Have you ever spent any time in the emergency room in a small Southern town … on a weekend … during the COVID pandemic … with your head feeling like there are a few dozen nails rolling around between your scalp and your skull… and the nails are on fire? That’s exactly how I spent the better part of a day just a couple of weeks ago. I woke up around 2 a.m. that morning, and before I even opened my eyes, I felt that familiar piercing pain at the base of my skull. Another migraine.

The torture that is migraine headaches is a genetic plague passed along through the women in my family (and the occasional male as well, although they seem to have escaped this particular family trait for the most part). I sometimes go for months without a true migraine, but then there are weeks where I lose an entire day or two to a bottomless pit of eye-crushing agony where only a dark, cold, quiet room offers any solace. Mostly I just have to wait it out and let it run its course; but there are occasions where the pain gets beyond what I can cope with without medical intervention. And that’s where I found myself that muggy morning. Everyone was working, so once the sun came up I drove myself to the ER. After passing through the COVID screening tent set up outside, I went through all the required steps.

First is triage, where my vitals were taken, and I was asked to assess my pain.

“On a scale of one to 10, what would you rate your pain today, Ms. Wendy?”

“Well,” I answer. “I’ve had children, and that was a 10. Kidney stones hovered somewhere between 50 and 100. This is slightly better than the stones, so I’m going to rate it a 37.” “Hmmm …” was the only answer I got. The nurse was not amused.

Once my blood pressure had been taken and I’d been weighed (which just adds insult to injury), I was asked to step over to the registration desk. This step is particularly frustrating unless repeating your social security number, address, birthdate and mother’s uncle’s next door neighbor’s maiden name over and over is your idea of a good time. Finally, I am given an arm band and led to the next step – the waiting room.

If you’re not familiar with this black hole in the universe, then God bless you. Keep up the good work! If, however, you have spent time there, all I can say is bless your heart. Time stops here, which makes the presence of the massive clock on the wall even more of a burr under the saddle. You can hear the seconds tick off, but time is stuck. If you look away, I’m convinced the hands actually move backwards. No one has been lucky enough to actually document this, but I know it happens. A TV hangs on the wall. It’s always tuned in to game shows or the weather channel. The canned laughter and the shrill voices on The Dating Game make you want to slap someone. And the weather channel … I’d rather eat dirt on a plate than actually watch a meteorologist repeatedly discuss the weather in Rhode Island. In the dark corner, where the flickering fluorescent lights have completely given up, a vending machine crouches … waiting for you to drop coins into its belly. It has absolutely no intention of ever giving up the year-old snacks that live inside it, though. Luckily, food is the last thing on my mind at this point. I just need IV drugs … or a bullet to end it all.

After what is almost certainly 97.5 hours, I hear my name being called. A jolly little lady wearing a pink volunteer scrub top leads me through the double doors into what I refer to as the Outer Ring of Hell. As we walk, she asks me, “Are you having a good day?” I blink at her a few times and answer, “Why, yes. It’s been lovely so far. Can’t wait to see what happens when the sun goes down.” Of course, I don’t say this out loud because it’s the South and I’m a nice person and I’m too close to passing out to actually speak. I nod instead, and she smiles an even bigger smile.

We reach a long narrow room with about a dozen beds lined up separated by curtains. I use the word ‘bed’ loosely because no one wants to say, “Here’s a wafer-thin, vinyl-covered yoga mat thrown on top of a slab of concrete for you to get comfortable on. And, oh yeah, there’s no pillow. It’s against the law to have a pillow in the hospital. Have fun trying to adjust the side rail while also trying not to touch the dark stains dating from the early ’90s that even industrial-strength cleaner won’t get rid of.”

I am given a gown and the volunteer tells me the doctor will be in shortly. Well … that’s a lie. I know it, and she knows it. But we smile at each other and I say, “Thanks.” And I settle in, freezing, my gown not quite covering all the important bits, goose bumps running up and down my arms and legs, with one fist pressed into my eyes to block out the harsh lights and the other hand over one ear to drown out the beeps and the moans and the general chaos, curled into the fetal position not sure if I’m praying for an IV or for that bullet.

And then I hear the squeaky shoes…. To Be Continued

Publisher’s Note: This column ran in 2020 but due to unforeseen circumstances, we were unable to run Part Two. We are republishing the column this week and will publish Part Two on April 22.