The doors of the hospital slid apart with a cheery ding as the bear walked in, a small cub lying unconscious on its back. The emergency room waiting room went quiet as only the sudden appearance of a bear can cause. A quick-thinking woman with a head injury tried to call 911 but instead called 822. A teenager with a broken arm tried to turn on the video camera on his phone. The clatter of the phone falling to the linoleum tiles and a strangled scream of pain were the only sounds besides the bear’s heavy tread as it approached the reception desk.
The nurse on duty was as harried as the new patient was hairy. Two of her co-workers had called in sick and another one had gone on a five-minute smoke break twenty minutes ago. She sensed the approach of someone at the window as she worked away frantically at the computer.
“Here, fill this out,” she said, pushing a clipboard of papers at the bear.
The bear searched its memory, but the closest thing in its experience to a clipboard were the flat rocks under which ants and beetles and other delicious insects lived. It nosed the clipboard up a few inches experimentally, but the underside was clean.
“Do you have insurance?” the nurse asked as she kept typing, sensing that the presence at the window had not moved. “I’ll need to see your insurance card. Do you have a copay?”
The bear gave a tentative growl.
“Good. We’ll need payment up front.”
It was probably just as well that the bear was unaware of how much it did not know about the healthcare system. All it knew was that its cub had eaten some bad berries and was very sick. It had seen one of the humans eat those same berries the year before and after a while a vehicle with a colorful cross on the side had come and gotten him. So the bear had put the cub on its back and started walking until it saw a building with that same cross on it. For all it knew, this was the Go-When-You-Eat-Bad-Berries place.
The nurse kept typing, trying to get through the backlog of notes on the last dozen patients. They just kept pouring in. She gritted her teeth as she saw out of the corner of her eye that whoever was at the window still had not taken the clipboard. The last thing she needed was a high maintenance patient she’d have to handhold through the ten-page intake form.
It was at that moment that Dr. Elizabeth Gauss walked into the emergency room. She took in the scene in a glance: the frozen expressions of the waiting room patients, the bear standing patiently at the reception desk window, the cub lying motionless on its back, the nurse typing madly at the computer.
This was new, but Dr. Gauss worked the night shift in an emergency room, so it was not the most surprising thing she had ever seen. She walked over to the bear, who turned expectantly. Seeing the cub’s half-open eyes and the color of its protruding tongue, she guessed what had happened. She motioned for the bear to follow her and it did, with the innocence of a toddler trying to make a withdrawal from Fort Knox.
Dr. Gauss got the bears settled in the extra-large examination room and came back to the reception desk. “Jane,” she said. She repeated it three times before the nurse looked up.
“What did you think of that last person who came in?” Dr. Gauss asked.
Jane looked at the blank forms on the clipboard and gave a noise of disgust. “He didn’t fill out the paperwork. Probably wasn’t more than a sore throat anyway. He sounded like he had a growl.”
“Just put him down as John Doe,” Dr. Gauss said. “Actually, no, not that. Say John Ursine.” She looked kindly at Jane, noticing how tired her eyes looked and just how frazzled she was. “Why don’t you go take a break for half an hour.” She handed the nurse a twenty-dollar bill. “Get a snack and coffee, on me. Don’t worry,” she added at Jane’s protests, “you need a break. I’ll get someone to cover.”
“And Jane,” she said as the nurse gratefully accepted the money and started to walk away. “Don’t go into Examination Room 3.”