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A Tale of Two Hospitals

Some years ago, I found myself in the Sutter Lakeside Emergency Room on Christmas Day. I was not injured or ill, having arrived via ambulance with a patient.

By late afternoon, my mutinous belly growled a reminder that it had last seen calories the previous night. Prowling the hospital for sustenance, I could find no vending machines. The cafeteria was closed; it was posted as being open solely for breakfasts.

By now, I was awfully disconsolate. As I stood brooding, a female voice startled me, speaking through the closed service window next to me. “May I help you?”

I blurted out my situation to the sympathetic female. “I'll give you a sandwich,” she said, “if you can get a nurse to phone up here and approve it.”

I trotted off to the e-room, and explained to a nurse what the culinary worker had said. “I don't have time to fetch that sandwich,” was the reply. “Oh, she said she would hand it to me if you just called to authorize it,” I told her. “I don't have time. I've got to catch up on my paperwork,” she announced before hustling off to commit prodigies of bureaucracy with her saved ninety seconds.

Well, that was that. There were no eateries near the hospital, and no chow for George.

Time to find a way home. I had ridden with an ambulance, so no car. Being somewhat of a loner, I couldn't think of anyone to call for help. There were no buses—holiday schedule, natch. I would have tried begging a ride if there had been anyone else in the e-room, but I was on my own. So I found a pay phone and began feeding it change. Every taxi company in the book was ignoring its phones. So, no ride to summon.

At this point, I realized I would have to hitchhike home to Lucerne. I launched myself from the hospital doors, stomach snarling, and set forth on Lakeshore Boulevard in the gloom. Within the first half mile, I began to feel the bite of post-sundown cold. The evening dew had crystallized into a vast glittering field of frost under a moon the size of a washtub. It was a beautiful utterly calm night, but damned chilly.

I figured I would walk until a ride was offered. I estimated it was only five miles home if I had to walk it. I hadn't done any long hikes since I retired, but I did my daily mile from my house to the post office to snaffle my mail, so this seemed no big deal.

By the time I got to the stretch where Lakeshore Boulevard borders and overlooks the 29 freeway, I hadn't seen a car. As I hiked the long curve to the Nice-Lucerne Cutoff, I kept glancing over at Route 29. I didn't notice any cars moving over there, either.

By the time I reached the Cutoff, I had exceeded my usual daily mail mile. As I turned towards Nice on the cutoff, I realized that not only had the temperature sunk further, but a clammy miasma was arising from Rodman Slough. Now there was a death chill in the air. I was grateful for the lack of wind; the simple act of cutting the air with my body created my own bitter breeze against my cheeks and legs. Fortunately, I had a warm jacket.

I trudged on. Still no cars, no chance to hitchhike.

By the time I came near the Sentry Market on Route 20, I needed a break. I sat on the roadside and assessed myself. My legs were beginning to feel stretched. My feet were numb, but I could still wiggle my toes. My major difficulty was that when I stopped, I began to rapidly cool down.

So, up and onto Route 20. Someone was sure to come along, and they were bound to offer a wayfaring straggler a Christmas ride. I hoped.

As I walked through Nice, admiring the Christmas lights in the warm little roadside houses, my legs began to ache. I took a short break in Keeling Park.

By now, I was thinking of this walk in stretches between rests. Just a few more stretches… then Lucerne. This particular stretch got me out of Nice, back into a relatively rural part of 20. No cars — the Good Samaritan was still on strike. My legs were beginning to charley-horse. I took a break. I laid down on my back, with my legs out-stretched and my heels chocked up on a guardrail post to drain the congestion from the lower limbs.

Ahhhhh! Instant relief flowed through my calves. I laid there, musing longingly of a hot tub… a sauna… an August beach… The first snort of my snore aroused me.

Holy crap! The earth's bone-chilling frigidity had soaked through me, luring me into blissful rest. Whoa! This is how folks freeze to death. I rolled onto my hands and knees, arose, and staggered onward. It took a while for the charley-horses to return. I didn't notice at first; I was too busy coping with knees that refused to straighten. I was shuffling along with bent knees when the leg cramps struck again. The pain below hip level drove hunger right out of my focus.

By the time I reached the Lucerne limits, between knees giving out and charley-horses kicking in, my walking style was that of an arthritic crab. And Lucerne was a mile long, with my house on the far end.

Somehow, taking long sitting breaks between, it took three more stretches to get home. I seriously contemplated covering the last one on hands and knees to tamp down the pain, only to realize scraped knees were a worse solution then.

Once in my house, I toppled onto my sofa. I was awakened sometime in the hour of the wolf by my howling dogs. My feet, that is.

I sat up, removed my shoes. I could see my feet puff up as the shoes came off.

I peeled off a bloody sock. The sole of my foot came with it, leaving it skinless. It looked as though my foot had been sandblasted.

Incredulously, I peeled the other sock. Same gruesome result. Both of my feet were completely raw on the bottoms, from heel cup to toenails. Surprisingly, the toenails remained, though they appeared varnished.

When I checked later, I found I had covered nine miles. And never seen a moving vehicle all night. Lake County sure does believe in Christmas at home.

I crawled upstairs to the bath tub to begin my recuperation. I convalesced on my own over the next couple of weeks.

I did not go to Sutter Lakeside for treatment.

Come down through the years until now. I have escaped my Lake County exile, and returned to Mendoland. Willits, to be exact.

Beginning a month ago, I've suffered low grade nausea, fatigue, the blahs. Occasional coughing spells would whoop me into popping eyes until I was nearly puking. I was unable to swallow much, and was losing a pound a day. Unlike my usual insomniac self, I was sleeping outrageous hours. Finally, when I slept 20 hours in one single long day, I figured enough was enough.

Given the Sutter Lakeside experience, I was somewhat reluctant to turn myself in to a rural emergency room. Nevertheless, with Christmas coming fast, I wanted to be able to recognize it, if not celebrate it. I had my daughter drive me to Howard Memorial. As I entered the waiting room, I mentally girded myself for some miserable hours of tedious waiting. Half a ream of multifold forms to fill and sign, numerous signatures, maybe even an inked thumb print… then processing time… finally, welcome treatment.

Zip. I was instantly in a treatment room. Vital signs were taken. A shot was given for the nausea. Someone gathered my pedigree stats, saving me some dreary paperwork. Then the treatment permissions quickly showed up on a clipboard carried by an administrator. A polite offer to let me read it, a quick explanation in ordinary language, I added three signatures, and treatment continued. The doctor diagnosed me with viral bronchitis.

Next came two liters of saline solution to rehydrate me. Anthony, the nurse, had the inspiration to put a pump on the line to spare me two hours of saline drainage. In the twenty minutes the saline bags took to empty, another medical technician showed up to insist I eat something; she brought me a ham sandwich to nibble. That was followed up by a cozy blanket swirled over me and tucked in, fresh from the warmer.

And by then, zing, if I wasn't a new man, at least I was feeling quite a bit like the old George. Shortly thereafter, they released me, with a recommendation that I see my own doctor, or return to Howard's Urgent Care. When I hit the Howard lobby, I was asked if I had a way home. I thanked the clerk and called my daughter for a ride home. Two days later, I was in the Veteran's Clinic in Santa Rosa for my followup.

The quick gentle efficient treatment at Howard wasn't the highlight of this visit, although it was incredibly welcome. The staff's attitude was. They could not have been more different from the Sutter Lakeside staff. Howard's staff showed warm concern instead of cold indifference. Smiles instead of frowns. Polite language full of courtesy words instead of curt gruff replies. And anyone, nay everyone, who passed my Howard treatment room peered in and genially inquired about my welfare. All my queries were carefully answered, my requests honored. In fact, this crew was the most pleasant assortment of medical people I've ever met—and I have had an unfortunately wide array of experiences for comparison.

Dear reader, I am now about to make a statement that combines two terms so seemingly incompatible that you may want to prepare your eye-rolls of disbelief.

This emergency room is delightful. So eye-roll me. I repeat, a delightful emergency room, delightful e-room crew. So there.

I am truly sorry that Anthony's was the only name I caught during this e-room sojourn. To all the other good folks who treated me, I apologize for not catching your names, but you have my hearty thanks.

So. Two hospitals in the Christmas season. One cold, uncaring, and brutal. The other warm, welcoming, nurturing.

I believe you, dear reader, will buy into my conclusions based on these experiences.

One, Willits and Mendocino County are so damned lucky to have Howard Memorial and its compassionate staff.

Two, pity poor pathetic Lake County, stuck with Sutter Lakeside and its cold-hearted trolls. Lake County needs something better. Like maybe a local branch of Howard Memorial.

Since I submitted "A Tale of Two Hospitals," I received a call that one of my close friends is in Howard Memorial's ICU. His wife told me that the staff offered her a menu today to choose their Christmas dinner together. In the moldy oldie times gone by, this would be referred to as, Pure class.


  1. Joan Hansen January 1, 2020

    My gosh, what a horror story. It sounds like people were too busy to help you. As a retired nurse I know how paper work weights down a nurses bedside manner, but it does not make it right. I am relieved that you received quality care on you second admission. Some administrations give more importance to charting and paperwork, but patient care and human kindness should come first. This was always my complaint when I worked. The longer I worked the more and more paperwork there was and less and less time spent with the patient. The paperwork took so much time away from the patients, I felt my job as a nurse was diminished.

  2. George J. Dorner January 1, 2020

    And tell me, Ms Hansen, how much paperwork could you accomplish in 90 seconds?

  3. Marshall Newman January 2, 2020

    I’ve often said nothing feels better than walking out of an emergency room, but my witticism never included walking home!

  4. George Hollister January 4, 2020

    I continue to be impressed with the quality of the writing in the AVA. This piece by GJD is a good one. Mark Scaramella’s writing about his USAF experiences are also good.

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