“Anyone want a blanket?” an E.R. staffer from Beebe hospital on the outskirts of Lewes, Delaware asked. It was a late afternoon during high summer. But almost everyone among the dozens sitting in the waiting room waived for a cover. How come no one bothered to lower the air conditioning? I thought. Was it because AC is an important part of American exceptionalism? The blankets were white and heated. In mere seconds, the uneventful waiting room had been transformed into a temple, with patients looking like druids. Covered in white, we were ready to contemplate our pain for a protracted period of time. The blankets — they felt more like towels offered in a spa — gave us some comfort but also made us aware that the waiting might drag on. Each of us already had a registration number with a name and a signature on the wristband they gave us. It was like a boarding pass for a long flight or a religious meditation depending on which way you looked at it. There was a deep silence in the room despite the presence of people with serious health issues. I found this bizarre situation amusing.
On July 14, exactly a year after my terrible bike accident, I decided to go on a longer bike ride than usual. In Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, I jumped on my bike with the intention of riding all the way to Ocean City in Maryland. It would make me feel like being back in Europe, where crossing borders is a normal thing. The beauty of Europe is to be able to swim, mentally, from one culture to another as so many different nation-states are so close to each other. I think Slovenians, having such a small homeland, are privileged from this point of view. As I always said when trying to describe my small motherland to an outsider, Slovenia is the place where one is born with a passport. We need one to go shopping, traveling, or to see relatives. We always carry a traveling ID on us because of the size of the place we were born into. At the same time, the necessity to travel makes all Slovenians potential globetrotters.
I was excited about my ride because the bike trail to Ocean City snakes past dunes and across little islands emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. When I checked the GPS I discovered that Delaware was three times smaller than Slovenia and I would need to ride 45 kilometers one way, making the whole trip 90 kilometers long. But I got on the road anyway, against the heat and distance, just to see how it felt.
I had ridden 50-something kilometers when my bike started to cause some trouble. Then, a small piece of something flew into my left eye. I didn’t think much of it since this happens often during my bike rides. Eyes are self-preserving organs that take care of foreign bodies, expelling them with no mercy. But not this time. I got home with the thing in my eye, and an hour later, I could still feel it. My wife is, among other things, a trained doctor, but she could not find anything in my eye. An attempt to rinse the eye out with water did not help, so we got some eye drops from the local pharmacy. After a short relief, my eye started to hurt again, this time shifting from a burn into a sharp, unbearable pain.
We began to look for hospitals, with much hesitation of course. Taking into account the Coronavirus pandemic and my past experiences with the dysfunctional American healthcare system, visiting an E.R. was the last thing I wanted to do. But the pain was too strong and I had to go. Unable to drive me, my wife took me to an E.R. a few miles away. The hospital belongs to the Bebee healthcare chain and is located in a cluster of small residential houses near Lewes.
In the beginning, everything went smoothly. After the guards at the door checked my temperature, the person at the registration counter asked me the essentials. This time there was no long list of questions that served to create a data bank of insurance companies. The woman, seeing my swollen eye, did not even want my insurance card. “We take care of the patient’s pain first,” she said to me with such conviction I was tempted to move to Delaware. Is this how Joe Biden’s state is run? It looked promising.
I sat down in silence, watching the other people. A one-year-old was given a COVID test. Somewhere in the corner of the waiting room that my recently-passed mother-in-law would have called dowdy, a man was throwing up. There was a soft drink machine and a charging station in the corner. But to access them you had to use the touch screen, which is a perfect way to get contaminated with COVID. In the midst of this storm of viruses, there was a woman with her nose packed with gauze waiting for some kind of surgery in front of a pregnant young woman sitting in a wheelchair, more or less unconscious. And yet, there was complete silence.
Observing the people around me, my health issue felt ridiculously small and unimportant. Two hours later, I was called in. I was invited to what Beebe hospital staffers called a triage room. They normally set triage rooms at big events like the New York marathon, where the expected injuries are quickly taken care of.
My nurse was a tall woman with glasses and she asked me short routine questions. She measured my blood pressure and temperature. She also asked me about any allergies, medication, and chronic diseases I might have. She did not once look at my eye or utter a word about COVID-19. But when she asked about my medical history, I said that I needed her to look at my eye and that I needed a painkiller, since my pain was getting worse. The nurse was writing and writing. She never answered on my request and since I was curious about what she was writing down, I asked if I could have a copy of my record when all this was over. “Of course!” she answered. “Just ask for it at the front desk.”
This is when I got proactive. I went back to the front desk and asked if I could sign the form to request my record. I could not, they told me. I would have to ask a nurse. “I just talked to a nurse and she told me to do it with you, here at the front desk,” I told the person. “Not that nurse, but the nurse that will see you with the doctor,” was the answer.
I started to feel like I was trapped. My eye was hurting a lot and I once again asked for a painkiller. I was at the E.R. after all. “There is nothing we can do for you right now. I cannot give you anything, you have to wait for a doctor,” I was told. “But I was in the triage, and they could have had a look at my eye and perhaps resolve my problem,” I said. “Perhaps I do not need a doctor, just simple first aid, save the doctors for more serious cases, I just need something that will relieve my pain and remove whatever I might have in my eye,” I said.
It was at this point that two uniformed men appeared in the room. I had seen them before. They were security people. They were standing behind me. I asked if they were there for me. “Not necessarily,” the older man responded. I smiled and repeated the questions I had made to the front desk person, asking him if I was being unreasonable. “I hear you,” the man said and told me that he would go into the E.R. and see what was happening since the people who came after I had were treated before me. “That is what the triage is all about,” said the front desk person. “They decide who goes in first.”
I realized that I was losing the battle. I went silent. They did not want to hear me out. They were boxed in and bureaucratic, the way that has nothing to do with helping the people. The folks in Delaware are fantastic and nice, but the Bebee hospital implements a corporate logic that squashes the humans. I moved towards my seat and the young security guard followed me. I looked at him and asked him what the problem was. He came closer to me and tried to touch me and I told him not to and that he should respect social distancing. He was a total bully. However, the other security guard came out apologizing for the delay. They were very busy inside, he said. I thanked him and I gave up. I tried to position my eye in a way that it would hurt less. Closing it at this point was worse. Then, after four hours and a half in the waiting room, still covered with a white blanket, they called my name. I was shown to an ambulance room and told to wait. About half an hour later, a young man came in and announced himself as my nurse. He asked me why I was there. I asked him if he was aware of my record from the triage room. He was not. Resigned, I told him. He told me he would go out and see if he could get a doctor.
As soon as he left the room, I texted my wife to see if she could come and get me. I had had enough. The stupidity and meanness were worse than the pain. My wife was furious, it was almost one in the morning. Then the door opened and a broadly smiling doctor came in. He looked at my eye with a device, put the drops in, found an abrasion, the consequence of that something that was in my eye earlier, and prescribed an ointment. In five minutes I was outside of that torturing prison. Nobody else was in the waiting room. Waiting for my wife to arrive, I talked to a woman who looked exhausted. She was a cancer survivor, she told me. “How long have you been in?” I asked her. “Nine and a half hours,” she said. “I will never come back to this place again.” She was local. She said the hospital was dealing with an outbreak of COVID amongst small children.
I remembered the little child, crying as someone put the swab into their tiny nose. I wondered what happened to the baby, to their mother. As much as the story might be traumatic, I felt free to be able to think about whatever I wanted to again.