When Brooks Died: A Story You Won't See on ER
CB Bassity, 1999
If not for my wife Karen, an ER nurse, I'd probably
still imagine the ER as a riveting drama, as in emergency room.
About half the time it's anything but emergency. (It's not a room
either; Karen supervises an emergency department, with sixteen rooms.)
The changing dynamics of healthcare send people to the ER with perhaps
an upset stomach, the flu, a bad cold, back troubles. Used to be, you'd
go to your doctor or clinic for these things, and there's a tired edge
in her voice when Karen describes her day as mostly clinic business.
It's not what she does best. Imagine feeling relieved or gratified when
real trauma comes in: car wreck victims with lacerated limbs; an out-of-control
diabetic; the broken foot, crushed by a pipe out at the drilling rig. But
sometimes trouble isn't satisfied until it sends someone like Dr. Brooks
through the ER.
Everyone called him Brooks. Only Becky called him Ed.
And who knew that his first name was Horace? He'd kept that much secret.
Horace Edward Brooks always had a ready supply of jokes. He was forever
asking Karen the dosages for medications—“What’s the normal dose for Pediazole?”
The part of his brain that would store that sort of detail was filled instead
with What has four legs and an arm?—a rottweiler.
Brooks died today. He was forty-five.
He was scheduled to work at three at the emergency
department where Karen works. At two-thirty, his wife Becky called in.
"Ed will be late," she said. Just after leaving for work he'd called her
on his cell-phone to say the gallbladder pain was back. He was close by
St. Joe's, he'd said, so he would stop there.
A short time later when Karen answered the phone,
it was an ER doc from St. Joe's: "I need to talk to Dr. Cooper," he said,
"—about Dr. Brooks."
"Cooper's over in radiology right now," Karen said.
"So how is Brooks anyway?"
The doctor hesitated. "He's dead."
Karen laughed. She got the joke—black humor
is the armor you put on in the ER. And she said, "no, really Doc, how is
Brooks lacked the self-importance that makes some
professionals tiresome. Before medical school he worked as a coal miner
in West Virginia where he grew up. He was plain-looking, on the short end
of medium height, and without particularly distinguishing features. His
blank face was a mask, however, for behind it was always lurking a deadpan
many straight waiters in Key West does it take to change a light bulb?"—He
can do it by himself. Brooks's irreverence served as balm in the ER. When
some great hulking character with a cold strolled back to occupy room three,
coughing in the nurse's face and pleading for a pain shot, Brooks's muttered
"Land-whale alert, room three" took the edge off.
While suturing the hand of a builder who'd had a
run-in with a table-saw, Brooks asked him, "So what do you do on your days
off?" And soon they were trading quail-hunting stories. Outside of work
he didn't let on that he was a doctor—"Aw, it changes everything. All of
a sudden you're somebody—it's a damn nuisance." He carried a flat
plastic change purse, the slotted kind you don't see anymore, that you
squeeze to open—"it's all the money Becky let's me carry." (He said it
with a straight face, and meant it, this guy who'd bought his wife a Lexus
Karen remembers being surprised when Brooks came
in with Christmas presents for the staff—R.N.s, L.P.N.s, aides—everyone
in the unit. It was only coffee mugs, peanut brittle—small stuff—but it
was unexpected, he didn't have to do it. And everyone had kidded Brooks
about the time, some months back, when he'd ducked back into the house
to grab his sunglasses, leaving two-year-old Taylor in the idling pickup,
and she'd dropped the thing into gear and plowed into the back wall of
the garage. But that was Brooks, and these things happen.
Sometimes, when they had worked a patient who wasn't
responding, Brooks would get an impish look, and swing his arms in a small
arc at his sides and say, "Well, anyone got any ideas?" There was no discrepancy
between this Brooks and the one who forty-five minutes earlier had
leaned close, probing the man’s abdomen and chest, and asked, “Where does
it hurt, Mr. Reid, here or here?” When you've done all there is to
do, someone's got to break the spell, to acknowledge the limitations of
the work. (Medicine, especially in the ER, is an art not a science. I've
learned that much from Karen.)
When the pain hit him this afternoon and Brooks went
to St. Joe's, he found a spot for his pickup out in the parking lot and
walked in to the unit. Only to collapse in their lobby of a massive heart
attack—an M.I., in ER terms.
Three nurses and two doctors, people who knew Brooks
as a friend, worked him for over an hour—epinephrine, defibrillation, the
whole deal—well past the point of reasonable hope. Afterward, these five
stood in the hallway, momentarily unsure of what to do with themselves—let
alone with Brooks's wife, Becky, who was headed toward them. Becky was
just one glass door away from learning something new, when a woman stepped
out of another room, saying, "How long we gotta wait in here? We been here
half an hour an' Ronnie's got bad back pain. An' y'all just standin' around
like ya can't be bothered. This is a real emergency—he's been like this
for two months. How long y'all plan to keep us waiting?"
They have a saying in the ER, Shit don't die,
referring to the overall survivability enjoyed by a goodly chunk of their
clientele. They traipse into the unit, often with a retinue of siblings,
in-laws, neighbors, spouses, and such, for whom an ER visit is a dramatic
event, even better than the two to three hours of Sally Jessy or Oprah
that it replaces. The ER staff knows most of these folks by name, the regulars—"Oh,
Mattie, what is it this time?"
"Aw, I just haven't been myself for a while. Got
this cough that won't quit. And while you're at it, could you look at Ricky's
Often the complaint is a vague stomach ailment,
constipation, sore throat, a cough, or some other simple matter of maybe
two to three week's duration that demands attention now. It may
be near midnight on a Sunday, only eight hours from when the clinic opens,
but here they are instead. Although the symptoms may be real—frequently
a result of personal neglect, poor nutrition, too many years of cigarettes—overall,
these patients' health and stamina is enviable, enabling them to return
again and again. Terminology varies from one ER to another: such patients
are frequent fliers, and a common diagnosis is TSTL, too stupid
to live. The other day a woman rushed in the door and called frantically,
"Hurry—he's burned, he's burned bad!" and nurses dropped everything to
run out to her husband in the car with his severe . . . sunburn.
Sunburn that he'd got by laying in the yard half the day in a drunken stupor,
wearing only shorts.
Then there are those limber drunks who manage to
crawl from their wrecked vehicles. They are cut up and banged up
but no more than that, while the forty-three-year-old mother whose car
they hit is dead, and her sixteen-year-old son in critical condition. Shit
It's a statement of prickly irony—a dull, numbing
affront—that haunts the mind when you hear that Brooks is dead. He
seemed to be in his prime. And just last year they lost Michael, a nurse,
not yet forty; cancer subtracted him from the ER staff. Cancer announces
itself—you can see it coming—and you could see Michael leaving. But Brooks
is the one guy, the colleague, the brother, you don't expect to do without.
He seemed to be in his prime. Of the handful of doctors who staff the ER,
Brooks was the prize in the Crackerjacks box, personable and unassuming—maybe
too much so. Like today, when he found a parking space at St. Joe's and
then walked on in. Maybe he'd have stood a chance if he'd stopped at the
door rather than parking in the lot. Others do. But that wasn't his way.
Today was like any other sunny spring afternoon, until
Karen came home with red etched into her face. She trembled out the words,
"Brooks died, Brooks is gone." I held her, stung by the inescapable
offense: Shit don't die, but Brooks did.
Karen put it differently. She said,
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