real life

"I spent the night alone in emergency and now I feel awful for judging my friends."

My Uber driver thinks I’m dying.

In his defence, he’s not exactly wrong. I sure look like I am not long for this world, but right now I can’t worry about the kind man in the front seat who keeps mounting the sidewalk every time he turns around to anxiously check on me.

I’m preoccupied with the fact that a set of flame-dipped fish hooks are working their way slowly down from the top left side of my face and through my head. All in a valiant quest to join the throbbing mass of painful knots that have signed a lease and taken up residence in the base of my skull.

I feel like I’ve been in this car for hours, crumpled up among the complimentary bottles of water, although in reality it’s only been about 10 minutes.

I attempt to pick out a landmark to give me an idea of how many more streets we need to wind down before we arrive at the hospital. But an intense, inky blackness has settled over my eyes, preventing me from starring out at the streets of Sydney which are happily bubbling away with the kind of frivolous energy that can only be found on a Friday night.

A few hours earlier, the world had seemed quite different.

I’d been seated at my messy desk at work when the intense pain that had been sitting behind my eyes for the last week began to intensify with the power of a thousand suns. Then the computer screen in front of my eyes began to blur and darken and crinkle just like an old-fashioned black and white TV with a faulty antenna.

After stumbling home and lying alone in my apartment for hours, becoming increasing disoriented from the pain, I headed to the emergency room and proceeded to scare the daylights out of my poor Uber driver. 

(In hindsight, yes, I probably should have called an ambulance instead of an Uber. But, where was “hindsight” when I was crawling down my staircase with a head full of angry bees and barley functioning eyesight? No where.)

Speaking of Ubers, where are you supposed to sit in one anyway? Even if you’re dying. Post continues… 

In the emergency room there are so many needles pushed into my arms that I forget to worry about my head being slowly ripped away from my neck by a pair of invisible hands. My veins have opted out of co-operating at this particular time, disappearing faster than an Instagram husband whose wife spots a pink wall.

Instead, little needles are inserted into my hands to draw out tiny amounts of blood, drop by stinging drop, until I begin to wonder if it would have been better to just die alone at home, surrounded by books and that fern I keep forgetting to water.

Then my bed is wheeled into a little curtain encrusted cubicle and the doctor is talking. I wait for him to tell me that there’s nothing wrong, that I overreacted by making my way to the ER and the only person in real danger here is my Uber driver, who’s now being treated for stress in the next bed over.

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But he doesn’t say anything like that.

Instead, a jumble of fancy medical words quickly tumble out of his mouth and for the first time tonight it’s not the throbbing in my head that makes it hard to understand him. It’s the realisation that a simple round of painkillers is not going to fix this up.

Instead, phrases such as “possible bleeding on the brain” float out of his mouth and overtake the room as if they are lit up with neon lights. I’m wheeled off for more brain scans and I should be terrified, but all I can think about is how very cold I am. And  I am not a person who ever feels the cold.

I mean, I once backpacked though the wilds of Siberia clad in a only pair of silky Sportsgirl pants and I barley shivered.

But that night my teeth chattered so loudly I was afraid it would wake the other patients.

"In the emergency room there are so many needles pushed into my arms that I forget to worry about my head being slowly ripped away from my neck by a pair of invisible hands." Source: Getty.

When you're sick, nobody tells you that the main way you'll spend your time is waiting. Waiting for doctors to come and test results to be released and for beds to become available.

I had pictured the ER to be a bustle of activity with teams of doctors having emotional arguments over my twitching body (I may have watched too much Grey's Anatomy...) but once the initial tests were done, the curtains were drawn around my cubicle and for the first time since I'd entered that hospital I was completely alone.

My eyes still felt like they had literal beer goggles draped over them, but I could make out just enough to take in my surroundings. There's a threadbare folded blanket at the end of my of my bed that once upon a time must have been white. Someone has scribbled with texta all along one side of the back wall, but I can't make out what the words say.

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There's also a dark, swirling brown stain on the roof above my head. It looks like a million little particles of rust have all come together to form an otherworldly shape that looks somewhat like an inquisitive buffalo starring back down at me.

Aside from that, I am alone.

My family are scattered about in another state and I doubt my wobbly voice could find the words to talk to them on the phone at 2am and let them know where I was, anyway. The only people I know in this city are my work colleagues, some of whom I have become fiercely close with, and yet my muddled brain cannot join the dots enough to get up off the bed and fish about in my bag for a phone that is almost out of battery to call someone to sit with me.

And so I wait. Alone. And the hours tick by.

The throbbing in my head begins to sound like a taunting, ticking clock that is counting down the seconds until the moment when the blackness that continues to dance in front of my eyes lasts a little too long and then there is nothing else ever again. I try to block out the rising fear in my chest by closing my pain-filled eyes and straining my ears to listen to what was going on around me.

Through the curtain on my left, I can hear the rasping cough of what sounds like an elderly woman. Each time her sputtering and hacking subsides I hear another voice, this one male but also elderly. He sounds so tired yet he keeps saying softly to her "all right, sweetheart?".

He says it over and over again, after each time she finishes gasping for breath. Their ongoing exchange falls into a sort of rhythm and I find myself listening out for the softly spoken "sweetheart". Like the familiar words of a chorus in my favourite song.

To my right, the situation is a little more dramatic.

I can hear a woman around my age speaking rapidly to a doctor in Spanish, her voice broken up by the kind of heaving, heavy sobs that shake your entire body and make it almost impossible for tears to form in your eyes. There's a man with her who is trying to translate what she's saying to the doctor, but it's not going well.

She's been in Australia less than 24 hours, and while visiting this guy's home she started screaming in pain and vomiting up blood. Her body is failing her and she is unable to speak for herself or understand the words the doctors are speaking around her, and so her cries grow more and more hysterical.

I find myself desperately wanting to comfort her, but a blind girl creepily reaching her own shaking hand under our shared curtain in an act of solidarity would probably do more harm than good.

I begin to worry that I'm going to die here. All alone, in this small, dingy little corner of the hospital and suddenly I am desperate for someone to know where I am and what is happening to me.

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Now, I've never said this out loud before, and I'm ashamed to even say it now, but I've always quietly judged people who post photos to social media of themselves or their family members in the emergency room.

Each time a self-captured image showing an IV needle taped to someone's arm showed up in my Instagram feed, I would cringe inwardly and think of it as a strange cry for attention given to such a personal moment.

And likewise, every time a friend or family member would post a photo of their sick or injured child lying in a hospital bed, I would bristle with indignation and more than a hint of judgement, because why were they choosing to showcase such a difficult experience instead of just surviving it?

"I begin to worry that I'm going to die here. All alone, in this small, dingy little corner of the hospital and suddenly I am desperate for someone to know where I am." Image via Getty.

Were they really checking Facebook comments and tallying photo likes instead of listening to the doctors and caring for their sick child But now I see why they did it. Because when you're in the ER, the immense feelings of loneliness and isolation can fill you with as much terror and fear as finding out exactly what is wrong with your body.

Knowing that the people in your life are thinking of you, fearing for you and yes, even sharing a sympathetic comment on your Facebook photo helps you make it through those never-ending until a doctor finally steps into your room.

My brain and eyes are much better now. And lets just say, I can see clearly now the judgement has gone.

To see more writing from Laura Brodnik, you can follow her on Facebook.

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