Problems of Pain
By June Adamson
Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 17-18
The X-rays had been taken and I lay on the emergency room cot in the curtained cubicle waiting for the doctor to see whether I had any reason to be in such pain. My car had gone into a skid on the icy interstate and I felt lucky to be alive. But the breath had been knocked out of me, and now there was this intolerable pain in my side and under by shoulder blade. It was a Sunday, and I felt grateful that an orthopedic specialist who was an acquaintance was willing to come to the hospital to help me.
On the other side of the yellow curtain that separated the cots that late afternoon someone was moaning. I was distracted from my own pain as the moaning became louder, and turned into incoherent babbling. Then came the pitiful crying, “Nurse. . . nurse. The voice was male, and by turning my head just slightly upward and looking across from the top of the cot where the curtain didn’t quite meet the wall, I could see the intravenous mechanism hooked up to the person who was my neighbor.
As that person twisted and turned as much as the IV tubing would allow, I caught a glimpse of the grimacing face of a Black man who must have been about 20. He wasn’t looking at me. His face was covered with perspiration and he seemed wild with pain. I averted my head again to stare at the yellow curtain. I didn’t want to stare at him. But I couldn’t help but hear as he called again, “Nurse . . nurse.”
A tall, lean male nurse came. I could see the lanky fair-haired boy, just turning into man, as he walked by the foot of my cot to answer the call. By this time the patient was calling out something else. “Trot … Trot . . .” and again mumbling incoherently.
The nurse said, “If you’re wanting water again, you can’t have it. I looked for your friend and I couldn’t find him. Now you just lay quiet until the doctor comes. He’ll tell you why you can’t have water until later. Lie still now. Don’t pull that needle out.” The voice was not unkind, but impatient, in an accent that meant the young man was a native of the Tennessee hills. I caught another glimpse of him as he turned and walked awkwardly out of the room.
The moaning began again even before he was out of the door. “Trot … Trot. . .” and again that incoherent mumbling.
Soon a young Black boy of about 15 or 16 walked by the foot of my bed glancing shyly at me as he hurried past into
the next cubicle. I was the eavesdroppers again. “Water, Trot … please … water,” the voice from the bed begged.
“No,” said the visitor. “You know they told you, you can’t have water. Now you just lay there and be good. I called your mama and she said she can’t come before six o’clock because she had a headache and don’t have the money for a cab. A neighbor will bring her then, unless you’re badder. Then I’ll call her and she’ll find a way.” The visitor’s voice turned less business-like and more solicitous as he asked, “You ain’t badder, are you?”
There was no answer to the question, just the continued moaning and crying for water, and Trot, whoever Trot was, trying to be reassuring yet at the same time firm in refusing to get the water.
The whole episode occurred in only a few minutes, but I was beginning to wish my doctor friend would come so that I could get out of there. It was not only depressing to listen, but I thought I knew what was wrong with the young man in the cot next to mine. Drugs. It had to be drugs. An overdose? Withdrawal pain? I knew.
Why did this nice, clean, middle-class WASP hospital have to have such people here? I had no objection to his blackness. After all, I was a liberal. I had some Black friends. I contributed to the United Negro College Fund and had worked to support other Black causes. But the kind who took drugs… And everyone knows certain kinds of Black men abuse drugs more than others.
I didn’t feel much sympathy for that young man at that moment. I just wanted to know whether my ribs were broken, and if so what could be done about it, and if not, why I had this pain like I had never experienced before. It hurt to breathe and it hurt more to cough.
The moaning of the young man continued for awhile, along with the voice of his young visitor. Then another man in white strode across the foot of my cot and into my neighbor’s cubicle. I knew at once it was one of the doctors on emergency service. In an accent that told me his background was Latin American, his first question was, “How long have you known you have sickle cell anemia?” My heart sank, and I felt sudden shame as I fought the urge to say, “Oh, no,” aloud.
“Since I was about 15,” said the plaintive voice from the other cot, then, “Water … when can I have some water?” the patient asked piteously.
The doctor spoke again. “How long has it been since you’ve had a crisis like this?”
here was an answer, but it was inaudible to me.
The doctor continued, “You want water? Of course you can have water. Who told you you couldn’t have water? Would you rather have Gatorade?”
“Oh yes,” said the now relieved voice from the cot, his pain even then was still audible.
The doctor called for an orderly to get the Gatorade, and began talking to the patient about his high fever and plans to treat him when my eavesdropping was interrupted by the appearance of my own doctor. Yes, my ribs were broken and something would have to be done to relieve my persistent cough during the period of healing. I was helped into an elastic binding, and then from the cot and into an outer room to get the necessary prescriptions for pain and for the cough.
I’d had a peek into the drama of an emergency room. My next few weeks were nothing to look forward to, but I knew my ribs would heal. But I’ll never forget that young Black man and the kind of pain that would last for however much time he would live. And I had learned the pain of a new guilt. Even I, who had considered myself above it, had fallen into the trap of stereotyping.
June Adamson, a former working journalist, now teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee.