All stories have a beginning. Fictional stories have ends. In real life we do not have endings; we have endless circles.

We may feel that our lives are neatly bound together by family and friends, a small world that we alone belong to. That myth is shattered when you have to spend a day in the emergency room of a hospital in a large city.

In the Beatles song “Help,” the singer pleads, “I need somebody, help.” This would have been an appropriate song to be blaring in the background.

Today’s column is three stories in one; the larger picture, the personal view and the plea for change to help all of us.

It is six o’clock in the morning on a normal Monday. To my subconscious mind I was sound asleep until a searing pain woke me up when I was lying on the floor face down, ribs hurting, arm bleeding and the most intense pain all over my face, but especially my head and cheek and jaw.

It took me a few minutes to clear my head enough to call my daughter Lara and ask for help. She must have flown as she was there so fast, looked at me and said we were going to the hospital.

She took me to an urgent care provider, we were quickly seen, and I was given orders to take to the ER of a nearby hospital.

The scene was set. It was a swelteringly hot day, the outside air filled with musty traveling ash, and my sweat so plentiful it joined the horror of what was called a summer day.

I thought it could not get hotter, but no, once I entered the dark, dank emergency room I was proven wrong. The musty outside air now seemed ambrosia.

I walked in alone, because masks are required, and no extra human baggage allowed. I turned my head quickly to see the outside world and then was put in an endless line that surrounded people huddled in rickety chairs after going through the ER drill sergeant.

I showed my ID and insurance cards over and over, responding to the same questions over and over. When I was asked if I was in pain, I said, ”YES, a great deal.”  I kept showing the pink paper with the doctor’s orders from urgent care, but they must be in a different language. When the interrogation was over, I finally found a chair and felt my body tremble.

I asked a nurse running by how long I would be there and showed her my pink pages in hope.  She responded, “At least six hours before screening. Then two or three more, maybe, until the cat scan . . .” And then I sort of stopped listening.

I looked around the old room with pale green-gray walls that surely had not seen paint for decades. There were old chairs everywhere, none matched. Most creaked. People leaned against the walls.

It was the immense variety of the gathered people that suddenly struck me. Perhaps we were in the center of the world. Every country, sex, age that I could imagine, oh, they were there. Every type too.

The guy in the motorcycle jacket who had to be crazy, because who wears a motorcycle jacket in 110 degrees? Barefoot children with unwashed hair who made you feel guilty you could not feed them.

There were students trying to study and finally gave up, unable to have a sane thought in the mumbo jumbo. We had pregnant women of every stage and a delirious woman with blood running from her eye saying she had walked in herself.

There was crying, screaming, bleeding, vomiting, complaining and, on the faces of many, the sense of shock that somehow their life had led them to this room.

What had they done wrong? They had insurance (most of them). They just were asking for some help. “Help, I need somebody. Help. Won’t somebody give me some help?”

One woman sat calmly in her chair as if it was a throne, her posture perfect, pearls on her neck, her white hair shiny and perfectly in place. I felt unfit to be near her, but I dared to ask,” How long have you been here?”

She replied, “Almost five hours, for a blood test. I am old. Don’t want to end my days here.”

For me, when I was finally called up to be screened, about four hours later, the young woman said, “Your face is a mess. You need to see somebody.” There is always a comedian.

I showed her the orders from the doctor in urgent care ordering a CT scan. She smiled—well, half her mouth did–and said, “It will be about four more hours before they take you up, then maybe four more until tests are run, if they decide to admit you….’

She mumbled something else, but I followed her finger pointing me back to my chair that was now claimed by someone else. I wiped some blood off my arm, managed to squint through my swollen eyes and headed out the door where my daughter Lara had been waiting the whole time

When told the story, Lara asked me what I wanted to do, I said, “Go home, get some ice and go to bed.” Which I did.

In  looking back on my experience, I was thankful for the team at urgent care. They were great. What happened in the aftermath, I believe, is the result of decreased medical coverage and increased burnout that is spreading all over the country, especially in big cities.

COVID changed the medical system, and we need to get it fixed. A lot of people who were within the system of medical providers died or became fed up or moved on.

As our population keeps growing and shifting, we need to keep up with their medical needs. It’s a lot of trouble. And, sure, it’s a lot of money, but the next person waiting in a big city’s emergency room could be you.

As for me now, my face is still swollen, a blend of shades of purple, but it is slowly, if painfully, healing. It is embarrassing at my age to look like I was in a barroom brawl.

I am concerned about the plight of our large hospitals. I am also reminded, no matter who we are, and we are legion, that we all face adversity at times, and, no matter who we are, if we need help, we just have to wait. Or not.

Diana J. Ingram

Diana Ingram has been a columnist for Los Banos newspapers for four decades.