The Irish Medical Times - Accidental humour, my time in St James's Emergency Department

"No" said the nurse "It's named after Patrick Dun", "Ohhh," said the lady in mock wonderment, "after Patrick Dun himself!". The busy nurse turned on her heel and the woman looked at me and said "Who the hell is Patrick Dun? Does he own Dunnes Stores?" 

To comply with Covid rules I was moved into a space on my own with the side curtain drawn between me and the man in the next cubicle. No bed was available so I sat on a plastic chair in the centre like a contestant on medical Mastermind. I could hear the man next door rolling a cough around in his chest. I always wonder who these fellow patients are? What is wrong with them? What is right with them? What brought them here? What journey are they on? The nurse swished by, and without even turning her head she said to the man next door, "Simon, put your trousers back on, please"...I stopped wondering! 

A tired young doctor with wildly unkempt 'Covid hair' came to perform a preliminary examination of me. After I finished my war stories of multiple cancers and heart failure, he flashed a practised ‘sad face’ that put me in mind of an emoji character (the pixelated sequel to real emotions). But as he reached for his stethoscope, which had somehow become tangled in the death grip of his tresses, he quietly said "You have serious problems". I appreciated his acknowledgement and fought my urge to joke “I have serious problems?! Your hair has its own eircode!” 

For reasons unknown, possibly because of Simon, I was moved back to the bullpen. Public hospitals operate at breakneck speed but are often painfully slow. Sitting for hours on your own behind a curtain is no fun, I much prefer to be in the throes of the patient safari. 

Back in the thick of things, the Russian chap on my right had two huge Lidl shopping bags, full to the brim with bottles of water, and kept asking me to mind them. Across from me sat an old construction worker who kept eyeing up the water. He flapped around his mangled arm as he talked of how he caught it in a conveyor belt. To my left sat a timid lady who said her dog had bit and shredded her leg. The construction worker kept asking her “And is your dog with you now in the hospital?”...?!  

When the one arm bandit disappeared (maybe he was looking to pet the dog) he was replaced with a man who informed the room that he had a brain tumour. We made sad noises then he said "I haven't had any tests yet or seen a doctor or anythin’ like that, but it's definitely a tumour". What are your symptoms? I asked, half out of politeness, half because I wondered if maybe we're all walking around with brain tumours. "I got a touch of the ole, pfft, yerra, surelookit!" he said inconclusively as he threw his eyes up to heaven. My Russian friend seemed alarmed by the news, and leaned closer to me than I was happy with, and heavily whispered “Mind my water” then hurried off on one of his wanders to the well.

Just as I was getting bored and contemplating drinking the Russian’s water, the dog-lady got a phone call, I only heard one side of the conversation but it went something like this:

"Ann? Ann?...Ann, don't even TALK to me, don't even Taaaaaalk to me... G'wan."

"I know, I know...oh, I know, I know, I know! Stop, g’wan...stop, g’wan...I knew it, sure didn't I know it. I had absolutely no idea." 

“Ann, I have to go now the doctor’s coming. I need to brush my hair. God Bless, godbless, g'bless, gblessgblessgbless."

As my ‘friends’ were picked off one by one as beds became available, I was put on a fake bed (trolley) in a fake ward (corridor) - maybe I should have brushed my hair! My trolley was pressed right up against the window of what I first mistook as the Staff Room. One lady sat in there alone looking sad (describes most staff rooms everywhere at some point). ‘Oh no, cheer up’, I thought, ‘Look, here's your pal’, as a doctor rushed in to sit across from her. 

I watched the back of his head as he spoke at great length then I watched as she wept. ‘Oh no, why is she crying?’, I thought, ‘Where are the biscuits and the cups of tea? This is a dreadful staff room!’...Oh, the scythe fell, this wasn't a staff room, I was discreetly peering into the "Family Room", or a room posing as the family room a.k.a 'the room of death'. I made that moniker up, but if you bring your loved one to hospital and you are then asked to go to the Family Room, it won't be because the doctor wants to talk to you about a surprise party for your family/friend. It is likely because they are seriously ill, perhaps dying, or even dead. That said, the room may also be used innocuously as a space to accommodate a patient’s family that are many in number, young in age or loud in volume. However, that hasn’t been my experience.

Ten years ago my Mum was rushed to A&E, my Dad was brought to that very room in St James’s and a young doctor broke the news to him that my Mum was never coming home. As I couldn’t move my trolley, I tried to will myself invisible so I wouldn't be in the backdrop of this woman's devastation. I would later learn, as her daughter rushed in, that she spoke little English, mainly Mandarin, my heart broke for her. My heart also broke for the doctor, how devastating it must be to tell someone their loved one has passed away, especially if they might not fully understand. Does anyone ever understand?

St James’s isn’t just made up of death rooms and hilarious patients (although, there is a disproportionately large number of them) it’s made up of people.  When the ED doctor came to my trolley to tell me I was moving to a ward, he gently concluded “You are waving a sea of red flags at me. You are the kind of person who waits until things have gone too far before coming in. Stop that! Remember, you are precious.” 

His comment knocked me back on my heels, I found it quite humbling as no doctor had ever described me as ‘precious’ before (at least, not to my face). There is an Irish reflex to be self-effacing and say ‘No, no, no, not me’. I scrambled for such words but I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘No, I’m not precious’, partly because it’s the most precious thing a person could say, and also, I owed myself more than that. 

He’s right, we are all worth more than the sum of our parts - but hopefully it won’t take a trip to St James’s Emergency Department for people to realize that. If you don’t believe me, just ask your phone ‘Ok Google, am I precious?’