Cotton and dried blood filled Adams mouth, muffling his voice. The admitting nurse didnt seem to understand him. His throat parched, he had to repeat the answers to many of her endless questions. With his gaunt face, dark-circled eyes, and the wrinkled clothes he had hurriedly put on, he supposed he looked like a street person who hadnt slept in days.
Pungent, ammonia-like odors filled the air. Harsh fluorescent lights dulled the colors, giving the room a look of sterile gray and faded blue. A siren wailed. Swinging doors to the reception area banged open. Two attendants wheeled a gurney into the room, past Adam, and through metal doors that led to the inner hospital.
The admitting nurses round, lumpy face was devoid of makeup except garish eyebrows painted at sharp angles over her vacant, gray eyes. Her thin lips barely parted when she spoke. Adam felt the urge to touch the large, brown mole on her left cheek to see if it was real.
A lone strand of hair hung over her right eye to just above her mouth. She puffed the hair out of her way before asking the next question. Tapping the keys of the computer efficiently, she stared, unfocused, at the screen. The interrogation began to irritate Adam. He wanted to tell her to forget the damn paperwork and take care of him, now.
* * * *
Adams wisdom tooth had bothered him for weeks, and he finally made a dentist appointment for Wednesday after work. When Dr. Friedman told him that the tooth should come out, he resisted at first. Hed never had a tooth pulled or had a broken bone or even a stitch. It frightened him to think of his body being invaded, but he dismissed his fear as childish.
He felt only a slight discomfort as the needle was inserted into his gum. When the anesthetic numbed the whole side of his face, he felt detached from his tooth. Dr. Friedman completed the extraction in less than five minutes.
There may be some minor bleeding, she said, but it should stop quickly.
Adam woke around four in the morning. The sweet, syrupy taste of blood filled his mouth, and red stains covered his pajamas and the sheets. Unable to clear his throat to speak, he reached for and shook his wifes shoulder. Stirring, she turned toward him, and sat up quickly.
My God, Adam, she said. Has it stopped? Are you okay?
He tried to reassure her, to no avail. She insisted he rinse with warm water and salt, and went with him to the bathroom where he rinsed, washed up, and put on a fresh set of pajamas.
Back in bed, his wife quickly returned to sleep. The bleeding continued. Adam considered what might happen if he lost too much blood. He tried to put it out of his mind, but the thought kept creeping back, just as his tongue kept returning to the bloody spot where his tooth had been. Perhaps the worrying might raise his blood pressure and cause him to lose more blood. The normally reassuring beat of his heart became a steady reminder of his loss of blood and his irrational fear.
He shifted back and forth, trying to get more comfortable, and his wife woke.
Honey, this is serious, she said. I dont think its going to stop. You really need to go to the emergency room.
Hospitals frightened him, but he knew he had to stop the bleeding. All right, he said, not wanting her to know he was afraid. If the kids wake up, tell them Ill be fine. You go back to bed.
As Adam drove to the hospital, memories of a movie he had seen came to him. A woman turned on the water for a bath. She adjusted the hot water until steam rose gently, enveloping the tub. After taking off and carefully folding her robe, she removed her slippers, and climbed into the bath. Putting her head back on a pillow, she lingered lazily in the hot water. She examined each wrist, then picked up a razor blade and made a deep, horizontal cut into first her left wrist and then her right. Vivaldis The Four Seasons played in the background as the woman vacantly watched the water turn bright red.
* * * *
Two men paced nervously in the reception area. A young, black man with long, curly hair and weary, half-closed eyes had a broken arm encased in a filthy, signature-covered cast. The other, a bald, middle-aged man with prominent veins in his nose and cheeks, had a patch over his right eye. A man and woman sat nearby in red plastic chairs that were crisscrossed with frayed duct tape. The man, with olive skin, short, brown hair, and a wide, flat nose, and the woman, attractive, with jet-black, wavy hair, and long, bright red fingernails, spoke softly to each other in Spanish. Unlike Adam, they seemed content with the endless waiting.
Although he hadnt heard another siren, the doors banged loudly open, and two men wheeled a gurney rapidly past him. They passed the admitting nurses station and went down the hall where a doctor and two young nurses stood talking. The doctor, tall, smooth-faced, and around the same age as the nurses, appeared to be telling them a joke. Adam wondered if they knew the people here needed help.
The attractive woman spoke to her companion in a loud, commanding voice. Although Adam couldnt understand her words, he could tell that she was in pain. Her friend jumped up and tried to interrupt the nurse filling out Adams paperwork. She ignored him. When he spoke again, she said, Sit down and wait your turn.
As Adam put another fresh cotton ball in his mouth, the woman winced and groaned loudly. The man with the broken arm asked the nurse when he would see a doctor, but she ignored him and continued her paperwork. Down the hall, the two young nurses and the doctor were sipping coffee.
Tearing Adams paperwork off the printer, the admitting nurse said, Follow me.
They went into a stark white room containing medical equipment and four beds separated by partially closed curtains. Without looking at him, she instructed him to lie on the nearest bed. The sheet felt abrasive against his skin, and he stretched out slowly. At his eye level, a soiled slip protruded slightly where the middle button of her uniform had opened. After taking his vital signs, she said the doctor would see him shortly, and left. Adam felt relieved that he would finally see a doctor, and he was glad to get away from that nurse. Staring at the ceiling, he counted the holes in the tiles and studied the shape of the water stains.
A stain directly above his head reminded him of an outline of the Rocky Mountains that he had seen in a beer commercial. The edge of the stain tapered off into a line that led to another stain that resembled the face of an old woman. He thought of a female Mt. Rushmore, a river of beer at its foot. Time passed as slowly as the running of that river. Adam wondered where the hell the doctor was. His bleeding continued.
He heard the sounds of another patient being brought into the next bed. After a moment, the admitting nurse began a stream of questions. Adam wondered why she hadnt done this in the reception room and why the paperwork in this goddamned hospital seemed more important than the patients. The nurse droned her inquiries about insurance coverage, credit references, and next of kin. From the patients voice, Adam guessed he was an elderly man.
Adam heard a pattern of labored breathing in the next beda low, mournful groan followed by a loud gasp. He envisioned the man panting through tightly clenched teeth. A deep sigh followed the gasp, as if the man was clinging tenaciously to each bit of oxygen. Adam pictured a great weight pressing on the mans rib cage, forcing him to strain for each breath. The mans plaintive groan signaled the next rhythmic cycle of struggle.
As Adam changed another cotton ball, the nurse asked the old man more questions. Adam heard the fear in the old mans voice as he told the nurse he couldnt breathe. Anxiety crept over Adam.
Be still, the nurse said, and then asked again about the old mans insurance coverage. Fueled by the bleeding that wouldnt stop and the increasing urgency of the old mans groaning, Adams apprehension deepened. Just when he thought shed never complete the interrogation, the questions stopped.
Relax, she said, and left the room.
Alarm gripped Adam. The old man could die before a doctor saw him. Adam wished he had asked his wife to come with him. As the oppressive rhythmic groaning continued, he pictured her at home in their bed, peacefully sleeping.
A woman with dark, oily hair, sallow skin, and deep brown eyes opened the curtain abruptly and glanced briefly at Adam. She picked up his chart, and with her eyes on the chart said, Im Doctor White.
Without asking how he felt or if the bleeding had stopped, she told the nurse to prepare a shot of adrenalin. The groaning from the next bed grew louder, but the doctor and nurse didnt seem to notice.
The bleedings just routine, the doctor said. Adrenalin is an effective coagulant in these cases. She scribbled on his chart and left.
Adam grew more furious with the doctors and nurses and everyone in this hospital. They were treating him like a child, but he felt powerless to do anything about it. His bleeding wasnt just routinehe had a real problem.
He imagined the old man struggling for breath and wondering if he would die. Did he have gray hair or was he bald? Was his face wrinkled with age? Did he stoop from years of abuse to his back? Was he afraid of dying or was it the manner of his death? The mans fear pressed down on Adam, and it became harder to breathe. He couldnt contain the escalating alarm that gripped him like a vise.
Adam threw the last of the blood-saturated cotton balls in the waste container. Time seemed to have stopped, although he thought hed been in this room for over an hour. He made up his mind that he wouldnt accept this treatment anymore. Hed insist his bleeding was serious and that they must take care of him, when and how he wanted. His heart beat faster as his fear raced out of control. An overweight, middle-aged nurse opened the curtain.
Please roll up your left sleeve, she said.
He wanted to scream at her, but fear sucked his voice from his throat. He turned away as she swabbed his arm and administered a needle. The swift prick startled him. She pressed a cotton swab on the punctured spot on his arm.
The adrenalin may increase your heart rate, she said, while looking at her watch. Lie back and relax.
Adam leaned back and closed his eyes. Almost immediately his heart began to race. A bitter, copper taste filled his mouth, as if it were stuffed with dirty pennies. Sweat rolled down his forehead and cheeks, and his breathing became more rapid. He thought his heart would leap from his chest. Its loud beating nearly muffled the sounds of the old mans struggle for breath. The pound, pound, pound of his heart convinced Adam that he would bleed to death, now, in this room. His throat thickened. The nurse said the bleeding would stop in ten minutes or less, and he could leave then. The old man groaned loudly and called for help.
Pick up the bill at the desk on the way out, she said. She pulled his curtain shut, and walked out of the room.