The other side of the emergency room curtain

"O God," she said on her side of the curtain. O Lord, I answered, softly, on mine.

After a time, her sobs faded. They must have taken her to that little room off to the side. If you've been in that little room — and all hospitals have one — I'm sorry for you too.

We're told the little room is for privacy, but at that moment privacy doesn't concern us, for we are oblivious. The little room is where they herd us off to be contained and administered to. It is the room where the priest comes, the room where they give us the bad news.

After her voice disappeared, life in the ER returned. I could hear two staffers continue their discussion of presidential politics. A nurse laughed. Someone pushed a cart with a bad wheel.

After a time, the ER doc came in. He was quick and sure with his scalpel, and then he cleaned the thumb, slapped on antibiotic and wrapped it in gauze. When he finished, I asked:

How do you take it?

"Take what?" he said, examining the dressing.

That woman who was sobbing. Things like that.

"Another doctor handled it," he said.

But what does it do to you?

"You have to keep emotional distance," he said. "But not too much. Enough to do your job. And, yes, you do feel it."

On the way out, there was an ambulance driver in a chair, a short, heavy man, and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. I asked him too.

"Sometimes, new people come on the job. After a week or so, they just can't take it," he said. "But some get through it, and they can do the work."

But how do you deal with it?

"You don't," he said. "You just do the job. Then you go home."

I stood there for a second.

"Go home," he said.

Outside, the sun was still high in that blue sky. And the wind shook its fists in the trees.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

CHICAGO

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