Friday, February 5, 2010

A Place We Call 'The Forest'

Tom Kirsch, M.D.
Emergency physician and Go Team leader


There is a place in the hospital we call "The Forest."
It is the place where the lost souls end - a purgatory or limbo.
In reality it is just a courtyard with some semblance of shade from the scraggy trees and tarps strung among them. It is a square of dirt and scattered grass further by an ‘X’ of concrete walkways with a dead fountain at the crossing.

Originally it was a patient care area when the hospital was so inundated, filled completely with old beds and cots and blankets with tarps strung between trees; and then a further "forest" of intravenous poles and dripping fluids. We cleared out all the ill people a week ago and cleaned out the trash and feces.

Now it is just limbo - a miniature refugee camp. There are about 35 people still there, setting up camp on the old and mostly broken hospital beds. They have converted the IV poles into tent poles to hold up their tarps. They have brought in sheets and blankets and pillows and dishes and other small reminders of the homes they used to have. They do dishes, but don’t need to cook since food is available and there is clean water and port-a-potties.

This is the place where we let those with nowhere else to go to wander off to after we have completed their medical therapy. We aren’t supposed to transfer patients there because there is no one who is responsible to care for these people - we don’t have the staff.) But sometimes we mention to the most desperate people that they can just walk over there and grab an empty bed until the hospital administration decides they are no longer welcome.

Bernard is one of the lost souls. He is a thin, craggy, elderly gentleman with fizzy grey hair and a lost look in his eyes. He came in, or was brought in for unclear reasons, and was too confused or demented to give us a coherent story.

He had a paralyzed left wrist, most likely from a nerve-compression injury after the earthquake and was clearly dehydrated and maybe malnourished. He had no family or friends or the ability to tell us where to find anyone. We gave him fluids and food and a splint and he was done. But there was nothing else for him.

I walked him to the forest and sat him in a bed in the shade. I go by daily to see him. He sits there patiently, legs dangling from the rusted hospital bed. Always in the same spot with old foam boxes of food at his side, biting the corners off the little bags of water that the volunteers bring by, and then sucking out the contents. I never see him talk, or even walk, always just sitting there and watching. I wonder what he sees and wonder if he remembers.

There are so many lost souls like him that it is incomprehensible. They come and go like tides every day. Some stay in our Forest.

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