The following story is almost true, save for the brain fog that plagues my life. I had to fill in enough blank spaces that it can’t be categorized as true non-fiction, so we’ll call it a made-up story instead.
It is somewhere in the middle of the night.
The ICU is never dark. Even at night with the lights off and the curtain drawn across the glass wall, some light seeps into my room.
I lay propped up in bed, tethered in place by three IVs, listening to nothing. I don’t feel sick, I’m not in pain, but they won’t let me go. I could bleed to death. They have to watch.
Nothing is on TV. I can’t leave. I can’t sleep. I can’t be sure the rubber bands won’t pop and let all my blood out.
And so I wait, late at night in the not-dark as the fog closes in.
A couple weeks later.
It is half-past six in the a.m.
It is cold, clear, and dark.
There are four benches under the overhanging roof and all are occupied. Have been occupied since long before I arrived. I am on crutches, trying to find my balance on the sidewalk when I’d rather sit down. I’d try to sit on the curb, but then I wouldn’t be able to get back up because of my foot, so I stay standing, even though it’s uncomfortable.
Occasionally one woman gets off her perch on the bench, goes to her car, and then comes back to the bench. Everyone else stays in line, checking their phones, talking quietly, or simply staring into the night.
They won’t let us inside for another hour, so we stand, huddled in our coats, lost in our own fog as we wait.
The sun peeks over the trees as the woman gets off the bench and goes to her car yet again. This time she helps a girl out of the car, perhaps seven or eight years old, swathed in a fleece blanket, her hair splattered in several directions, her little face tight and sad. Together they go to the bench and sit down. The little girl leans heavily against the woman.
At 7:30 sharp, four or five people emerge from the building. A man steps forward. The cold, waiting crowd squeezes in closer to hear his words. He welcomes us, in English and then in Spanish, and explains what how “this” works. He will call us by group and we will respond accordingly.
Have a doctor’s appointment? Go inside.
Several people separate from the group and enter the building.
Need a doctor’s appointment? Go inside.
More people leave the group, including the woman with the blanket-wrapped girl. I hope she gets to see a doctor.
The man continues: have an appointment with the woman’s clinic? Go inside.
An appointment with the eye clinic? Go inside.
A lab appointment? Go inside.
Our crowd is getting smaller but there are still more than two dozen people waiting. The man steps aside and a woman comes forward. She is holding a clipboard with papers and pen.
“If you need to apply for financial assistance, I have eight spaces available,” she says. “I will take the first eight people in line.”
I am probably fifteenth in line.
I can do nothing but go home. The fog follows me.
After the ICU, the doctors gave me referrals to see specialists so I won’t vomit blood anymore. The referrals take more than a week to come in. But the hospital refuses to accept the referrals until I have financial assistance, since I have no insurance. They insist on knowing they will be paid. I have to have financial assistance. So a couple days later, I get up before dawn and drag my bad leg and my crutches back to the same clinic, to the same line, and hope I don’t fall over or have to go to the bathroom. This time I arrive just after 6 a.m.
The benches already are full.
There is no woman with a blanket-burrito girl today, though there are a couple of strollers with babies sleeping oblivious to the time or the cold. Again we wait, again the man comes out right on schedule, and again we go through the same routine. Except this time when the woman with the clipboard comes forward, she apologizes. “We have no appointments available today. If you need help, you can go to the main hospital in Dallas.”
The fog grows thicker. For a second time, I go home in defeat.
I pass the next few days resting my shingles-infested foot, but I remember the night I vomited blood. A liter and half, before it was over. Bags and bags of it, in my bathroom, in the ambulance, in the ER. I’m lucky the hospital has charity care and dismissed my $167,000 hospital bill, but I need help. I need to see a doctor. I don’t want this to happen again. This doesn’t have to happen again, but I need help. And I cannot get help without financial assistance.
Forget the clinic. I cannot get there earlier and stand in line even longer in the cold on my bad foot. I don’t want to go all the way to Dallas but at least if I apply at the main hospital, I will be indoors. With warm air and walls to lean against and bathrooms if necessary, even if they are nasty. I called ahead and they told me they take applicants until 6 p.m. So I go.
With difficulty I drive to the bus stop. I pay for a ticket. I sit on the bus, waiting silently, hoping this will be resolved soon. I want to go home and rest. The crutches get in my way. Get in the other passengers’ way if I’m not careful. There may be room for wheelchairs on the bus but no one makes provisions for crutches. I end up holding them against the window, leaning on them, staring blindly out the window, hoping to see some light through the fog.
The hospital has changed since I was last there, years earlier. New buildings, new parking lots, new bus stops. I miss the right stop and go too far and then end up walking back. On crutches. It takes 20 minutes just to get across the street, but then, with my foot cramping and painful, I’m finally in the right building.
The financial department is down the hall. It is crowded with chairs crowded with people of all ages, but there is no line. I go straight to the desk.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” the woman says. “Normally we do take people until 6 p.m. but today we had a big crowd and we’re full already.”
It’s barely noon.
I want to fall on the floor and scream. I want to give up.
But I won’t give them the satisfaction.
I lean hard on the desk as the woman explains I can go to my local clinic. I raise my head just high enough to see her face and tell her I’ve already been there twice, they told me to come here. She shrugs and says I should try again tomorrow.
The fog is thicker than ever.
I never want to come back.
The thought of vomiting blood frightens me and I know I must get financial assistance somehow. I’ve tried calling to no avail. They don’t do applications over the phone or online. How unfair is it that sick people have to show up in person and stand in line for endless hours? How many people give up because they cannot manage to do that? How many people wait till they get seriously ill and go straight to the ER when it could well be too late?
I could go to the ER and they would accept me without financial assistance, but I’m not in pain, aside from the shingles in my foot. I don’t have a fever. No chest pain, no trouble breathing. Nothing about me is an emergency, so they’ll make me wait. 3 days, 4 days, 5 days… maybe more. Already I have missed more than a month of work, for which I won’t be paid. I cannot afford to sit in the ER for endless fog-shrouded days.
I won’t go back to the main hospital. The trip is too far. I don’t have money for bus fare. I have to go to the clinic.
So once again, I’m up before the sun, fussing to get my crutches in the car, fighting to move my cold, cramped foot from the gas pedal to the brake as needed. It’s a few minutes before six when I arrive, park, and take my place in the cold, dark line. And I wait.
And wait, surrounded by fog.
My mind wanders as it did in the long solitary hours of the ICU. I sing to myself, distracting my brain by trying to remember the words to Nolwenn Leroy’s “Aux Filles de l’Eau”. Singing in other languages confuses my brain and makes me focus intently on the words. I had just begun to learn the lyrics when I ended up in the ER.
“Ployant mais ne défaillant
Fortes et vulnérables”.
Bending but not failing, strong and vulnerable.
I don’t feel any of those things, other than vulnerable, but here I am again. Attempt number four. I am not a woman of water; I am a woman of fog.
But fog is made of water, isn’t it?
This time when clipboard woman appears, she lets us in. She lets me in. They have only two appointments today, and I am seventh in line, but they have room on the calendar if we want to come in and schedule appointments for later.
I walk as fast as the crutches let me, struggling to keep up with the other poor unfortunates who have no insurance.
I get to sign up.
The appointment is nearly a month away, but it’s firm. It’s sure. I have something concrete. I can get my referrals. I can see a doctor. Maybe I won’t have to have another tube shoved up my nose to pump blood from my stomach. Maybe I won’t have to spend another blank hour in the ICU.
I can get help.
The fog begins to thin.