05/17/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

Facing Death or Life in a Hospital Emergency Room

We'll call him Fred. Fred was in serious trouble. He had cancer and kidney disease, was taking 12 different medicines a day on various prescriptions, suffered near sleeplessness and acknowledged he was suicidal. He placed a crisis cell phone call to us.

We responded with an immediate visit to his home. Neighbors would keep careful care of his house and momentarily adopt his beloved cat. We drove Fred to the emergency room of a major hospital nearby. Immediately, however, we ran into a crisis. It appeared that Fred's type of problem was automatically placed in the hands of a particular person on staff, who was enigmatically AWOL that afternoon. We waited an hour. Two hours. Three hours. Again and again, we were informed nothing could be done to "help" Fred until that proper person could be located.

She never was. Yet, Fred was in growing intolerable pain. He lay down on a wooden bench cringing in agony. Occasionally he simply blacked out. A tiny group of Fred's adamant friends, including Mark and me, became more verbal, finally outraged and insistent upon a solution. It seemed ironic that a community volunteer in several worthwhile causes like Fred should be forced to undergo such sustained suffering without care or release. A mild and peaceful guy, Fred had long been an exemplary person who was admired and looked up to. Even now he was not complaining. He was just hurting far more intensely than he ever should. Fred was, in fact, a sterling example of someone who cared ceaselessly for the needs of others. He was in the forefront of community caring. It hurt to watch him suffer so intensely.

Finally, in late afternoon, Fred was summoned to participate in a medical interview. An upshot of this was his being assigned a room where he'd spend the night. We were told he'd see a physician and a psychiatrist. Fred hoped that he might get a good night's sleep. Instead, he used his cell phone to call first thing in the morning. The truth of the situation was that he had spent the night in terror and pain without receiving any "answer" or actual "hellp." Of course, his suicidal feelings increased, along with his sense of helplessness.

So the situation wasn't getting any better, to put it mildly. My picture of Fred in the emergency room revealed a 62-year-old patient bent over in ghastly pain, unable to sustain a healthy semblance of hope, bereft of any sort of "answer" to his predicament. Instead, looking at Fred cringe in pain, I must confess that I saw Everyman and Everywoman caught in a terrible situation.

Yes, I confess that I could see myself in a scene like that too. It can occur when our structure of care collapses. Or when we're caught in pain or death in the cold indifference of an emergency room.

Do you have a personal story to tell or share about an emergency room or the structure of care in your own life or personal survival in mass culture? I'd like to hear it.

Maybe you have a message to send to Fred?