Here is the second chapter of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Emory Eastside Medical Center sits on an island of Spartan land adjacent to a retail shopping mall in suburban Snellville, Georgia. It is not the closest hospital to our house, but mom has been there many times and feels comfortable with the doctors. I drive with as much dispatch as I can muster.
Her lips are pursed, her hands folded in her lap. I can tell she is not happy. We swerve in and out of traffic, negotiating stoplights and intersections along our 19-mile route. She mashes an imaginary brake pedal with her right foot.
“Stop this car. You are killing me.”
“I’m not killing you, mom.”
Normally, I am not an aggressive driver. In fact, my family and friends derive much merriment from deriding my cautious, overly conservative style of defensive maneuvering. Nonetheless, on occasions when speed and gumption are required, I can make my Taurus howl.
“Stop the car this instant. Pull over and let me out.”
Because I am already nervous and upset, mom’s critique of my driving hits a nerve. “Everything’s okay. Just calm down.”
“Do not tell me to calm down, buster. How can I calm down when you drive like a bat out of hell?”
“Mom, I’m doin’ fine.”
“It does not look fine to me. Is your insurance paid up?”
We accelerate, careening past a dump truck with an inscription painted on the rear: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” I snap on the car radio as we blow by this unexpected snippet of prophecy. Perhaps music will soothe the savage beast and my growing hysteria.
As always, it is tuned to a classic rock station. When I hit 30 years of age, I discovered, seemingly overnight, that every song and style of music I enjoyed or understood was deemed “classic rock.” The cutting edge, hip stuff strikes me as an unlistenable mish-mash of chanting urban ghetto youth or prepackaged Britney Spears wannabes.
An old song, the Doors’ version of “Light My Fire,” blares from the speakers. I know and like this tune. It is much too loud for my mother’s ears — she of the Judy Garland/Liza Minnelli/Bette Midler school of musical entertainment — so I adjust the volume knob to the left until it is barely audible.
“Please turn that off.” She rubs her eyes as keyboardist Ray Manzarek launches into the famous extended organ solo. I love this part. I can mimic the notes with my lips while I play some pretty mean air keyboards.
“You know this song, don’t you, mom?”
“How can you listen to this new music?”
“New music? This song came out in the Sixties.”
“Well, turn it off, anyway. It is much too loud and, besides, I have never liked bagpipes. They grate on my nerves.”
I feel an objection forming on my lips, but I remain silent. It is not the time or place for an argument on popular culture. I punch a button and the organ dies, mid-note.
We ride in silence until I see the hospital looming ahead of us. “There it is.”
“Are you sure this is necessary? I would rather go home and get some sleep. I am tired, but that is all.”
I cut the wheel to the right and slide across the lane directly in front of an oncoming Chevy 4 x 4 pickup. The driver sits on his horn, and my peripheral vision catches sight of a middle finger pointed in my direction.
“That fellow certainly acted ugly.”
“He’s just mad because I cut in front of him.”
“Yes, I know. You will kill me yet.”
I whip around a light pole, tires squealing, and head for a sign marked “Emergency Entrance.” My rear tire bounces over a curb as I turn the car and come to a stop at the front door.
“If I was not hurt before, I am now. I may have whiplash.” She rubs her neck.
Ignoring her complaint, I leap from behind the wheel and race to the passenger’s door where she is already stepping from the car. She pats her hair and straightens her blouse.
“Hold on a second, and I’ll get a wheelchair.”
She shivers, drawing her windbreaker closer around her body. “It sure is chilly. I should have worn my heavy coat.”
“Sorry. I didn’t think to grab it.”
Despite the chill, she stops before we have walked a dozen steps from the car. “Do I look all right?”
“You look fine. Let me just get that wheelchair.”
“Oh, what do you know? You are practically blind.” She frantically feels all over her head in search of a stray cowlick. She runs her tongue around her lips. “You rushed me so much I did not have time to put on lipstick.”
“Wait a minute, mom. Let me get a wheelchair.”
“Move out of the way.” She brushes past me toward the entrance. “I am not waiting on a wheelchair.”
With the car’s engine still running, I shuffle my mother inside the hospital.
“Would you stop grabbing my arm? I am not some invalid you can push around.”
Automatic doors slide open to reveal a modern ER waiting room. We are gazing at a microcosm of Americana. Every race, creed, and demographic group is on hand to herald (or not) our arrival. Old and young, black and white, male and female, white collar and blue collar all mix in a diverse hodge podge of the sick and injured. A few people look up at us, but mostly they seem lost in themselves, their magazines, or the game show booming from the television sets affixed to the wall.
“Oh, just look at this.” She rolls her eyes. “We will be here forever. I want to go home.”
“Hold on.” I scan the room until I spy the registration desk. Grabbing mom’s arm, I guide us in that direction.
“Ouch. Do not grip me so hard.” She looks down at my hand. “You need to cut your fingernails. Every time you paw me it is like someone stabbing me with sharp needles.”
“Ever since you stopped biting your fingernails you have let them grow too long.”
We stand in front of the registration desk as the check-in nurse berates an elderly woman adorned in a tight-fitting chartreuse pantsuit.
“I said, ‘don’t take that tone with me, lady.’”
“What tone?” The woman’s hair is frizzy and her voice is quick, the telltale signs of someone poised on the edge of panic.
“There’s no need to shout. I can hear you.” The nurse is a large, muscular fellow sporting a military-style crewcut and a wrestler’s build. The nametag on his uniform reads, “Ken.” His booming voice and hulking presence probably keep many a harried registrant in line.
The woman’s voice breaks. Mom and I are standing behind her, so we cannot see her face. Even so, we hear her trembling voice and incessant sniffling. “I’m not shouting. It’s just that they brought my mother in an ambulance an hour ago, and she’s still in the hall. Why hasn’t she seen a doctor yet? Why is she lying in the hall, for God's sake?”
“Ma’am, I’m sure I don’t know. If you’ll have a seat, I’ll check.”
The woman hesitates, unsure of how she should plead her case. “I think she’s had a heart attack. She needs to see a doctor right away.”
Ken points. “Please have a seat. I’ll let you know when we have an update on your mother's condition.”
“Why is she still in the hall? That’s what I want to know. It’s been over an hour.”
Ken is unmoved. “I’m sure I don’t know. Everyone here is suffering an emergency or has a loved one who is suffering an emergency. We’re doing the best we can. Don’t make me tell you again. Have a seat and I’ll check into it.”
As the lady walks away, shoulders slumped, Ken reaches for the phone and holds up a finger at me as if to say, “hold on a moment.” I do as he instructs. Protests will not help our case.
When he finishes talking, Ken hangs up the receiver and looks at me. “Can I help you?”
I point. “My mother is having a hard time. I think she’s had a stroke.”
Normally, this kind of information would elicit a startled response from the listener. I would expect someone to say, “oh, my God. Let’s get her onto a gurney right away!” Instead, the nurse hands me a clipboard overloaded with forms and directs us to a series of chairs pushed against the wall. A pen dangles from a small chain attached to the clipboard. “I’ll need copies of your license and insurance cards, too.”
“My mother is the patient.”
“Then I will need copies of her license and insurance cards.” I hear the edge in his voice. He is one step away from aggravation.
“How long until we can see a doctor?” I use my best "I-am-an-earnest-young-man" tone.
“I don’t know, sir. I’ll let you know when they’re able to take you.”
I have watched episodes of medical dramas on TV where doctors hustle patients into the ER, screaming for various medications to be administered and procedures to be employed as soon as possible. The TV doctors always accentuate their frenetic recitation of symptoms with the word “stat.” Presumably this is medical lingo for “get off your ass and do it right now.” I assume a stroke is serious, and medical professionals will spring from the woodwork at any moment.
I assume wrong.
Mom and I shuffle over to the chairs and sit down. Suddenly remembering my Taurus, I slap my thigh. “I need to move my car into the parking lot. I’ll be right back.”
“We should go. We will be here for hours.”
“Hang on.” I sprint for the door. “I’ll only be a minute.”
The parking lot is packed with cars, and so I circle the area for several minutes until I happen upon someone backing out of a space. I ease into the spot seconds ahead of another desperate motorist. So much for good manners.
Jogging back into the ER, I find mom rifling through the hospital forms. “They want to know everything about my life.”
I take the clipboard and pen in hand and set to work. It is tedious stuff, but it has to be done.
As I hunch over the paperwork, filling out information on mom’s insurance carrier and her medical history, she surveys the room. “We should go.”
“Mom, please. This is hard enough.”
“But I do not need to be here. Look at all these people. We will be here all night.”
She probably is right about the time commitment, but we cannot leave. When I tell her this, she merely renews her vehement protests.
“I’ll tell you what, mom. I have to put your date of birth on this form.” I brandish the clipboard in her face. “Now, I happen to know the date. If you can tell me when you were born, we’ll leave right now.”
I am playing a dangerous game. It is entirely possible that the stroke has affected only a small portion of her brain.
“Give me that.” She snatches the clipboard from my hand and gazes down at the pages. After struggling with the date for awhile, she falls silent.
Prying the clipboard from her hand, I fill in the blanks as best I can and return to the registration desk. The nurse, Ken, is on the telephone, so I stand for close to five minutes before he looks at me with a hint of recognition. “Finished?”
“Yes, sir,” I say as I hand him the clipboard. “And I’m not trying to cause trouble or anything, but my mother has had a stroke. I’m hoping she won’t have to sit in the chairs much longer.”
“Can I have your driver’s license and insurance cards so I can run a copy?”
I hand him the cards. He disappears behind a doorway. About five minutes later, he returns. “Medicare is the primary, and State Farm is the secondary— is that correct?”
“Yes. That’s correct.” I don’t have a clue, but I will say anything to move us along.
He jots a note on the forms and hands the cards back to me. “Fine. Have a seat and we’ll call you when a doctor can see her.”
“Again, not to cause trouble, but how long will it take?”
He looks at me intently, as though judging whether to upbraid me for my audacity. Finally, he nods as he glances at the paperwork. “Have a seat, sir, and I’ll tell the triage nurse you’re here.”
“Thank you.” A wave of gratitude washes over me.
I trundle back to the chairs and slide into a seat next to mom.
“What did he say?”
“They will see us as soon as they can.”
That is not the response mom wants to hear. “I told you this would take all night. We should go.”
“And I told you, mom. We can’t go. We’ll just have to wait.”
She stands. “No, sir, buster. Huh-uh. I am leaving with or without you!”
Her show of defiance is impressive, but I know when a bluff is a bluff. “And how, exactly, will you get home?”
Her nostrils flare as mom considers this unexpected obstacle. “I will call a….” Her voice fades as she searches for the right word.
“Yes, a taxi.”
“And when the taxi driver says, ‘where to, ma’am?’ What will you tell him?”
Mom scratches her chin and ponders the question. After a moment, she collapses into the chair, resigned to her fate. “You are not my boss. I am a grown woman!”
“Look. I don’t want to wait, either. But you’re having a problem of some sort, and we can’t ignore it. We have to see a doctor. That’s all there is to it.”
Ken marches over to us with the clipboard in his hand. Scanning the forms, he speaks to me. “This is Ms. Martinez?”
“Hello, Ms. Martinez.” He kneels in front of her chair. “I understand you’re having a problem.”
She shrugs. “I am just tired.”
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” He gazes intently into her eyes. “Do you know where you are?”
“And where is that?”
“I am….” She glances around the waiting room at the other patrons. “I am here.”
“Where is ‘here,’ Ms. Martinez?”
“Here — right here. In this room. Talking to you.”
He places the clipboard on a vacant chair and hold up his palms. “Can you squeeze my hands?”
“Take your hands and squeeze my hands.”
Mom looks at him as if he is insane, but she does as he asks. She reaches up and grasps his palms.
“Now squeeze as hard as you can.”
Her face is a mask of concentration as she struggles to hurt this impudent fellow. After a few seconds she releases her grip and sits back in the chair. Her breath is labored, wheezing.
“Good. Good.” He looks at me and I see a frown. “I’ll get you back to see the triage nurse and a doctor as soon as I can.”
I smile. “Thank you.”
Ken retrieves his clipboard and scribbles notations on the top sheet. He half-jogs back past the registration desk through a set of double doors leading into the bowels of the hospital.
“I am just tired.” Mom’s eyes flutter closed. “That is all. I am just tired.” Her words convince no one, probably not even her.