Over the years I’ve gotten many calls like this one. “Will you look at
this case? Something very bad happened and I think someone screwed up.”
They seldom say it quite that bluntly, but that’s what they mean.
One day, many years ago, I was sitting in front of the television
when an emergency news bulletin broke in. There was a major water leak
on Broadway and 34th Street in New York City, not far from where our
family lived. The camera faded to a big hole in the street with water gushing
out of it. There was the usual crew of nine men looking idly on, but in
the hole, there was one man digging frantically. His head bobbed up and
down, shovels of mud flew through the air.
It was my first night at a new emergency department, so I was just
getting used to the system and the people. Everything seemed to be going
along smoothly. The staff was great and very welcoming. The patients
were pleasant and generally not so sick as to create a stressful first
“Hey sweetheart,” my wife said cheerily as I stared into my coffee. “Today’s your day.”
“Huh?” I said blankly. It had been a long night and all I wanted was to eat my breakfast in peace and go to bed.
“It’s your birthday, silly.
Have you ever arrived at the hospital for your shift with the sinking
feeling that the odds were stacked against you? Sometimes it’s a quick
look at the ambulances lined up waiting to drop off patients. If I walk
by the waiting room I can sometimes get the feeling of whether people
are waiting patiently or whether there is a sense of anger and
I came up the companionway of our boat, ready to take over the night
watch from my daughter who was standing alone at the helm. “I see that
the wind has freshened,” I said cheerily. This a term sailors use when
it’s blowing like crazy.
Working the night after a holiday is always a bummer, especially
Thanksgiving. I usually eat so much turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes,
and pumpkin pie that I start to resemble the unfortunate bird himself. But my wife always drags out the Christmas decorations to
get a head start on the next season. Every other year I’m spared from
this duty as it is my turn to traipse off to the hospital for another
shift. Thankfully, it’s usually quiet. I guess most people are laying
around stuffed like I was. But a few make it in to the ED with the usual
“If the Republicans win big they plan to choke off health care reform,”
said my wife while reading the morning paper. “That’s what you want,
isn’t it?” She’d heard me rant about the long-term negative effects that
the recently passed bill would have, and I think she was hoping this
election cycle might put an end to it.
When the phone rang at 4:30 in the morning, instead of sleepily reaching
for the bedside phone, my wife literally jumped out of the bed. With an
elderly parent, she is always worried that such late night calls mean
bad news. I, on the other hand, have a more sanguine view of life, and
try to avoid any such thoughts that might interrupt a good night’s
As a Navy reservist assigned to a Marine Corps unit, my annual training
requirement – AKA “summer camp” – usually meant going with my Shock
Trauma Platoon to some foreign country to stand by while a Marine rifle
company carried out a live fire exercise with the military from the host