For years, I’ve had unexplained dizzy spells, normally brought on when standing from a seated position. Multiple tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital left me with no answers (though, thousands of dollars later, I was told to drink more water. Thanks for nothing). The episodes don’t amount to much, barring a little public humiliation for my husband, Sam, like when I fell off a chair in the middle of dinner in El Salvador. Until the night I visited the emergency room where I had to use my less-than-fluent Spanish.
What price did I pay for the recognition that there’s a new standard for respectability in case of emergency.
At the time, we were living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, doing what we do best: eating midnight tacos—spit-roasted, chopped pork on two, small corn tortillas, covered with cilantro, diced onions, and salsa—at our favorite stand at the corner of Insurgentes and Hidalgo. Mexican taco stands are not much more than carts with guys grilling behind them and a row of a few rickety metal wobbling chairs at the counter right in the road. In San Miguel, this means a cobblestone road. This means rough surfaces that can do some damage to an unwitting fainter.
A local guy sat next to us, looking a little stoned, and struck up a conversation in pretty good English. As we were finishing up he insisted on buying our tacos because “I’ve never seen Mexicans eat street food. With all the hot salsas. You all eat carnitas too? Get out. I’ve never seen Mexicans do that.” I kept asking him if he meant Americans, but he was too buzzed to get it.
A Medical Emergency Abroad: Standing Up Didn’t Work Out So Well
So we thanked him profusely and stood up to leave. Next thing, I was laying in the street, passed out alongside the bar stools, head on the cobblestones. Above me, peering down, was a crowd of people: a cop, the stoned Mexican, and two friends of ours, Claudia, a San Miguelense, and Francois, her French-Canadian bar owner boyfriend, both of whom were walking by when I keeled over. The buzzed Mexican kept telling Sam that he had to get me out of there, that the police were going to arrest me. He told Sam to drag my body off before it was too late
Francois reached behind my head to try to help me up and his hands came out covered in blood. A death knell for the taco stand—bodies blocking the path to the counter and wads of bloody napkins left at the scene. Rather than wait for the ambulance that had been called, the four of us got in a taxi for the local hospital, a bumpy ride up steep narrow streets to the top of town.
Francois reached behind my head to try to help me up and his hands came out covered in blood.
With a native speaker in tow, things go rather smoothly: we pull up to the emergency room, filled with the random assortment of characters one might find at 1am in any ER in any country. Claudia tells Sam not to wait there for a doctor but to grab a wheelchair and take me straight into the OR, showing him the swinging doors. We bypass dozens of folks waiting their turn and wheel the chair into an examining room where medical personnel are eating plates of rice and enchiladas under dim yellow light.
“Only One Person”
We are told, emphatically, that only one person can be in the room with me, sola una persona. This means I have to choose between my husband and my trusty translator. Claudia wins, naturally. I am still sitting in the wheelchair when a nurse comes up from behind and starts cutting at the back of my head. I can hear the scissors snapping and see hair beginning to flutter around my feet. But Claudia, my lifeline to health care, is no longer with me. One minute she’s standing front of me, the next she’s crumpling, cartoon like and almost laughable. Someone’s hand is holding an alcohol-soaked Kleenex under her nose to revive her. No dice—she collapses, passed out cold, and is placed on her back on the examining table. Fainting seems to be contagious tonight.
But Claudia, my lifeline to health care, is no longer with me.
Claudia is a beautiful woman with a great figure. She’s wearing a short skirt, cowboy boots, and a low-cut peasant blouse. As they slide her back along the table, I‘m eye-level with her legs. They are incredibly smooth and tan, not a single hair on either of them. Dang. How does she do that! Her skirt is hiked up to underwear level. Now, in addition to the nurse cutting off my hair off and the man holding the smelling salts, the room is filled with, well, guys. They’ve all come to help rescue (resuscitate?) the beautiful maiden.
Who am I in all this? Why is there a pair of scissors still stuck in my matted, bloodied hair? When did I become so…invisible?
“She is Not a Person”
I ask the nurse to get Sam. She still insists, sola una persona. So in my pain-induced Spanish I point to Claudia and said, “Ella no es una persona.” She is not a person. “Por favor. Traer a mi esposo.” Bring my husband. I kept repeating, she is not a person. But they ignore me and minister to my tanned and well-coiffed friend. So I ask, as my head throbs, “Can you finish with me? Puede terminar conmigo? Por favor.” I try to put the emphasis on me, but everyone seemed to have lost their focus. Beautiful legs have a way of distracting the troops. I just want to be lying flat.
I try to put the emphasis on me, but everyone seemed to have lost their focus.
After they haul Claudia out on a stretcher, I insist they let me get on the table she just vacated. It is old, black, plastic, and cracked and smells of a year’s worth of other patients. There is no nice paper sleeve, no white hospital sheet, to shield my butt cheek from sticking to the sweat, breath, and excretions of others. But at least I was supine and in no danger of falling out of my wheelchair.
When my four-inch gash is sewn up we are handed a bill for 150 pesos, or $12, for the work on my scalp. (Two years later when my son falls off a roof and punctures his thigh on the top of a lantern, the charge is exactly the same—150 pesos being the going rate for stitches I guess.) That’s the saving grace of the evening: free tacos and a cheap trip to the ER. But what price did I pay for the recognition that I no longer have it, that there’s a new standard for respectability in case of emergency. Not just clean underwear but well-waxed legs too? Is it just me or does the bar keep getting higher?