Dad was hunched over, swaying, and unresponsive. Mom placed a hand on each of his shoulders and forcibly shook. “Wake up! Wake up!”
No response. Dad’s head lolled to the right side, leading to momentum that caused his body to begin tipping over. Mom and I scurried to each side of the toilet bowl to prop him up.
His white sweat suit was stained purple along the front. It was vomit. Purple, viscous, vomit was trickling down my father’s chin. My heart pounded.
It was the winter of 1998. I was a twenty-one year old college student at the time, a few days removed from having attended a raucous house party, where young people from all over the country had imbibed their fill of cheap beer. Watching people spew cloudy liquids and partially digested food chunks from their mouths was not a new thing to me. But I’d never seen any human being spew purple liquid from their gullet. Mom and I looked each other in the eye, as we both recognized that my father was in deep trouble. Purple vomit was a symptom of some sort of contracted unique virus or a disease. Dad might die if we didn’t do something drastic very soon.
“I’m going to call 9–1–1,” I said. “Can you hold him up momma?”
Momma took a step to the left, reached out her left hand to grab my dad’s right shoulder again, and then she pushed him back until he was leaning against the tank. She turned to face me, her eyes alight with fresh panic. “Yes, please my dear. Go ahead and call them.”
The five of us — my sisters, my father, my mother and I — were sharing a one story house located on the east side of town. My father was passed out in the one bathroom that we all had to share. The landline telephone was situated inside the hollow of the white wall that connected my parents’ bedroom, bathroom, and my own room. It was the only working phone in our little house. I ran to it.
The emergency medical technicians joked and laughed as they loaded my father onto the gurney, especially the mustached tech with the mullet. “Looks like he spit up his whole stomach,” he said between laughs. His uproarious laughter bounced off every wall of my house. I was horrified of course, as my father lay limp and dying while being wheeled through the front door of my house. Tears slid down my face as the anger swelled within me. What the fuck was so funny about all of this?
We were able to get to the hospital on time. They fed my dad some antibiotics intravenously — he contracted a bug whilst traveling through Nigeria — and he awoke from his stupor. When I began crying at his bedside, dad pointed his finger at me and said, “Stop that crying nonsense Eze. You know that wailing is unnecessary.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes and smiled.
I was so grateful to the hospital for preserving my father’s health, but still could not forgive those emergency medical technicians for laughing. I held onto that anger for more than a decade, before I became a tenured healthcare worker.
“Eze! Why aren’t you listening to me? Momma strode across the kitchen and into the living room. As she approached the blue easy chair she said, “Am I bothering you?”
I sighed. “No you’re not bothering me.”
Mom stepped in front of the easy chair and said, “It feels like I’m bothering you.”
I pressed the pause button on the remote control, interlocked my fingers, and turned to face my mother. She spent the next few minutes relaying the story of her interaction with the repair guy — the vinyl tiles on the north side of my house are sagging. As she spoke I attempted telepathy, wishing that she would move her story along so that I could get back to watching my television show. But momma recounts her story as if she were a telling a memoir piece. Instead of summarizing what was discussed during the conversation, she offered an exact quote of what was said.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked.
Huh, I thought. My mind had been muddled with unrelated thoughts, as I was only able to accommodate fifty percent of what my mother told me. After having spent eight hours of my day listening and attending to the needs of strangers — doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and patients — I was tired of being expected to listen. If you’d just given me the time I needed to process before you started in on me.
“I think you should just call him,” I said.
Momma rolled her eyes. “I just got done telling you that I called him. Are you all right my dear?
Perturbed and annoyed. Those words would explain my mood at that moment. I wanted to go back to engaging in my normal routine, one that I’d been practicing every night for five years straight. Watching television shows in the evening is how I relax after doing God’s work for the majority of my day. I wanted to be entertained. My mother was getting in the way of that.
I shook my head from side to side. “Yeah, I’m all right.”
“So what do you advise?”
I leaned back as I thought of what else I could say to appease her. “How about we not worry about the siding tonight. It will be Saturday soon. I’ve got another day left of work at the hospital. How about we table this conversation until Saturday afternoon?”
Mom sighed. “Okay, we can do that. She plopped herself onto the easy chair and sighed. “My dear?
“The reason why I talk to you about these things is because this is your house too. When I die, this house will be passed down to you. You need to know what is going on with your house!”
“All right. Yeah.”
My mother sighs again, produced a waning smile, and stared at me with pointed eyes.
I returned her smile with one of my own. “I promise that we’ll talk on Saturday.”
That’s it. I’m done. Can I return to laughing at the shenanigans being performed by The Good Place’s cast members?
Kamala Harris said it: Providing health services for strangers in a non-profit environment is definitely one of God’s jobs. That’s what I do as a hospital worker, perform the work of God, which is hard work for minuscule pay. I’m not a nurse though, nor am I a doctor, social worker, certified nursing assistant, physician assistant, respiratory therapist, or anything else clinical in nature. Nope. I’ve spent the last seven years as a hospital laboratory client support professional, responding to inquiries via phone, fax, and email from patients and clinical staff.
Every inbound phone call is an emergency. I wrote one of my first public essays about this very fact a couple of years ago. Clients are forced to call hospital client services for help after they have exhausted their other options, and are whipped up into a lather by the time I pick up the phone. My department receives more than one hundred of these types of calls per day.
Other health professionals are given the latitude to say “I don’t know what’s going on” the first time they interact with a customer. They can placate the curious and anxious by ordering tests and x-rays and any other sort of diagnostic tool at their disposal. This is not true for hospital client services. Callers expect an answer right away. And as each second passes without a response deemed satisfactory, the caller screws the pressure on tighter and tighter until it fills like you head is going to explode.
Also, the person on the other end of the line expects you to conduct yourself a certain way in the midst of a call, particularly if it is a patient or patient’s relative. This has become truer in the age of Covid-19. The caller wants you to go out of your way to twist, turn, and contort until you meet the caller at the place of his/her choosing. No client in the world is as important as the person who is on the other end of the line. I’ve been called an angel because I’ve been able to make another person feel important.
I felt the same way about my father after he became sick twenty-two years ago. No one in the world was more essential than my father because I loved him and relied on him for so many things. I was deathly afraid that he might expire before his time, and I wanted the emergency medical technicians to act as if the death of my father would be a devastating loss for them too. And it broke my heart to know that my father’s life-or-death struggle could be reduced to just another night at the job.
Twenty-two years after the incident with my father, I’m seven years into my job as a hospital worker. I’d thought I could be a change agent when I first arrived, and grow into a role that would provide the right opportunities for me to improve healthcare delivery for patients. Then after a few years of working as a laboratory client services person, I would start to make moves, climb the rungs of the corporate ladder until I’d reached the right office. But after interviewing four times for supervisory positions at my current hospital, I’m stuck in about the same spot as when I began, with no current prospects for moving upward.
I think a lot about leaving the non-profit hospital, my current home away from home. Actually, I know I have to in fact leave, because the lack of faith exhibited in my abilities by people I’ve known for years is starting to grate on my nerves. But until that day comes, I’m going to keep coming to the place where respect has not been easily won. Because I need the money to pay for the trappings of adulthood: the house, the clothes, the car, and the college loans.
That’s right. I work this job mostly for the recompense now, and because I can do the job without too much strain on the mind. For the first time in my life I’ve become a master at the job I hold. I am able to perform my duties efficiently, leaving me with the time to stretch my mind and multitask throughout the day. I know how to best deal with the stress now too: writing and reading. I read novels during my lunch break and write stories when the opportunity presents itself — four to five times a day. At the end of the day, when everyone has exited the office space for home, I am left alone in the room. I lean back into my swivel chair, let the minutes pass by as I take inventory of what needs to be done during the last thirty minutes. Covid-19 is a swirling tumult engulfing the whole world. There are urgent messages scrawled across the pages of my voicemail log, messages that need to be returned before the world ends the next day. I have a current duty to help the world. Helping people is what I was put on this earth to do.
I blink once and the computer’s digital clock reads 5:00 pm. I close the voicemail log and toss it aside. I can respond to those urgent calls tomorrow.
I am writing this story while at work, in between downloading websites every couple of minutes on my phone. There are twenty-six days left until the presidential election, polls are being released every other minute is seems. Donald Trump’s photo comes up a lot on this day. His face is slathered with some orange concoction, which gives him an unnatural devilish visage. I come across an article about Trump that makes me laugh out loud, and it’s cathartic because I am working at a hospital in the era of Covid-19. I need a laugh at the end of a rough shift of answering phone calls from strangers.
So, I can understand where those emergency medical technicians were coming from. After you spend some years performing one of God’s jobs, having a good laugh becomes necessary. Doesn’t mean that I forgive the mustached man though.