A Cast of Characters
I spent five and a half hours picking up my prescriptions today. That includes the drive to and from the hospital. Why did I think it was best to leave yesterday when I faced a three hour wait for pick-up? I already had forgotten what it is like to be a charity patient at a county hospital.
I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. because the early bird gets a parking space. It took me twenty minutes to get dressed, brush my teeth, dump my trash in the cans in the alley, and hop in the car. The drive was not bad. I might have made better time if I had hit the expressway, but I was not sure what the NATO departures might be doing to the expressways so I took Lawrence to Western to Grand to Damen to the hospital. I encountered a fair amount of traffic for the early hour. There was a woman with a grocery cart that had gotten stuck in a pothole. I waited for her to pass. There was a car cutting in and out of traffic that prompted me to hang back so as not to get in his way–even though we ended up at the same stop lights for a mile or two. Then there was a commotion when a police car pulled over a woman who was talking on her cell phone (who kept on talking on that cell phone while the officer wrote the ticket). All the rest of us waited because she had not so much pulled over to the curb as stopped in the middle of the right lane. The officer stood in our lane. A truck was parked in the median strip.
I managed to get the second from the last space as measured from the hospital’s entrance. It was not yet seven in the morning, so I hunched down in the driver’s seat and waited for things to get going. The pharmacy is on the first floor so the elevators were not involved in this visit. Nevertheless, I knew from experience that there would be no place to sit and wait until the elevators opened and people dispersed. At seven I walked to the hospital’s door with the incoming shift’s employees. People were uniformly polite and pleasant. A military-looking man in a warrior’s t-shirt and dun-colored painter’s pants held the door for me. I thanked him and he answered, “No problem, baby.” I was old enough to be his grandma. I just smiled and kept on walking. I already suspected that this would be my most pleasant encounter of the day.
The pharmacy door said it would not open until 8:00 a.m. I should have checked yesterday, but everything else opens at 7:00 a.m. There was a line in the hallway for Clinic A. I moved on to the main entrance’s waiting area. This is where I used to sit to wait for the elevators to open when I had arrived early enough to get a number for radiation treatment. There were many people waiting there already, but I got a seat. The chairs are covered in the finest vinyl. The armrests are made of sturdy rubber. Nevertheless, they appear to have been set upon by a horde of tigers. Several chair backs show long scratches. In some cases, the stuffing has been clawed out. Many of the armrests have been gnawed upon with fingernails? Keys? Teeth? There is one armrest that has been amputated and now is bandaged in silver duct tape.
I have never observed anyone inflicting such damage so cannot explain it. Everyone waiting looked tired, hungry, and quiet. One young man slept with his forehead resting in his left palm on his knees. He had two grocery bags of stuff beneath his seat. One elderly woman slept in a corner. Only her hair suggested that she might be in the throes of something cataclysmic. Her navy sweat suit was clean and not very rumpled. Her white athletic shoes were clean. But her hair was inky black, curly, and standing straight out to one side like she was catching the back draft of an airplane engine. No wind blew inside the waiting area.
There were the couples. There was a man, a woman, and a baby. The baby was sick. The man was walking the waiting area soothing his baby. The woman went to the ladies room. She left her open handbag on the empty seat. No one bothered it.
There was a couple from India. The man wore his hair in a turban, perhaps because he was a Sikh, although I saw no evidence that he had rolled and tied his beard inside that turban. His wife appeared to be the one who was sick, but she was attentive to him. She had a bag filled with individual grocery bags. In each plastic bag there was a treat. She took out a banana and peeled it. She ate half. He ate the other half. They paused. Then she took out an orange. She peeled it without breaking the peel. They shared the segments.
A woman entered looking like she was starting a Friday night date. Her hair was thick and wildly curled. She wore a black bra, most of which was visible beneath a gold sweater with a ruffled neckline and sleeves. It fell off of both shoulders and hung suspended from the fullness of her breasts. She wore ivory gauze harem pants and open-toed espadrilles that revealed toenails painted the color of an eggplant. She had on immense gold bracelets, a beautiful watch and great big earrings, also gold. She wore sunglasses. Eventually she moved them atop her head and put on a pair of rhinestone trimmed reader’s glasses. She studied her smart phone, carefully typing messages with impossibly long fingernails, also painted. She looked to be in her sixties.
An elderly woman hunched over her walker tried to exit the ladies room while its automatic closer tried to trap her on the threshold. She signaled to her son to come help her. He was a tall man with skin the same lush color of the other woman’s nails. He wore black jeans, a black hoodie, and an exquisite black leather bomber jacket. He spoke as though this were a club on Saturday night. His loud voice prevented anyone from concentrating on her own concerns. He was boring a couple with his life story. When they finally excused themselves and left he tried to engage someone else in his concerns, but was unsuccessful. He never did get up to help his mom. Later they would walk the street in front of the hospital sharing a cigarette. She still had to push her walker, but he held the cigarette to her lips.
At 7:30 a.m. two police men came to roust the sleepers. The young man with his head in his hands was sent packing to the Fantus Clinic. The elderly woman with the petrified locks turned out to be mentally confused and a little weepy, but she shuffled off.
A woman with tangerine hair joined us. When I say tangerine I mean it. This is not a hue found in nature unless one is a citrus fruit. The hair was painfully thin and stiff. It might have frozen in its shape after catching sight of its own reflection. She wore a pink bed jacket of the softest polyester over a pink housedress. Her hose and athletic shoes were pristinely white. She was someone’s well loved granny, but the granddaughter was putting on a show. Think of the character Mercedes on TV’s Glee. This young woman was squeezed into a brown leotard and designer jeans. She had her smart phone out and was saying to the person on the phone, “That’s right. I said it. You need to be ready to hustle when I get back there because, Arabella, tick tock time’s a wastin’.” Then she spoiled the entire effect by helping her granny into a chair and buttoning the woman’s bed jacket up to her chin.
A woman without many teeth took the seat beside me even though there were plenty of seats with no one else beside them. She wore a black jacket covered in felt appliques of cabs. She had a backpack from which she drew pistachios and Fritos (the breakfast of champions) one at a time. I knew she was toothless because she gummed each morsel for an interminable amount of time, her bottom lip nearly touching her nose every time she ground down. This made quite a bit of slurpy noise.
I got up and headed for the pharmacy. There are three pharmacies in the complex. Mine was close to the garage entrance. Clinic B-C was the pharmacy for inpatient and ER patients’ use. Then there was a pharmacy in the Fantus Clinic across the street. When I arrived at the pharmacy’s door someone had just opened it to the public. It was ten minutes until opening. People already stood in a line. Someone was making an announcement about who should stay and who should go elsewhere. Most of the people waiting spoke Spanish and ignored these instructions, which were not repeated for them in their language.
We went in and took numbers then took seats. I was H507. A man came in after me and pulled H510. He seemed strung out on drugs and in a hurry to get more. He bent at the waist and called through the passthrough opening to the employees congregating in the back of the room. “Hey, I’ve been up like twenty-one hours and want to get my stuff. Help me!” No one answered. He tilted his head sideways and stuck it through the opening, then tried to turn it upright, but the opening was tight.
A man got up and moved closer to me. He said, “Does picking up a prescription always mean a floor show?”
“Somedays better than others,” I commented.
Two policemen yelled from the hallway, “Whose bags are these?”
The agitated patient sobered up and yelled, “Sorry! Mine.” He ran out into the hallway, collected his two plastic grocery bags, and tossed them under the nearest empty chair. Then he started pacing and, by pacing, I mean like this was a rapper’s performance. There were big arm motions and abrupt starts and stops. He moved his head like there was musical accompaniment. He waved his pink, yellow, and white prescription records and a torn scrap of lined paper on which he had written notes: “God is great. God is good. Get me my drugs while I’m in a good mood.”
A clerk came forward to explain that the pharmacy would open in a few minutes. The patient kicked his grocery bags in my direction. I could see that one held a ratty seafoam green blanket and numerous used wads of facial tissue.
The sickest woman in the room came to sit next to me and proceeded to cough up something vile. She got up, crossed to the trash can, and spit it out. Then she came back to sit beside me. I turned my back to her and used my manila folder with my charity certificate and prescription records to tap my temple. It was the best I could do to block the germs she was emitting.
A woman opened window two and started the service announcements at H500. No one responded until H506. No other windows were open. But, just as was done yesterday, people formed lines regardless of whether they had been called. When it was my turn I approached. The woman told me I had to pay at window 4. But no one had opened that window. So I went back to waiting.
At 8:05 a.m. a man opened window 4. A line had formed for that window. Some people were in the wrong place. I finally paid my $8. But now window 2 was on H517. So I hung around near window 2. What was the point of opening window 2 before window 4? I have no idea. But at 8:15 a.m. the clerk at window 4 hung a sign that he would be back in 10 minutes. He left.
I eventually handed my paid receipt to the clerk at window 2. She told me to have a seat and wait.
Meanwhile the patient on drugs had learned that nothing happens fast at the pharmacy. He started asking people to trade numbers even though his number had already been called.
He was the only African American patient in the room when another African American man came in and decided to ask him a question. He launched into a discussion about how long it had been since he had slept. “Sir,” I tried to interrupt to offer the new patient some help because the man on drugs looked like he was going to start acting up again. The new patient needed a refill. I directed him to the Fantus Clinic. He shook his head. “Isn’t this a pharmacy?”
“Only in theory,” the Hispanic man on my left said.
A man tall enough to play in the NBA entered the room. He wore a powder blue suit and carried his own plastic grocery bag. He approached window 4 and yelled, “Where he at?”
The patient on drugs said, “He gone in the back.”
That was not true. The clerk from window 4 had gone for coffee down the hall. The tall man eventually walked out. He returned with the clerk. The clerk explained he was coming from a meeting. He held up his coffee cup like this confirmed his alibi. He went back behind the counter and started taking money again. The man in the blue suit left.
The woman at window 2 finally called my name. I went up and signed for my medications. By the time I got back to my car it was well after 9:00 a.m. Someone followed me to my car in his and honked at me when I was not fast enough to exit my parking space. “I have not got all day,” he yelled at me in a surprisingly cheery voice.
It took more than an hour to get home in morning traffic. I stopped at the McDonald’s to use the bathroom. I took my meds and decided it had gone well.
Later this morning I described my experience to a friend who commented, “Maybe if we didn’t coddle these people they would take better care of themselves.” That was not the message I had hoped to convey. This is what life is like for people who cannot afford to buy medical insurance. There is no such thing as an appointment. You hurry up and wait all day if need be. You don’t get to sit with a doctor who has time to listen to your every complaint. You have fifteen minutes. You don’t drop off and pick up prescriptions at a drive-thru window. You sit right alongside the the sick, the uneducated, the hopeless, the unwashed, the exhausted, the homeless, the poor. You wait your turn. You wait even when it does not make sense. And you are grateful for the help. Maybe you are also embarrassed to need it. If it takes five and a half hours, then you wait. Because this isn’t a gravy train. It’s county medical care. It’s a safety net. And, whether or not you have been raised to think this is what life is supposed to be about, this is life now. You are grateful to be caught in the net.
I don’t play a patient on TV. The cast of characters that surrounds me doesn’t either. This is all so real, all so sad. Nevertheless, it is saving my life. I am one of the characters who is glad to have a speaking part in the dramedy that is unfolding.