The last time you called a doctor's office — before you actually spoke to a human being — you no doubt heard some version of this pre-recorded message:
If this is a medical emergency, hang up and dial 9-1-1, or go to your nearest emergency room.
I recently did just that. I had a medical emergency. I went to the ER. And I learned a lot, both from that experience and interviewing a number of nurses, nurse practitioners, and M.D.s in the aftermath of my (ultimately positive) experience. They all asked to remain anonymous (they like their jobs), but they had some honest truths to offer.
1. Go for emergencies only
Is your femur protruding from your thigh? Go to the emergency room. Need a few stitches after conking heads with your volleyball partner? Go somewhere else.
Hospitals are not hotels. They exist to care for the sickest among us, which means they also harbor the same diseases that make people quite sick. Despite rigorous sanitary procedures, ERs are hotbeds of infection. In the cubicle where I was situated, there were blood spatters on the wall and something gross I could not identify on the floor. I contemplated grabbing some of the disinfectant wipes in a container on a nearby counter, but the very sweet and kind admitting nurse stopped me.
"Oh, you don't want to do that," she said. "Those'll give you cancer."
And then she bustled off to admit someone else.
ER staff are trained to deal quickly and effectively with medical emergencies, not to hold the hands of people who simply crave some attention (or inexpensive opioids).
Be realistic about your (or your loved one's) condition. If it's a threat to life or limb, by all means call 9-1-1 or head to the ER. In all other cases, it makes much more sense to contact your personal physician or go to an urgent care facility instead.
2. Bring an advocate
I proudly thought I was being a bit of a badass when I decided not to bother my busy spouse or any of my friends when I took an Uber to the ER. I'm tough, I thought. I've got this on my own.
When an ill or injured person is brought to the emergency room by someone else, there is an automatic assumption of validity: If the whole family is here with Uncle Joe because he has chest pains, they must be worried about a heart attack, and therefore, we should be worried, too.
Show up by yourself, on the other hand, and the assumptions are different. It can't be that bad if you got yourself here, right?
Plus, when you are in pain and/or frightened, it is almost impossible to effectively communicate with hospital staff. During my recent experience, I wanted to grab the 12-year-old resident by the lapels of his brand-new lab coat and scream, "Get me a real doctor, please!"
I didn't. But I wanted to. It would have been wiser and more efficient to have had an advocate by my side.
3. Be respectful of the staff
Whether you are speaking on your own behalf or having someone else do it for you, remember the Golden Rule and just be nice to everybody in the ER. The practitioners I interviewed could not stress this enough. Emergency room personnel are used to dealing with people in extremis. They cut a lot of people a lot of slack. But in the end, ER nurses, orderlies, docs, and cleaning staff are human, too. They're most likely stressed and tired. If you can bring yourself to overcome your own discomfort and fear long enough to offer a little kindness, you will receive more attentive care in return.
4. Don't forget the basics
This means stuff like your insurance card and ID. And a water bottle, healthy snacks, your cell phone charger, something to read, and warm layers of clothing.
It seems obvious, but in an emergency, most of us might forget even the basics. But these are essential to the admission process. Emergencies take a surprisingly long time, and if you're actually admitted to the hospital, they take even longer. You will get thirsty. And maybe hungry. ("I could offer you a $4,000 sandwich," my awesome nurse said to me at one point. "You've got great insurance!")
You'll definitely get bored, and you'll want to text your loved ones. You can only do that if your phone has juice! So, if you can, throw a few supplies into a bag on your way out the door.
And don't forget socks and a sweater. Emergency rooms are cold.
5. Thank everyone. Profusely.
Put yourself in these (orthopedic) shoes: You show up to work knowing you are going to be there for at least 14 hours. You may not have time to eat, sleep, or even use the bathroom. At some point, someone will very likely vomit, defecate, or spit on you, and you will have to deal with it. You will follow your calling as a medical health profession and care for that person to the best of your ability.
You will comfort terrified parents, and intubate overdosed felons and young skateboarders with broken necks. You will gently insert an intravenous line into the bird-like arm of someone's grandmother, and you will hoist a 300-pound man from a gurney onto an examination table.
Some of your patients will walk out of the ER. Some of them will die.
You'll maintain your composure, your kindness, and your sense of humor throughout.
This is the reality for the women and men who serve in our country's more than 5,000 emergency rooms. If you, like me, find yourself in the rare need of their services, please remember to say "Thank you."