The Long Wait

“Are you busy tonight?” I asked her sweetly as she took my son’s vitals, “Do you think we will have to wait long?” Without answering me, she took a deep breath and asked my son to copy her breathing as she placed the stethoscope on his chest. When she finished she turned to the computer and typed in her findings. “Other than abdominal pain and the blood in the stool, does he have any other symptoms? Any vomiting? Fever? Cough?” she asked me. I shook my head no. She pressed on his stomach and he screamed. “Right now your son will be at the top of the list. You should be seen shortly,” she explained, “But I don’t know how long he will stay on high priority, things can change in an instant in the ER.” I nodded and looked behind me at the empty waiting room. We had been through this enough times to know that a quiet waiting room didn’t mean there wasn’t chaos in the back. “I guess he picked a good night to get sick,” I said, “I hope it stays quiet in here.” The triage nurse shook her head as she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my son’s little arm. “It’s too quiet. It always make me nervous when it’s like this,” she said with a subtle smile, “We will do our best to get you through as quickly as possible before all hell breaks loose.” She was kind and looked to be in her fifties. I knew she must have been a nurse for a very long time. “So this is just the calm before the storm?” I asked smiling. She smiled back and shrugged. “Not always. But usually, yeah. It won’t stay like this for long.”

She took us immediately to a room and before we knew it our son had been assessed by a nurse, a doctor and received blood work. Less than 45 minutes after we walked in the front doors of the emergency room, our son was lying on a stretcher getting an ultrasound. It was the fastest we had ever been put through the system.

He was in so much pain that he just wanted to be doubled over. It was the exact opposite of the flat position they wanted him to be in for the test. That ultrasound will forever rank high on the list of worst tests on mommy. His pain was so great that it took three of us to hold him down. His screams were so loud that it compelled doctors passing by to come in and check on him.

Fortunately, the test proved worth it. The image on the screen caused the ultrasound tech’s face to soften as she reached over and softly rubbed the back of my son’s hand. “I’m sorry buddy,” she said and I knew she had found the source of his pain. The ER was still quiet enough that the radiologist had no other scans to read, so he came in to talk to us. He informed us that our son had a condition called intususpeption and that his bowel had folded in on itself. He said it explained both the pain and bleeding, and that he had already sent his report down and ordered for GI to be paged so our son could be assessed for surgery. Scared and exhausted, we headed back to the ER to wait for the specialist.

As we walked through the double doors I was surprised to see that the waiting room was full. Really full. In less the 30 minutes the empty room was now standing room only. Luckily we had already been assessed and completed diagnostics. There was not a whole lot more the ER could do for us except monitor him and make sure he was stable. So we sat and waited for the G.I. to arrive.

It took almost two hours before we saw the specialist. He was young and kind and very compassionate. He told us that our son was not a candidate for surgery because the location of the bowel fold was too high up. Not to mention the fact that the bowel seemed to be folding and unfolding repeatedly so even if they went in to correct it, it would likely just fold again. He booked us an appointment with our existing G.I. specialist for the next business day and gave us discharge instructions. “These cases are often tough because there’s not a lot we can do,” he said sympathetically, “Your son is quite complex with the dystonia and esophageal issues, so I think it’s best for his regular doctor who is familiar with his case to determine his long term plan. But please, if anything worsens or you become concerned don’t hesitate to bring him back.” My husband and I said nothing as we nodded to say we understood. “So, I’m going to go ahead and get somebody in here to take his IV out and send him home where he can be more comfortable,” he said as he stoop up to leave. We thanked the doctor as he left the room and I instinctively laid down next to my sleeping son, wrapped my arms around him and cried.

An hour later we were still in the hospital. No one had come to remove my son’s IV. I peeked my head out of our room and was surprised to see that the once bustling nurses station and treatment area was devoid of any staff. There was not a nurse or doctor to be seen. “Everyone’s gone,” I told my husband. He gave me a confused look and I responded, “The place is completely empty. It looks like a ghost town. I wonder where everyone went? I’m gonna go for a walk and see if I can’t find someone to take his IV out.” My husband nodded as I closed the door to our room and walked down the hallway.

I was surprised to see that every single room was full and I wondered why there were so many patients and no staff. I had never seen anything like it. I walked up and down the halls, but could not find a single nurse. I went out to triage so see if someone out there could help me, but they were swamped and every nurse I could find was seeing a patient. I gave up and walked back to the empty treatment area annoyed that all the staff were gone when the place was so busy.

I was thirty yards from my son’s room when I finally saw a nurse. She was frantically pulling supplies off a cart. “Excuse me,” I said as I walked up to her, “we have been waiting for over an hour for someone to come take out an IV so we can go home. Are you able to help us?” She didn’t even look up at me. She just continued looking for something on the shelves in front of her. It was clear she was having a hard time locating whatever it was she was looking for. “No. Sorry. You’ll have to wait.” I felt annoyed that she was being abrupt. “Well, where is everyone?” I asked trying not to sound as ticked off as I felt, “It’s well after midnight and we’d really like to go home.” I couldn’t believe there was not one person in the entire emergency department who could take out an IV, especially since it would allow us to leave and free up a room. Still rummaging through the cart she said “Everyone is busy. Your gonna have to wait.” I stood staring at her in a way that clearly indicated my frustration. I was looking for something more that to be told to sit and wait all night for an IV removal. “Look,” she said, “a trauma case came in and the kid coded so we are all working on her.” I froze. This was not the answer I was expecting. “Coded, as in died?” I asked already knowing the answer. “Well, kind of. We keep bringing her back only to have her heart stop again. So until she’s stable everyone is working on her.” She took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips as she stared at the cart. “Everyone?” I asked, trying to imagine how everyone could possibly be working on one little kid at the same time. Then her eyes lit up and she grabbed a package off the shelf. “Got it!” She said. As she ran down the hall she hollered, “Yep everyone. All hands on deck!”

I went back to my son’s room and told my husband what had happened. From the sounds of it we were going to be here a while. We halfheartedly debated taking his IV out ourselves, but in lieu of supplies and know how, we decided against it. So we waited…and waited. After another hour passed I poked my head out of the door again. The place was still empty with the exception of one women in scrubs sitting at the desk looking at a computer screen. “Are you able to take our IV out so we can go home?” I asked softly. She looked up at me. “Yea. I can try. Just give me a minute.” I nodded and smiled, “Thank you so much! We really want to go home.” I went back to the room and told my husband that someone was coming. Forty minutes later we were still waiting.

I was feeling antsy and decided to go for a walk while I waited. I reached the end of the long corridor and paused at the big sliding double glass doors that marked the ambulance entrance. The doors were drafty and the cool air felt good after spending so much time in a stuffy hospital room. I jumped when the doors unexpectedly burst open and paramedics running with a stretcher came towards me. I immediately moved out of the doorway. The scene before me took my breath away. There was a little boy on a flat board wearing a neck brace. His size told me he couldn’t be much older than eight years old. He looked like he had been in a car crash and he had what looked like glass debris and blood all over his face and hands. There were two paramedics, one pushing the stretcher and one on top of the stretcher straddling the child giving him chest compressions. A team of doctors came running down the hall grabbing the sides of the cot to help push. “Trauma two!” someone shouted and everyone took off running down the hall toward the trauma room. Still feeling a little bit shocked by what I had just seen, I took a deep breath and looked around.

Then I saw her. A mother sitting sprawled out on the floor outside the room marked trauma one. She sat there frozen with no expression on her face. She was obstructing foot traffic in the hallway, but no one asked her to move. Instead the staff just stepped over and around her. I instantly assumed she was the mother of the little girl who kept coding. My heart broke for her and I prayed her little girl would make it.

“We’ve been waiting for hours!” Came the voice of a frustrated father. I couldn’t blame him. I knew how he felt. But I also knew what he did not. I knew the women on the floor in front of the trauma room just feet away from him was listening to the chaos inside the room as her daughter’s heart repeatedly stopped. “Does my kid have to die before a doctor will see her?” he said flippantly. The women on the floor looked up at him, but he didn’t see her. He was too focused on the very much alive little girl he was holding. The child coughed and the distinct sound of it made it known to the whole room that she had croup. The dad was looking at the nurse sitting behind the triage desk. There was no doubt that the little girl was sick and needed to see a doctor, but she was breathing fine and happily playing. She was not “high priority.” “Sir,” the nurse said patiently, “I’m sorry. We are doing the very best we can. We will see your child as quickly as possible. Your patience is appreciated.” Exacerbated he turned and walked away. The mother on the floor returned her gaze to the spot on the wall in front of her as she sat vigil, waiting to hear news of her daughter.

I walked back to our room feeling annoyed at myself for being frustrated about the long wait. I knew if it were my son struggling to survive, I’d sure expect those who were stable to be patient. But the truth is, none of us have patience when it comes to our own children and I was sill sad that my little boy was in so much pain and couldn’t go home.

I reentered the room to find the nurse in the process of removing my sons IV. “Sorry about the wait,” she said, but I knew she wasn’t really sorry. After all, she knew us waiting gave another child a chance at life. How could she be sorry about that? “It’s been a zoo in here tonight,” she continued. “Were you able to save the little girl in trauma one?” I asked, even though it was none of my business. But I couldn’t help it. I found myself caring deeply if a child I had never seen lived or died. The nurse smiled. “We were. She is alive. She is not out of the woods yet but she is stable for now.” She put a bandaid on my son’s little hand and assured us she would be right back with our discharge papers. Thirty minutes later we still sat waiting.

I went back to the nurses station and asked a man standing in front of the desk if we could leave without discharge papers. The nurse was clearly in a hurry and said that no one was available. He told me that while he could not recommend I leave, there was no medical reason for us to stay if we had no questions and knew our orders already. Relieved, I went back and told my husband that we were going home without the discharge papers.

We walked down the long corridor toward the big double doors that marked the ER exit. It was now early morning and we were thrilled to finally be going home. At the other end of the hall I saw two doctors sprinting towards the room marked Trauma 2. As we paused to wait for the large automatic double doors to open, a voice came on the overhead speaker. “Code Blue, Trauma 2. Code blue in Trauma 2.” I looked behind me as I walked through the doorway and I could see doctors and nurses sprinting toward the room that held the little boy from the car accident. I had spent enough time in hospitals to know that code blue usually means someone’s heart has stopped. It’s a call for all qualified and available personnel to come and help resuscitate the patient. My heart sank. The little boy I had seen come in with the two paramedics was dying.

As the double doors closed my eyes filled with tears, and I prayed silently for the life of a little boy I would never meet. To this day he haunts me. Unlike the little girl in Trauma 1, the little boy in Trauma 2 had no one sitting vigil outside his hospital door. I wondered if his parents were in the accident too? Were they at a different hospital? Were they killed? I still wonder what became of him and his family.

To the little boy in Trauma 2, if you are out there…I hope you made it. I hope you had a full recovery. I want you to know that people were pulling for you and that there was a whole bunch of people who cared and did everything they could to save you. Bless you sweet boy. I’m so sorry for what happened to you.

Three months later a dislocated elbow brought my son back to the ER. He was promptly put on the low priority list. For the first time in five years full of ER visits, I didn’t mind the wait.

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3 thoughts on “The Long Wait

  1. As a longstanding ER nurse who has faced those same kind of night, I thank you for getting it. It’s so hard to help a family through the loss of a loved one and then turn to go to a room where the person with the ingrown toe nail is angry due to the wait. You feel like the whole world should stop in homage to the life we tried so desperately to save…but no one beyond that room knows. No one gets it that you were doing CPR and praying to God for wisdom and interceding for this life of someone you don’t and will likely never know. Sometimes you come out victorious!!! But they don’t get that either…and you know what? In the end it’s okay, we love what we do and we will do it again tomorrow!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hanna, I can’t even fathom the kinds of difficult things you have seen. The ER is not a place for the faint of heart. Thank you for all you do to help families in need, and for putting up with the guy with the ingrown toenail. Thanks too for reading:).

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  2. having worked in the ER for most of my adult life, your story is a sad but true fact of hospital ER’s everywhere. Children’s hospitals are especially hard (I worked at Rady Childrens Hospital, San Diego, CA). All children are incredibly precious but when it comes to your child, they become your number one priority. Thank you for understanding that although you, your husband and son (undoubtedly in excruciating pain) waited for a very long time to be discharged, I’m actually kind of glad you got to see why. Most people don’t (like the complaining father in your post) and cant possibly understand that had the coding patient in EITHER trauma room been HIS child, the staff would have been making everyone else wait just as long as it took to do absolutely everything within their power to make sure his child survived too… THANK YOU for understanding. I’m sure the ER staff there appreciated it (although it may not have seemed that way) and I KNOW I do…. Trina

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