Don’t go to a hospital emergency room unless unconscious or dead. This is the pledge I made with myself after two visits in one week. Of course if I am dead I don’t need to go so forget that. Unconscious is OK because I won’t be aware of the absurdity, black comedy, boredom, and pain associated with a visit to the emergency room. It isn’t like on TV. It’s more like a trip into Kafka’s Castle where not much makes sense and it takes forever for the nonsense to be revealed
The first trip occurs when I think I am having an asthma attack. I can’t breathe and tremendous pain crisscrosses my back, abdomen, and chest. My wife, after hours of my procrastination, convinces me to go to Huntington hospital in the early evening. We sit in the waiting room of the emergency room for an hour - she knitting me staring off into space. My name is called; a wheel chair arrives; and I am wheeled through the double doors twenty feet to an admitting station. Here a nurse asks me questions, takes my blood pressure, and offers the opinion that I have probably contracted pneumonia. I ponder that startling diagnosis while the nurse disappears to see about a bed. She is gone a long time.
An attendant rolls me to a bed in a room with two other emergency beds. I put on one of those funny backwards gowns that hospitals specialize in that reveal a patients bare buttock and are sure to cause maximum embarrassment. A crew wheels in the portable chest X-ray machine. A technician slaps the cold metal X-ray casing against my bare back and instructs me to lean back against the upraised bed. Another technician cranks the funny looking canister at my chest and steps back. They take a picture, grab the metal X-ray slab, coil up the canister and are gone. The real wait starts.
I began to think I’m not so bad off that I shouldn’t just go home when a nurse arrives. She takes my blood pressure. They take your blood pressure a lot in the emergency room and it helps pass the time. I guess my blood pressure is all right because the nurse says nothing and departs. My wife knits. I listen to the man behind the green curtain next to me cough and cry. Another nurse arrives. Her duty is to take my blood for testing. She isn’t terribly skilled. Her first two needle insertions are unsuccessful and I become distressed. She decides to give me a rest and we wait.
The ER is relatively quiet. We watch as the police and fire rescue teams bring in a few cases, but nothing seems too extreme. Two doctors come and enter the green curtain next to me. I hear mumbled voices. They come out and depart. The nurse comes back for a second try at drawing my blood. She puts the tourniquet on my left arm, this time below the elbow, taps a vein, and goes in with the needle. It works. She gets her blood and goes her way.
I am feeling really miserable, but I am not a gunshot victim or a car crash survivor so my needs are secondary. A woman with a broken foot is wheeled into the room. Her foot is wrapped in an inflatable plastic bag. The ER doctor, a muscular man with massive biceps comes to tell me my chest X-ray is OK. He listens to my lungs with the stethoscope and prods my chest a little. I wince. He leaves. An hour passes.
A short man in a plaid shirt, chino pants, and loafers comes to visit the lady with the broken foot. We listen to their conversation about lawn furniture and slippery walks. The portable X-ray machine is brought into the room. She tells the X-ray technicians she isn’t in pain. Her bed is swung out and her foot lifted and turned. She calls out “That hurts.” Several pictures are taken of her foot. The man in plaid reads to the lady from a house and garden magazine providing a running commentary. Three doctors arrive for the man behind the green curtain. Some words are exchanged and they are gone. We all wait.
The nurse approaches me. She is friendly. This time she wants to insert an IV. I dread IV’s. The nurse slips the rubber strip around my left arm just below the elbow and begins to tap at the veins in my hand. She doesn’t look happy. “We already tapped the best vein here,” she says. I am grim. She undoes the rubber knot and ties the rubber band around the arm above the elbow and began a search over my lower arm around the elbow. “Might be one here,” she says, tapping at the elbow on the outside edge of the arm, “but I want to look at the other arm first.” She undoes the knot and moves to my right arm.
“I’m left handed so I prefer you use the right arm,” I say.
She gives me an exasperated huff. “If it works,” She says.
The rubber is wrapped around my right arm below the elbow. She taps at the veins in my right hand, seems to find something she likes, then undoes the rubber. She starts to insert the long shaft of the IV device into my vein. It hurts like heck. My arm begins to shake. “Breathe slowly,” the nurse barks. I try, but can’t do it. My teeth are clenched and my head begins to shake. The nurse sighs and pulls out the IV needle. “We will do this later,” she says and walks away. My wife stops knitting and touches my arm. I sigh and relax.
The muscular doctor returns to speak with the woman with the broken foot. He tells her she has broken it in several places, will need surgery, and will have to stay in the hospital overnight. Staff is looking for a room for her. The doctor leaves and the man in the plaid shirt departs saying he would be back soon. My wife continues knitting. I count ceiling tiles. Another hour passes
The nurse returns with another nurse and says they have to put the IV in me. I am feeling too terrible to object. They go for the left arm this time and the vein that was a possibility on the previous attempt. The insertion works. The IV shaft while painful was not excruciating. I have the IV taped to my arm in the typical U shape with the business end for delivering antibiotics and other drugs pointing toward my body. My wife shows me her knitting. She tells me it wasn’t working right and undoes all she has done before my eyes. I nod. All four of us in the room wait.
The muscular doctor comes back to speak to me. “We are putting you in the hospital,” he says, “and we are looking for a room.” He leaves. The man in the plaid shirt returns. They discuss their swimming pool. The man behind the green curtain moans. I fume. “This can’t be happening to me. All I have is a touch of asthma,” I say to my wife.
She responds, “They wouldn’t be looking for a bed for you, if your condition were just asthma.”
It is now after midnight. The woman with the broken foot is rolled out the door and down the hall with her husband trailing behind. A new nurse comes and takes my blood pressure. I guess it is still OK. She says nothing and rolls the blood pressure stand out of the room. My neighbor behind the green curtain is quiet. The three doctors approach and disappear inside the green curtain. I hear more mumbled voices. They leave. My wife shows me her new knitting. She has made significant progress. I stare at the activity in the hall outside the room. Uniformed officers wheel stretchers down the hall with bodies on them, then roll the stretchers back empty.
“I am really really bored,” I say to my wife.
“You need patience,” she says.
“This is about as interesting as watching paint dry,” I reply.
Another hour passes.
An attendant arrives. I get rolled out and down some long corridors in what seemed like a basement then up two flights in an elevator to a room with another man in the hospital proper. This happens seven and a half-hours after my arrival.
My stay in the hospital is four days, where I am informed I have a pulmonary embolism or blood clots in my lungs. The blood clots formed in my right leg. The respiratory doctors theorize that I got blood clots from sitting in an airplane for long hours. I can’t believe this, but the doctors say it is very common. I am filled with antibiotics and blood thinners through the IV. My blood is drawn everyday. I get lung pictures taken by nuclear medicine and breathing treatments every day. It isn’t a bad four days, except for the roommate who liked to have the TV on 24 hours a day.
I am discharged feeling good. But next morning I feel the same as I felt the day I went the emergency room. My wife takes me to the emergency room again. It is early morning. Few people are there. My wait in the outer waiting room is less this time - only a half an hour passes before I am set in the wheel chair and rolled into the admitting station. The admitting nurse takes my blood pressure. I have to answer only a few questions, since I know what my condition is. She leaves to find a bed. We wait.
I am wheeled into a different room from my first visit, but there are three beds here also. I get the center bed and put on the backward gown. The other two beds are empty, but not for long. A nurse with an Australian accent takes my blood pressure. She is cheery.
Paramedics roll an old woman into the room with me and give her the far-left bed. A middle aged bald man comes with her. He explains to the nurses that his mother fell getting out of bed and could not get up. The nurse’s provides pillows and blankets to make the woman comfortable. The old woman complains. A doctor comes to see me. I tell him about the blood clots, the pain, and the shortness of breath. He says he will consult with the respiratory doctors who treated me before. He listens to my chest and departs. My wife begins her knitting. I read my book. Two hours pass.
Paramedics roll another old woman in the room and give her the remaining bed to my right. She is semi- conscious and mumbles incoherently. Her family members follow. The phlebotomist comes to take my blood. I remember her from the daily extraction in the hospital. She is good and the needle insertion and blood withdrawal are almost painless. The son of the woman left of me departs. He tells his mother he will return soon. The family members of the mumbling woman right of me begin to shout. “Mazie, wake up! Mazie we’re here! Mazie talk to us!” There are only incoherent mumbles in response. My wife shows me her knitting and says it isn’t going like she wants. She pulls the needles unraveling all she accomplished in the five days since my hospital experience began. I try to read, but the noise and commotion have me rereading sentences over and over.
“I’m bored,” I say to my wife, “do you think I could just go home?”
“You need patience,” she says.
“You’ve got your knitting to keep you amused,” I reply sarcastically.
The doctor comes again. He says we’re going to do the nuclear pictures of your lungs again. With a chuckle he adds, “We’ll get you out of here before you finish your book,” He leaves, and so do all the nurses.
“Nurse, Nurse”, the old woman to my left shouts, “I need a nurse, where are they?”
“They are not here right now,” I respond through the green curtain and through the continued din of calls to Mazie to wake up. The old woman is quiet for a while and then again begins to scream for the nurse.
A nurse appears. She goes to the old woman. “We can’t have you screaming like you are,” the nurse declares.
“I’m uncomfortable,” the woman says, “This bed is too small and where is my son?”
The nurse adjusts her bed covers and tells the woman, “We are calling for your son.” She leaves. We wait.
Two nurses reappear. One says, “We have to put an IV in your arm.”
“Can’t you do without it?” I plead.
“No, its hospital procedure,” she replies.
She wraps the rubber strip around my right arm, finds a vein, undoes the rubber, and tries to insert the needle in my right hand. The pain is awful. She pulls the needle. “Well that didn’t work the vein isn’t straight enough,” she says to the other nurse, “hold his arm while I try this one.” She inserts the needle. The pain is horrible. My hand begins to quiver. The nurse removes the needle. “We will have to get the IV nurse to come do this,” she says, departing. I am shaking all over. The assisting nurse offers words of encouragement and leaves. The group to my right is still calling for Mazie. Mazie is still mumbling. The woman to my left begins to scream. “Chuckie, Where are you Chuckie?” My wife calmly knits. I contemplate the ceiling as the tremors slowly pass away. Another hour passes.
An attendant comes. “I’m here to take you to nuclear medicine,” he says. I am rolled down long empty corridors through sections where there is no ceiling tile and a multitude of pipes is revealed. This must be the basement I think. We roll past numerous ceiling lights where the fluorescent tubes are dark and the plastic housings hanging from the hinges on one side. I distract myself by critiquing the hospital’s maintenance. We go up the elevator to the second floor and to the nuclear medicine room. The nuclear technician has me get off the emergency room bed and I sit in on a stool in front of the big machine with a circular lens at my end. I watch as the bits of color appear on the screen on the console next to me. Green and yellow points form a picture of my lungs in a circular aperture. This is the most interesting thing to happen to me so far this day.
Pictures done, I am back on the gurney and rolled back to the emergency room. The old woman continues to scream for her son. The nurse comes and tries to reassure her that her son is on his way. “You can’t go on yelling like you are,” the nurse admonishes the old woman. She is silent for a five minutes then begins to yell again. The family is still calling for Mazie. Mazie is not responding at all. My wife continues to knit. I give up reading and stare at the ceiling attempting to identify patterns in the random proliferation of holes. I can’t.
The IV nurse arrives. She knots the rubber strip on my right arm and selects a vein for the insertion. The rubber strip is released and the insertion begins. The pain is intense and I yell out “No” and try to pull my arm away. The nurse withdraws the long shaft of the IV needle and apologizes to me. She moves to the left arm and puts the tourniquet below the elbow. Both my arms are shaking. A second nurse comes to assist. She holds my arm and tells me to relax. I respond, “Who can relax when you are trying to force a plumbing pipe into my arm?”
“You are only making things worse for yourself,” the assisting nurse calmly replies. I grunt and try not to shake. The rubber tourniquet is snapped off my arm. The insertion is made on a vein that shows back of the third finger between it and the pinkie. The pain is intense, but they get the IV needle in. All the nurses depart. The old woman continues to scream for Chuckie. Chuckie arrives. All is quiet. I can hear the click of my wife’s knitting needles. Another hour passes.
I am given a foul concoction to drink. I must drink a portion of this every fifteen minutes. Then I must wait for 45 minutes for the milky clear liquid to be absorbed before I am to be taken to the big doughnut CAT scanner to have my organs investigated. I watch the clock. It is now well into the afternoon, and the radioactive drink with the half-life of 6 hours will be my lunch. An attendant comes and I am rolled away.
This journey is short- down a hall past all the milling emergency room staff. So this is where they are when they leave your room I think. Through several double doors I am whisked then up the elevator and down a short hall to the room with the big doughnut machine. I am moved from the gurney onto a flat bed that is straddled by the doughnut. The bed moves through the doughnut. A technician comes out and starts to put some fluid through my IV. A searing pain rushes up the vein into my arm. I am breathless. He says to me “We will never get the radioactive fluid up your arm and into your body through this IV. The vein is too small and the fluid is much denser than what I just put in your arm.” I groan. The technician disappears. I hear him on the phone. The doctor tells him to skip the scan with the IV shot stuff. I am wheeled back to the emergency room to wait for the results. My bed is now in the corridor along with the bed of the old woman whose son has returned.
Another hour passes. The doctor with his stethoscope slung around his neck comes back. He tells me nothing is wrong with my major organs and nothing new is found in my lungs. I am OK. I am to be discharged from the emergency room and the hospital. I get dressed. My breath is still short and my chest, abdomen, and back still hurt. The IV is still in my arm. I want to rip it out. My wife stops me. The nurse comes and tells me they will remove the IV soon, but they don’t. Only when I start to remove the tape myself does someone come to assist the removal. It takes less than a minute.
As I march from the hospital nine and half-hours after I came I think they should have two emergency rooms. One room will be for the unconscious patients and the other for the conscious. In the conscious emergency room they should have hospital gaming. Slot machines and digital card game would be next to every bed. Patients can spend the boring hours where nothing happens and hospitals will make a hefty profit. And no one would hear the screams above the bells, whistles, and chings of the flashing mechanical bandits. Besides you know for sure insurance won’t cover your gaming losses unlike the rest of your care, where you never know.