The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m single and live alone. And on many forms, I can’t fill in the line for ‘In case of emergency.’


It’s on almost every form you fill out for work, schools, the doctor’s office, the dentist. ICE. Three little letters that could save your life. And every time I need to fill it out, I cringe, I’m single and live alone and especially right now I think of it a lot — do I really have an “in case of emergency”?

In my thirties, I had my first panic attack. It struck out of nowhere in the middle of teaching. One minute I was doing an animated read aloud — the next I couldn’t breathe. My face turned red; my elementary school students began to cry. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was brought to the school nurse’s office, where I hadn’t been since I got a nosebleed in the fourth grade. After several minutes of respiratory problems, I got my breathing regulated, inhaling and exhaling in a brown paper bag, like I was blowing up a paper balloon. The assistant principal with the short brown hair looked at me and asked, “Who can come pick you up?”

And that’s when I realized it — no one could.

I have friends and neighbors and family nearby, but I could not imagine any of them taking off work, driving or taking a cab to come pick up a grown woman holding a paper bag in her hand. But she was sitting there in the nurse’s room with her eyebrow raised, demanding an answer.

“Don’t you have someone? Who is your in case of emergency?” she said, irritated. “Let me call a car service,” I said.

She walked me to the station wagon, and I went home to my two male roommates at the time. I never told them what happened. I never talked about it again, but the ICE began to gnaw at me. Who was the first person in my speed dial? Who could I call for help?

Years passed — I moved apartments, changed schools and once again had to fill out those little blue cards with the emergency number. I did what I always did — I put my parent’s names down and prayed nothing would ever go wrong. I was in my 40s now and single, my parents in their 80s. I should not be calling them for help. They should be calling me.

As the weather warmed and I started pulling my hair back more, I began to feel it, a small protrusion, which I ignored at first. But soon the pain became excruciating, a constant throbbing that made it difficult to sleep, move my head and even brush my hair. It went from a bump the size of a pea to a bulge quickly. I had an infection on my head. A big bulbous cyst that could not be ignored. I looked it up online where you could see the famous pimple popper perform the procedure. It seemed gross but harmless enough.

Then I went to my doctor who assured me it was a simple procedure — and wrote me a referral to a surgeon.

“You have a pilar cyst,” he said and then showed me numerous pictures on his screen.

A big sac on the back of my head, covered by my golden locks, went unnoticed for years. Now the pain was unbearable.

“It’s an easy procedure, you might not even need stitches, he might just use glue.”

Nothing to worry about, I thought, and went home and made an appointment for the following week.

I met with the doctor, who seemed friendly enough, a warm man with gray hair who got right to business. He had me lie on my stomach as he began to inject my head with needles to numb it. Then he did his business, one I had watched numerous times on YouTube, like an accident I was grotesquely attracted to. I knew he would cut an incision and then remove the entire cyst — the size of a marshmallow but calcified and stuck in my head. We talked about Europe and travel and still, he was in there — poking and prodding trying to get this sucker out.

“This is really infected.” He said. “It may take awhile.”

Soon he began stitching me up like an old dress — so much for super glue. Finally, he was finished. It was five o’clock in rush hour and I planned to take the subway home. I got up and he began to give instructions I was not prepared to hear.

“Go home and take a shower. You will see a lot of blood,” the doctor said.

Wait — what?

This was supposed to be a simple procedure, but because of the size of the infection and the difficulty in removing the cyst, there was more blood than usual. I would need to go home and wash it out for sanitary purposes and keep an eye on the stitches. If they didn’t hold, or some other unforeseen rupture incurred, I would have to go to the emergency room.

“Blood?” I said.

“Yes, if it does not stop you will need to go to the emergency room. Do you have someone to take you?”

And there it was — nearly a decade later, ICE. The three-letter word, that sounded like a four-letter word. Of course, I had people in my life, including a brother who lived nearby, but as for someone who I could call and would answer the phone, well, I wasn’t sure.

“The emergency room?” I asked again.

“Probably not, but just in case. Otherwise, I will see you in 10 days to take the stitches out.” He said and left.

There I was. Alone. Afraid that my little cyst might cause me projectile bleeding. That all of a sudden, I would be vulnerable and scared and without support. I was going to get an Uber but it was rush hour and I knew the subway would be faster. So I took the train home, hiding my head, turning away from the crowd so straphangers couldn’t see. At home, I pulled my hair back — my neck was covered in blood. Skeptically I took a shower, and as promised the clear water turned crimson. It stopped and I got dressed and sat on the couch.

Who would I call? I thought. What would I do if I had to go to the ER? I started panicking but eventually fell asleep. I made it through the night, feeling frightened and alone, and my head began to pang like someone had knocked me out. The next day, I began calling friends and family to tell them what happened. To my surprise, many told tales of needing to go to the ER alone, and that fortified me.

My father had gone a few days before for heart problems. My closest friend had been once when her kids were small, so her husband had to stay behind and watch them. Others had similar stories.

As this pandemic bears down on us, many people have and will face going to an ER, or even an intensive care unit, alone.

If this is the case, there is a certain comfort in knowing that there are others out there who care and are thinking of you — and in that way you are never truly isolated.

Steps to take when facing a medical emergency

Being single with cancer may mean less aggressive treatment than a married person

I’m 70, single and have a strong support system. But when I got sick, it wasn’t enough.