In February, my husband Jamie died of bladder cancer. Covid made everything harder. But guns?
Yes, guns. During Jamie’s treatment, armed security guards wearing bullet proof vests supervised my comings and goings from the hospital. Generally, one hospital employee used a computer to screen and identify visitors. The process had glitches, so sometimes a line backed up. Usually, I was admitted within five or ten minutes. Generally, there were a few additional people working at the desk, often wearing name badges suggesting they were there to help, but, without computer access, they could only handle very general questions. Three or more armed guards watched. I don’t remember use of a metal detector. My bags weren’t searched.
When I expressed surprise about the “armed camp” feel of the hospital entrances, I was told “something” had happened, and security had been increased. A brief Google search turned up the headline “Hospital Worker Armed With AR-15 Rifle Kills Co-Worker, Shoots 2 Cops”. The date was three months prior.
I wondered about the security guards. They weren’t police officers, whom I saw in the hospital only occasionally. They must have been hospital employees, or staff from professional security companies. I wondered about their training and experience. Some looked very young, but almost everyone looks young to me.
Security was much more stringent at the Emergency Department, which I haunted for three long days while my husband was waiting for a hospital bed. I was not permitted to see him. The closest I could get was the Emergency Department lobby, accessed through a checkpoint with “airport” type security, including metal detectors and x-ray equipment. And three or four or five watchful, heavily armed guards. I couldn’t fault their watchfulness. The atmosphere was grim. People were sick, some in pain, and some looked desperate.
So.. guns. Lots of guns. Entering the hospital, I resolutely ignored the obvious possibility that something could trigger violence, that I could get caught in crossfire without a moments warning. I’m good at ignoring what I can’t fix.
For a month, my husband was in and out of the hospital. I visited daily. Then the gun issue got personal. On the cancer floor, a family member may stay overnight with a patient, and I asked for that privilege, filling out some paperwork. I thought it was approved. I wore a sweatsuit and brought my toothbrush. My husband’s cancer had been declared untreatable, and I wanted all the time with him I could arrange.
At 9:30 pm, I was told to leave. I protested that I had no car and no place to go. I said I had permission to stay, but was told the paperwork hadn’t been signed, and could not be signed at night. Did they plan to put me out in the February cold? I got stubborn, and politely told them I wasn’t leaving unless security escorted me out. I didn’t mention the guns, but that was the point. I’ll leave at gunpoint. (Pardon the drama.) I organized my backpack, coat, hat, gloves and tried to explain to my husband that I wanted to stay but maybe I couldn’t. He was so sick I don’t know if he understood at all.
I heard voices in the corridor. Security? Some discussion. A single person entered the room and identified himself as a doctor. He told me I had to leave. We talked. Without comment, he changed his mind. He asked about my husband, his prognosis, his treatment. He offered advice, both practical and personal. He helped me arrange the chair for sleep, and he wished me well. (I hope he lives forever.)
And now, many weeks later, as gun violence breaks American hearts once again, I think about how differently that winter night could have ended. Of course, I most likely would have left quietly and walked safely enough to a familiar, overpriced hotel. I might have been able to call a friend. The odds were that I would manage to stay safe.
But I know very well that you don’t always get the “reasonable” odds. Sometimes you get the “worst case”.
What if a guard had entered the room, instead a doctor? What if (in my fatigue and distress) I had argued? What if I panicked? Shouted? What if the guard was having a bad night or hated bossy old women or hadn’t been well trained in escorting uncooperative old people to the exit? If someone had laid hands on me, might I have fought?
What if I hadn’t been white and old and looked grandmotherly and spoken good English?
There were so many ways the situation could have ended badly.
Think about it… a hospital is a place where everyone is under severe stress. Everyone. Adding more guns to make the place safer is both logical and illogical. Let’s just say it is not optimal. The healthcare system has terrible problems (understatement), most of which aren’t improved by lethal weaponry.
When I tell people about this incident, I can make it sound funny. I can joke about playing the “helpless old lady” card. But it was dangerous. I’m now even more afraid of guns. I’m afraid in places that need to be kept safe with guns. I’m afraid of people who think they can only be safe carrying a gun.
And now, I’m afraid of supermarkets. Citizens of Buffalo, survivors of the Tops murders, I am so sorry for what you have suffered.
Originally written May 19, 2022