About thirty years ago, I was published for the first time. Not a novel, but an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. I was working as a hospital social worker at the time, and after a particularly moving encounter with a family in the ER, I took a break and wrote this fictionalized account in my office. I submitted it to the Times and was thrilled when they accepted it for publication. I was bitten by the writing bug then. . . Well, I’d been bitten long before that, I guess. It’s probably more accurate to say I was bitten by the publication bug. And the rest is history.
So I thought I’d share the op-ed piece that started my writing career. I’ll try not to edit it here, although there are a few lines I would dearly love to change, but that ship has sailed! Oh, and you know how I complain that publishers often change an author’s titles? I complained thirty years ago as well. I’d titled this piece “One Man’s Family in the Emergency Room.” Oh well.
She’s a Stranger at the Wrong Kind of Family Reunion
by Diane Chamberlain
The ambulance backs up to the emergency room door and a patient is whisked past me into the trauma room. I can see the team of blue-garbed figures surround him before the door swings shut. Someone tells me that he is a 42-year-old executive who collapsed at his desk just minutes earlier. I wait to meet his wife.
She arrives almost immediately, shaking from head to toe. She looks like the type of woman who would never be caught outside her home in the old jeans and torn shirt that she is wearing—not unless there was no time to change or put on makeup or even run a comb through her hair.
I steer her into the tiny counseling room several yards from where the trauma team is working on her husband. I tell her that I am the hospital social worker, and that I will stay with her while she waits.
I feel that gnawing sense of powerlessness that is always my companion during times like these in the emergency room. I can only bring her coffee, hold her hand, listen to her tell me what a good man he is. There is nothing more that I can do. He is on the brink and I am utterly incapable of bringing him back.
She is agitated. It is normal, I know. She can’t sit still. She walks from wall to wall in our tiny cubicle, sits in every chair, pounds every table. “This can’t be happening!” she screams. “He was fine this morning!”
I am a complete stranger to her, yet she lets me hold her. For a moment she seems to welcome my arms around her. Then she is up again, walking, pounding.
I help her focus. Together we call her teen-age sons and her brother. She weeps into the phone. They tell her they will come right over.
I ask if she would like a clergyman or a friend to come. She shakes her head no.
Her sons, 17 and 18, arrive, followed moments later by her brother. They hug one another, cling together. I feel enormous strength and love coming from their little circle. She needs me less now.
I talk with the nurse outside the trauma room to see if there is any information that I can pass on to the family. The nurse says there is little chance that he will make it. I return to the counseling room and they look at me with wet, pleading eyes. I am careful not to give them hope. They need to be prepared for what is coming. He is not doing well, I tell them. They cry more, hugging one another, pushing me out of their circle.
The doctor comes in. His words are gently spoken, yet they cut like a knife. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We did everything we could, but weren’t able to save him.”
He waits while they cry, while they say that it just can’t be so. I don’t touch them now. I don’t comment. They don’t need me. I am awed, as I always am, at the way they hold one another up, how each puts aside his or her own pain to become a backbone for the others.
When they are ready to listen, the doctor tells them what was done to try to save him. They nod and nod. I wonder what they will remember of this explanation.
She wants to see her husband. I tell her about the tubes that have to remain in place until the coroner arrives. I take her and her sons into the room where the man is covered by a sheet up to his chin. He looks younger than I expected and I see my own husband in his face. I cry just a little as I watch them say goodbye. She touches his face and smoothes his hair. One son kisses his forehead. I walk into the hallway to give them privacy.
In my mind, I have lived through the deaths of my parents, my husband and my siblings in this emergency room. I can never see the body of someone’s loved one without thinking of someone I love.
Sometimes people ask me how I can tolerate this part of my job. I tell them of the love I have been privileged to see: the 3-year-old standing on tiptoe to kiss grandpa’s cold cheek; the burly truck driver rocking the body of his infant son in his arms, humming a lullaby. Families come together, the conflicts of yesterday and tomorrow suspended for today. I feel lucky to be able to see this part of life.
The man’s family leaves, each member circled by the arm of another, and I walk back to my office hoping that one of my co-workers is there. Right now, I don’t want to be alone.