On Thanksgiving in 2017, the Milford Regional Medical Center in Milford, Massachusetts, is quiet. Most of the staff is sent home or never called in. The plain white walls and outdated magazines patiently wait for the tired eyes that will begin to accumulate by nighttime, when unsupervised children and their drunk parents are most likely to injure themselves.
At or around 3:30, Alice Barr, an 85 year-old Milford resident arrives through the hospital’s automatic sliding doors. She is with her granddaughter, but she takes the helm with the bored receptionist. “I’m having trouble breathing,” she says. When the receptionist asks to confirm her address and phone number, Alice rattles off the information, already pulling her insurance information from her wallet.
“All right,” the receptionist says, half looking up, but returning her gaze to the screen in front of her before she finishes the rest of her sentence. “Just have a seat, please.”
Like most women from her generation, Alice is short.
“I used to be 5’1”,” she says. “But now I’m not even five feet.” She used to be embarrassed about her height, but she’s become used to the jokes. “My kids used to say, ‘Ma, we could eat right off your head if you were standing up.’”
She slightly hunches, but luckily has staved off the osteoporosis which plagued her older sister, Irene, who was a nurse. She has a white bob, with bangs, that she cuts herself. She wears small, black-rimmed glasses.
For nearly twenty-five years, Alice has lived alone in the top floor of a two family home. As company, she has had, at times, three canaries and several short-term house guests — generally one of her six children who has come upon a hard time, financially. Otherwise, she has been the sole occupant of the second floor, which is covered wall-to-wall with photos of her family.
“It’s like they’re here,” she says.
But on Thanksgiving, none of the people in the photos are nearby. She’d had a cold for two weeks and had chosen to stay home instead of having a holiday dinner with one of her sons. But when her breathing grew so belabored that day that she couldn’t walk across her apartment without pausing to pant, she grew scared. Caught up in festivities, no one answered their phones.
She had tried to duke it out. “I didn’t want to bother anyone,” she says. When her granddaughter called shortly after 2 p.m., Alice asked if she wouldn’t mind giving her a ride to the emergency room on Black Friday. Her granddaughter wouldn’t hear of it. “Gram, if you’re that sick, you’re going to the emergency room, today,” she said.
Driving the hour between her boyfriend’s family’s house and her grandmother’s apartment at breakneck pace, the pair arrived at the hospital in record time.
As Alice begins to lower herself onto a waiting room chair, a nurse calls out from a small room several yards away. “Alice?”
“That was fast,” Alice says under her breath as she makes her way to the doorway.
But while the pathway to the preliminary vitals check was short, she was beginning what would be no less than a six-hour ordeal. Quickly, nurses deduced that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and hooked her up to a tank.
“You live alone?” they ask over and over again. “You don’t use oxygen?”
Each time, Alice confirms that she takes care of herself and that, while she has had an asthma diagnosis since she was eleven years old, she gets by on an inhaler and over-the-counter allergy medicine.
A never-ending stream of medical professionals enter and exit her emergency room holding area, where she lays with her upper half hoisted toward the ceiling, to clear her lungs. The calm outside the room is palpable. No one who enters the room or repeats the same several questions over and over ever says anything new, except for when they ask for her signature on intake forms. Nor do they indicate what, exactly, she should expect from the rest of her day.
A doctor with dark hair stops by to ask her if she has ever done heroin, and whether she wants to be resuscitated. (She does.) He does not tell her what might cause the hypothetical collapse. He suggests she might have emphysema. He tells her he’s admitting her for the night.
“I can’t even give you a fake answer,” a CNA says when asked how long it will be until a room is available. “Sometimes it’s fifteen minutes, sometimes it’s three hours,” she adds, and shrugs, before returning to a desk in the hallway where she continues to chat with other CNAs about all of the holiday festivities they aren’t partaking in.
Finally, by 8:30, a young man with a Californian drawl arrives at the doorway and announces that she has been assigned a room upstairs. He maneuvers the gurney into the hallway and up a large elevator specifically designed to move beds this size.
Once stationed, inexplicably, on the cardiac floor, Alice’s granddaughter realizes that the television doesn’t work.
“I’ll get someone,” she says.
At the end of the hallway, another CNA, also young, and very tall, leans over yet another hallway desk, speaking to yet another group of receptionists.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” he says, regarding the television. “Did you try the power button?”
“Yes,” the granddaughter says. “I tried the power button.”
When the CNA returns to Alice’s room, he fiddles with the television before concluding, “It doesn’t work, sorry.”
Before he can exit the room, a nurse who has stopped by to ask Alice more questions, interrupts.
“What about the room across the hall? That television works. If I had to spend the night here and the television didn’t work, I’d be pissed,” she says, exchanging a knowing glance with Alice.
The CNA sighs and debates whether or not he should move Alice in her bed, or whether he should strip the bed and clean the entire room, as he’ll have to do before another patient can be brought in.
“You’re going to have to clean all the surfaces either way,” the nurse says.
Thirty minutes later, Alice is stationed in her bedroom — the one she will stay in for at least the next night, though no one has told her how long she might be here. Her regular medications have been dispensed. She still doesn’t know if she has emphysema. She doesn’t know if her sons will make it to the hospital the next day. She doesn’t know where her room’s telephone is. She is 85 and, as she is most evenings, she is alone.