Playing myself being someone else

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 20, 2008

Rockport — It was a strange scene over at the Physicians Building at Penobscot Bay Medical Center the other day.

A man sat in a chair with a massive open head wound and a bullet hole in one leg. An exchange student from Italy was standing behind him along with nurses, EMS personnel, a few reporters and some local police officers.

No one seemed terribly concerned about his injuries.

A teenager with a bullet wound to the chest and a black eye was grinning while eating a Subway sandwich.

Fortunately, no one was actually in any danger. This was only a drill. Other than the school fire drills when I was a kid, I believe it's the only drill I've participated in.

The Knox County Emergency Management Agency and a number of local emergency responders were hitting the hospital staff with a surprise disaster drill.

In addition to whatever real life disasters the hospital staff was dealing with that fine day, it now had to contend with a series of calamities including gunshot victims and a high school kid with a ruptured appendix who spoke not a lick of English.

But that wasn't enough! The folks who planned the drill also decided to throw a pushy reporter at the hospital staff. For some reason, when they found themselves looking for an aggressive newspaper reporter, my name came up. (Steve Betts must have been unavailable.)

My job was to go into the hospital emergency department and pester people for information about a fictitious medical emergency involving a local politician.

This was my chance to play myself, sort of. Of course, in real life, I usually just call the hospital's communications people and ask for whatever information they can give me. In this day and age with laws protecting patient privacy, that usually isn't much, though we can get the condition of a patient who has been in a car crash or other incident in most cases.

It's hard for me to imagine a real life scenario in which I would barge into the emergency department looking for information. However, it probably was a worthwhile aspect of the drill because while local reporters would not behave that way, there's no way of knowing what national media would do if there was a high profile disaster or if a celebrity were in the hospital.

So as the first of the "victims" was arriving at the emergency department, I strode in through the ambulance entrance and with as straight a face as I could muster, started barraging beleaguered employees with questions.

I actually think my acting wasn't half bad. I was playing myself after all, only I was acting like someone else. It was much harder than I had anticipated to purposely waste the time of people who were just there to help people.

Of course it felt that way to some extent because I wasn't really working on a story. Over the past ten years I have gotten myself kicked out of closed-door government meetings, taken pictures of criminals in court, stood on the side of the road shooting pictures at fatal car crashes, gotten yelled at to get back as I approached a burning house for a photo, sunk up to my ankles in Lindsey Brook trespassing in someone's back yard on my way to another fire and had any number of other misadventures.

I've seen horrible things that I will tell my kids about when they get their drivers licenses so they will know that crashes really happen and can happen to them. Even so, I haven't dealt with much compared to the other professions represented in the disaster drill.

For the hospital, these drills are needed because the staff members have to be ready for anything. It's not about what they are doing right or wrong. The fact is that in certain professions, no amount of right is good enough. They have to constantly be getting better.

This was difficult for me on another level as well. I am a hypochondriac and a germ phobe of almost Howard Hughes proportions. I hate hospitals (no offense to those who work in them). The whole time I was in the emergency room, I could feel the walls closing in on me. I could almost see the microbes and germs and viruses crawling across every surface and floating in the air about me.

But I soldiered on for the sake of the story I thought I would never write.
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