Crying babies, distressed mothers, and screaming old men fill the depths of the waiting room of the emergency department at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Hunched over, sitting in a puddle of tissues, I shift myself to get a better look at the receptionist desk. I turn white. A girl from my sorority, wearing a volunteer badge, is seated behind the desk, fixated on the computer. She is a friend of a friend, but I fear that she will recognize me and make false assumptions about why I am in the emergency department on a Tuesday at 11 pm. I hear a doctor call out my name. I stuff my tissues, sticky notes, and scattered Twizzler bags in my small knapsack and rush to the doctor, looking down to avoid contact with the friend of the friend.
The doctor escorts me to a stark, cold patient room. Then he leaves. I stare at the desk with medical supplies lined up one after another: cotton swabs, tongue depressors, syringes. I reflect back on when I would get excited just looking at such first aid items, imagining my future life as a physician. Another doctor enters the room, a smile plastered on his face. He looks far too cheery for 11 pm. He keeps the small talk to a minimum and asks what brought me to the ER. My cheeks turn crimson as I contemplate what to say. Why am I even sitting in this room? Shouldn’t I be in the psych ward? I put together a half-true, half-fabricated story on what happened that led to me going to the hospital. My mouth dries. I am mortified. And terrified that I am in the ER for the first time in my life due to something non-medical.
After the doctor leaves the room, a security guard enters and asks me to come with him. I walk through hallway after hallway, through ‘authorized access only’ doors, to arrive at a bleak expanse of adjoining rooms. The curtains are drawn, only the quiet shuffling of feet fill the quiet void. Another security guard approaches me and asks for my belongings – my backpack, Canada Goose jacket, Frye boots, even my Nike socks. I wonder if he will take my cell phone. He leaves, but returns within a minute.
“Ma’am, I need your cell phone. It is unsafe for you to keep it.”
Unsettled, I mull this over, wondering what he could mean by “unsafe.” He asks for my cell phone again. I take it from my back pocket and reluctantly hand it to him. He examines my phone screen, mutters something to himself, and then returns to his desk.
My wheelchair is planted in front of the nurse station. Without my phone, my hands itch for something to grab onto. I sit up in the wheelchair. A coat of sweat covers my back. I hunch over and bury my head in my hands. I lift my head to the sound of a stretcher rolling by. I make eye contact with the woman lying on the stretcher – she has charcoal-colored short hair, stark blue eyes, and is wearing a bracelet with her name printed in all caps, EVELYN S. I see a beautiful, frail older woman whose eyes tell me she is lost and frightened. Our eyes still locked, I manage a half smile and wave at her. An outline of a smile kisses her lips, and she lifts her free hand to wave back. Something about this brief interaction with Evelyn strikes a chord inside me. Maybe because I am currently in the ER of a hospital, or that I have been staring at doctors pass by for the last hour, I feel moved to do something for this woman. Not just for her, but for everyone needing such moments of warmth to cling onto. Maybe I will become a doctor, maybe I will work in geriatrics, maybe I will aspire to help women like Evelyn. This sudden flurry of thoughts tires me and I begin to zone out.
The same security guard nudges me awake. I orient myself and realize once again where I am. Drool covers half of my face. Tears prick my eyes. The security guard lifts me up, and helps me walk to the opposite end of the hall. I see six beds, each separated by a sheer white curtain, with roughly half of the beds occupied by women shrieking and writhing in their sleep. “Go to bed number 5,” he orders, appraising me from top to bottom. I comply.
My legs are cold. The meager piece of cloth, which the nurse called a blanket, covers my chest and belly. The cold keeps me awake. So do the intermittent screams of a woman whose bed is a few feet away from mine. Every 10 minutes – yes, I have the intervals precisely timed – a nurse appears at my neighbor’s bed and offers her medication to alleviate her chest pain. Every time after she leaves, I turn toward her bed and offer her a tentative smile. She returns it with a glare, mutters something incomprehensible, and turns over so her back is facing me. Why is she here? I begin to count the crevices in the wall. One, two…I am cold...my bladder is going to explode any minute…where is the doctor? I start singing to myself, ‘99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer. Take one down, and pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall.’ This does not help one recover any sanity. I feel like I am standing in the middle of an abandoned road, screaming for help. But no one hears or sees me.
What seems like hours later, a doctor wakes me, sits on the side of my bed, clasps my hand, and begins, “So, can you please explain why you were brought into the ER for suicidal ideation?”