The ER drums up unusual melodies

About a month ago, I passed out in a cafe and ended up in the emergency room.

Don't worry, I survived.

But what struck me was the symphony of human sights and sounds from other ER beds that basically served as ongoing background music during the several hours I was there.

There was the man across the aisle who made off-putting gurgling sounds that I never quite identified but which prompted another patient to say to someone in her curtained area, "Boy, he must really be sick."

Since we were all within 10 to 15 feet of each other, I'm guessing the man wasn't thrilled to hear the remark.

In the bed next to the gurgling man, separated only by a curtain, a nurse fitted an elderly woman with a catheter. Not a procedure the rest of us necessarily wanted to follow along with, but we had no choice and grimaced as the woman's poignant moans punctuated the event.

Simultaneously, out of my view but sounding as if they were no more than 10 feet away in another direction, a mother and teenage daughter were playing out a drama that occurs every day in America -- a parent getting tough over what she considered her daughter's bad behavior and suspected drug use. And the child angrily challenging her and demanding to be taken home and treated with respect. "Why am I even here?" she yelled at one point. "Why are you doing this to me?"

As the afternoon spilled into the evening, anyone could hear the human experience at its most fleshed-out and uncensored. At one point, the gurgling man, seemingly out of nowhere and without a nurse at his bedside, asked in a loud voice: "Does this look like urine?"

With an IV drip slowly rejuvenating me, I asked a nurse how she kept from going crazy amid the cacophony of moans, arguments and blurted-out questions. She smiled, and I made a mental note to talk to someone in more detail if I ever got out alive.

That day came Friday when I met an ER nurse from another hospital. I relived my experience and she took it all in with a knowing smile, no doubt the result of having spent 18 years in emergency care.

"If you don't laugh, you would cry," she said, as we talked over breakfast. What she meant is that in the midst of the serious business that goes on every day in the emergency room, the human drama inevitably includes comedy. "I should have started writing a book when I started doing this," she said.

I had offered anonymity, figuring she wouldn't freely reveal tales from the ER without it, but Maureen Berry waved off the offer. Unfortunately, she wouldn't spill patient stories, even minus their names.

Yes, she said, it can get a bit nutty during a 12-hour shift. Yes, sometimes the nurses have to retreat to a private room to share a laugh over something they've heard. Or to discuss one of the "regulars," patients who find a way to keep coming back.

When I told Maureen of my surprise at how public everyone's problems were, she said, "There isn't any confidentiality. That's frustrating, as a nurse."

I asked if she tries to tune out all the noise. "You can't," she said, "because you really have to listen to what patients are saying because it does give you clues."

An especially rough shift can drive nurses to drink, literally. Sometimes after work, a group will hit a pub, Maureen says. Or on their off days, they'll meet for tea at a favorite cafe, either talking shop or things completely unrelated.

Maureen nodded when I told her about a nurse doling out tough love to one of the patients on my floor. "There's a lot of Type A personalities in the ER department," she said. "They tend to be strong-willed, opinionated. We like to fix problems quickly and move on, ready for the next person."

She jokes that many ER nurses have a problem with tender loving care. "Because of our personality," she says. "I have to work hard at that."

After seeing what they go through on a shift, I ask Maureen if, at 49, she's thinking of quitting. "Have you noticed I'm not really complaining complaining?" she asked. "I do enjoy it. I said I love trauma, and I really do. I love an acute stroke; I love that people truly having an emergency that I know with my education and experience I can help them."

Besides, she says, ER nurses may have a particular DNA. "It's a calling," she said. "You just know it's what you should be doing and that you're good at it. What you were born to do."

I trot out my analogy of the ER floor being a symphony. "I never thought of it as a symphony," she says, laughing, but then cuts me some slack. "It is a symphony of sounds, just a different type of symphony. Not classical. Maybe avant-garde."


Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at An archive of his recent columns is at

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