On Wednesday I wake up coughing. My chest feels tight, I'm short of breath and my throat hurts. By Thursday morning the cough is worse and little spasms of pain are shooting through my chest and into my throat. I lie in bed listening to talk of family doctors refusing to see patients, another day under the pall of SARS. It's likely I don't have SARS - no headache, no fever, no known contact with any SARS patients, no recent trips to Asia - so I should be getting up and going to work. But the chest pains are kind of scary. So I do what we're being told and phone the SARS info line at Telehealth Ontario.
I'm expecting to be reassured that I don't have SARS but that I should stay home and monitor my temperature. And after I describe my symptoms, nurse Ellen obliges me. "You don't have SARS," she says. "But it sounds like you could be having a heart attack, so I'm calling you an ambulance."
"Heart attack! Ambulance!" I shout. My husband comes running down from upstairs. By the time the 9-1-1 dispatcher asks if I feel cold, clammy or am changing colour, I am - I've gone ghastly white.
The ambulance pulls up - without siren or flashing lights, thank god - and the two grim-looking paramedics put on gowns, masks and gloves before heading up the walk.
They take my blood pressure, attach me to a heart monitor and a finger thingy. After a few minutes of watching my readings (all I catch is that my BP is 140), they ask, Do I still want to go to the hospital? I'm guessing that they think I don't need to go, so I blurt out that the Telehealth nurse said I was having a heart attack. So am I? The male paramedic says, "We're just here to get you to the hospital." Now, I'd have to be crazy to go to a hospital in the middle of the SARS outbreak if I'm not seriously ill. But what if I am having a heart attack?
They let me walk out to the ambulance, where they put a mask on me and strap me down on the stretcher.
We roll silently along Queen, past the familiar landmarks of my neighbourhood on a beautiful, sunny morning that feels as distant to me as the beeping of the monitor. The paramedic doesn't say anything, and I have to try really hard to curb an inclination to blabber. I'm not good in hospitals. The last time I was in one I watched my father die from a massive heart attack.
I'm wheeled through doors plastered with SARS warnings and into Emerg, where we're met by a trio of double-gowned, double-gloved, double-masked nurses trying to look reassuring behind plexiglass face shields. My hands are squirted with cold disinfectant gel and a thermometer is stuck in my ear. Then I'm moved into a corner beside the deserted waiting room where a television flickers silently on the wall, tuned in to SARS And The City.
Soon I'm banded, gowned and deposited in an airy cubicle opposite Robert, a homeless guy who keeps tearing off his face mask and shouting, "No, no, no, no, no... !" His cough is a lot worse than mine. A nurse (who I'm pretty sure smiled at me; his mask twitched) takes my blood pressure and runs an EKG. After he leaves, I watch the goings-on in Robert's room, where a doctor and a security guard are trying to get him to sit down and put his mask on. It goes something like this: Doctor - "If you don't sit down, I'll shut the door." Robert - "I'm ready to die! I'm ready to die!"
While I'm awaiting the results of the EKG and for a chest X-ray to be done - "Just to be sure" - I've got lots of time to think about things. Like what it must be like to be half-crazy from life or pain and be brought into this strange place of masked creatures. How absolutely oppressive it must be to work a 12-hour shift in an emergency room, manoeuvring around a thick, rigid mask, goggles, rubber gloves and extra clothing. And what my situation says about a health care system that's diagnosing people over the phone as a way of freeing up our emergency rooms.
I listen to Robert moaning, "I'm afraid. I'm afraid." I'm overcome with tears and a desperate need to apologize for wasting precious hospital resources.
I want to get out of here, but at the same time I'm experiencing strange feelings of belonging. By the time the doctor drops by with the good news that my test results show no sign of a heart attack and that my X-ray is normal, I'm actually finding my mask unexpectedly comforting. I think it's because it gives me anonymity and a sense of privacy - reclining in my flimsy, open-backed gown - that hospital patients don't usually have.
Robert's X-rays don't go so well. They can't get him to sit on the chair and hold the plastic-covered film plate still with his back, so they give up. He's yelling, "Where are my chains?!"
As for me, I'm free to go. Diagnosis? A virus probably, or more likely severe allergies. Then I'm out on the street, where an old man asking to get into the hospital to use the bathroom is directed to McDonald's. It feels good walking home, SARS-free.