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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Torture and a Trip to the Emergency Room

By Rebecca Gordon

You might not expect a trip to the ER to make a person think about torture.

On Monday, I gave myself an impromptu lesson in the principle of inertia: if you're whizzing along on your bike and slam on the brakes, the bike will stop – but you won't.

I landed on my head, passed out, vomited all over the nice EMT people, had the presence of mind to explain that the color was due to my breakfast of blackberries, not blood, got strapped into a rigid board and spent the next 24 hours at San Francisco General Hospital.

Two CT scans later, they decided my brain was not bleeding after all. They kept me overnight for monitoring and sent me home the next afternoon, a sadder and I hope wiser cyclist.

There’s nothing like 12 hours in the ER at an urban public hospital to remind a person of just how well-insulated her own life is.

San Francisco General houses one of the city's main trauma centers. It's where all the people who can't go somewhere fancier end up when the material world catches up with them. It's cold and drafty, lit by garish fluorescent lights and when the activity speeds up, there's a cacophony of noise bouncing off the concrete walls.

It's where you hear the drunk who decided to pat a pit bull and ended up with a laceration down to the muscle screaming that this shit fuckin' hurts.

It's where the staff have to put another guy in four-point restraints after he takes a swing at one of them. He lies there shouting at anyone in hearing that they're faggots and dykes.

It's where an older woman suffers quietly while the docs get ready to do a closed reduction (don't ask) on her broken arm. Her brother is with her, speaking to her in French, then to the nurse in English: "I'm hard of hearing. You have to look right at me when you speak." The nurse does.

At one point when I was dozing on a gurney, still locked in an ill-fitting neck collar, a friend kindly took my glasses home for safekeeping. When I woke, I was more disoriented than ever and a nurse was explaining that I couldn't have anything to drink because I might need brain surgery.

More than a little frightening.

To make matters worse, all my go-to people were gone – out of town or in other countries. I'm forever grateful to Dan, the housemate whom the ER managed to track down who safeguarded my glasses and actually found my bike, which the EMT folks had thoughtfully stuffed into the ambulance along with me.

I was so glad to look up at one point and see Beth, another friend who turned up late that evening and drove me home the next day. But my partner of 30 years, my brother, my best friend – all of them were thousands of miles away.

What's this got to do with torture?
This was just a silly accident and all the people around me were doing their best to help me. But the experience gave me a visceral reminder of just how easy it is to destroy someone’s physical, temporal and social worlds. That is what torture does.

The people at the ER couldn’t have been more competent and more concerned with their patients’ well-being. And still, it was a terrifying experience.

Imagine that combination of pain, fear, disorientation, sensory bombardment while in the hands of people who are not trying to help, but actually mean you harm. That is torture.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


You are an excellent observer. The story is engaging and you make the point vividly and cleverly. Really good work, Rebecca!

Emergency nursing was my profession for all most 30 + years. I'm sure the experience was frightening for you. I'm thankful that you at least saw the professionals as people who were trying to help. Some people don't. This is a difficult job and environment.

Good writing--I felt your terror and your relief. Ouch!

Rebecca - Wonderfully perceptive piece!

I just went through the same thing a week ago, following a minor auto accident. You capture the ER experience perfectly.

I felt totally helpless a I gave in to one test after another that confirmed what I already knew - i.e. I was fine. Your torture parallel confirmed another thing I already knew - i.e. I would have made a very bad 'prisoner of war'. - Sandy

Oh Rebecca, what an ordeal. I ached for you. I have had brain surgery but in my case, I was in a coma during my ER experience so have no story to tell. I am fine now. Your story is magnificently told. Is it time to sell the bike?

That happened to me recently too. I think I survived the ER and the hospital ok, but the three days of tests and lack of communication between doctor's really got to me.

I have experienced the torture you so artfully describe...at the SFGH.

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