Washington, D.C., writer Carla Seaquist wrote this essay after an evening spent in an emergency room waiting to be treated.
So I say to the man seated next to me in the emergency room, “This isn’t so much Bedlam as ‘Bad-limb.’”
By some strange symmetry, appropriate more to a daffy British comedy than unstructured life, all six of us awaiting treatment tonight are leg cases—shins, knees, ankles, toes. Pain does indeed throb—intensely—but the spectacle of everyone in wheelchairs pierces through. Usually the venue of worst-case scenarios, the E.R., for once, amuses.
“‘Bad-limb’? That’s a knee-slapper.” My neighbor, a musician, chuckles and studies his toe soaking in a brown solution. Somebody stepped on his foot, which loosened a toenail, which produced an infection. “And the thing is, last month I was in here for a broken toe.”
Next to him sits a boy about 12, his right leg extended on a board, an ice pack on his shin. A soccer casualty. “I kicked this guy, see—it was an accident—and then he kicked me back—on purpose.” He fidgets anxiously. Seems an important tournament is scheduled this weekend, so the question becomes, Will he play? “And you’re the star, I presume?” He blushes but says nothing. “And the team is on tenterhooks waiting to hear from the hospital, right?” He smiles and blushes again. His mother nods yes.
At the far end of the adjacent wall, a teenage boy, ankle swollen, hassles with his homework and, perhaps because he’s outside the locus of lightened spirits, snaps at his mother. Next to him a young girl, freckled and blonde and about 12, with an ice pack on her shin, talks quietly with her father and shoots shy looks at our soccer casualty. She’s one, too.
Closest to me, in turquoise sweats and high-top Reeboks, a teenage girl proudly tells how she got hers. “Tore up my knee playing tackle football with the guys.” “No kidding?” I tell her in my day I played touch football, then wince at “my day”; I sound historical. I ask her if it hurts. “Nah,” she says, then corrects herself. “Just a little.” She shifts in her wheelchair and sighs. “I suppose they’ll put me on crutches again.” “Again?” Her mother nods and rolls her eyes.
Meanwhile, orderlies wheel by us a burly guy in his 20s, his entire leg packed in ice. But of course.
Me? I’m here because a toe I’d rammed, to no apparent injury, was the toe that later snapped in my hand as I toweled down after exercise. Thoughts of fainting were superseded by mental anguish: My husband is flying home next week after two months away.
Of course, we tell limb stories. I tell about a friend’s adventure in a parking lot: With her right leg in a cast, Shirley prepared to back out, using her left foot for the gas while resting her right leg on the hump. As she looked left to check for cars, her right leg, the one in the cast, slipped off the hump and onto the accelerator. Shirley crashed into the car behind her and, recovering herself, shot forward and hit the car ahead. “And this was in the hospital parking lot.”
We giggle, shaking our heads.
Suddenly, an ambulance screeches to a halt outside the door and we sober up. A knifing, a car accident, a heart attack? Mortality in the balance. We brace ourselves.
And what do we see? A woman in her 40s lying pale-faced on the gurney, her leg twisted at a grotesque angle, the offending roller skate still on her foot.
Some of us maintain decorum, but the younger ones cannot resist guffawing. And I cannot help wondering: Who is writing this stuff? The Marx Brothers?
As with comedy, the ending is happy. Turquoise Sweats gets her crutches; the soccer star will play the tournament; Freckles gets a smile out of the star; the musician saunters out jauntily; even the homework gets done. And my toe is only dislocated, not broken. Chances are I’ll make the airport rendezvous under my own power.
As I limp out, bandaged and booted, I pass another emergency case on his way in, trailed by his mother.
The problem? A rusty nail in the foot.