Walk Down Misery Street

Overdosed drug users were brought in. Suicidal patients were brought in. Homeless people came in drunk, unwashed, in dirty clothes, unshaven and unkempt, the majority giving off a strong odor. Custodians came to this ED section more often than to other parts of the department with water tanks and cleaning supplies.

Some women who injected heroin or took opiate pills came in at all stages of pregnancy. Some of them first learned that they were pregnant in the ED, after a pregnancy test. Some of the patients brought drugs, syringes, and vodka with them into the ED in their bags. They drank and snorted right in their beds—or in the bathroom, so no one would notice.

The majority of patients in this section of the ED were dressed in yellow hospital gowns. Patients had no idea that for the ED employees a yellow gown signaled high alert. Police and special watchmen always had a presence in this area and any relocation of a “yellow gown” always caught their attention.

We called these ED patients “yellow gowns.” (Patients in other departments of the ED wore either blue or red gowns; they were not a danger to themselves or others).

Herman, a large black guard, stood by the high pillar in the center of this department, performing the role of “overseer,” monitoring and maintaining order. Looking at Herman, I was always amazed that nature could have created such a giant. If any of the patients was ever on the verge of losing control, Herman approached them, and in a steady voice, advised them to calm down and lie back down in bed. If the patient still retained a spark of sanity, looking at Herman, blocking the light of every lamp with his large frame, the patient would return to bed, albeit with resentment. For those in whom the spark of sanity was dimming, and for whom the sight of Herman the giant no longer had the desired effect, the hospital police were called.

Hospital cops, by the way, carried handcuffs but not guns. The city cops bringing the arrested into the ED in shackles and handcuffs were armed, but their guns were not loaded. By the entrance to the ED, there was a tiny room where the cops unloaded their guns. It’s understandable: if one of the “yellow gowns” got a hold of a loaded gun, the outcome would be unimaginable.