The Preparation, 8
The early behaviorists would have had a field day with this crisis. There was never a more blatant example of their various theories in action than the throng of people crammed into the waiting room of General Hospital's Mental Health ward. Every psychiatrist on staff had been called in to help. Most had been at the hospital far longer then was normally allowed. It couldn't be helped. General Hospital was overflowing with casualties of every kind. Panic attacks, broken bones from fighting, suicide attempts. And all this after just a couple of hours.
The medical staff at General were people too, with families and loved ones of their own. That morning’s announcement had to weigh just as heavily on their mind as anyone else on the planet. But they did not have the luxury to dwell on it. As fast as one patient was sent on his way, two or three more took his place.
Like the middle-aged man Dr. Ellen Burgess was attending to at the moment. For some unfathomable reason, the announcement about the end of the world was apparently motivation for this man to indulge his childhood fantasy of being a wild lion tamer. Painfully he recounted how he had broken into the zoo and climbed over into the big cat area. Fortunately for him, he wasn't the first person that morning to indulge that particular impulse and he escaped with just a badly busted lip and a couple of broken ribs from several well-placed hits by the animal trainers (who were already fed up with having to save such idiots from themselves). It was a good thing, Kevin thought, that the man hadn't decided to try his hand at medicine. With the crush of people crowding General Hospital's hallways that morning, he probably would have gotten away with it until he finally killed somebody.
"Okay." Ellen put the last of several stitches in the man’s swollen lip and stepped back to cast a critical eye at her handiwork. “You're done.”
A young rookie cop, who had been waiting patiently for Ellen to finish, snapped a set of handcuffs on the man's wrist and led him toward the already crowded police van waiting outside. "Thanks, Dr. Burgess," the young rookie called back over her shoulder. "I'll probably be seeing you again soon."
Psychiatrist Kevin Collins took it all in. He’d taken a break from his own duties in order to clear his thoughts and gather a second wind. His day had begun with a couple of attempted suicides, and two others that had succeeded. By mid-morning Kevin was ready to hand off some of his duties to a couple of promising doctors in his department and find a few moments to shrug off the dark mood such hopelessness spawned.
Without any conscious thought he wound up in the emergency room.
For over an hour Kevin watched his colleagues efficiently manage the crush of people milling about General Hospital’s ER . The atmosphere there was markedly different than Kevin's own department. Despite it all, there was a sense of accomplishment among the emergency room staff that grew with each patient they stitched and bandaged and sent home. Maybe in time, as the initial panic subsided, there would be less and less of the kind of injuries they now treated. Members of the psych staff had no such hope. As time went on, their jobs would only get harder as people dealt with the finality of their existence.
"Ellen…Why don't you take a break," Kevin suggested. "You're the only one who hasn’t."
Ellen slowly surveyed the room and glared at her doctors. She searched their faces for the guilty party who’d apparently been reporting on her. The doctor in question flashed her an unrepentant smile, too busy treating the constant stream of walk-ins to bother denying his guilt. "Maybe I should take a break,” she sighed. For just a second, Ellen dropped her professional demeanor in a rare moment of admitted weariness. "If this is how it is now," she worried, "what is it going to be like when the time gets closer?"
She had gone in to work prepared for the panic. Panic was understandable. Tv broadcasts had shown reactions to the news all around the globe, and except for the players, the scene stayed the same. Panic. What Ellen hadn't expected was the myriad of ways people were choosing to express that panic. Starting fights, jumping from high places, playing chicken among the haphazard driving that currently passed for traffic.
Kevin understood what Ellen didn't. It had been less than two days since the announcement of disaster broke and already emergency rooms across the country were overflowing with the results of people’s reaction to the news.
"I get why your department is busy," Ellen continued. "It should be. This situation is a lot to take in. But what I don't understand are the kinds of physical injuries we are seeing right now.”
Kevin oversaw the Psychiatric Department at GH. There had been a crush of patients that began coming in only moments after the government informed them that everyone on the planet was doomed. Their emotional upheaval made sense. The human mind was not designed to know the exact time of the body's death. It was a phenomenon common to people diagnosed with a terminal illness – progressing from initial panic to eventual acceptance.
The other kind of reaction that was taking place made just as much sense, Kevin observed. Ellen was a doctor, a healer. She could not understand any reaction that caused people to recklessly endanger their lives, especially when they were already standing in the shadow of the ‘sword’ hovering above them. It was precisely that sword, however, that made people seek to determine their own fate and deny what might have been considered destiny.
"People,” Kevin explained, “want to believe that their acts of defiance, however small, will serve notice to the universe that they don't intend to go down without a fight."
Ellen wasn't convinced. "I will have to take your word for it.” She gave an unladylike snort, then stripped off her latex gloves in preparation of donning a new pair. “Although from where I'm standing, it sure looks like the universe is winning.”