No one ever tells you what kind of bra you’re supposed to wear to the ER.
“Is there any metal in it?” the nurse asks me as she pulls back the curtain surrounding my hospital bed.
“Um, there’s underwire,” I reply, kicking myself for not putting on a sports bra in my feverish delirium this morning.
She throws me a hospital gown and says, “You can keep your pants on.”
When she shuts the curtains and walks away, I begin the impossible task of dressing myself. Which way does the gown go? No one ever teaches you these things. And how do they expect a sick person to reach behind themselves to tie it? I maneuver my arms like a contortionist and hope for the best.
“Amy, can I come in or are you still changing?” says a voice behind the curtain.
“Um…I’m just…trying to tie this,” I mutter as I struggle with the top tie.
A few seconds later, a woman with a clipboard walks in and asks for my name, birthdate, social security number, and do I have an insurance card?
The nurses are not unfriendly, but they go about their checks on me as though it’s business as usual. But then an older man in navy blue scrubs walks in. His chin is covered in white stubble, and he speaks with a slow Southern drawl that makes him sound as though he’s got all the time in the world. When he talks to me, he takes off his glasses with his left hand and looks me straight in the eye. And he explains everything to me. “We’re gonna give you some Bentyl to make that stomach cramping go away. We’re gonna make ya all better.”
He pulls up a chair at my right side and prepares my IV drip. I feel self-conscious because I didn’t have the strength to brush my teeth after vomiting this morning.
“So what do you do, Amy?”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer? And what do you write about?”
“Travel and business.”
“Travel? I’m a travel nurse, so I do a lot of traveling.”
“My best friend is a nurse!” I chirp, hoping to convey to him that he’s been inducted into my circle of People I Really Like. “Not the traveling kind, though.”
“This is my favorite place so far,” he tells me, “but I have to leave soon. My parents are in their 80s and they need me, so I have to go home.”
“Tupelo, Mississippi. The birthplace of Elvis Presley.” It makes me feel warm inside the way he chops the second syllable off of the state’s name, so it sounds like, “Miss-sippi.”
“So you write about travel,” he continues. “You must get to travel a lot then, huh?”
“Yes, I just got back from Europe.”
“Where did you go?”
“Italy, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland,” I list off quickly, feeling like I’m bragging.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’ve already placed him in a box based on his accent, so I’m surprised when he replies with, “Well, I haven’t been to Austria—but I’ve been to all those other countries.”
“Yep, I was in the military for 35 years, so I went all sorts of places.”
“At first, the Army. Later, the National Guard.”
“Were you a nurse in the military too?”
“No!” he says with a hearty chuckle. “I was an infantryman.” He tells me he eventually got promoted to Sergeant Major of his brigade, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can have. He went to Iraq three times. I’m trying to determine his age—how did he have time to have a 35-year career in the military, and then go on to get a nursing degree and start practicing?
I am so enthralled by our conversation, I hardly notice when he sticks me with the IV. I wonder if that was his intention. Army holds the needle in my vein with one hand, and with his other hand, he passes me a plastic piece of the IV tubing and asks, “Can you unscrew this?”
I grab the plastic piece with my left hand and he twists it until the cap comes off.
“I shoulda loosened it before I got started,” he admits. While others might have seen this as unprofessional, I feel honored he invited me to be an active participant in my own medical care.
“I’m gonna give ya half a bag, and if that doesn’t make ya feel better, I’m gonna give ya the whole bag,” he tells me as he hooks me up to the fluids. “Now I’m gonna go get you that shot of Bentyl.”
A few minutes later, Army returns with a syringe. “This one’s gonna hurt, Amy.”
I am taken aback; I have never had a nurse tell me something was going to hurt.
“Relax your arm now,” he instructs me. “Don’t tense up.”
I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal of it. It couldn’t possibly be so—OWWWW! It feels like someone is blowing up a balloon underneath the skin in my bicep. It knocks the wind right out of me, so when Army asks me if I’m okay, there’s a few seconds’ delay before I can squeeze out a weak, “Yup…” He rubs my arm at the site of the injection. It feels like it’s on fire. I suck in air through pursed lips.
Army comes by to check on me a couple minutes later. “How’s your arm?”
“It still hurts,” I whine.
“It’ll be worth it,” he assures me. “You should be feeling better in 5 to 10 minutes.”
It is still early and this town is small, so I am the only patient in the ER. I spend much of my time staring at the curtains; they are yellow with green and red stripes woven into them in a checkered pattern.
Somewhere Army is sitting on the other side of the curtains toward the end of the hall. “Amy’s complaining of upper left quadrant abdominal pain,” he informs another nurse, before adding, “She’s a writer. A travel writer!”
I smile because it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone call me that.
“She just got back from Italy and a bunch of other places!” It is all the sweeter because he doesn’t know I can hear him.
At 7:15, I see Army’s silhouette pass by through my curtain, and I think I hear him say, “Bye, Amy,” but I’m not sure so I don’t reply. Is he leaving already? Then I remember from my best friend that nurses typically work 12-hour shifts, 7 to 7. Army works the night shift then, and has stayed 15 minutes over.
I hear the jangle of keys and then see sunlight pour in through an open door. Then it shuts. Silence.
I never got to thank him for his service.