Thoughts while spending five hours in the emergency room …

Should I write about this? Naturally, that was my first thought as I told the admitting nurse about the chest pains that had started some time before but grew until I knew I should call my doctor’s office. “Go to the ER,” I was told, so I went. Except for moderating my diet and getting more exercise, I usually follow doctor’s orders.

This profession of mine, newspaper work, especially the writing of a column, often turns on self-indulgence. Though it be only part-time now, a column a week, I have been an unapologetic navel-gazer for decades.

Where’s my pen? My notepad? Where are you taking me?

“We don’t have any beds, so …” the first of several kind but officious nurses said after drawing blood, taking my blood pressure and feeding me two baby aspirins. But then she steered me around a corner where two more ER staffers were prepping a bed that apparently had just come open. In the partitioned room’s other bed an old man – another old man – looked me over, maybe feeling better than I looked and taking some relief from that.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

The next half hour was a blur of nurses, needles, machines and questions from a stern but not unfriendly ER doc. I tried to share with him my self-diagnosis – that the coronavirus that hit me 14 months ago, leading to no symptoms at the time, had erupted now with a vengeance – but he looked at me the way my regular doctor does when I recite all the maladies I’ve recently heard about and believe I have.

“Are you vaccinated?” the ER doc asked, and when I proudly said yes he said “Good,” and I think he said that on both my behalf and his.

Blood and computer readouts and my insurance information went out to various places and I tried to get comfortable in what the hospital calls a bed, with patches for electrodes scattered around my torso. My son arrived and tried to look cheery and not too concerned.

Time passed.

“I’m bored,” I said.

Pete turned on the overhead TV, and I was glad there wasn’t a medical drama playing, with doctors shouting “rib cutter!”

The X-ray ladies returned with their apparatus, apologizing that they had to take another picture of my lungs because the first had cut off part. “Your lungs are too long,” one said. That will be my new nickname: Long Lung Chuck.

Time passed, and I thought about other times in an emergency room – once long ago in the arms of my father after I stepped on the razor-sharp rim of a discarded Folger’s coffee can. More than 60 years later, a hint of the quarter-circle scar remains.

At the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis maybe 20 years ago, I drew a half dozen physicians who tried to figure out why my blood pressure was through the roof. One frustrated young man, trying to get a sonogram reading of my gall bladder or something, looked up and said, “I can’t see it because there’s too much …” pausing, looking at me … “adipose tissue.” It means fat.

Time continued to pass, and I fretted over taking up space in the ER at a time when they were busy with COVID cases. The lobby had been full of distressed people, but the magic words “chest pain” took me to the front of the line. “Maybe I should have toughed it out,” I thought. “But no, they said ‘Go to the ER. Go now.’ But what if it’s really nothing?”

I thought about all the mortality jokes I’ve made, annoying people who care about me. Just that day, one of my favorite students rolled her eyes when I responded to some unwelcome possibility with “that’ll take the sting out of knowing I’m likely to die soon.”

Maybe the maudlin jokes are my way of whistling through the graveyard, but I was relieved when the stern but not unfriendly doctor returned and said the tests pretty much ruled out a heart problem. They pointed instead to the esophagus, damage from an earlier problem with acid reflux, maybe an ulcer. Serious enough, but he prescribed drugs and treatment and recommended dietary changes that will test my will to live.

He went off to write prescriptions, and I lay there another hour or so waiting for a nurse to pull the wires, find my shirt – There’s my pen! – and set me free. I contemplated my meager choices for dinner. I was eager to lose the still-disturbing pain in my upper chest, but I wondered whether my insurance would cover the bills. I wondered whether the people in the ER waiting room had insurance.

The meds worked. The pain subsided, and three days later I celebrated my son’s birthday with the family at Buffalo Wild Wings, our table laden with hot spicy wings, cheesy potatoes and chocolate cake.

I had a salad. It was great. And I watched Emma, 11, tear into Pete’s cake, which was so very good, she said, and I smiled.

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.