In the United States, much less the world, there are hundreds, if not thousands of emergency rooms. We, the staff of those emergency rooms, number in the tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands, perhaps. We bear witness to millions of patients, all with individual stories, all with individual reasons for being there. While all emergency rooms treat basic emergencies, the larger hospitals may have a specialty—trauma, cardiac, perhaps even psychiatric. The common thread to all emergency rooms, that commonality that lies beyond the common staffing, overwhelming patient numbers and limited rooms, is the trauma: the physical trauma, that brings them to us; the emotional trauma, that makes them wary and carves upon them life-long scars; and the spiritual trauma, which steals from them their courage, their connectedness, and leaves them even more vulnerable than before.
The emergency room creates an environment of frenetic pace–twelve hour shifts of being on one’s feet, oftentimes without significant pauses, without relief, or without a meal break consisting of anything more than hurriedly eating between fetching medicines or escorting patients back to draped rooms. Multiple accidents, multiple patients, and multiple complaints can all converge on one place at one time, again and again, making those who care for those patients worn and weary. With such limited energy, the niceties, those little acts of compassion can be forgotten in favor of the important, the life-saving, the necessary.
There are thousands upon thousands of emergency room staff, and patients number a thousand, thousand times that. Each person, staff or patient, carries his or her own story. There are a thousand stories in the world, but this one is mine. There are a million Graces in the world, but this is my Grace, and this is my story. Her name was not actually Grace, but that is how I will always remember her.
The night itself was not particularly unusual. Two out of four admissions staff had called in; only one other registration clerk along with myself was working grave shift in our local hospital. We were responsible for ensuring all patients were accurately identified, signed in with correct identification and insurance information, and given an armband. For tasks beyond that scope we were not responsible, yet somehow we were called upon to answer endless questions— many of which were outside the scope of our knowledge, such as, “When will I see the doctor?” or “When will my test be back?” or the worst, “Is he still alive?” We were also asked to fetch towels, water, and oftentimes other staff, all while ensuring everyone was registered, tagged, and charged.
The job seemed straightforward and simple enough. The challenge, however, often came in the pace of the job and maintaining composure in the height of such a frenetic pace. At the height of cold and flu season, when patients seemed to leave the minor care portion of the emergency room as soon as they arrived, staff scrambled to register them before one patient was replaced by another presenting with similar symptoms. When the names, faces, and diagnoses began to blur, patience and compassion often plummeted. Ambulances flooded in as well, like endless cargo ships unloading patients, bringing chest pain patients, victims of varying degrees of injury, and the usual tide of those with minor ailments who could not—or chose to—ride in an ambulance rather than drive themselves to the hospital. People became diagnoses: no longer were they John Smith or Bill Jones or Mary Peters; they were “Cardiac in Seven” or “Drug Seeker in One” or “Ingrown Toenail in Ten.”
I had been working in admissions for two years or so, and for over half of that time I had been on night shift. Having recently left a horribly dysfunctional and destructive marriage, I found myself, just over the age of thirty, explosively angry, bitter, and very much full of resentment. I had very little joy, and even less compassion. I resented everyone for everything, and spent half of my energy sulking and keeping it buried—whether I had a logical reason for being angry or not—and the other half blowing up at people and giving them the “old what for.”
I was also very burned out. The job of an admissions clerk was not only fast paced, but also thankless and possessed an alarmingly high capacity for burn out. The nurses and medical technicians referred to us as “Registration,” as if that were our name, and the doctors only noticed us at all if we had made some kind of error. Patients did not want to meet us either on their way or on their way out. When they first arrived, they saw us as an inconvenience, standing between them and their doctor. On their way out, they especially did not want to see us because we were required to attempt to collect copayments or set up payment arrangements if they did not have insurance. No one wanted to see us, it seemed, but everyone needed us.
In fact, it had not been too long before this, on a night much like this one, overwhelmed with patients and terribly short staffed, that I found myself literally screaming in the middle of the emergency room at another admissions clerk, just as frayed as I was, in full view of patients, nurses, and doctors alike.
It was not my finest moment.
But this night, unlike the others, I received a lesson that I never forgot; this was the night I met Grace.
A thin, wailing sound came from one of the rooms from beyond the door that separated the acute psychiatric and detox patients from the rest of the masses. The magnetic door was a drum, beating a testament to staff’s dashing between locked and unlocked portions of the emergency room. In my rush to get everyone properly registered, I must have run past her room a dozen times, ignoring her. When I asked the nurses at the desk about her, they told me “She’s just detoxing. Don’t worry about her.”
She had not officially signed in yet. Because she had been brought in to us by ambulance, she had been priority registered, officially putting her “in the system,” even if I hadn’t obtained an official consent for treatment. She was going to be there for a very long time, so getting her to sign was not the most pressing issue. I had multiple duties requiring immediate attention in the maelstrom that was that particular night’s emergency room.
When I finally approached her, she offered a weak smile and thanks for coming to see her. She had been asking for her nurse, but no one had answered. I shrugged and stepped toward her, offering a clipboard and a pen for her signature. Her hand, in tics and shakes, labored to draw the pen behind it as she zig-zagged her name across the line. As I watched her, I thought about the insurances that still needed verifying, the forms I still needed to scan, and the people I still needed to sign in, how I needed caffeine, if my coworker was still hanging in there. Verifying her name and date of birth was just another tedious process; she had trouble remembering her birthday. After what seemed to me an eternity, I wrapped the armband around her wrist and stood back a step.
“Do you know who my nurse is?” she asked, her voice as tremulous as her writing. I didn’t. In the emergency room, everyone is entitled to know who their caregivers are, but I was leery of psych itself and suspicious of the motives of psych patients. Psych patients were a different breed, I thought. I saw them as fractured somehow, a broken part of and a disruption to society, unable to cope and highly unstable. As poorly as I thought of psych patients, I was disgusted by drunks. Having been married to an active alcoholic in a marriage that left me fractured as well despite my denial, what little sympathy I had for psych patients disappeared when they were alcoholics as well.
“I could try to find out for you,” I told her, not willing to truly commit to much of anything. “Do you need something?”
She paused and, taking a deep breath, said, “I’d like to thank her.”
“Thank her?” I asked. “For what?”
“She was able to get my blood on the first try. I’ve always been told many times that I’m not a good stick. My veins are terrible anyway, and I can’t stop shaking. I know I only make it worse. She did such a good job.” She rasped when she spoke, a sound barely above a whisper.
I merely blinked at her. For the first time in a long time, I had been surprised.
She raised her eyes to mine and asked me, “Are you a child of God?”
To this, I didn’t have an immediate answer. Having been through hell during my marriage, again with my divorce, and carrying so much rage beneath the surface that I lashed out at just about anything that crossed my path, I hadn’t thought of God in a long, long time, other than to wonder where He had been during my darkest days. I shifted from foot to foot. After an extended pause, I finally spoke. “I’d like to think so,” I said, not really believing the words as I said them. How could I? They weren’t even true.
Having been raised a Southern Baptist, I had begun questioning youth ministers and other elders with inconsistencies in the Bible as an early teen. I didn’t understand how the Old Testament Jehovah could be so vengeful while the New Testament Jesus so loving. I heard the same mouths that had proclaimed Jesus’s love for all mankind spout words full of hatred and cruelty. I had been lied to, lied about, and bullied by “good Christian people.” I had heard stories of my childhood minister’s wife ignore my mother because she was wearing pants in the grocery store. And I had noticed God’s distinct absence during times when I had lost all hope. Where was God when I had been raped? Where was God when I was trapped in a pitiless marriage to a drunk, a thousand miles from home, with no friend other than his dog for comfort? Where was God when I slipped further and further into depression, wanting nothing more than to end my suffering? While I had not lost my belief in God entirely, I certainly could not believe in a good God for allowing suffering without end. I could not believe in a good God when there was war, famine, and so much hate everywhere. In the span of a heartbeat, I had considered all this and more. My love for God, such as it was, had been tossed aside a long time before.
“I would like to think so,” I had told her, not a word of it true. She nodded and replied, “You wear your faith well.”
Horrified and struck dumb, I wondered how she could possibly think that I wore my faith well? I, who had ignored her, who had been impatient with her, brusque even? I, who had completely lost my faith, both in man and in God? I wore my faith well? I watched my feet stuck and still, unable either to run from the room or to move closer to her. I don’t think I had ever felt as ashamed as I felt in this moment. I had ignored her, been curt and even rude to her—this drunk—and, from her pit of misery, she said that I wore my faith well. I felt small and humbled and flabbergasted.
When I looked up, her eyes, as clear as water, were on me. “Would you please hand me my Bible?” she asked. My feet paused, still unwilling to move. After a long moment, they finally carried me to the counter where her Bible lay. I carried it to her, my step unsure and shuffling. She took the white leather volume from my hands and opened it, revealing a folded piece of paper. The paper was ragged and had been folded and refolded many times. She opened it, smoothing its roughness with gentle hands. On it was a poem, a few simple lines of rhyme, the words of which I have forgotten although two phrases have stayed with me until this day: “His hand in mine” and “He walks with me.”
“Would you be so kind as to copy this for me?” she asked, unable to meet my eyes.
Upon closer inspection, I noted that the words were runny, and the paper was no longer white. It bore stains, perhaps tears, coffee, or even wine. “I’d be happy to,” I answered, taking it from her. My feet finally moving, I fled the room.
Coming back to my desk, I saw a pile of work waiting for me. More people to register, more insurance to verify, and an ambulance or two to greet. I copied the poem immediately, sticking it under my keyboard so that I could get it back to her as soon as I finished. For having feet that refused to move only minutes before, they ran for the next half hour, along with my hands and mouth. I smiled and registered and moved on to the next as soon as possible.
When finished, I dropped the clipboard and reached for the poem and its copies, noting that the blurred words and stains had carried over to the new ones. I quickly retyped it, choosing a big, bold font that made the poem spread across the entire page and printed several copies.
Bringing it to her, I apologized for my delay. When she saw the new copies, she blinked. “You did this for me?” Her eyes, still red and wet, met mine, and I nodded. She grasped my hand tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She folded each separately and placed each one lovingly at different places in her Bible. “These words have gotten me through some tough times,” she said. “But not lately. Maybe I need to start pulling them out again.”
She opened the cover of her Bible, and her fingers traced a corner of nearly illegible writing. She read them aloud. “Be strong,” she said, her voice catching. “I am with you always. Love, Me.”
I smiled. “What a lovely thing to write.” She bowed her head and started crying, and my smile slid from my face. I was horrified all over again. She began talking, her voice starting as a whisper growing clearer and stronger with the telling of a story. She talked about her fiancé, a man whom she loved and lost due to cancer. ”Love came late for us,” she smiled, “but it came right on time.” She spoke of the pain of winding paths, of failed relationships leading to this man whom she adored, and the loss of her soul mate to cancer right before they were to be married.
She talked and talked and talked, telling of their fighting the cancer together, but in the end, it had beaten both of them—when the cancer killed him, it killed a very large part of her as well.
And then she spoke of coping, the beginning of her drinking i to numb her loss; how days, weeks and months all became a single span of time that she simply called “without him.” He had given her a Bible and signed it so that she might remember him. I didn’t think it was possible for her to ever forget.
This was Grace’s story— the story behind just another drunk who had been brought to the emergency room to dry out.
I put my hand on her shoulder and stayed silent, simply witnessing her pain. When I don’t know what to say, I usually remain quiet. Saying the wrong thing can be far worse than saying nothing at all.
“He would be so ashamed of me,” Grace told me through her tears.
“He would be proud of you,” I disagreed. “So very proud of you. Look how far you’ve come. Look how long you’ve suffered. And now you’re here, looking for help.”
“I am so weak, so tired,” she replied.
“You don’t have to be strong,” I told her. “Read your poem again. See? His hand is in yours; He walks with you. You don’t have to be strong at all. You just need to have faith.” The voice was mine, but the words were not. I had no idea where the words came from, only that they needed to be said. It was ironic that I, who had raged against God, would be telling her to have faith.
She said nothing for a long moment as she found her voice. When she spoke, her voice was strong, level, clear. “This isn’t me,” she said. Her eyes met mine again. “I would like to meet you again, someday, when I am me again.”
I smiled, knowing the feeling all too well. “Me too,” I told her. “Grace, I would like that very much.”
At the time of this writing, it has been close to two decades since I crossed paths with this woman, but her grace I remember as if it were yesterday. I had come to the emergency room that night, burdened by my own drama, still burdened by the baggage I carried with me from marital baggage, convinced that “those drunks” and “those addicts” were somehow beneath me. I was first taught humility by a statistic, yet another drunk who showed gratitude for what seemed to be a small, simple thing from the depth of her misery.
Through her words, I saw a snapshot of her path that led her to where she was in that moment. And that is how we see people: whether it’s a minute, a day, or a decade, we see them in snapshots. Those we meet do not begin with us, and they do not end with us. Whether it is a single story or a long series of them, we rarely see the end result of their struggles or the demons they have had to battle along the way. We meet them for a minute, a day, or a decade, and we often judge them for that span of time.
The time I spent with Grace planted seeds that are, even now, still sprouting. Everyone has a story, I’ve learned, and those stories are our memory, our legacy, and our presence long after we have gone.
I want to collect stories of people from everywhere, from anyone who would be willing to share theirs with me, but especially from those who live or have lived in Mississippi. I want to collect them, to share them, and to amplify them.
Perhaps in hearing vastly different stories, we can find those plot lines—the threads—that connect us all.
Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
My aspiration is that fewer stories go untold.
I still hope to meet Grace again one day. Perhaps both of us will be ourselves.
Thank you for reading.