How to Pray in the ER

Sitting alone in a dim emergency room, cordoned off by a sliding glass door and curtain for privacy. I have been here before, but never alone. The last time, I was 22, and surrounded by not only my parents, but all three of my younger siblings. I didn’t know then that I’d long for so much chaos.

I’ve sent Gabe home. He wanted to wait in the parking lot because you never know how long the ER will take — you hope it will be quick and I’ll be running out there with a relieved skip in my step. Go home, I say over the phone, feed the baby and put her to bed. It’ll be awhile.

I sit and I wait. What will they detect? What dark, amorphous shadow will they discover in my lungs? Will it be large, so big they hook me up to an IV? Is surgery looming? Or will it be small? Small enough to terrify, but small nonetheless? Or, hope against hope, will it be nothing? Just two lungs working hard but not broken, filling to not-quite-capacity, but all systems go?

No one told me Covid could cause blood clots. For all the reading and listening I’ve done over the past 11 months, I have never encountered this fact. I knew to watch for a fever, for difficulty breathing. It was this — the hitch in my breath when I breathed too deeply, the thick choking cough — that made me call my midwife, and then my primary care, and then the respiratory specialist. Not till I sat with the specialist did I hear the word “clot” or “given your history,” and not till then did I realize there could be far more wrong than Covid.

The tv hanging above the door is dark, and I have no desire to turn it on. I have no book, no distraction other than my phone. Social media holds no enticement, and I look at the clock. How to be patient? Is the doctor looking at the images now? The CT results clear to him but unknown to me? I worry I was forgotten, as though they could forget the pregnant woman, positive with Covid-19, possible blood clot. As though there were any sort of hubbub in the small hospital at all.

The hands on the clock tick, so time is passing. No one checks on me. I was told half an hour to read the results forty-five minutes ago. I practice a deep breath. There it is: the catch, the cough.

The anxiety of waiting.

Picturing my daughter eating dinner with Gabe and my mother, babbling away, asking where I am. Or not asking, because fear doesn’t yet exist.

The first time, as I learned I had a blood clot in my thoracic outlet, I floated. I was young enough to have never thought of clots and healthy enough to think I could will myself back to health. Death was possible (as it is always), and in the days and weeks afterwards as I took my daily blood thinner, I wrestled with my fear of Death in a real and profound way.

I would miss my family, my parents and brothers and sister.

I would miss my friends.

I would miss the future I had imagined and was just now beginning to realize.

This time, ten years later, I am 32 years old.

I would miss all those things, but this time, my little girl is being tucked into her crib by her grandmother.

This time, my husband waited in a freezing cold car because he didn’t want to leave me alone at the hospital.

This time, a new life spins and swirls within me, refusing to let me forget that my lungs breathe for two.

Something my mother did very well was teach me how to comfort myself: You need to make a list of things that make you feel better. And when you’re upset, look at that list and choose one thing.

So I start singing.

It is soft, almost a whisper, and I am surprised that with such tired lungs I am able to sing whole lines. Words flow from me, from my memory. I can’t pray because I have no energy left to create. Instead, I receive the words passed down to me, and I both use them to soothe and offer them as prayer.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

was blind but now I see.

Hymn after hymn filling my little room just loud enough for me alone to hear. And as I sing, I realize what a gift I have been given: to have words within me when I have none of my own. Our minds are so malleable, so open. It’s easy to forget that what we read and see is imprinted in our brains. The headlines that are keeping me awake at night — I fill my mind with things that torment me. Yet, here I am in a hospital bed, and years ago I had been given words of comfort and rejoicing for a time such as this.

Suddenly, I remember my great grandmother. At 105, she had little memory left. On good days, we had sweet conversations that replayed enough for me to anticipate the next line. On bad days, she didn’t remember which great-granddaughter I was. What she always seemed to remember were the words to the hymns I played on the piano, her tired but lively voice singing words that were not her creation, but were hers nonetheless. Her mind was often not with us, but the words emblazoned there 100 years ago reminded us of her soul.

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When the doctor comes back, saying “No blood clots, but your lungs are covered in Covid pneumonia,” I rejoice. I want to reach out and hug him. How odd to rejoice over that! But blood clots are far, far worse, and my prayers, humbly and perhaps awkwardly lifted up, had been received and lovingly answered. When the nurse leaves, I remove the EKG pads myself, toss them in the trash, gather up my clothes. I bend down (with difficulty) to tie my boots, and walk out of the ER with a huge smile on my face.

Evangeline is asleep when I get home, and I don’t wake her. How I want to hold her in my arms! To snuggle her soft head against my face. Instead, I eat reheated macaroni and cheese on the couch. I tell my mom and husband about singing in the ER and what a strange experience it was. Eventually, I go to bed, trusting that I will get to hold my daughter in the morning.

2 Replies to “How to Pray in the ER”

  1. Dear Catherine, I’m so sorry to hear you have Covid and have been so sick. But you are right, blood clots are much worse and thank God you did not have any. I love that singing those hymns comforted you and that it was instinctive for you to do that. And of course singing is praying in song so double benefits. I hope you recover soon and the rest of your family stays healthy. So sorry you had to be physicslly alone in that ER. I didn’t realize you were pregnant; happy for you and Gabe and Evangeline and hope the rest of your pregnancy will be uneventful! Take care and stay safe!

  2. Whoa girl, what a story! So, so grateful that you’re okay. I hope you are getting rest and recovering. Loving you and feeling grateful for your beautiful words as well as your beautiful heart. You make our world a better place.

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