The Last Resort

Real-life emergency rooms are nothing like television. For one thing, there’s the pace. If you filmed a one-hour real-time show in an actual emergency room, the scene might never change. Last month, while I was finally leaving the ER with a freshly diagnosed “honkin’ kidney infection on its way to the bloodstream,” I heard the triage nurse tell a newly arrived patient that the wait was at least six hours. Six hours? Might as well go home, take two aspirin, and come back in the morning.

Of course, I picked a popular night to drop by. During my five hours of waiting—and I did ask twice for Tylenol—I watched at least three ambulances arrive, and shared the company of about twenty other urgently ill folks. Twenty sick people, several hours, one well-sprinkled unisex bathroom, and a honkin’ kidney infection. Self-pity knows no bounds.

Not everyone was outright sick; some were healthy but broken. Like the drunken guys who’d torn each other’s faces apart in a bloody fight. No anesthetic was needed for the sewing up; the massive amounts of alcohol did the trick nicely.

Three other visitors were resting in wheelchairs with their injured legs propped up. One was a college student accompanied by two girlfriends; their cheerful complaining about classes and professors was oddly soothing. They even did some homework until exhaustion and David Letterman overcame them. (Speaking of Letterman, when did his hair turn white? He’s getting old—like everyone else. Emergency waiting rooms are so morose!)

When Otto, a super-friendly male nurse, finally shouted my name, I was instantly revived. Otto! My hero! You’re a wonderful nurse! You’re working under such hard conditions! You’re so concerned about my ailment! You’re asking a few too many weird questions about my bowel movements!

The doctor, on the other hand, was refreshingly focused on the only thing I cared about by now, which was to ingest a powerful antibiotic immediately. Normally, I have wonderful success with herbal remedies. This time, as soon as I began to feel a bit “off,” I started the cranberry extract-and-blueberries routine, and when that didn’t nip it, I turned to uva ursi, grapefruit seed extract, and oil of oregano. All the while I was thinking I was getting ahead of the curve, until I realized I wasn’t. So I resorted to some remedies that were as unpleasant as they sound: eating entire cans of asparagus; drinking large glasses of water mixed alternately with baking soda and cream of tartar; and, finally, a supposed wonder cure called D-mannose. I was waiting all day for the D-mannose to kick in, when, around eight in the evening, my entire lower back seized with so much pain I couldn’t stand up. And just like that, I decided that if I didn’t get some antibiotics right then, I would keel over and die. Since Jon had been urging me to see a doctor all week, he had the car started before I finished saying, “Let’s go.”
For the next two days, I stayed in bed and slept. I didn’t read. I didn’t think. I didn’t even brush my teeth. I just swallowed pills and drifted—in between visits from my children, who, once they were convinced I’d be fine, quickly abandoned concern for my kidneys in favor of the zanier fun to be had with words they consider private and gross, like “bladder” and “urinary.”

Through the mayhem, Lillie, my nine-year-old, was especially doting. She made up little songs to help me feel better. She dressed up in a smock and prairie bonnet as her version of a makeshift nurse’s uniform, took my temperature often, and read aloud to me from Little Women. She brought me water and juice and a Mickey Mouse pancake that she and her brother made from scratch. She also kept me posted on the news from school, since she attends the same school at which I teach—which can be awkward. “I told Mr. Lawton that you have a kidney infection,” she said. “He said that sounds serious.”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m starting to feel better.”

“I told Mr. Lucas you had an infection, too. A private infection.”

“You told him what?”

“That you had a private infection.”

I resisted the urge to scream. “Why did you tell him that?” I asked.

“Well, we were standing in the office, and there were a lot of people listening. So I didn’t want to say kidney, or bladder. I just told him it was very private.” She paused. “And that you couldn’t pee.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Just joking!” she said, laughing her bonnet off. When she recovered from the hilarity, she skipped down the stairs, composing another song as she went. “Mom,” she called from the landing, “what rhymes with bladder?” Life, in all its glory, was back on track.