Literary Non-Fiction by Richard D. Hartwell
Again at the VA Emergency Room. The denizens change little and their complaints rarely at all.
Triage over – a far cry from a combat zone prioritization – the emergency department returns to bored normalcy; not excepting the older alcoholic pissing himself in the corner vacated by those more sensitive to offensive odors and lack of decorum, or the young man rocking back and forth in withdrawal. Most take a seat in one of the GSA-provided, plastic chairs, looking much like a mix-and-match herbal garden, but with the weeds left untouched.
All wilt from some form of mental trauma, disease, or financial handicap; why else be willing to wait five hours or more to confirm the flu, or try to con an increase in prescription opiates to fertilize the mind, or to find a place to sleep.
The television remains tuned to reruns of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and other macho fictions.
Some wear their wounds externally: amputations, scarifications, canes, walkers, wheelchairs. Others bear theirs internally: PTSD, general malaise, substance abuse, homelessness. There is a taint of some war, a subtle scent, that is not medicinal and not always obvious, yet all – all have been affected.
Many suffer an accumulation of accidents, otherwise they would not still be here, still waiting. Here, where they wage another war, a visual combat of braggadocio, armed with baseball caps bearing each veteran’s venue: Pearl Harbor Survivor, World War II Vet, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Some emblazoned with additions: unit designations, multi-colored theater ribbons, armed service declarations – Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force.
The old mix with the young and an increasing number of women, many scarred by wounds of sexual trauma for which they may receive some compensation, but never a Purple Heart. This could be the case with the newest patient to the ER …
A woman, a mother, perhaps wife or girlfriend, is brought in on a gurney by two paramedics. A man, a father (?), perhaps husband or boyfriend or whatever, along with her, as well as Joe-Joe, about 8 or so, who is promptly told, “Go have a seat, Joe-Joe!” by the father or step-father or boyfriend or whatever.
He – the husband/father, etc. – affects a tone of disinterest toward both the woman and the boy, conversing only with the paramedics and the male admissions’ nurse, all three in their pastel uniforms. The woman is either unconscious or has decided not to actively participate with anyone in this triage process, including the boy. She does not respond to the emotionless pat on the hand administered to her by the nurse, any more than she does to the other man’s ongoing berating of her and, presumably, her actions.
Eyes closed. Arms crossed. Lying on her side. Encircled by loose straps, if not by love. The paramedics want to plant her somewhere and return to their van. She is wearing a wedding band, which may actually signify little – except perhaps to the boy, who, still seated, continues to play a game on his phone – and she has long, silver, glistening fingernails and the mien of a high-class woman fallen on harder times than she expected.
My mind constructs her attempted suicide, for no real reason than the slack straps lightly hugging her cocooned posture and flecks of vomit on her pinked lips. The three males surrounding her – four if you can count the boy – seem to have been here before, if I am judging correctly by their relative lack of interest. This appears confirmed as the nurse addresses her “Jill! Jill, can you hear me?” but without a response.
If SHE is the veteran, I want to know the backstory; if HE – her male non-companionable consort – is the veteran, then I want his story. But too late, the nurse directs the paramedics to take her back into the bowels of the emergency room. The man and the boy follow slowly, reluctantly.
The occupants in the seating area return to more hours of normal, waiting somnolence. With dawn the air conditioner comes on with a roar much like that of an oven in a crematorium. I continue to wait with those left behind in the waiting room.