The ER Protocol

This story has a happy ending. But the way it starts is that about 20 years ago as I was driving my crying mother home from visiting my youngest brother in a mental hospital the year after my father died, the upper lid of her right eye retracted.

My mother had hyperthyroidism-related Grave’s disease that caused her eyes to noticeably protrude. Think female Marty Feldman (Igor in Young Frankenstein). Often her lower eyelids would retract (slip under the eyeball) and cause her mild discomfort, but she could usually put things right herself with just a few moments’ effort. But retraction of an upper eyelid was extremely rare and much more of a problem.

As I was driving, my mother cried out and suddenly covered her eye with her hand. She said, “Bill, my upper eyelid just retracted.” I said, “Let me see.” When she removed her hand, I wish she hadn’t. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t screaming.

I hit the gas and sped straight to the emergency room.

If you’ve ever been to an emergency room, you know the reality is not like what’s shown on TV. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t think you had an “emergency,” but the ER staff rarely share your sense of urgency. Even when you have a hatchet in your head or are spurting arterial blood, you still have to take a seat and fill out a stack of forms that ask you to reveal you’re allergic to coconut. I bet you have stories of waiting an hour or more to be taken back to the examining room where you waited another 30 minutes to be seen—that is, if you didn’t die first.

That’s the scenario I steeled myself for as I escorted my mother, in serious distress, hand still over her eye, to the ER receptionist’s window. “My mother’s upper eyelid has retracted, and she needs to see a doctor right away,” I said. “Uh huh,” the receptionist said skeptically, wearily. I could tell she was thinking, “We’ll just see about that.” “Let me see,” she said to my mother.

Allow me to back up. When my mother had showed me her eye, it was the most horrifying image I’d ever seen in real life. It still is. We’re not accustomed to seeing a whole naked eyeball protruding from someone’s face. It inspires instant, intense revulsion—like the scene near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when some Nazi’s face melts. Imagine a Halloween skull with a live, moving eyeball sticking out of the socket—focusing on you.

So I watched with keen interest when my mother uncovered her eye to show the ER receptionist. (Literature teachers call this “dramatic irony.”) Would this seen-it-all-before professional be unimpressed, dismissive, and start handing us a bunch of forms?

She looked. She saw. Without a word, she stood up, went around the corner, opened the door to the examining part of the ER, and escorted my mother back.

Of course I was very relieved that my mother was going to receive prompt medical attention, but that wasn’t my only emotion. To this day, I think that’s one of the most gratifying moments in my life. When the receptionist had uttered her tired “Uh huh,” I had thought, “Just wait till you see,” and her reaction was an ever-so-delicious admission of “Yep, you told me so; you warned me. When you said she needed to see a doctor right away, boy you weren’t kiddin’.” I often relive that moment in my mind: She looked. She said nothing (what could she say?) She instantly stood. And she opened the door to let my mother in. This was even better than TV.

Twenty minutes later my mother came back into the waiting room minus the horror-film special effect, her old beautiful self. While waiting for a doctor to see her, she had worked her eyelid back into its traditional location by herself.

She had a small bottle of eye lubricant, and I had a lasting memory of the time we won a small but sure victory, the time we beat the ER protocol.

Thanks, Mom.

(Graphic from Wikimedia. Original uploader: Jmartens at en.wikibooks. Transferred to Wikimedia Commons by Adrignola.)

Share this Post:

2 thoughts on “The ER Protocol”

Comments are closed.