The E.R.'s packed triage area was lined with people in wheelchairs and on gurneys, hooked up to IVs and monitors, being given pills and instructions and shots. We'd been part of the lineup for about two hours (everybody's fine) when two EMTs rolled in an older man with lines of blood escaping down his cheeks from underneath the gauze bandage cap they'd fashioned. He was parked next to us, visibly upset--fidgeting and fidgeting with his broken wire-rimmed bifocals, craning his neck to watch frenetic nurses.
The TV in the hall was tuned to that day's political scandal on CNN and two hours was more than enough of that, so we started chatting with the old man. He needed to get to Florida. Left New England early that morning and had been on the road all day. Stopped for gas, fell, broke his fall with his face, and ended up next to us. His phone and keys were in his car, right where he'd left them at the gas station.
By now, his hands were streaked with blood so we dialed a number and held the phone near his mouth in speaker mode. The recorded voice that answered was his, and his face clouded up for a moment. "Oh," he said. "That's my cell phone number." A different number landed his wife. "OK, well call me when you're done," she said.
When the call clicked off, he went back to fidgeting with his mangled glasses, eyes darting around the area. Anxiety clearly at gravity-defying levels. "I want to go get my car," he said. "I'm very upset that my car is at a gas station." We explained there are worse neighborhoods to leave one's car, but his anxiety continued. We asked if he knew what gas station had it. Not a clue. Knew it was a big road and there were several stations around that intersection. No idea how long the ambulance ride was.
Back and forth, questions and shrugs, and finally a tiny nugget--a road name sounded familiar. My husband started calling the several dozen gas stations there. "Did you call an ambulance for a gentleman earlier tonight?" Eighth or ninth station was the charm. They had his car and his keys, no worries at all, everything's safe.
And they close for the night in two hours.
There is no way anybody's getting out of here in two hours. He doesn't want to pay for a hotel room and deal with it in the morning. Eventually, it comes out that he'd had an accident--a fender-bender, really--about an hour before he fell.
Neither of us is an expert but this isn't our first rodeo in this particular arena. We exchange nervous glances and quietly explain to a nurse what's going on, hoping they'll admit him just to keep him still for a night. She nods. And then it's our turn for a real treatment room, we bid our farewells, and don't see him again.
Saturday mid-day, the man's wife calls back the strange number that called her last night. This time, she's upset--frantic. She hasn't heard from her husband, not a peep. He's not answering his phone, she has no idea where he is or what hospital treated him, and life is upside-down.
Very long story slightly shorter, my husband connects her with the hospital and she's able to connect the dots from there. She calls back that night to say thanks.
We want to ask but don't what her husband is doing driving most of the east coast by himself in one day. Because this is not a good situation at all. But it's not our business and not our fight, so we don't. Just wish her well. I wish somebody would do more. I wish somebody would have that really awful, horrible conversation with him--the one that starts with "car keys" and leads to some shouting and tears, and ends with Amtrak or the airport and a better plan, but does not end up in the emergency room looking like a horror movie extra. The one where we put some support in place for folks who are living longer than ever but have no decent infrastructure or process to do it well.
I hope he slept a lot and then turned around and went home. I doubt it, but I hope so. That's all I can do.