By Jacqui Banaszynski
Hospital emergency rooms are a blur of scenes that, each on its own, would be indelible if only you could slow them down. Maybe it’s good that you can’t. Maybe the blur makes you take things as they come, one after impossible another, until even the most disturbing become matter-of-fact. Of course another blood draw is necessary. Of course they’ll do an MRI of the brain. Of course the woman on the other side of the curtain is moaning and wailing and says the doctors are hurting her and she doesn’t know what’s wrong and she won’t wear a mask and she just wants it to stop.
So do you.
That’s where Don Nelson and I found ourselves, not quite four weeks ago, when we walked into the blur of the ER at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee. Most of you who read this space know that Don is the owner, publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News. If you don’t, you should: He has kept the newspaper alive and out of corporate hands these last 10 years — at not inconsiderable expense on a lot of fronts.
That’s a story I hope he lets me tell someday. For now, with his permission, I want to take you inside a curtained cubicle of the hospital world in America in the time of COVID. It’s one that people like Don and I — both journalists — read and fret about constantly. It’s one that I, in my younger days as a field reporter, would have entered with mask on face and notebook in hand, ready to do a job I deem vital. It’s also one that, no matter the studied science or the frequency of stories by the best reporters working today, doesn’t seem to stick — at least not with enough traction to make enough difference with enough people. It’s one I hope you never have to enter yourselves.
Let me backtrack briefly. It started a few weeks earlier, when Don complained of tired eyes and trouble swallowing. He’d been living in the smoke of the Methow Valley all summer, spends his days looking at a computer screen or through a camera lens, and his nights reading book after book from the local library, consuming them like the pie he loves.
“Wear a mask outside,” I said. “Get off the screen. Put a cold cloth on your eyes. Don’t eat so fast.”
A day in the ER
It seemed to help. Until it didn’t. One Saturday, after two bites of lunch, he simply said: “I have to call Aero Methow.”
Neither of us are the hysterical type, but we’ve both been a few minutes from catastrophe. We know when to pay attention.
“That’ll take too long,” I said. “I’ll drive.”
We spent five hours that afternoon in the cramped ER at Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak. All the medical pros we dealt with were attentive and even cheerful. But we saw them for no more than 10 minutes in total. The rest of our visit was spent in the waiting room, where Don apologized over and over for ruining my day, and where I watched the stories of humanity roll in and out around us.
Don mentioned, at one point, that he would probably write a column about this. My response: “What? About how sad it all is?”
That’s the only word that seemed right: Sad. It was a lot of other things, too: Ugly, unsettling, infuriating. But mostly I found it sad.
The waiting room was a constant wash of people who, it seemed, had nowhere else to turn. Three exhausted-looking women juggled restless babies on their laps; another tried to manage a fidgety 5-year-old. A jittery young man who had fallen off a dirt bike went to the front of the line to check for a concussion; on his way out, he boasted that he couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he had been knocked out cold. At least four people who came in left with positive COVID tests. Don had a test when we first arrived, despite a negative test two days earlier; a nurse shrugged: “We assume it’s COVID until we know it’s not.” As dusk arrived, a burly laborer came in; he was masked and soft-spoken, but flushed and coughing.
I could have gotten angry then. And I was concerned about our exposure. Vaccinations are inching forward under new and controversial mandates. Still, I wondered how many of the people wheezing all around us were among the 24% of eligible Americans (age 12 and up) who have had no COVID vaccine. That rate is slightly higher in Okanogan County and, and in pockets of the county, higher still. Mask wearing in the ER could best be described as indifferent. At one point, I muttered to Don: “If we didn’t have COVID when we got here, we’ll probably have it when we leave.”
But mostly I felt sad. Deeply, deeply sad.
This is my America — and yours. I can stretch my privileged bubble as large as my self-paid education and hard work allow. But journalism demands perspective: My reality is not a cozy blanket over anyone else’s life. I live in the richest country in the world. Yet it’s one where almost 10% of people endure the skimpiest definition of poverty; one in seven of those are children. A similar percentage lack health insurance; many more can’t afford the deductibles on whatever insurance they do have. A recent study by the independent Commonwealth Fund showed that the U.S. has the highest health care costs among the richest seven nations — but ranks last in actual care.
I sat now, in that America, watching an understaffed medical crew try to keep pace and keep pleasant amid the rising tide of patients. It was dark when we finally left — Don with a steroid shot in his bum and another negative COVID test on his record. I glanced at the weary laborer, who was still waiting to be seen: If he tested positive, how would he work or feed his family? We bought gas and a few groceries in Winthrop, then tucked in at a cabin in Mazama, expecting Don’s symptoms to ease by morning.
Five days later, we found ourselves in the ER in Wenatchee, huddled in that curtained cubicle. Don could barely swallow and was dangerously dehydrated.
We both were carefully masked, and masking our concern from each other, as couples do. I ignored Don’s shushes as I asked pointed questions of the medical pros. He ignored my questions as he endured one test and another and another. We both said “thank you” to every person who came into that cubicle, no matter what new assault or confusion they brought with them.
As one more nurse was leaving the cubicle we chorused our “thank yous.” She turned: “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that.”
“What?” we blurted together. “No one thanks you?”
She paused for the briefest moment: “Not for the last year.”
The power of ‘thank you’
Don was sprung from the hospital earlier this week, as his “No Bad Days” column explains. He got excellent care at Central. There were a few tears as he said good-bye — and thank yous — to his nurses. Now he is reliant on specialists in Seattle, his own determination and me. That last part scares me, but we are hell-bent to get him back to his newsroom, where he is itching to be.
Now as I chart his meds and continue to badger the medical system, I also find myself interrupted by anxious flashbacks to the last month.
That’s inevitable when someone you love is in the hospital.
But in the hospital in the time of COVID, there have been too many moments that had me holding my breath in rage. Don was moved five times in three weeks as Central played musical rooms with COVID patients — mostly unvaxxed; at one point, a room in ICU was available only because yet another COVID patient had died. Transfer to Seattle was delayed, and then switched to outpatient care, because hospitals there are overtaxed with COVID patients — mostly unvaxxed. Doctors at Central have been threatened with physical violence as they’ve walked to their cars. One told me, in a tone of resignation: “We’re in a civil war.” As we left, a nurse told Don that the reported declines in COVID infections don’t speak to rates of hospitalizations or deaths. She congratulated us on leaving: “You don’t want to be in the hospital in October.”
We didn’t know what to say, other than thank her.
I have lived too long and seen too much to have naïve illusions about the noble experiment that is American democracy — a place where individual industry and community compassion walk in awkward harmony, where immigrant parents could raise their children to go to college and travel the world and own a weekly newspaper, where science could beat back deadly diseases and be trusted. Hell, where the egotistical patricians who formed this country still believed that the pesky press was as important to protect as anything else. I am more acutely aware than ever that this democracy is, these 245 years later, as much an aspiration as a promise.
That aspiration feels splintered as it never has in my 70 years. But if it shatters, I hope it isn’t due to failure of a simple “thank you” to an exhausted nurse who is risking her life to save others. That’s an America that makes me sad.
Jacqui Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, former editor at several large newspapers including the Seattle Times, and former professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who now teaches, coaches and edits other journalists round the world. She splits her time between Seattle and Mazama. She and Don Nelson have been together, even when apart, for 43 years.