ER, An Emergency Room Journal
|The camera rolls as emergency room trauma team goes into action.|
To be honest, I was hoping for something dramatic to happen in the ER that agreed to accommodate for a few nights my hanging around, asking medical staff and paramedics and patients questions and taking voluminous notes. Nothing much did. That is to say, a stream of patients came through presenting all manner of problems, but nothing over the top sensational occurred. I think I still managed a good story out of the assignment. You be the judge. The article appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as a kind of companion piece to another story I did based on ride alongs with paramedics. You can find the paramedics story on this blog as well. It’s titled “Merciful Armies of the Night.”
ER, An Emergency Room Journal
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Hours of Boredom and Minutes of Terror
Hollywood portrayals of hospital emergency rooms depict white hot action zones where medical drama and staff intrigue continue nonstop. What’s a real ER like? Recent visits to the NHS University Hospital ER found a medical treatment center, social laboratory, educational classroom and last refuge all in one. An intersection where the gallery of humanity meets and various trends surface. A mission, a haven, a hell. Or, as one ER nurse put it, “We deal with the heart of Omaha here.”
Like many staff, nurse Susie Needham feels the ER is THE place to be on the frontlines of medical care due to its fluid nature, one she summed up as “hours of boredom and minutes of terror.” Unlike television’s ER, long tedious stretches can grind by before a single trauma arrives. Then again, a run of critical or extreme cases can suddenly pile-up, kicking a slow shift into high gear. As Needham put it, “From moment to moment, it can change.
Most people that work here are attracted to the fast changing pace and the variety of different patients we see. It’s never the same. You have to know a lot about a lot of different things, and that’s what keeps you on your toes. It makes it interesting.” On a Friday night in April Needham, a pretty freckled blonde with an impish smile, tended a diverse mix, including a bronchial pediatric patient with difficulty breathing, an adult drug abuser suffering withdrawal pangs and a drunk woman ostensibly there for stomach pain but whose battered body and frayed psyche told a more sinister story.
For the most part, ERs treat a procession of fevers, coughs, sprains, aches, cuts, bruises, breaks. Purely routine stuff. Unless it’s happening to you, of course. Since one person’s trivial complaint may be another’s dire crisis, everyone is treated the same. No condition is refused. Nothing is taken for granted. Trained to assess and treat serious problems, medical staff try first ruling out any life-threatening cause before looking at non-critical or non-medical issuses. Most ER medical staff possess extensive critical care backgrounds, but it seems all ERs (the step-child of acute medical care) are not equal.
Not long past dusk on St. Patrick’s Day things were unwinding surprisingly slowly in the ER considering this was a designated trauma night (meaning area rescue services were to feed trauma patients there) on a Friday holiday known for alcohol-related injuries. Earlier in the day, staff treated a 43-year-old Omaha man knocked unconscious in a bar fight. Michael Kimball was brought in comatose. Massive swelling in his brain forced doctors to remove his skull to relieve the pressure. (Editor’s Note: Kimball never regained consciousness and, two weeks later, was pronounced dead. Police cited insufficient evidence to file charges in the case.).
Hours later, during a protracted lull, staff lingered about “the hub,” the ER nerve center, bantering in the irreverent MASH humor used for stress relief. Attending physician Dr. Paul Tran made a colleague, Dr. Rick Walker, envious by describing his sound sleep the night before, a rarity after the rush of a nine-hour trauma shift. When not hanging at the hub or crashing in the staff lounge, docs, nurses, techs and residents use computers and charts to monitor the condition of patients in surrounding non-critical care rooms and trauma bays (a total of 16 beds), to track the progress of lab workups, x-rays or other procedures and to file paperwork. A large grease board hanging high on the wall is smudged with running patient status reports. This checks and balances system aims to avoid patient-bed-meds. mixups
The staff perked up that night at the static-filled emergency band radio (always droning on in the background) report of a CODE 3 (critical medical) case en route, with an ETA of five minutes. Staff are uncanny at hearing the calls headed their way and ignoring the others. The paramedic’s sketchy details described an elderly man who fell and hit his head outside a Bag ‘N’ Save. The man, whom paramedics found minus vital signs, had been shocked back to life. With the clock ticking, Dr. Tran, a slight Vietnamese native with a gentle bedside manner, conferred with colleagues on whether to summon the trauma team, a kind of in-house medical SWAT squad on call to treat the most severe critical care cases, or to handle things themselves.
It Never Gets Better
Dr. Walker, a beefy man whose pockets are invariably overstuffed with paperback novels and stethoscopes, has spent his entire medical career in emergency medicine. He said part of the appeal for him and others is the extreme nature of the work. “I think it’s very challenging, and that’s a large aspect of it. It’s also a big adrenalin rush, and as I’ve assessed my life and career I’ve come to the conclusion I’m an adrenalin junkie, and I think that’s probably what did it for me.”
He said being exposed to the tragedy that accompanies trauma extracts a certain toll:
“You see bad stuff happening here, and it’s stuff that, you know, can make you cry, like kids dying. It’s tough and it can really get to you emotionally, and so what you have to do is build up a wall because otherwise you’d be breaking down every time you saw something like that and you could not function. That wall tends to stay up most of the time and the last few years it’s become an issue in my personal life.” Nurse Jackie Engdahl said it takes a special breed to work there, “Oh, definitely, Type A personalities make good ER nurses. You have to be very aggressive…very assertive because of what you deal with. You deal with not only ill and injured people, but intoxicated people and drug-induced and psychotic people. You gotta love a good challenge and you gotta be strong enough to whip into shape when the going gets tough.”
For trauma nurse coordinator Kathy Warren, it’s a matter of staying focused no matter how horrendous the reality before her. “Some of these cases are just horrible looking when they come in. You just have to totally ignore that and focus in on the task, so whether you’re starting the IV or helping the docs with procedures, you detach yourself and just click into gear. You can’t get nervous. You have a job to do,” she said. Warren, whose job entails her dealing with family members, said staying composed is hard when working with parents who’ve just lost a child. “Sometimes I have to step back for a few minutes and take a deep breath. When I get home after a case like that, everybody knows its been a bad day as soon as I walk in.”
Added Susie Needham, “People think you get callous or something, but you don’t. Some of the things we see are heart-wrenching and no matter how many times you’ve seen them it still really bothers you. It never gets better.”
Things finally began heating up again on St. Patty’s Day once the Code 3 patient was wheeled in on a gurney by paramedics and lifted onto a bed in the T2 trauma bay. The heavy-set man of about 65 lay there in a coma, a breathing tube inserted in his throat and an IV snaked into one arm, his big hairy belly billowing up and down as a bevy of ER medical staff hovered over him to keep him alive. “I need, STAT, six units of platelets…” a nurse called out. “Tell respiratory to bring a vent, please,” called another.
Then, when someone barked, “I need another set of hands up here,” a tangle of arms belonging to eight nurses, techs and docs converged to perform, seemingly at once, multiple tasks, from hooking up a ventilator to running a blood pressure line to starting a new IV to drawing blood to attaching EKG electrodes. “Sir, there’s going to be a tube going down the back of your throat,” one of them said more out of habit than out of any expectation of a response. Lying there, totally exposed and vulnerable, his life completely in the hands of these angels of mercy, the man, referred to then only as John Doe due to a lack of ID, was an anonymous soul brought back from the very brink.
Time is of the Essence
Time is critical in trauma or near trauma scenarios like these. That night’s charge nurse, Scott Miller, said it involves quick, precise coordination and communication. “Everybody swarms in to get the job done as fast as possible. In a case like this you have Dr. Tran coordinating and everybody trying to feed information to him as to what they’re finding at the same time as they carry out his orders.”
When the whole trauma team is activated, a whole slew of specialists — from surgeons to anesthesiologists to radiologists to lab techs — converge on the spot, making teamwork even more essential. According to Kathy Warren, “You have a lot of people and everyone has a different role and, hopefully, they know their role so they’re not getting in your way and you’re not having to tell them everything. It usually works pretty well, and it’s amazing the amount of things that can be done for a patient in a short amount of time when you absolutely have to. But that’s what a trauma center is supposed to be able to do.”
Emergency care often starts with the rapid response of rescue squads on the scene. Paramedic Tom Quinlan was among those responding to the 911 call that found Doe lying unconscious. “He was not breathing. He didn’t have a pulse. So we started our CODE 99 (for clinically dead cases) protocol, which is intubate him, start an IV and do CPR. We ended up shocking him a couple of times. We finally got a pulse back and he continued to breathe for us on the way to the hospital,” he said.
Added Dr. Tran, “Time is of the essence here. After so many minutes, it doesn’t do any good, so it’s all speed and skill. The man probably experienced sudden death when his heart went into fibrillation, meaning it didn’t pump any blood and, so, the brain promptly became unconscious and he fell down and hit his head and only by actions of the paramedics did he come back. He was extremely lucky to have had everything done in that time, otherwise he would be dead by now.”
Dr. Tran said the fall resulted in “about a five-centimeter hematoma on the back of the head.” Since Doe was found unresponsive and bore a scar on his chest indicating a history of heart surgery, the question on Dr. Tran’s mind was whether the patient’s vegetative state was due to the fall or to some new cardiac event. Not wanting to overlook a potential cerebral cause, he called in part of the trauma team after all. As Scott Miller, explained, “We’re assuming now he had some sort of heart event that caused him to fall and hit his head. We will be doing a CAT Scan to make sure there’s not something else going on, like a big bleed in his head. We don’t think that’s the case, but you can’t always tell for sure.” Later, it was confirmed a cardiac event did trigger the trauma.
As for the long-term prognosis, Dr. Tran said, “I’m not sure of the condition of his brain function later on.” By then, Doe was identified and his family contacted by nursing resource coordinator Regina Christensen, who met with family members. Part of hers dutie entails fielding inquiries from news hounds looking for material. She noted with incredulity some sound disappointed when a case is upgraded from critical to stable condition.
When treating a trauma, there is no room for bruised feelings. The required care must be delivered NOW. Hashing out differences can come later. One of the reasons nurse Jackie Engdahl likes working in the ER is the maturity of the people working there. “When I worked in other hospital areas there were very clashing personalities and people always bickering back and forth. But here, it’s not that way. You say whatever you want to say to someone and then it’s over and done with. There’s never hard feelings.” And, she said, where some physicians resent or reject nurse input this ER’s docs welcome it. “The doctors here work really well with the nurses. The doctors trust our judgment and they really listen to us. They allow us to do a lot of things, which is nice.” What about departmental romances? “There used to be between the nurses and paramedics,” nurse Janie Vipond said. “It just depends on the group you have at any given time. But, yeah, it happens.”
I Felt I Was in Good Hands
Amid the controlled chaos of an unfolding ER trauma, staff attend to myriad details, not to mention other patients. For the trauma patient whose life hangs in the balance, it can be a surreal experience of wailing sirens, flashing lights, antiseptic smells, probing instruments, strange faces and endless questions. There is fear, confusion, agony. There is even a strange sense of peace. Beverly Harter, a 62 year-old wife, mother and grandmother, has been there. How she got there is a story in itself.
On May 16, 1999 the Logan, Iowa resident was attending a graduation party at the nearby trailer home of a daughter. Various family members and friends were present. The weather was threatening that afternoon. When the sky turned ominous and a tornado warning sounded, the 12 partiers fled the trailer for their cars in an effort to outrun the storm. But it was too late. With a twister bearing down, they left their vehicles to take refuge in a roadside ditch. Huddled on the ground, exposed to the savage winds, the group was deluged by parts of farm machinery ripped asunder in the cyclone and propelled like shrapnel. The metal shards rained down on them, tearing skin, cracking bone, crushing organs.
When it was over, Beverly’s daughter was dead and two grandkids, both injured, left motherless. Her son endured a broken clavicle. A family friend died. As for Beverly, she suffered a punctured diaphragm, a perforated bowel and two crushed vertebra. Her house was leveled. Ironically, the trailer escaped unscathed. Transported by a local rescue unit to Missouri Valley, Beverly was then taken by ambulance to the nearest trauma center, the University Hospital ER.
Beverly, who remained conscious during much of her ordeal, did not have to be told she was badly hurt. “I knew I’d suffered spinal cord damage because my legs were on fire, and they stayed on fire.” she said. She also knew her daughter “was gone” and other loved ones injured. As for her Omaha ER odyssey, she recalls “bright lights,” a sense of “time standing still” and “a lot of people doing a lot of things and asking a lot of questions. I was really hurting and kind of fading in and out from the sedation, but I was able to answer a lot of questions. They explained to me what they were doing at all times, and that was reassuring.”
Indeed, despite her pain and grief, she recalls feeling calm. “You just have a sense that everybody’s taking care of you and that they’re all working together doing their jobs. I felt I was in good hands.” She also felt the staff’s compassion. “They were extremely sensitive and caring and protective about what happened to me and my family. They knew the devastation and loss we had. I was just overcome by their concern for our well-being,” said Harter, who today is confined to a wheelchair.
Kathy Warren said she used to doubt whether the time she spent with families who suffered a loss made a difference until her own father died in the hospital and she found comfort in the support her colleagues gave her. “I realized how important it is to have somebody treat you with kindness and to let you grieve however you want to and to explain things to you. Ever since then I’ve really pushed staff here to sit down with families and to talk to them. It’s not an easy thing to do as a medical person. Some people are better than others. But people don’t expect us to be super men and women. To save everybody. They just need us to be there.”
Not all exchanges are so pleasant. Patient complaints over long waits get expressed along the sarcastic lines of, “I’m sure glad I wasn’t dying.” Before things get nasty, staff try defusing the matter. “The basic strategy is to make them see you as being on their side,” said Dr. Bob Muelleman. “On the other hand, you want to be very much in control of the situation. If it’s just a matter of them yelling and cussing at you, well, that pretty much comes with the territory. Once in a while there’s kind of a thrashing or flailing out. If you think there’s the potential of them really getting violent you can call in security or police, but normally you can handle it on your own.”
When care complaints cannot be appeased, they are passed-on, in writing, or addressed on-site by managers like Regina Christensen. “It can be anything from somebody upset that their mother’s IV is out to something as complicated as a gang-related situation where the patient himself or his family is threatening staff. It’s just an array of things,” she said.
The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
Meanwhile, back on St. Patrick’s, a drunk middle-aged woman involved in a domestic dispute came in with an aching gut. However, the night’s triage nurse, Susie Needham, recognized bruises and marks as signs of physical violence and sexual assault. After questioning the woman, a horrific tale of prolonged torture and bondage emerged that prompted ER staff to follow procedure and report their suspicions to police. Acting on the medical staff’s input two officers, who earlier arrested the woman’s boyfriend on misdemeanor assault charges, returned to open a rape investigation.
According to Needham, “If people come in here with traumatic injuries that don’t really fit their stories, we call the police.” Often, she said, such patients prove to be victims or perpetrators of a crime. Surrounded by staff and police in a room concealed by drawn curtains, the woman cried out, “I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to take it anymore.”
After examining the woman a visibly shaken Dr. Tran said, “It’s one of the most remarkable cases of domestic violence I’ve ever seen. She has multiple problems. Number one is domestic violence and sexual assault. Number two is chronic alcoholism. Number three is a low platelet count. Number four is what appears to be an upper GI bleed.” As part of hospital policy in such cases, staff called in a domestic violence-sexual assault counselor to apprise the woman of her rights and refer her to appropriate community resources. But, as ER staffers say they’ve seen far too many other victims do, the woman rejected police-medical entreaties to undergo a forensic exam, something required for a criminal inquiry, and declined pressing rape charges. She was admitted and treated for medical problems.
“What do you do?” a frustrated Needham asked. “That’s tough,” Dr. Tran said, “because once enough time passes, the evidence is lost. We can’t do anything. You have to respect the patient’s wishes. Patient autonomy is everything. Why did she refuse? Oh, fear, love rejection, sensitivity. Who knows? Unfortunately, it’s common.”
Bizarre, believe-it-or-not episodes are also common in the ER. Take the time an obnoxious drunk showed up with a fierce but inexplicable pain in his belly. After sleeping it off, he staggered up from his cot and only then did the ER doc notice a speck of blood, on the sheets, which upon closer inspection turned out to be from a tiny hole, splayed by burn marks, in the man’s back. Apparently, he had been shot but was too drunk to recall it. Sure enough, an x-ray revealed a bullet lodged in the abdomen.
Or, take the time a stabbing victim arrived cut entirely from stem to stern, his entire rib cage exposed, yet conscious enough to describe the whole bloody fillet job some whore performed on him. Or, the time a man fell at home on a fireplace iron and walked in the ER with a small wound on his neck which, upon further exam, proved to be a deep puncture penetrating his cervical spine. For Dr. Muelleman, who treated all these cases while working in a Kansas City, Mo. ER, such incidents fall under the heading of “the truth is stranger than fiction.”
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Perhaps the most frustrating cases are those involving entirely preventable injuries, especially those incurred while victims engaged in some high-risk, reckless behavior, like a young man Dr. Muelleman treated in Omaha who crashed his car while out joy riding and ended up paralyzed from the neck down. “I don’t call them accidents anymore,” he said, “because an accident suggests an act of God. I call them injuries because when people put themselves in these circumstances something is going to happen that didn’t have to happen.”
As ERs are traditionally the 24-7 stop-gap or catch-all of American medical care, the entire spectrum of need shows up there. In most public hospitals, no one is turned away, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. “The emergency department is the safety net for many people seeking care who really have no other place to go, said Dr. Paul Tran. “Admittedly, there’s going to be abuse of the resources because this is reserved for emergency cases, but who’s definition of emergency is it? A toothache at 2 a.m. may be an emergency to you, but it may not be to someone else. We are here to take care of people from all walks of life and with conditions as minor as a toothache or as serious as a heart attack. And from that standpoint, it is very satisfying to provide people the last resort they need and to get the instantaneous gratification of turning them around.”
Given its open door policy, “the ER is where you really see the cross-section of humanity and so, if there are social ills, you seem them in the ER,” Dr. Muelleman said. “Some of the ills we deal with are domestic violence, drug and alcohol issues, child abuse, lack of immunization and lack of access to health insurance. Another segment the ER picks up on are the acute psychiatric and homeless populations.” He said in an era of managed care, ERs play an increasingly large social service and public health role. “
So, if we’re dealing with intoxicated people we try to get them in a shelter or detox center. If it’s an abuse case we bring in social workers, police and protective agency professionals. If we’re dealing with domestic violence, we make sure patients understand the resources available to them.” Nurse Scott Miller is “troubled” by how many kids he treats who “are not well cared for” at home and “very frustrated by the large number of people with legitimate psychiatric problems who can’t get seen” due to a lack of psychiatric beds locally. He said, “I’ve spent many hours fighting on the phone, calling medical staff at home, to get people admitted in the hospital when they don’t really have a medical problem. But when no psychiatric place will take them, we can’t just send them home.”
Dr. Muelleman said where ERs have always tried educating patients about prevention safeguards and optional resources, “Some have gone to the extent of smoking cessation and substance abuse counseling. I’m just reviewing a grant for a hospital to screen Type II Diabetes, which is not something you’d traditionally think of as an ER doing. There is a real move toward ERs getting involved with public health, even things like bike helmet giveaways. Some have even gone as far as to give pneumonia and flu shots. Even here, during seat belt awareness week, we do educational stuff to let people know about the importance of seat belts.”
As a survey of ER web sites will attest, there is debate in the medical community over the all-encompassing role of the ER. On this subject, Dr. Muelleman takes a pragmatic position. “You can’t select why people use the ER. Once they’re here, you can’t ask, Why are you here again?, although you may be tempted to. I mean, I support the notion public health policy in America should be changed to help take care of people’s health needs in a more comprehensive fashion than just having them go to the emergency room, but given that’s not the case, the mantra in the ER continues to be — anybody, anytime, anything. That’s exactly what it is. Should we change medicine so that doesn’t happen? Well, yes, we should, but in the meantime we’ve got to do what we can to help people.”
- Some ERs post wait times by text, billboard (msnbc.msn.com)
- Newly Insured are Likely to Congregate in Emergency Rooms (prweb.com)
- Timesunion.com: If it’s an emergency, they’re on the clock (timesunion.com)
- Text Your Way To a Short Emergency Room Wait [Medicine] (gizmodo.com)
- Lengthy waits in local ERs (windsorstar.com)