Torture and a Trip to the Emergency Room

By Rebecca Gordon
Nov 24, 2010

You might not expect a trip to the ER to make a person think about torture.

The ER at San Francisco General

On Monday I gave myself an impromptu lesson in the principle of inertia: if you're whizzing along on your bike and slam on the brakes, the bike will stop – but you won't.

I landed on my head, passed out, vomited all over the nice EMT people, had the presence of mind to explain that the color was due to my breakfast of blackberries, not blood, got strapped into a rigid board and spent the next 24 hours at San Francisco General Hospital. Two CT scans later, they decided my brain was not bleeding after all. They kept me overnight for monitoring and sent me home yesterday afternoon, a sadder and I hope wiser cyclist.

There’s nothing like 12 hours in the ER at an urban public hospital to remind a person of just how well-insulated her own life is. San Francisco General houses one of the city's main trauma centers. It's where all the people who can't go somewhere fancier end up when the material world catches up with them. It's cold and drafty, lit by garish fluorescent lights, and when the activity speeds up, there's a cacophony of noise bouncing off the concrete walls.

It's where you hear the drunk who decided to pat a pit bull and ended up with a laceration down to the muscle screaming that this shit fuckin' hurts. It's where the staff have to put another guy in four-point restraints after he takes a swing at one of them. He lies there shouting at anyone in hearing that they're faggots and dykes. It's where an older woman suffers quietly while the docs get ready to do a closed reduction (don't ask) on her broken arm. Her brother is with her, speaking to her in French, then to the nurse in English: "I'm hard of hearing. You have to look right at me when you speak." The nurse does.

At one point when I was dozing on a gurney, still locked in an ill-fitting neck collar, a friend kindly took my glasses home for safekeeping. When I woke I was more disoriented than ever and a nurse was explaining that I couldn't have anything to drink because I might need brain surgery. More than a little frightening.

To make matters worse, all my go-to people were gone – out of town or in other countries. I'm forever grateful to Dan, the housemate whom the ER managed to track down, who safeguarded my glasses and actually found my bike, which the EMT folks had thoughtfully stuffed into the ambulance along with me. I was so glad to look up at one point and see Beth, another friend who turned up late that evening and drove me home the next day. But my partner of 30 years, my brother, my best friend – all of them were thousands of miles away.

What's this got to do with torture?

This was just a silly accident, and all the people around me were doing their best to help me. But the experience gave me a visceral reminder of just how easy it is to destroy someone’s physical, temporal and social worlds. That is what torture does. The people at the ER couldn’t have been more competent, and more concerned with their patients’ well-being. And still, it was a terrifying experience. Imagine that combination of pain, fear, disorientation, sensory bombardment - while in the hands of people who are not trying to help, but actually mean you harm. That is torture.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

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