Reflections after spending time in a hospital emergency room

[Quick note, before you ask: Everything’s fine. Really.]

Hospital emergency wards (at least the ones that I’ve visited) exhibit an air of controlled chaos, especially to patients and their families who, as soon as they enter, are suddenly completely overwhelmed by the mysteries of the system.

You offer your information to the triage nurse: What’s the problem? How long has this been going on? Has it happened before? Are you having trouble breathing/swallowing/seeing/talking/etc.? What medications are you on and what are you allergic to? Go sit over there; you’ll be called.

You are surrounded by people with purpose (staff) and people who are waiting anxiously (patients and families of patients). A woman in hospital gown, robe and slippers sits near you in the hallway, her head supported wearily in her hands. Who is she and does anyone know why she’s here? Apparently; after about 15 minutes, two men with ID badges and stethoscopes around their necks come and talk quietly to her, then escort her away.

These are the walk-in cases; anything that is critical, that is life-and-death, seems to be happening elsewhere. Occasionally, a gurney is pushed through the narrow corridor with an unhappy-looking occupant; they seldom stay.

In one area, a bank of about 25 computers; at any one time, at least half are occupied. And somehow, although you feel that there is no way they can ever find you, sitting anonymously in the corridor, they do (perhaps because of those same computers). Even when you’re sent to the x-ray area, where for a while you seem to be the only people there, eventually somebody calls your name. Relief: You’re not forgotten.

 All along the way, nurses, interns (impossibly young) and doctors ask you questions, run tests, go away, come back, ask more questions, run more tests. Everybody is calm, reassuring; they take everything you say seriously.

 But despite the careful calm here, there are undercurrents of humanity as well.

 A doctor complains to an administrative aid: His chair keeps disappearing, and the one that replaced it is “so low I’m practically sitting on the floor.” He wants a sign of some sort on it so people won’t keep taking it for somebody else; maybe something that says “Doctors Only.”

 Several people sitting at the computers call out to a woman passing by; she’s apparently just come back from vacation. Another woman walks past with several red balloons floating on strings; they’re heart-shaped for Valentine’s Day. A gift from her spouse? Presents for other staffers? Or just something to cheer up the patients?

 A nurse’s aide sits, coughs and looks miserable; she’s waiting for a form from one of the doctors so she can take the day off. I wonder how many other staffers here are ill and try not to breath her air. In fact, the place is freezing; it turns out that they are pushing air constantly through the emergency area because so many people are coming in with flu. A hospital is not a healthy place to be.

 As I said, I’ve been in hospital emergency wards several times, always accompanying others. Sometimes, the situation was dire, and the patient was admitted. Sometimes, the doctor recommended admittance, but when pushed, was able to treat the patient and send us home. Sometimes, treatment was relatively simple and there was no question of hospitalization.

 In all cases, there is a sense of being powerless in the face of medical knowledge and a huge bureaucracy — and simultaneously needing to stay alert, to be aware, to check and recheck everything that’s being done and be ready to ask, to object, to offer an opinion despite your lowly status as a patient or a patient’s family member.

I’m glad that we have access to this type of expertise. But my god, it’s exhausting.

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