The boy could not have been more than 9 years old. But his bald head testified to the treatment for cancer he had undergone.
I saw him coming out one of the emergency room treatment areas at Meadowlands Hospital while I lay flat on a cot in the hall.
He seemed very shy and reluctant to disturb the nurses as he approached their workstation to make a request. Around us both, the equipment that defined our health hummed and beeped, telling the staff how close we had come to the edge of life. We both seemed insignificant in the hubbub of people coming and going, new stretchers being rolled in, patients being moved out, amazing business for what should have been an ordinary Saturday afternoon in late June.
When the boy spoke, I could hardly hear him, and he had to speak twice before the nurse heard him as well.
“Can I have a blanket for my mother?” he asked.
As the nurse scrambled to comply with the boy’s request, the tragic truth of the situation hit me. The boy was not the patient; his mother was.
Watching this combined with all the other human tragedies going on in the ER, I felt more foolish than I had before. I was taking up valuable time for an injury I had only suspected was a broken leg, but was likely not, and was the least of the most serious injuries there, created by a rather stupid lack of balance earlier in the day.
I had been taking some pictures in Union City while waiting for my wife to finish shopping in one of the stores in the nearby Columbia Park Mall in North Bergen. In a rush to get back to her, I stepped off a curb into the parking lot, and twisted an ankle that caused me to fall onto my other knee.
I hadn’t realized my fall until I saw strangers looking down at me, asking me if I was all right. Did I need them to call an ambulance?
I thought I was fine until I stood up and realized I could not put weight on my left leg. It buckled each time I tried to walk. I thought it was broken. I managed to hobble to a wall to lean on for support.
Several people who appeared to be of Latino descent kept tabs on me asking if I wanted water. When I told them I needed to reach my wife, they offered to help. What does she look like? Where is she? They asked this in a mixture of English and Spanish that I found difficult to follow.
Then I saw my wife Sharon at the other end of the parking lot – more than a football field’s length away. I shouted and waved my arms. She didn’t hear me at first, and when she did, she couldn’t see me, because I was under an awning.
“It didn’t sound like you,” she said later.
Back and forth Sharon walked, eventually ending up in front of ShopRite. One of the women went to find her, but did not speak English well enough to convey to Sharon what had happened to me.
“Your husband, he…,” the woman told my wife, motioning to indicate that I had fallen over.
“I had no clue as to what she meant,” Sharon said later. But eventually, she caught on to the idea that I was hurt and up at the other end of the parking lot, and she rushed over.
“At first, I saw only your swollen ankle,” she told me later in the hospital. “Your pants leg covered your knee so I couldn’t see the scrape or the swelling.”
The woman knew enough English to convey to the staff at ShopRite that I needed an ambulance. The North Bergen Ambulance crew along with a North Bergen police car arrived a moment later to take me to Meadowlands Hospital.
From the rear of the ambulance, I saw the familiar world in reverse: Union City giving away to North Bergen, then to Secaucus. Tragically, the landscape was littered with other ambulances at other points, revealing the vastness of human suffering I would likely have otherwise overlooked had I not become part of its network.
The EMT comforted me by saying that I probably did not have a broken leg.
“But that’ll be for a doctor to confirm once you’ve had X-rays,” he said.
The doctor confirmed the EMT was correct, but puzzled over what he called the knees of a 17-year-old, knees that showed a gap as if I was in the middle of growth spurt. Since at 61 I was unlikely to grow much more, this must have been something negative.
The EMT talked to me in the hall, saying that I had not tensed up during my fall, which kept me from breaking anything.
“Drunks do the same thing when they’re in a car crash,” he said. “They don’t realize they’re going to hit anything when they’re starting to crash. They walk away without breaking anything. It’s the people they hit that suffer the most damage.”
The ER was so busy with real tragedies, the staff had to keep me in the hall, a vantage point that allowed me to witness the human drama ongoing around me, the coming and going, the suffering almost grieving families, the machines going haywire with reports that hinted that the end of life might be near. One family huddled outside the closed door of an examination room waiting for the doctors to tell them the fate of their loved one inside.
And in those moments, as nurses and technicians scrambled to provide aid and comfort, I realized how lucky I was, how I was the least injured in that place and how in the end, I would get to walk out of there on my own two feet, no more worse off than wearing a temporary cast and a cane, while people like that nine-year-old bald-headed boy would wait to hear the news about his mother, or the daughter outside the closed door waited to hear news of her father’s fate, their lives resting on the shoulders of this army of nurses, doctors, and EMTs who had to pause in their desperate activity to wait on me.
One family huddled outside the closed door of an examination room.