Late one Friday afternoon in early January I was standing in line for the pharmacy at Stroger County Hospital when the man in front of me turned and asked if I'd heard what the pharmacy tech at the window had just said, that prescriptions couldn't be picked up until Sunday. The man, who was Hispanic and in his 60s, looked alarmed and in slightly stiff English explained that his doctor had told him he had an infection deep in his ear, that he was lucky it hadn't reached his brain, that it was important to start taking his medicine that night. The man was silent, then said softly, "I am too young to die."
The patient ahead of the man left the drop-off window, and he stepped up. The pharmacy tech took his prescription and started processing it.
"When can I pick up my medicine?" the man asked.
"Come back Sunday," the tech replied.
"But the doctor said I need to take it right away."
The tech gave him a sideways look and scribbled something on the pickup ticket for the drug. "Right away?" he said. "Then you can come back tomorrow afternoon."
"Tomorrow afternoon?" said the man. "But the doctor said I have to start to take it tonight."
"If your doctor wants you to take it tonight, then talk to your doctor," the tech said, shoving the pickup ticket at the man. "They don't know what we have to do here."
The man walked off toward the east exit, his steps slow and stiff. When I caught up with him he seemed dazed. He said he thought his doctor had gone home already. "I have some other medicines at home, but," he said, pointing at his ear, "it is too strong. The pain is very great." He kept walking, and every few steps he'd say, "But I do not know if I can come back tomorrow."
After he was gone I set my bag down so I could put on my sweater and coat and saw two women standing behind a counter. I asked them if there was an ombudsman or someone who filled that role in the hospital. They asked why I wanted to know. I told them what I'd just seen. Their eyes locked briefly, and they nodded. "Patient's advocate," one of them said. "Just to the right, then to the left."
The patient's advocate's room was locked and dark. I returned to the counter.
"Try the administrator on duty. Turn left and then left again."
I walked into the office of the administrator on duty. She asked if she could help me, and I started to tell her the story. When I got to the first thing the man at the drop-off window had said she interrupted. "That's a pharmacy tech," she said. "They don't know shit."
I suddenly realized she was talking to me as if I were on staff.
"The pharmacists are the ones in the back," she went on, then asked if the patient was an emergency-room case.
I said I didn't know.
She asked if the patient was still around.
I said I didn't think so.
She looked anguished. She said that if he'd come in with an emergency or if the situation was urgent "there are things we can do to talk to the pharmacists and make sure the patient gets his medication that day." She paused. "Look, if you see something like this again--and you're probably going to see stuff like this again--get the patient to come to the on-duty administrator. Let the ODA know what's going on, and we can do something about it."
I thanked her and left.