Leora Skolkin-Smith: Vertigo

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I had been fighting this illness they call “vertigo” all week. On that Saturday I fell on some stone steps outside a hotel from dizziness, which the vertigo often creates. When the ambulance came, a guy wrapped me up on a stretcher. I had been unable to stand after the fall and was bleeding from a cut on my head. In the ambulance, the attendant kept asking me how much I had been drinking, how many glasses and shots. I said I hadn’t been drinking, that I had vertigo which makes the things around you spin, makes you lose balance, and sticks you with dizzy spells about every hour. Unfortunately, I had a bottle of orange bitters in my jacket pocket. Bitters are a cocktail herb; one puts a drop or two in their cocktails for taste. Hours before I fell, I had opened up the bottle to take a sip—one sip because I only wanted to make sure I bought the right flavor.

“Really?” The attendant said. “You haven’t been drinking? This bottle they pulled out of your coat says it’s 45 proof.“

“Do you know what bitters are?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“They are little drops of an herbal mixture that go into some alcoholic drinks. No one drinks them as a shot of whiskey or any alcohol. They are BITTERS.“

But the attendant had shut down. He wrote in his report that I had “had a few drinks.”

I lay staring at the leg that had become paralyzed after the fall and had made it impossible for me to stand again. Was it paralyzed for good now? What horror was I facing?

Once we got to the hospital, in this state of fear and terror, blood trickling from my head wound, I managed to convince the next attendant who got in the ambulance that I hadn’t had a few drinks. He said, “I’m the one writing up this report and I will note that. That other guy doesn’t do the paperwork. Don’t worry.” Relieved beyond words, his kind face staring down at me, I was certain the matter was cleared up.

In the emergency care room, the emergency room doctor asked me: “Do you have fleas?” I was in my blue jeans and dressed very loosely since I was planning to work on my novel if I had reached the hotel beyond the stone steps I fell on. “We saw a flea on your clothing.” Suddenly, I remembered. A tenant had bedbugs and my husband and I had managed to keep them out of our apartment with a major steaming procedure and professional help. “Fleas? Oh, wait; it might be a bedbug. A neighbor has them and sometimes they crawl through cracks in the wall.” As soon as I explained, she ordered the nurses to put me in isolation, despite my explanation. She said I also had to take a shower.

I waited for my cat scan in isolation. What I soon realized was that they thought I was a street person, drunk and dirty. When it came time for the shower, an aide pushed me into this horrible white and steel tiled room and turned on the shower.

“Should I take my clothes off?” I asked her.

“What do you think?” She retorted. “You going to take a shower!”

Then she briskly left the room. Another aide barged in minutes later when I was dressing after the shower and said, “Why are you putting your clothes on? You haven’t washed your hair! And don’t you be putting on those dirty clothes again.” Sharper and meaner, this second aide (who looked like a prison matron) stirred a rage in me. She had also opened the door to the shower room, exposing my naked self to all the people in the room across from the shower room.

My husband is a doctor, and he had trained in this very emergency room at Bellevue. He was an attending now at NYU Medical Center and highly regarded by his colleagues. I was so angry I screamed out, “My husband is a doctor here! That woman humiliated me! I don’t have dirty clothes!” I was shouting at some nurse now. “This is awful how you treated me, forcing me to take a shower. Bedbugs are everywhere in the city and dirty people aren’t the only ones that attract them. The Queen of England could have bedbugs! It doesn’t go by economic status, or because you’re dirty. They are uptown in the fanciest apartments.” Then, I sort of lost it just because I was so angry. “My husband is a doctor who trained at Bellevue. I’m a doctor’s wife and the doctor just so happens to be an attending at NYU Medical Center.”  I had never pulled this before, telling a medical staff to stop treating me as a street person, that my husband was a respected doctor.

Of course, everything changed after my outburst. Everything. One nurse promised she would report that aide. From then on, I was treated with abundant sensitivity and kindness. I drew major attention now. Some were even scared when my husband came to the emergency room; there would be hell to pay.

What impresses me now as I write this is I had originally expected to write about the vertigo. Instead, flying from my fingers this story of humiliation and medical error took hold instead. And the pressing questions still haunt me. Is this the kind of care real street people get at Bellevue? Being treated like a leper, a cruel prison matron aide throwing them to the shower, leaving the door open which then exposes their naked body to almost the entire ward?

I walked later to the street, and saw “street people,” some begging and some sleeping on the pavement. Some were probably deathly sick. I will never look at or think about them the same. Victims of the medical profession’s revolving door, afraid of the shunning they will suffer in the hospital. The streets were a safer and kinder home than the staff at Bellevue.

Anyway, my vertigo is almost gone. I’m well. And now I know I am not only well but very fortunate. I will still be writing about vertigo since it’s such a fascinating illness to have and all these years I just thought it meant fear of heights. The truth about vertigo is that it’s a serious illness and a doctor told me she once saw a patient walking backwards on the street from it. When your head gets dizzy and the room spins, it’s very easy to fall and hurt yourself. I’m staying in my apartment and not going out until it’s all gone, in case I fall and get taken by ambulance to an emergency room.

leora skolkin-smith photo

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of several critically acclaimed novels. You can stay up-to-date on her blogs at her website.

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» Inside Look » Leora Skolkin-Smith: Vertigo
On January 24, 2015
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