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The ER you find outside Hollywood is not so glamorous

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - (Note: Some names were changed to protect the privacy of those who did not know they were under the observation of a reporter).

10:35 a.m.: I arrive at the ER with Bennie Ford, my 72-year-old brother-in-law who is in the ninth day of suffering stomach pains. He is diabetic with a pending toe removal, has had several heart attacks, has a broken but inoperable hip (because of his fragile health) and is on dialysis. But today he is seeking help for this new problem.

He does not have a primary care doctor and can't find a doctor to see him in less than a week. So, we go to the ER, arriving just in time for mid-morning snacks. That's right, a lady is passing out graham crackers and apple juice. She knew what I did not: We would be there long enough to get good and hungry.

I quickly count 40-50 people waiting (Yes, I counted; I always do a head count. It's a leftover habit from PR work when I needed to know the attendance number.) Crutches, wheelchairs, oxygen, arm slings, ice packs, faces contorted in pain, occasional moans. A steady stream moves through the security corridor to the "Patient Check In" desk, on to Registration, then to seats for The Long Wait.

It soon becomes obvious that only those with immediate life-threatening symptoms - full cardiac arrest or a knife sticking from their chest - would move through quickly. No one complained. No wonder they are called "patients."

"Patient with the last name Henry, Henry, please come to Registration." The announcements are loud and clear - and steady. People walk, shuffle or are wheeled to one of two booths when their names are called for Round 2.

Noon: I go to the hospital cafeteria and pick up a slice of thin-crust sausage pizza and a small, regular Sierra Mist for Bennie's lunch. The cafeteria is packed but the lines move quickly because of the strategic layout and well-staffed food stations. I'm gone for just a few minutes and when I return, the ER waiting room resembles the cafeteria. We have a lunch crowd.

12:30 p.m.: Time to recheck patients' vital signs to make sure the people who had been waiting for hours are all still alive. (They are first checked minutes after arrival.)

1:10 p.m.: I am aware that, despite the crowd, the room is very quiet. But the quiet is broken harshly by a young man with fat cheeks vomiting loudly and repeatedly into a hospital bucket. (We are glad we'd finished our lunch.) He looks downright miserable. He finally stops puking long enough to drift off to sleep, his head leaning on one shoulder, deflating one of his round cheeks.

On the heels of the Puking Man, several firefighters escort three or four people in, actually wheel them in; one man's hand and knee  bleeding heavily.

For some reason, in the midst of this new crowd, I become aware of two flat-screen TVs overhead. "Tyra," a show I've never seen, seems to be commanding a lot of attention. (I had run out of reading material and Bennie and I have explored every topic of conversation. He's tired and quiet.)

This is also the first time I really look at our fellow "waiters." Many are covered in thin white cotton blankets, particularly people in wheelchairs. The people who aren't watching "Tyra" are mostly asleep or chatting in low voices. About a third of those waiting are white, most of the rest of us are black, with a smattering of people who appear to be Hispanic or Asian, including a family of six. The little boy, about 5, appears to be the one who is sick.

Everyone is here. Professionally dressed, casually attired, well-coiffed hair and hair that looked as though the person had slept standing on their head. Babies, toddlers, old men and old women, teens, young families.

A young woman, frustrated that her little girl could not go into the examining room with her and no one was available to watch the child, spends a lot of time on the phone with her mother complaining. She interrupts her conversation from time to time to reprimand her daughter with a command: "Come here, sit down, shut up." When the girl begins to cry after hours of waiting and walking with her mother, the young woman tells her mother that she is going to "choke the (bleep) out of her (daughter's) neck." Apparently, the mother on the other end of the line did not discourage this course of action, but luckily the threat is never carried out.

2 p.m.: "Mr. Ford, last name Ford, first name Bennie." That's my brother-in-law! I am so excited, until the woman tells us that he is just going for blood work. At least we'd taken another step.

2:10 p.m.: Bennie is back from his blood tests. I notice a man in a gray Rams sweat suit. The man's back is soaking wet, and he's pacing with a shuffling motion.

2:45 p.m.: A man and his son (he looks like a miniature of the man), who appears to be about 10 or 11, arrive, prepared for the duration. They have a blue plastic grocery bag filled with sodas and junk food. Four more family members join them, including a woman who appears to be the wife/mother and a toddler girl.

The security shift that had confiscated my contraband coupon-clipping scissors and whose members talk like they are the FBI about to arrest a terrorist, is changing.

3:30 p.m.: "Henry, Johnson, Jones, Patient Kerry..." Several names are called all at once - and no one responds. I think some people have just given up and decided to suffer another day.

Judge Joe Brown is now on the TV but the crowd is more interesting than the judge's litigants.

4:07 p.m.: "Mr. Ford!" This call is coming from the direction of the people who escort you to an examining room to see the doctor! At last!

No more Fox 2 for us. As soon as my brother-in-law gets into his hospital gown, we quickly change the TV channel to CNN. That's better!

4:25 p.m.: The floor of the unisex bathroom is a mess. I let Nurse Carrie know and she says she will call Housekeeping. She does and, within half an hour, the bathroom is clean (I know. I checked.)

5:20 p.m.: Dr. Griffey comes in. Bennie has been sound asleep and snoring for about 20 minutes. When the doctor wakes him, he's unaware he's been asleep! It must be the best rest he's gotten in the past nine days, he says. Dr. Griffey puts me out of the room after talking with both of us for a few minutes, then examines Bennie for about 15 minutes. Additional tests are ordered.

It's a hernia! A minor operation should make him better.

6:30 p.m.: We are still waiting for test results, but at least I get to watch Wheeeeel oooof Fortune!

6:45 p.m.: Bennie participates in a cognition test for people over 65 that a young woman researcher administers. Darn it, she makes me help with the 10-minute test so I miss the rest of Wheel.

7:07 p.m.: The man in the Rams sweat suit and the family of six are among the people still waiting...

As we prepare to make our escape, it slowly dawns on me that a big city emergency room is simply the doctor's office for millions of Americans. Except you can't make an appointment -- it's first-come, first-served, unless imminent death moves you to the head of the line.

EPILOGUE: Before retiring in 1998, Bennie Ford worked, combined, nearly four decades as a city of Wellston police officer and a McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) security officer. Since our recent all-day visit to the ER, Bennie has had the big toe on his left foot removed (a diabetes thing), the pain of which has been dwarfed by the continuing discomfort of the hernia. It has become increasingly painful during the wait to see a primary care physician who can schedule the hernia surgery the ER doc recommended. We are hopeful that the hernia repair surgery is soon - and successful.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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