Saturday, July 9, 2011

Adventures in Sitting: The Core of a Human Being

The whole section was full, which was not an uncommon occurrence in my Emergency Room. The rooms were all occupied and the hallway was crowded with stretchers. I was making my rounds by looking in the rooms to see who were my sickest patients. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large grin. I looked up to see a patient waving at me, smiling.

The closer I came to him, the stranger the sight. His forearms were wrapped in bloody bandages and he looked to be sitting in coarse black soil. His hands were black, and on closer inspection, I realized they were black from dried blood. The "soil" was also dried blood. He was covered from head to toe in it, like a cracked body-suit of red-black paint chips. Juxtaposed with his bright smile under a baseball cap, it was grotesque and macabre, like an evil clown. He waved at me each time I walked by, with the same grin, perhaps to unsettle me. I grinned and waved back, playing his dark little game.

Soonafter, I heard the words I expected from a nurse: S, we need you to sit. I already knew who it was for. I pulled up a chair in front of him and introduced myself, asking if he needed anything at the moment. He studied me with narrowed eyes under a baseball cap. His smile didn't reach his eyes. Oh, no, thank you- again he grinned. And I sat down.

"So what's your role here in the Emergency Room?" he asked, "By the way, call me Chris."
"OK Chris, I am an Emergency Tech, which means I am an EMT stationed in the hospital."
"So that means that you are pretty useless, since you're not a nurse or a doctor or anybody important."
"According to that definition, I guess am pretty useless, Chris."
He smiled at this, realizing he would have to try harder to get to me.

A nurse walked by, her normal ponytail in a bun. It was a nice look for her. "Hey, I like your hair that way," I commented.
"Thanks!" She said.
Chris suddenly interjected, "C---liar----ough", grinning.
"How do you know, Chris?" I looked at him.
"Because none of you really care."
"We wouldn't be working here if we didn't. We'd burn out so fast."
"I've been here enough times to know for myself."
"If you say so," I replied.

Suddenly his eyes grew wide. "I know what you are!"
"What's that, Chris?"
"You're the watcher!"
I exaggerated the motion of my eyes toward his bandages, then met his eyes. "Would you say that it's unwarranted?"
"No, I guess not." He muttered, de-escalated for the moment.

Chris was the calmest (awake) person I had ever sat for. He made no motion to get up or make a fuss. He just fixed his steady gaze on me. I realized that not only was I watching him, but he was watching me.

I soon found that I was the only one he tolerated; he made several nasty, sarcastic remarks to the friendly nurse and others who came in to take vital signs and breathalyzer tests. Never once did his eyes leave my face, which I kept neutral, to his disappointment.

"So what are you thinking about? Aren't you supposed to be watching me?" he asked, watching my eyes move with the action of the room around me. He didn't realize I've been watching him continuously in my peripheral vision for the past hour.
"So how did they find you?" I turned to face him.
He looked into my eyes. "Because I let them." They were unflinching, aggressive, and challenging, as if to dare me to look deeper into the darkness he believed his soul to be.
"Do you regret it?"
"It's not the first time." He grinned. "But I have to say, it's never been this bad."
"I see. Well, blow into this straw for me." He breathalyzed clinically sober and it was time for him to move into a room for the doctor to see him.

"Cut off his bandages and clean the wounds before I look at them," instructed the doctor.
I emptied a bottle of sterile water and peroxide into a sterile basin, gathered a few plastic pads and containers of sterile gauze.
Under the bandages, in three different places, he had cut his forearm into ribbons, exposing torn muscle, tendons, and strips of skin. Seeing his wounds temporarily took the grin off his face as he examined them with a bemused smirk. "S***, I really ****ed myself up this time."

"Does this hurt?" I gently wet the gauze and towels and set to work, easing the dried blood from and around the wounds. He shook his head no. He watched me much more somberly now as I worked carefully to avoid pulling on the delicate strips of dislodged skin. The wounds cleaned, now I wet a towel with warm water and set to work on his black hands. "Oh, you don't need to do those." I ignored him and cleaned his fingers, one by one. I also wiped the dried blood from his face.

"Can I bring you a clean blanket?" His was bloodied.
"It doesn't matter." I brought one anyway.
"Are you hungry?"
"Maybe a little."
"Let me ask your doctor if you can eat something."

When he saw that I brought him a sandwich, his demeanor changed. "You are the only one in this ******* place that gives a ****. Look at them. Most of them wouldn't care if I died right here. Why do you care? Why do you care so much? How do you care?"
"It's my job," I replied dryly, hiding the stab of sadness I suddenly felt at his questions.
"Well, you do a good job."
"... Thanks, I guess..."
"No, I mean it." I thanked him and examined him once more- this damaged person that took a knife to his own body in such a violent way.

Over a hundred stitches and a few hours later, he was medically cleared to go to the psychiatric section of the hospital. Weeks later, a security guard referenced the guy who sliced his arm open in a horrific way. I knew immediately who it was. They were almost certain he would be restrained given how violent he was upon entering our Emergency Room and surprised he calmed down. The nurse remembered his rudeness and everyone commented on his strange affect. I kept quiet, for better or worse, because I didn't think his demeanor was strange... maybe that is why he chose to talk to me normally and let me see his damaged core- he realized I wouldn't judge him, that I knew that his passive-aggressive acting-out was just his way of dealing with his emotional crisis.

I still think of Chris often and sincerely wish that he has found found at least a temporary peace.


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