What fun — a trip to the emergency room

There’s little in life quite as fun as a visit to the hospital emergency room.    

I got to see this for myself Monday night when I accompanied a young friend to the facility here in Rock Hill. Our county is plastered with billboards promoting Piedmont Medical Center for its promise to “see” patients within 30 minutes or less of their arrival.    

“Look, there’s one now,” I imagined the lady at the front desk saying as we walked in the door. “I see him. Now, I will make him wait for hours before our staff acknowledges him with any of the other four senses.”    

If ever you needed evidence that our current system is broken, come spend an evening with the poor and uninsured seeking their only option for health care. Watch as they double over in pain in the crowded hallway to the waiting area. Listen as their children dart around the room screaming “Mommy, look at me … mommy, look at me” for an hour at a stretch. Feel the danger as the trio sitting across from you suddenly sit up in recognition of an armed robbery suspect whose face is broadcast on television.    

“Hey, lookie there, Ella Sue. It’s Uncle Bobby! He’s on the TV!”    

The heat poured in through the constantly opening door as we stood waiting to check in. My friend had been told by his primary care physician that his iron levels were dangerously low and he likely needed an immediate infusion. We explained how important this was to the triage woman, aware that it likely wasn’t going to compete with all the broken arms and crushing abdominal pain around us. We might be lucky enough to get in ahead of that guy in the corner dabbing at his sniffly nose with a tissue. No, wait — he’s got a gunshot wound too. Damn.    

One is tempted in such a situation to take advantage of a system that treats individuals based on the “acuity” of their condition. There was a notice behind the sign-in desk advising that if you suspected you were suffering a heart attack or a stroke that you should say so. (Don’t be embarrassed. This is a hospital — they’re used to such things.) Maybe my friend could claim he was having both, then when he quickly got in to see a doctor he could claim that his heart and brain were suddenly feeling a lot better, but this iron thing still had him worried.    

After the sign-in, you’re told to have a seat but none are available. I explored the immediate area to find at least a cool spot to stand, and came to realize this was directly across from a soft drink machine, pumping out tiny bursts of refrigerated air every time someone bought a soda. We took up our position there.    

Periodically, someone dressed in scrubs would emerge to call out the name of the next one chosen to be saved. The eager wounded descended on the poor man to show him their boils and their shattered jaws, in hopes of receiving care. Unfortunately, he was one of many people working at the hospital who was “not a doctor” and all he could do was advise them to get away.    

When my friend’s name was called within the first ten minutes, we thought we had lucked out. Instead, we were only going to the triage room where another “not a doctor” would record vitals like body temperature, blood pressure and pulse. I explained that we also had the symptom of being insured, thinking that might carry some weight in getting us through to the inner sanctum. No such luck.    

It was back to the waiting room for another half hour. Every five minutes or so, the scrubbed one would re-appear and inevitably call out a name that was similar enough to my friend James that our hopes would be raised for a syllable or two.    

First it was Jacob, then Jason, then Jaylene. Each time our hearts soared briefly before returning to their regretably un-attacked status.    

Finally, James was summoned to another room where he was to have blood drawn. This was done by a friendly older man who identified himself as (I think) a philatelist. Though this too was not a doctor, he’d had extensive training in poking people with sharp instruments while training for his Bachelor of Science degree in Jabbing at Clemson. We asked if he’d personally be testing the blood for iron levels and if he could let us know the results as soon as he had them, and he kindly explained no and no. Only the precious doctors could discuss such sacred information, and we could now return to the Coke machine.    

This next stretch without any attention from the staff was the longest of all. For over two hours we sat and waited. Entertainment was hard to come by, despite the presence of Entertainment Tonight on the waiting room TV. There was the thirty-something woman who sobbed pitifully as she gave her check-in information. There was a guy who asked me if I knew where the nearest ATM was. There was the variety of hip-hop cellphone ringtones that went off periodically. There were the two young blondes in halter tops and short-shorts, obviously in need of emergency treatment for hotness.    

My friend was still feeling no symptoms from his iron deficiency, but instead was growing weak from missing dinner. By 8:30, we’d had enough and I approached the check-in desk.    

“Are you the person we notify that we’re giving up?” I asked. It didn’t sound sarcastic to either of us.    

She was that person and prepared to remove us from the waiting list as we walked out the door. Only then did we hear the call “James Wolfe, the doctor will see you now.”    

I was tempted to respond that he’d better look quick as we’d be driving out the exit shortly, but instead we returned to the desk and were escorted to the treatment area.    

What a maze of horror that was. An obvious car accident victim lay in one room. A man with his hair caked in blood was in another. And they were all openly visible to passers-by, like some museum of trauma. It felt like we should pause before each tableau and admire it like we would a fine artwork, stroking our chins and admiring the eye for detail of the knifing victim’s attacker. Everybody had gone to so much trouble, it seemed a shame if the effort weren’t appreciated.    

The escort led us to our cubicle where we were told to wait for the nurse. Finally, we were working our way up the food chain.    

Within a mere 45 minutes, the nurse appeared and instructed James to put on a gown. Again, we pressed for the iron numbers before donning any wedding attire and again we were told that only the doctor could provide these.  

“The only reason he’s feeling bad now is that we had to wait so long outside,” I pointed out. “If we got him home and got him some air conditioning and dinner, I think he’d be fine.”  

“It won’t be long now before the doctor can see him,” she responded. Maybe in geological terms it won’t be long, I thought, but we don’t have any spare eons right now.  

“I’m sorry but we’re leaving,” I said with finality. “I can’t imagine iron deficiency being that dangerous. We’ll just pick up a Wooly Willy game on the way home and he’ll eat the filings.”  

“You understand that if you leave now, we’re not responsible,” the nurse reminded us.  

Yes, I thought. I understand that you’re not responsible. Believe me, I understand.  

Take two of these and don't ever call me again


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3 Responses to “What fun — a trip to the emergency room”

  1. GoingLikeSixty Says:

    “My friend had been told by his primary care physician that his iron levels were dangerously low and he likely needed an immediate infusion.”

    So why didn’t this doc admit him?

    Two words for the future: No Emergency Rooms. (We use ‘urgent care’ facilities, ‘quicky med’ in CVS / Walgreen’s / Trader’s Joes or self medicate if blood is coagulating OK.)

    I hope you didn’t catch anything while waiting among the unwashed. That scares me more than anything.

  2. Paul Dixon Says:

    I’m truly sorry to hear of your difficulty in the E.R. I also think that, like many people who deal in the humor industry, you pack a lot of sincere pain behind some of your comedic efforts.

    Yes, the system is very broken, and the way things stand, your only other option is to pay a private doctor for a “concierge” level of service (for a mere couple of thousand a year) for the privilege of calling the doctor at home to schedule an emergency visit.

    Capitalism has its good points along with a number of bad points. So does European-style socialism. But one undeniable aspect of the latter is that their health care system is much more humanitarian and fair than ours. Period.

  3. Ministry Fox Says:

    The Ministry Fox also supports a state-supported universal health care system, which has earned the politically-charged moniker ‘socialised medicine’ in the States; in an effort, one imagines, to scare people into believing that godless communism will be injected surrepticiously into their veins if they substituted health insurance costs with taxation costs.
    I do not support it on political grounds, but on practical ones. It simply works better in reducing admin costs, decreases the costs of health-care provision in terms of percentage of GDP, and leaves emergency rooms for emergencies.
    However, protected by large quantities of bateria-fighting beer, and breathing in my iron and a hundred other nutrients through cigarette smoke, I have never had any need of hospitals and trust it will remain so.

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