A Night in the Tub

An angel named Grace, a doctor who's a real Trip and fresh gore flooding the ER -- the new Ben Taub gets old quick

This definitely wasn't the planned destination for the evening. On the bed across the ward from me, two men in white were forcibly catheterizing a very drunk, very beat-up Hispanic guy who kept shouting, "Man, I'm pissing on myself!"

"No, you're not," one of the interns replied in a sensible tone. "You've got a tube up your penis. It just feels that way."

My view of that encounter was somewhat limited -- watching only out of the corner of one eye. Trying to turn to follow the action was futile, because my head was immobilized by a neck brace. But that hardly kept my ears from picking up the yelling protests.

Buckley examines a young Hispanic woman with severe abdominal pains.
Deron Neblett
Buckley examines a young Hispanic woman with severe abdominal pains.

"Man, what am I doing here!" repeated the patient, who had been strapped down after trying to take an unauthorized stroll through the ward a few minutes earlier. "What the fuck am I doing here?"

It was the same question I'd been asking myself for the last six hours or so at Ben Taub General Hospital. Bicycle rides invariably make me feel better at the end of the trail than at the beginning. And this one hadn't quite worked out that way.

The hike-and-bike trail along Buffalo Bayou looks like a ribbon curling through a verdant park, a six-mile loop of gravel, sand and asphalt that veers back and forth from the curbs of Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive down to the banks of the waterway. Swooping along the course on a ten-speed bike almost always drains the sour tension of a workday in a setting that seems far removed from the center of the metropolis.

Nearing the end of the loop on the evening of July 10, I leaned forward on the handlebars into a favorite downhill sprint just past Eleanor Tinsley Park. Whatever happened next became only a blur in the memory -- a jolt, an instantaneous sensation of flight, and the abrupt ending in a paralyzing hammer blow.

The bike's front wheel apparently jammed into a rut on the trail, flinging me forward over the handlebars and slamming me face first into the ground. A helmet protected the scalp, but the impact splintered my wire-rimmed glasses into the right brow. The lens sliced through the forehead and, according to one bystander, exposed a shiny patch of white skull.

Without even trying, I'd joined a disturbing new national trend: increasing numbers of cyclists suffering severe head injuries despite the use of protective headgear.

Within seconds, a couple out for an evening stroll raced over and took charge. Nick Miller, an off-duty medic, used the bike helmet as a cushion to keep me immobile. Scholastica Carter, a community college student and young mother who lives in the new Allen Parkway Village, flagged down a jogger to get water and make a cell-phone call for an ambulance.

The emergency ride recalled old memories of an autumn evening in 1988. While jogging on the same trail, I had encountered a slithery yellow, red and black character who bit the hand that picked him up. The mugger, who also went by the name East Texas coral snake, accompanied me in a tennis ball can on the ambulance trip to the hospital -- though he fared a lot better afterward.

The snake got a private room at the Houston Zoo reptile hotel. After processing through the emergency room and ICU at Ben Taub, his human victim spent a night in a public ward that could have doubled as a set from Snake Pit. A disoriented gentleman strapped down several beds away ranted about razor blades for most of the night, guaranteeing that the ostensibly sane patients around him got little sleep.

However, much had changed since that episode 13 years ago. Just getting into Ben Taub was no sure thing, an EMS team member told me as we rode to the hospital. On two previous passes earlier in the day, the medics had been diverted to other facilities.

The reason for the rerouting was obvious: patient overload. A month earlier, Tropical Storm Allison had decimated Memorial Hermann Hospital and other mainstays of the Texas Medical Center. My routine exercise break had suddenly turned into a ticket into the post-flood Houston health care morass. The next 14 hours provided a patient's-eye view of the high and low points of an ER stretched to its limits.

Ben Taub is a little bit like that old definition of home -- the place where when you have to go, they usually have to take you in. It's also deceptive. A trauma victim spends his or her first hours at "the Tub" in the chilled atmosphere of a world-class emergency complex surrounded by a medical team working with military precision.

Unfortunately, that first impression doesn't last long.

Lesson one about Ben Taub: After being stabilized, any accident victim with medical alternatives should use them and get the hell out. As patients get better and move down the priority list, the quality of care goes down as well. Before long, those who can walk are begging to be released.

Back in 1988 I had the opportunity to transfer to a private hospital. But fooled by the high quality of the Ben Taub emergency room, I didn't relocate -- and wound up in that Snake Pit ward.

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