A quiet weariness hung over the emergency room at D.C. General Hospital Monday morning as slow walkers, coughers and snifflers straggled in after digging themselves out of the weekend snow. I'm talking about staff now, because the waiting room was almost empty of patients. And not because all the poor sick people had been suddenly healed.
The call for emergency transportation had been broadcast area-wide. All hospitals were in desperate need of four-wheel-drive vehicles to transport doctors, nurses and patients.
But over at D.C. General, which serves as everything from pharmacist to M.A.S.H. unit for 180,000 emergency-room patients and outpatients annually, the hospital's five small vans had to do it all. The hospital did not receive one call from the public offering help with transportation during the crisis--not one, said Deputy Operations Director Harvard Spencer.
Mark Barren, the hospital's public affairs director, tried to explain: "It could be that the people we serve down in Southeast just don't have four-wheel-drive vehicles."
That's right. They don't. What they had was sickness and no way to get to a doctor. But as the response to the community-wide call for help showed: Who gives a damn anyway?
The sounds of unanswered telephones echoed throughout the hospital; Operator 10 eventually picked up one and explained that "liberal leave is in effect."
At the admitting desk inside the emergency waiting room, a nurse was playing secretary after 16 hours as waitress and consoler. This duty was something of a rest for her--at least until a woman whipped back the green plastic curtain around the examination table where she lay and bolted out into the waiting room, cursing.
"Where are the damn doctors?" she yelled as she staggered around the room, clutching her chest. "I been here for hours and I ain't seen nobody and my heart . . . is killing me." She screamed until her dreary eyes shed tears and her voice faded to a whimper. Nobody tried to console her. One nurse just slumped in the corner and looked away. "I'm too tired," she said.
The woman eventually calmed down and explained that her apartment was so cold that the night before she took three Valium pills and washed them down with a fifth of Wild Irish Rose to get warm. But then, she said, she got "too hot," so she went out for a walk.
Someone found her passed out face down in the snow and brought her to D.C. General. Where else, except maybe Howard University Hospital? D.C. General is always closer, it seems.
It would be easy to blame the doctors. After all, where were they this Monday morning? You mean to tell me all those Mercedes-Benz commercials aren't quite kosher, that those magnificently engineered mobiles can bust dust at the Baja but can't handle snow on C Street NE?
Checking out the doctors' parking lot at D.C. General, however, made clear what kind of doctors we are talking about here. There were a few Toyotas, some old Buicks and a little Chevy with the Johns Hopkins medical school sticker still on the rear window: interns. Again, what would you expect?
Many of them had been working overtime since Thursday, too, just to keep the place going. This is easier said than done, because the board of D.C. General Hospital has threatened to close the facility Sept. 30 if the hospital cannot get $6 million more in operating funds for the current fiscal year.
Walking down those mournful corridors, the men in crumpled white coats had beards grown past 5 o'clock shadows and approaching midnight. Outside a room labeled Disaster Station 19, a young doctor with the kind of dejected look that makes you think maybe he just lost one straggled along to the canteen. He was headed off by a nurse whose nametag read Daisy. "Just turn around, baby," she said sympathetically. "That coffee machine ain't doing nothing but taking people's money."
So not only were the people filtering into this place sick, but the place itself was hurting. And for a public facility, its deterioration suggests that we are not so healthy, either.