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

As Grace explained it, she's engaged in a rather unconventional tour of the United States via short-term nursing contracts. Her next planned stop was San Antonio.

At that point the large, belligerent, battered drunk driver was wheeled in and strapped into a mobile bed near me. Then came the steady mantra of "Fuck, man! I don't want to be here," a sentiment with which I could agree in substance, if not style. He eventually discovered the bedside buzzer to summon assistance and kept punching it for the next half-hour or so. Nurses and orderlies eyed him warily but did little to shut him up. I didn't feel up to the task, either.

Time passed excruciatingly slowly, in the faintest of pulses. Bright lights bored into my face. Head wounds throbbed. There were no painkillers and almost no water. In the Ben Taub ER, drugs to relieve the pain are generally off the menu du jour because they can mask symptoms of internal injuries. Likewise, water may induce nausea and vomiting, not the most optimal behavior when one is in line for X-ray and CAT scans. All of that makes good sense if the diagnostics are completed in reasonable time. If they're not, the interminable wait becomes an ordeal heightened by thirst, pain and conditions that make sleep impossible.

An ambulance crew wheels another trauma patient into the Tub.
Deron Neblett
An ambulance crew wheels another trauma patient into the Tub.

Sometime after 4 a.m., when I had just about hit the wall, Grace returned with a sensible suggestion: Wouldn't I feel better if she wiped the dried blood off my face? I hadn't even seen myself in a mirror yet and didn't realize I was smeared in clotted red from head to foot. Grace slowly sponged my face and neck, murmuring, "Let's see if we can find any more cuts." It made me start to feel like a human being again.

Wherever Grace is now, that hospital and its patients are very lucky to have her.

By 6 a.m. radiology was as backed up as ever, with no opening in sight. A doctor and several assistants made the rounds, stopping briefly by my bed to summarize the case. My complaints about the night-long delay didn't seem to register. I might as well have been talking to the wall -- as some of my peers in the holding area had been doing much of the evening.

Two hours later I had finally been C-scanned by a dreadlocked, fiftyish technician who lives in Louisiana and shuttles back and forth to Houston for his shifts. He confirmed what had already been obvious. The patients had been stacked up in line for scans all night, like jets grounded at a fog-bound airport. With the scan out of the way, the X-rays followed, and I was soon out of the hard neck brace and walking around.

At 10:30 a.m. friend and writer Mimi Swartz found her way to the holding area, and life began to improve rapidly. While waiting for my final paperwork to get processed, Mimi began translating for a couple from Monterrey, Mexico. After a few more minutes, Mimi and I were strolling out of the hospital; she in a sharp pullover and tailored trousers, me in a borrowed orderly smock and blood-soaked jogging shorts.

We got in her car, then I noticed my shirt was pasted to my back. Later examination revealed that skin had been scraped raw in a swath along the back shoulder and was still peppered with grit from the bayou trail. It had never been seen or cleaned, because I spent almost all of the hospital stay immobilized on my back.

During the stop at the Montrose Walgreens, the final bad joke played out. There was no problem getting the doctors to write the prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medication.

But Ben Taub physicians are apparently a bit shy about including Drug Enforcement Administration ID numbers on their scripts. Pharmacists would have to get the number from the hospital. After a day of trying and getting no response, they gave up the effort.

My friends pitched in with help of their own -- in the form of leftovers from their medicine cabinets. The prescription snafu soon dissolved into just another dark dream punctuating fitful sleep.

One month later, on a steamy afternoon at the West Alabama Icehouse, it is reunion time. Although the remnants of Trip Buckley MD's autograph on my forehead are clearly visible, it takes a few minutes for us to recognize each other.

Trip, a 32-year-old native of Wildwood, Tennessee, wore a midnight pallor attesting to his current lifestyle as a hospital rat on a work treadmill that would grind most people into dust. Over icy Rolling Rocks, Trip and I compared notes on how we got to the Ben Taub ER.

His career path to medicine was as winding at the bayou bike trail. There are no other doctors in the family. His father owns a construction company outside Knoxville, and his mother is a retired stockbroker.

After earning a liberal arts degree at Skidmore College in upstate New York, Trip signed on as a sales executive for Coca-Cola but was bored by that prospective career. He began leaning toward medicine, primarily because a close friend was heading off to med school.

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