Past Midnight in the ER



July 31, 2021

            Little Rock      Around 2 am, I’m in Little Rock’s Baptist Hospital lying in my own version of snakebite hell hoping that fentanyl makes a difference.   In the alleyway next door, nurses are having a conversation just feet away from me, that was unseen but impossible not to hear.  In its own way though it was both a small microcosm of the daily crises of urban America and a loud reminder of how temporary my situation was compared to the nagging permanence of issues facing others.

As I continued writing in the impossible dream of finding a way to be comfortable and out of pain, I could hear the beginning of the conversation was good news.  I gathered the man had come in complaining of chest pains presenting as a possible heart attack.  The male nurse was informing him that the tests had determined that his heart was ok.  All is good so far.  The corollary was that he could be discharged immediately, and that’s where the rubber then hit the road.

The patient did not want to be discharged.  He wanted to be kept in a bed in the hospital for observation.  That couldn’t happen, the nurse stated flatly.

It didn’t matter to my neighbor, but this was Little Rock, and this was Arkansas. Covid cases were soaring.  I learned later from my nurses that the 7th floor of the hospital was designated for virus patients.  Arkansas, like Louisiana, Mississippi, and many other Southern states was currently paying the piper for less than enthusiastic response, if not outright opposition, to vaccinations.  The low vaxxing has converted to a high caseload, and that means hospital beds are a premium.  My nurses told me that they were now having to put Covid patients two to a room, and had begun moving overfill patients to the floor below and having them double up there as well.

My neighbor was pleading.  Loudly.  He had no place to go.  Family?  No one?  Shelter?  Oh, no, I don’t want to go there.  It went back and forth like this repeatedly.  The nurse stated flatly that there was no choice.  My neighbor replying loudly to “have a heart” or calling out “oh, lord, please” in a desperate fashion.

The nurse was adamant, and his offer was explicit, even if limited.  He could stay in the waiting room until the buses started running in Little Rock at dawn, and the hospital would give him a bus token, but that was it and no more.  My neighbor continued to plead for divine intervention or at least mercy of some kind, but none was forthcoming.  The nurse further limited the choices on offer as security removing him to the street or the bus token and waiting room deal.

At 3 AM, I was moved to a room, but by then there was silence.  When my wheelchair rolled by, my neighbor was gone.   There was a pair of white sneakers still parked next to the bed, the only sign that he had been there.  They would undoubtedly wait until my neighbor walked the tightrope again between health professionals, police, and nonprofits that seems the fate of the homeless without any other place or policy that really works well anywhere in the country.