This is the unbelievably sweet get-well card my classmates signed for me.

One week ago my husband called a taxi-cab at three am to take us to the hospital. This was our third or fourth trip to the ER in the past eighteen months; actually, in the four years since we’ve met, we’ve each suffered a handful of decidedly random health crises. The last time I ended up in the hospital was a few days after being accepted to Harvard. I caught my husband’s stomach virus and couldn’t keep any fluids down. A few bags of saline and some anti-nausea medication later, we were back on our couch slurping popsicles and lamenting the low quality of the movie rentals available through our cable’s On Demand service. We had missed a dinner reservation at new restaurant in Brooklyn.

I thought this trip would be  identical. The symptoms suggested food poisoning – sharp pain bisecting my abdomen, nausea, bloating. On the other hand, the pain was so bad that it was intermittently challenging to talk. After we wrestled with it for three or four hours, Mr. resolved to call a car and we were sitting in the hospital waiting room twenty minutes later.

The hospital I visited in Massachusetts seemed worlds apart from the ones I’ve seen in NYC. This is not to say that all NYC hospitals are the same; on the contrary, there are hospitals I would choose to be rushed to in the City, where the relative affluence of the surrounding neighborhood ensures downright cozy, brisk service, and others where the care is sporadic, the security random, and the staff brusque. In the City the ER waiting room has always meant a parade of tragedies and oddities; a trimmed off finger wrapped in blood-soaked towels, a wailing man reeking of garbage, two twenty-something women drunkenly chastising themselves for eating from the vending machine. The only time I ever experienced a quiet hospital waiting room was when not-yet-Mr. and I hailed a cab to Lenox Hill the evening Hurricane Irene hit New York. While they waited for his test results, the nurses discussed whether they would accept the hospital’s offer to remain in a hotel for the evening.

But here in non-urban MA, at three-thirty in the morning just one other person sat at the bank of peach leatherette chairs by the intake station. His sweatshirt had been pulled taut around his face, Kenny-style. The man declared that he was waiting for daylight to strike so he could walk home. A passing maintenance man advised him to take the bus and not worry about the change, the bus driver would take him anyway, “Mr. Obama will pay for it.” When I was finally taken into the emergency department and given a bed, the space was private, away from the coughs and domestic disputes of my fellow patients. A relatively unharried assortment of nurses and nurse practitioners sipped coffees and shuffled around at steady pace. A physician lent Mr. her iPhone charger.

Last night before bed Mr. and I were reflecting on the time in the ER before they admitted me. I told him I thought we were in the ER for twenty hours, which he quickly demonstrated impossible. Whenever I am in an emergency room, either as patient or nervous companion, whether in a terrifyingly busy or dead-quiet facility, I am always surprised by the slow progress of emergency treatment. I mean no insult, I received excellent, and mostly personable, care throughout my hospital stay. I only mean that for whatever reason – because I have watched too many medical dramas, perhaps, or because “emergency” sounds a lot like “urgency,” – time in an ER seems like the perfect exercise of hurry up and wait. Anticipation, anxiety, and pain conspire to expand each second. Each hour feels like two while you wait for the EKG or the MRI or the ultrasound or the consult or the transport or a wash of plain relief. I am reminded of a passage from one of my very favorite novels, Virgin Suicides* by Jeffrey Eugenides:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.’ (Emphasis added.)

Indeed. Though it can induce handwringing misery in a patient, emergency requires an even pace, methodical, measured decision making. Unless a patient crashes, it is probably too easy to cause harm in a rash rush.

What have your ER experiences been like? How have you passed the time while the doctors figure out what is the matter with you or a loved one? Are you afraid of doctors or needles or illness? 

*Why do I call this book Virgin Suicides rather than The Virgin Suicides, as is printed on the cover? During my senior year of college I saw Mr. Eugenides at a reading and interrupted his conversation with a bunch of serious, well-known, very cool authors in order to ask him to sign my copy. He immediately opened it and crossed out the article. I am probably getting this all wrong, but I like to imagine there was some kind of debate with an editor over whether the article was necessary.