I watched The Alcoholic being escorted through the doorway and hooked up to the beeping monitors, accompanied by a security guard. Another frequent flier, I thought, somewhat apprehensive and annoyed. He was so intoxicated that he didn’t know this was already his third visit tonight to the ER, and now the doctors were admitting him to the ICU for “suicidal ideation.” When the police brought him to the hospital, he had immediately been tied down in four-point leather restraints because of his violent behavior. I suppose being tied down in a hospital bed for the remainder of the night was better than causing trouble in the streets… but why couldn’t they lock these people up in jail for the night and let them sleep it off?
I quickly assessed him to determine the severity of his symptoms, considering his blood alcohol level was over 0.4 when he came in. Only fake hand tremors in an attempt to get Ativan. He knew the drill. There was still so much alcohol coursing through his veins that he couldn’t possibly be going through withdrawal. Not yet at least. The heavy scent of whisky was on his breath. He complained of nausea, vomiting, “pain all over,” blurry vision and “seeing shit. Evil shit.” The kind of shit that was very “lucid and surreal.” But it must have been so lucid and surreal that he couldn’t describe to me what he was seeing, if he was even seeing anything at all. He told me he felt like jumping out the window. Be my guest. If I listed a symptom, he invariably had it. I asked him if he had a headache. He said yes. Well he was about to have an even bigger one come Hangover Thursday.
He tore off his blood pressure cuff and got out of bed, almost falling before I steadied him, his heart rate increasing to the 170s on the monitor. He was determined to leave, insisting there was no point in staying if he didn’t get his Ativan, but the security guard blocked the doorway. “Would you please tell the doctor I need Ativan? I need Ativan every two hours.” Of course he did. Not. At least he was grateful when it finally was time for him to receive it and his simple “thank you” momentarily doused the fire of indignation within me.
I left The Alcoholic’s room to check on The Baptist, a kind old gentleman who called me “sweetheart” and “honey,” and thanked me often for taking care of him. He had not slept all night but his exhaustion did not dampen his mood. He affectionately talked about his dear wife who lay ill in a hospital bed upstairs, and when I told him that his wife had said she falls in love with him more and more each day, his face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked. Yes. “Do you go to church?” I told him no, I don’t, but I used to go to church. I assured him I was a Christian and he seemed relieved. “You are such a sweet girl that I wanted to make sure I knew where you were spending eternity.”
Wow. Who says that? A complete stranger has never asked me that before. And I don’t count the religious Bible-thumpers who go knocking door to door. Those conversations are always so pushy and one-sided. But I could tell that this man really cared. He was sick and in the hospital, and yet he still asked me where I stood in eternity.
I left work in a pensive mood. The Baptist’s question made me think of The Alcoholic, and I realized how judgmental I had been, especially in the light of what I had learned from the nurse who came in the morning and filled me in on this “frequent flier” that she had taken care of multiple times before. The Alcoholic had no family and his landlord was probably going to kick him out of his apartment for not paying rent, if he hadn’t been kicked out already. He had no furniture in his apartment so he slept on the floor. He often ran out of money and sacrificed food in order to feed his addiction, living on a healthy diet of alcohol for days on end. He suffered from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and a number of other “psych issues.” I didn’t know all of this last night, but this knowledge or lack thereof should not have affected how I treated him.
To me, The Alcoholic was a problem, and I viewed taking care of him as an inconvenience and a burden. He was just another leech off the healthcare system, sucking up my tax dollars. When he was first brought in, he said, “You don’t like taking care of my type, do you?” I didn’t respond but my silence was answer enough. I didn’t stop to wonder about his background situation or about where he would spend eternity. What’s his life story? What caused him to go down this path of self-destruction? If I don’t care, who will?
I made a promise to myself when I got off work last night, stepping into a surprisingly warm autumn breeze. Before I judge you, I’m going to stop to learn what your story is, and maybe you can show me what it’s like to walk a mile in your shoes?