my pitiful state I wasn't romantic enough to lay claim to that perfect '10'.
A few weeks later I had to return to that same emergency room, under much less dangerous circumstances - my white blood cell count was too low and I needed a transfusion. I wasn't really in any pain, just felt very tired and weak, so I packed a little bag and hopped a cab to that same white-tiled purgatory. Ironically, I was admitted in less time, I casually strode to my emergency room bed and prepared for a boring night as I awaited my transfusion. It turned out to be one of the most psychologically-trying nights of my life. The place was packed to the limit, so my night, or rather my first 24 hours or so, were a constant complex antiphony of screams, cries, whines for the nurses, and curses. I was by far the most quiet person there. I heard young men shrieking in Spanish, elderly women weeping and asking for their mothers, middle-aged men screaming until they were hoarse for the nurse to bring them a different pillow, and the discordant shouts for nothing in particular. The composite sonic atmosphere was one of intense need, the increased desire for anything when we feel ourselves deprived of something. I am reminded of the interview with Herzog as he filmed Fitzarraldo in the jungle, describing the constant drone of life around him as "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder".
I think the thrust into this dependent society of little white beds and sour attendant nurses strips many of their faculties for reservation, patience, and any recourse to strength. Their submission makes them child-like and precocious, willing to demand their whims without a second thought, expose their pain with sobs like a stubbed-toed presented to mommy. I felt shy asking for ice to suck on - I wasn't allowed to drink or eat anything for increasingly obscure reasons - because I didn't want to appear as dependent, yet even this meager request drew the ire of the nerve-seared nurses. But as the time passed and my ordeal grew my patience thinned. 24 hours had passed without me eating or drinking anything, I was alone, and my sanity was weakening. I began to adding my own little line of counterpoint to the epic opera raging outside of my small, draped bed.
At first I started, as horn players often do, with a gentle request as the main theme would whizz by, separated by seemingly endless bars of rest. After that would fail, as the hours passed, to do anything I began abandoning my pianissimo "excuse me"s for some mezzo-forte "Nurse!"s. Eventually some friends of mine came, with their strength of fortissimo that I lacked, and formed a little section for my cause. I became an integral part of the orchestra of want, the wailing community of selfish desire, toward the momentary alleviation of discomfort through a cube of ice, a new pillow, a complaint toward one of the tentacles of bureaucracy. Eventually it worked. I finally got my own room. I eventually was allowed to eat (after 50 hours!). I simply needed to need it more. I had to revert to the childish method of screaming for the toy I wanted, crying when I didn't want to take a bath, impatiently demanding an answer to how my dad could pull that coin out of my ear.
It was my perceived strength that almost killed me in that previous trip to the ER (well, that and an incompetent doctor in New Haven that perforated my duodenum in the first place). For my next trip to the ER, I don't care if I'm there for a hangnail, I'm circling the '10' on the pain chart. Fuck it, I'm writing in an '11' and circling that. The problem is though, the waiting room is the opposite of the ER. It is the place in which you see calm faces with blood running down them, sick children sitting quietly in their parents laps, the air still and quiet as a library, but with the shadow sibilants of the low-volume televisions propped high near the ceiling.
The last time I was there, I remembered it as a low-key, cordial affair. There were a group of girls who seemed to have come from a high school dance, sitting in a row in gowns, placidly watching the elevated televisions with the rest of us. I couldn't tell which of them was injured or sick, they all seemed rather comfortable. In fact, the waiting room that night was a relatively relaxed one. There was a slight air of tension because of our proximity to the hell that lay in the room over, but mainly we all sat, with our heads slightly inclined toward the heavens, watching the banality of local news on tiny TVs. Who knows? In that placidity, there very well could have been a woman lying beneath us on the floor, patiently dying without us noticing, as we all saved our tension and grief for our performance in the next room.