I’ve been in the Emergency Department a few times. You probably have too. We know all about waiting for hours in a room full of other sick and wounded people. We know that the pandemic has exacted a horrific toll on our health care systems, and especially our health care workers. Those folks deserve all the pot-banging, banner-waving, siren parades we can muster.
My most recent ED experience involved my malfunctioning gallbladder. From triage to admission to general surgery, I was in the ED for 20 hours. To be clear, that is a reasonable wait time these days. I saw and overheard a lot during those hours.
I’m pretty smart when it comes to ED waits. I bring my water bottle, my devices/chargers, my book, my sleep mask, my ear plugs, and a couple protein bars. Also, I wear comfy clothes. Even so, this particular visit kicked my butt.
For starters, they were reasonably sure I needed surgery so no eating or drinking. They took me back to a room and got an IV started pretty quickly – I only waited in the triage waiting room for about 3 hours.
The IV fluids and meds helped, but the hunger and exhaustion were getting to me. I caught a short nap in the exam room before I was moved to another chair area. This is when it got tough.
The worst things:
- It was the middle of the night. Isn’t that when most Emergency Department visits occur?
- I was alone. Due to covid restrictions at the time, my husband was not allowed to stay with me.
- I was hangry and dehydrated.
- My rational brain was slowly shutting down, leaving my lizard brain in full control of my responses.
- I was 10 minutes from going upstairs to an actual room and an actual bed, after a 19+ hour wait in the ED, when I finally figured out by accident how to fully recline my IV chair. That broke my brain a little.
The best things:
- It was the middle of the night, so my polar bear pj pants were perfectly appropriate.
- An angel of mercy appeared to support me.
- The nurses were amazing, providing the best care possible.
- I know how to recline an IV chair, so now I’m the weirdo in the ED running around offering to recline everyone’s chair.
Can we talk about our health care providers for a minute?
I chatted with a few nurses in my neighborhood after I recovered. What I learned confirmed what I saw during my hospital stay – our health care system is on the brink of collapse. We are rapidly losing nurses and doctors to burn out, as well as to better working conditions in other provinces, and sometimes other countries.
When they haven’t had a single vacation day in over two years, it doesn’t take much to lure them away. They are exhausted. They are regular people with stressful lives outside the hospital. I think we forget that sometimes, especially when we are sick and rely on them to care for us.
They have physical health challenges, mental health challenges, good days and bad days just like us. They have bills to pay, kids to send to college, and maybe even elderly parents to care for. They have vehicles that don’t start when there is an extreme cold snap like the one that blew into Calgary the night I was in the ED.
I listened as the nurse supervising my chair area took call after call from coworkers that were having trouble getting to work.
It’s ok – vehicles don’t like to start when it’s 40 below. We will be ok – just get here when you can.
Your bus broke down? Don’t worry about it. I know you are trying to get here as soon as you can.
Yup, we are short staffed again today. Just another day at work.
She was patient and cheerful and devoted all her time and energy to her patients and to mentoring the new nurse who was starting her first day. Her calm confidence translated to me. I felt calmer and well cared for. She made my day better.
This experience prompted me to ask some questions, including:
What can I do to support the heath care workers in my community? How can I make their day better?
Here are a few ideas, offered by the nurses I talked to:
- If you are a patient, be patient. You are not the only one who matters. They are doing their best to take care of you, and everyone else around you, too.
- If you have an issue with your care, don’t yell at the nurse. Ask kindly and respectfully who you can talk to. They will happily hand you up the chain of command.
- Are you in the cafeteria buying a coffee? Buy one for the nurse in line behind you, or for the cafeteria worker in front of you.
- Keep a post-it pad in your vehicle for the next time you are in the parkade at the hospital. Write encouraging gratitude notes and stick them to some vehicles in the staff parking section. A nurse I talked to got one of those notes, and she said the notes she and her colleagues received that day kept them going for weeks.
- Finally, and most importantly, adjust your filter through which you view health care workers. They are not in this career for the money. They are doing this job because it matters to them. They have a nurturing spirit that makes them uniquely suited to health care. They are doing the best they can with the restrictions placed on them by government cutbacks and regulations.
Also, if you ever find yourself in need of general surgery and end up on the Short Stay Unit in Calgary’s South Health Campus, consider yourself lucky. Those nurses and support workers, in my opinion, are the best of the best. They are kind, compassionate, delightful humans. They are great at their jobs, and made my stay as enjoyable as it could possibly be under the circumstances.
I hope you never have to deal with a miscreant gallbladder, or anything else that requires a visit to the ED, but if you do, I hope my story helps you navigate your experience, even if just a little bit.