Empathy for the Devil

I'm a man with health and a sense of taste

I am sitting outside the waiting room of the infusion center of a hospital in Southwest Washington. It’s Friday of last week. Friends and family of two other patients are sitting outside here with me, banished to this auxiliary waiting area across from the soda machine I wouldn’t dare use because there’s no way to drink a soda with a mask on. My wife is inside with my mother, getting a needed infusion of electrolytes. The receptionist, irked, shooed the three of us out of the waiting room before we could even check in any of our charges. “It’s the new policy at the hospitals as of today,” she said. “No visitors. Only one immediate caregiver.” 

The outside crew shakes our heads and trade notes about this latest injustice of Covid, our healthcare system, and the insanity of the past eighteen months. Later, the receptionist will come back outside to rip off the printout taped to the door to the clinic and tape up a new one, highlighted. “I’m sorry if I was snippy earlier,” she says. “The rules are changing every day and people won’t listen.” 

***

Inside, my wife is hearing from a nurse about the situation in the hospital itself. “There are no beds. There hasn’t been beds for two weeks. Fifteen percent of the Covid cases here are breakthrough.” Even if they had wanted to admit my Mom to the hospital they wouldn’t have had anywhere to put her. Later, the receptionist tells me that there are still people who come in and won’t wear their masks. “We can’t believe that we have to live through last summer again. But that’s where we are.” 

***

I walk into the Walgreens under a creamsicle orange sun, fuzzy at the edges from wildfire smoke. This Walgreens has a security guard in Kevlar outside—how more than a few businesses are handling the homeless situation in Portland these days. Downtown, Blackwater types with AR-15s work outside the clubs when they empty out at night, to prevent shootings. I’ve been to this pharmacy three times in the past five days. Today, they told me that their hours were cut for the next week. Tomorrow, they’ll be out of medications again. “Oh yeah, those get snapped up as soon as they arrive,” says the pharmacy tech. 

***

We’re talking to one of the ER nurses at a hospital in Portland. It’s Thursday. The ER waiting room, never a “nice” place, is a Heironymous Bosch painting, all moaning and woe. A shirtless man in a wheelchair has removed his shoes and is grunting on the up beats while two armed security guards eye him. A park ranger explains that his entire body just fell into a patch of poison ivy. Another woman is telling her entire medical history of diabetes. I’ve never seen a place in the throes of triage like this, so clearly putting a third of the people into different buckets of admit, urgent care and wait. Inside the ER, things are strangely calm. We have a room and a bed and a glass sliding door that can close. A huge air filtration machine whooshes in the corner. THIS IS A NEGATIVE PRESSURE ROOM reads the sign above it. We ask a nurse about the Covid cases here. “It’s mostly unvaccinated. And those are mostly low IQ types.” 

***

How am I supposed to feel? There’s a rolling discussion about how understanding we should be about the anti-vaccine contingent, the die-hards and the skeptics and everyone else, as we slide back into another round of Covid hell. It’s great that there are more people protected than a year ago—a lot more—but the hospitals are full again with those same unvaccinated folks. There’s a shortage of nurses. Like a lot of healthcare providers, it’s impossible to feel much sympathy or empathy for anyone who is obstinate about getting vaccinated after eighteen months of this. You’re saying I should be understanding of someone in a hospital bed that should be occupied by someone who DID choose to protect themselves, all because they were powerless to resist memes, or Tucker Carlson, or even for that matter couldn’t manage to figure out a way to get off work? They’re not all spreadnecks, but they are all selfish, in one way or another. Even most “legitimate” reasons for being unvaccinated aren’t good enough anymore. I used to only shout “We live in a society!” at Penn Station. Now I have to remind myself of it every damn day. 

We’re all so, so tired. Bone is grinding on bone. A trip to the Walgreens should not feel like entering an armed compound. Medications should be ample. Hospital services should be accessible. Instead, we’re living in a dystopian healthcare nightmare and you want me to understand someone else’s selfish choice? Absolutely not. 

The past six weeks dealing with our healthcare system and my mother’s illness has made me so much meaner and sharp-tempered than I want to be. I don’t believe anyone will do anything they say they will without at least one, if not two, follow-ups about it. The constant changes in rules highlights that all rules are made up, yes, but that’s not license to be an absolutist, or a schmuck, or in some cases, both. I ask ever more pointed questions of doctors, nurses, specialists, pharmacists. I fantasize about flipping a table. I need to sit in silence, usually by 4pm, almost every day.     

***

I won’t argue about any of it anymore. Maybe it was easier to imagine returning to some of these relationships in the time after when it seemed like the time after was close at hand. But it’s not. The goalposts are receding. We’re going to be living with this for a long time, and with the ramifications of it even longer. The deniers and skeptics and political point scorers can all fuck right off to the fever swamps they love so dearly. They’re going to be so far removed from my life that it’ll be like I never knew them. They’re trying to kill me and my family. Want to talk about choice? Excising them is all the freedom I need.