There are always a few things that make a place feel like home. One is knowing where you’re going and recognizing the streets. The next is recognizing the subway, and being able to find your way around without checking in advance.
The third, oddly, is ending up in the emergency room, which happens with surprising and unfortunate frequency for the accident prone, like myself. You never know a place more intimately than when you’re exposed to its institutions.
Yesterday, I passed out in front of a coffee shop in Mitte. A pair of elderly gentleman stopped to help me. “Will you call me a taxi?” I asked. Then, very serenely, “I cannot feel either of my hands.” They called an ambulance. One of them stayed until it arrived, holding my shoulder with firm, fatherly fingers. A nice blonde girl, on her way home, spoke English in comforting undertones. I don’t remember much: I still couldn’t feel my hands. My head was swimming. The ambulance attendees did not speak English. I was embarrassed.
The ride was short — the hospital is ten efficient minutes away from Sankt Oberholz, where I had been — and they wheeled me in quietly. I waited barely a minute and then was whisked into a room with a thin partition and a young girl who had either a drug problem or a broken leg. It was surprisingly hard to tell. I just knew she was in pain, but suspected she was exaggerating her circumstances to get at the drugs. (When she tried to leave, the doctor and nurse rushed after her, exclaiming about something she had swept into her bag, angrily grabbing her things and pulling out unmarked bottles. It was very strange.)
The nurse took my vitals and tried unsuccessfully to draw blood from my arm. “You’re empty!” she kept saying, smiling.
I did not think this was funny.
She tugged and tugged at my arm with the needle, wrenching the pinhole of flesh. I braced myself, looked, saw blood emerging swiftly from the wound and staining the bed sheet.
The doctor was young. Younger than me? He pulled me into a sitting position, feeling my back with both strong hands. Young but sturdy, then. I felt relieved.
“Does it hurt?” he asked. “Does it hurt here?”
“I’m going to throw up,” I said and was immediately sick.
The doctor and the nurse were patient, hooking me up to an IV of cold, salty liquid.
“It will stop you from sickness.” They said.
“No, please let me be sick,” I begged. “It’ll make me feel better.” (They didn’t understand my English. Or maybe it was my logic.)
The IV made me cold, but it made my blood flow more easily. The test results had been inconclusive, so they took another round of samples. My head went light. The ER lights crackled. The monitor beeped and beeped.
Then I noticed again that the doctor was very young. He held a cotton swab against my arm to stem the flow of blood, now coming easily and not stopping at all.
“How long are you in Berlin? Are you a tourist?” he asked.
“Sort of,” I shrugged.
“What do you do?”
I couldn’t figure out a simple way to tell the truth in English, so I lied: “I’m a writer.”
I looked up and the doctor was looking at me with sharp, blue eyes and again… he seemed very young and with a face shaped in that handsome German way.
Then I knew that he liked me, and had replaced the nurse in what should have been her normal duty. The doctor does not draw blood samples from patients.
I laughed out loud, confusing him.
“Do you get a lot of people like me?” I asked. “Silly people who don’t really need to be here?”
He shrugged modestly. “I do not get a lot of people like you. But there are some good ones and some bad ones. I don’t mind. It would be bad if there were only very sick people all day.”
“Do you need my insurance information?” I asked.
This was more confusing. Why would they need my insurance? What was I talking about? The care was free.
When he finally released me he walked me to the doors of the ER and carefully explained where to catch a taxi from.
“Please rest,” he said.
I left, still covered in sticky patches and with my left arm tightly bandaged. I looked at the map on my phone and realized I was actually quite close to familiar places.
I walked home.
My familiar home.
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