I’ve started to notice the smell. It’s a deep funk, definitely human, saturating the stale air like an old sponge. I gag and pull my sweater over my nose, breathing in the fibers.
“Nuh-guin,” comes a voice from the loudspeaker. I nudge my mom. “Hey, I think that’s you.” We’ve been at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center emergency room since 9:45 a.m.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Now hurry before they think you’ve left!”
She scuttles off to the nurses’ station for the second time. Some five hours ago, the nurses checked her vitals, so we think this time she’s won time with a doctor. The joke’s on us. They simply check her vitals again.
My mom got an abnormal EKG reading the day before when she went to get her high-blood-pressure meds refilled at a clinic. The doctor also noticed that her thyroid was swollen and urged her to immediately go to the hospital to get a referral to a specialist.
My 53-year-old mom has no health insurance. She’s a classic example of one of those left in the middle — makes a little too much to qualify for county and state programs, but makes way too little to pay the $400 and higher premiums that individual health-insurance plans demand. The hours they give her at her job as a teacher’s aide don’t meet the mark to qualify her for coverage.
It’s after 5 p.m. now, and the smell is overwhelming. A woman in a velour sweatsuit walks through the waiting room with an atomizer, adamantly spritzing the air. “Uh-uh, this will make it a little better,” she says aloud, and people are grateful.
A hugely overweight guy sitting diagonally from me, with his mother next to him, has been mostly asleep since he got here. He was two ahead of us when we got into line. His snoring is loud and unabashed. People chuckle each time his head falls backward and hits the wall behind him with a huge crack, but neither the pain nor our laughter wakes him. The woman next to me, a real chatty Cathy, engages Sleepy Guy and his mom in conversation.
“What are you here for?” she asks, during one of Sleepy Guy’s waking moments.
“For a checkup on my surgery,” he responds. He pulls up his shirt to reveal to the hundred or so people in the waiting room a vertical surgeon’s cut across his baby-smooth stomach. “I had to wait 19 months for this. It’s county.”
Turns out he’s a former Marine, so the conversation switches to politics. Chatty and Sleepy agree that Bush has screwed up things badly. Sleepy Guy describes the anxiety he felt after returning from duty abroad. An older guy chimes in and says he’s had the same thing and couldn’t sleep either. Chatty Cathy suggests that the anxiety is probably the reason why Sleepy Guy’s so tired. Everyone nods thoughtfully in agreement.
“New-jin!” someone crackles over the loudspeaker.
“Ma, that’s you!” I tap my mom real hard. I’ve gotten so accustomed to the mispronunciations of my last name that I can recognize variations pretty easily. I watch with relief as a nurse at last leads her into the guts of the hospital.
There’s another woman sitting next to me now, talking to Sleepy Guy’s mom and trying to find out how long we’ve all been waiting, because she’s just arrived.
“I guess I need to wait because they don’t know what’s wrong with me and they just told me I have diabetes,” she tells the mom. Her sister turns up five minutes later with a combo meal and hands it to her. We watch as Diabetes Girl bites into her turkey burger and sips from a jumbo-size soft drink.
It’s almost 7:30 p.m. when my mom finally comes out. “He saw me for not even 10 minutes and was ordering an ultrasound for my thyroid when they had emergency gunshot victims and so canceled it!” she says, exasperated. “We have to go to Long Beach for an appointment, but he didn’t explain what it was for…”
The smell is coming back now, much more obscene than before, and spreading quickly. People in the waiting room put sleeves and handkerchiefs over their noses, make faces, and meekly laugh at how bad it now reeks. We are all embarrassed and don’t know why.
“C’mon, Ma, let’s get out of here.”