by James Wallace Harris, 6/10/22
Now I don’t mean are you wearing clean underwear or are you psyched up to wait in line for hours to see a doctor? I mean something different. Are you prepared for your body to fail? When I was younger I was rushed to the ER because my sister hit me in the hit with a croquet mallet and I was bleeding like someone in a horror film or the time when we were goofing around in PE and I broke my arm, but those are not the kind of bodily failures I’m talking about. Are you ready to start falling apart unexpectantly?
Last week I had to go to the ER. I had food stuck in my esophagus. It was below the windpipe so I could breathe, but if I tried to swallow water to help clear it, the water wouldn’t go down and I’d have to puke/cough it back up. I waited two hours for the food to pass. This has happened to me before and it’s always cleared, but after two hours I worried it might be really stuck. So I went to the ER. I should have gone to a GI doctor years ago instead of waiting for an ER emergency visit. My mother had her esophagus stretched. I think having food stuck in mine for seven hours did stretch it.
Luckily, after waiting five hours, I got to see a doctor, and just as she was getting ready to send me to a GI specialist, the food fell through. What a relief. I had been imagining the kind of things they’d stick down my throat. I still had to stand another hour to be released.
Unluckily for me, I was having a bad back spell, and standing for six hours aggravated the crap out of my back. When my back gives me trouble, I can’t sit. I can lie down or stand. (I’m typing this while standing.) So, instead of going to see a GI doctor about my throat, I’m seeing a back doctor and getting an MRI tomorrow. After that, I might schedule a visit with a GI doctor, but I have three other pressing issues, any of which could send me to the ER again.
I did not expect to get so old at 70 so fast. While I was waiting in the ER for five hours I watched the other people around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about waiting five hours. That’s part of the deal, and other people who came in before me were still waiting when I left. The ER was run very smoothly, and they have a triage system.
If it was obvious you needed help you got it immediately. The next stage involved a form that asked five questions to determine if they needed to act almost as fast. (If you could fill out a form, you’re not quite dying I suppose.) One of the questions was: Are you having trouble breathing. I wasn’t, since the food was past my windpipe. So I didn’t check it, if I had, I might not have had to wait five hours, but I didn’t want to cut in line. I sometimes started to have trouble, but I could cough up all the saliva that built up and I was okay again. The third stage, after a bit of waiting, is where a nurse takes your vitals and gets the details.
None of the form questions were about severe pain, and quite a few people in the waiting room seemed to be in a lot of pain. That old advice about seeing the ER doctor right away if you arrive in an ambulance isn’t true. We came in a car, but I saw people arriving in an ambulance that was told to wait in the waiting room, and the EMTs took them off the stretcher and put them in a waiting room chair. There were three waiting room areas, and I guess about forty people, but that included loved ones or caretakers.
One guy was in agony, I think from a kidney stone (he leaked blood by the urinal and on the floor while I was in there puking up spit). He kept demanding to see a doctor but was told he had to wait. He left claiming he was going to go find an ER that would help him. I wondered how to be best prepared for having kidney stones. Is it having a good urologist?
The lesson I learned in the ER, and it was a very educational experience, was to get prepared because I would be in there again, and maybe in worse shape. I had to call an ambulance for my mother a couple of times, so did my sister, and my mother even called them on her own several times. Getting old means getting to know the ER system. Getting old means learning to deal with all kinds of medical specialists. Getting old means learning to endure all kinds of diagnostic procedures.
I’m the kind of person that likes to picture what I’m going to do before I do it.
What I’m trying to figure out now, is how to be better prepared for trips to the ER. My mother said to always wear clean underwear, but there’s got to be more things to do to make the experience better.
Update: I’m not sure this essay succeeded in conveying the positive experience I got from my visit to the ER. It was painful for my back, and I would have preferred not to have had food stuck in my throat, but overall I found those six hours very enlightening. Contrary to that old adage, what doesn’t kill us won’t always make us stronger, but in this case, I think it made me wiser. I fear my writing effort here has failed because I haven’t conveyed that wisdom.