A Day in the ER

The day after I wrote my previous post on death, I found myself in the ER. Coincidence? Karma? Jinx? More like bad luck and the reappearance of something that no one could explain six years ago. At least now: mystery solved.

Six years ago I landed in the ER, then spent five days in the hospital. Imagine the head of surgery coming to you and saying: The good news is: it isn’t cancer. The bad news is: we really don’t like to operate there, we have no idea what it is, and we have to admit you immediately.

I hadn’t been scared until he mentioned the c-word, and realized I probably should have been. Things could’ve been much worse. In the end, after five days in the hospital hooked up to an IV with no food or water, and after numerous tests, all they could say was they didn’t really know what it had been and hopefully it would never happen again.

It was just one of those freaky things that sometimes happen to people.

Fast forward six years to last week when a slight stomachache turned into pain and fever again, in exactly the same location. This cannot be happening again, can it? It must be something different! Of course I did what I always do when I need answers: I went straight to the internet. After ten minutes of peering intently at diagrams of the human abdomen, I knew I needed to call the doctor. Since I knew it couldn’t possibly be the same thing as before, this time I feared cancer–or imminent death.

I called my doctor.

I loaded up the Kindle and iPad and headed to his office. I knew this wasn’t going to be fun and would probably take all day, if not longer. If it was anything like last time there would be needles involved, and plastic-tasting liquids ingested, and hours and hours of waiting. And worrying.

I’ve had the same doctor for over 20 years. He knows everything about me. He said it was too coincidental that it was in the same location, and even if it wasn’t related the fever and pain pointed to something potentially serious. He wanted me to have a CT scan right then, and called ahead to the same ER I went to six years ago.

The ER? Seriously? Now the dollar signs appeared above my head. How much is this going to cost me? What is my ER deductible?

Even worse, how long will this keep me from running? I was training for a marathon, dammit! I hadn’t missed a day on the training plan yet, and my running was going really well!

I drove myself to the ER, all alone and feeling pitifully sorry for myself. I texted Michael and told him not to come meet me until he got off work and fed the dogs first, that I already knew the drill and there was nothing he could do to help. I had my iPad and Kindle to keep me company.

The ER waiting room looked like a Greyhound bus station. There was the ubiquitous TV playing a rerun of House or some version of CSI, and almost every chair was taken. There were entire families camped out, people hunched over asleep, people in wheelchairs and face masks, and lots of empty snack bags and Coke cans on the floor. There was a mix of ages, but the majority of people were old. And very poor. Strangest of all, people were talking. There were conversations going on about the most mundane things, laughter, jokes being told. Watching the people around me did not keep my mind off my worries. What stories do these people have to tell? What are their lives like when they’re not sitting in the ER?

I waited. I had a sudden, overpowering urge to casually walk out to my car and drive home. I wanted to curl up in my bed and draw the covers over my head. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

Six years ago the ER waiting room was empty and I was hustled back to a “room” almost immediately. This time I sat for almost an hour on a cold, uncomfortable plastic chair before I was called back, and I barely managed to get a curtained off spot in the hallway just big enough for a bed because they were so busy. My blood pressure was taken for the fourth time that day, I was given a gown, and I met the doctor on call who, after some gentle nudging on the area of pain, told me a CT scan was indeed in order.

I was hoping he wouldn’t say that. A CT scan meant an IV, and I hate IV’s. But once that was taken care of (and it really wasn’t too bad this time), I relaxed. I realized things were out of my control and I would deal with whatever the CT scan showed. If it was cancer, I would deal with it. If it was the mystery thing from six years ago, I would deal with it, too. I had lots of time to think about all this while I drank the Slurpy-sized container of plastic-tasting contrast liquid, then the two hour wait while it made its way through my body. Michael showed up just before I was rolled away for the CT scan. He immediately took command of the iPad and made himself comfortable on the floor.

The ER isn’t always like you see on TV. There was no screaming, no blood, no doctors running down the hallway screaming, “Stat!.” It was fairly quiet, even though nothing separates you from the other patients but sheets. Since I was in the hallway I saw everyone who walked or rolled past. All of the doctors and nurses seemed so young, but most of the patients were very old. I had the feeling most had been there before and used the ER as their primary care physician. I heard the doctor explaining to the woman next to me (who had a CT scan for what turned out to be a urinary tract infection) how he could only give her a prescription for pain medication for two days, otherwise “we’d have every person in the city coming here for pain pills” (which is something I’d never thought about before). He advised her to see her regular doctor if she needed more.

I've looked better

It’s the not knowing that is truly the worst. And the waiting.

We waited a long time to hear the results. We played Yahtzee. We talked. We listened to other conversations around us and I smiled encouragingly at other people being wheeled down the hall for tests. Everyone looked scared and uncertain, just like me.

Finally, a new young doctor appeared. After comparing the CT scan from the one taken six years ago, and ascertaining the problem was indeed in exactly the same location as before, the doctors could now determine what was going on. This time I was given a prescription for two types of antibiotics and a painkiller and instructions to eat only broth for a few days, then slowly reintroduce solid food. I could run again when it felt comfortable to do so. Now I knew what “it” was, that it’s something the doctors rarely see and is the reason why it wasn’t diagnosed six years ago, and that it can be treated. It wasn’t cancer and was nothing that required surgery or a hospital stay. A day’s worth of anxiety slowly seeped out of me, and suddenly I was exhausted.

Before I left, a nurse took my blood pressure yet again. Then she took it again. And again. Finally, she asked me, “Are you just a healthy person?” I told her I ran a lot and she was satisfied. It seemed strange to be asked that question in the ER, but was also a good note to go home on.

The view from my curtained-off area in the hallway

I feel very fortunate that it wasn’t something worse than what it could’ve been. Eating broth for a few days is no fun, but it’s a small price to pay. There are so many others who go to the ER with much worse ailments than mine, and sometimes the news is life changing (or ending). My day in the ER gave me a lot of time to think, about my health and my life in general, and I can’t help but know how lucky I am. I say it all the time, but things really can change in the blink of an eye. Simply put, don’t take your health, or your life, for granted.

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8 comments

  1. skippingstones

    I’m sorry you had to spend the day in the ER, but I’m glad it wasn’t worse (like you said). It’s so easy to take our general good health for granted. I complain about this or that hurting, or being tired or achy all the time, but those normal issues of with aging are nothing compared to what we could be dealing with.

    I’m also sorry about the broth diet, that sounds like no fun at all.

    • Mind Margins

      Thanks. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t so bad, either. Maybe broth only for two solid days was worse! I really don’t think about my general good health very often, so this was a good reminder to be thankful.

  2. Patti Ross

    I am so glad you had a good outcome and got to go home, even if it was to two days of broth. Your description of the ER was so right on, it took me back to my trip to the ER years ago that put me into emergency surgery with the first of what eventually became 4 surgeries. Other than the perforated colon problem and a bout with cancer for good measure, I am basically healthy. Heavy, but my benign neglect has not served me too poorly. Looking at my size, doctors nurses always double-check readings, not quite believing I do not have blood pressure that is too high, no diabetes or high cholesterol, and no heart problems. But the ER trips do make one stop and assess life and health–we need to value what we have. Thanks for the reminder of the lesson, not so much for the trip down memory lane to my ER visit–that was not fun.

    • Mind Margins

      Patti, there have been other trips to the ER through the years (including an emergency appendectomy in Switzerland on my 27th birthday!) and they have all basically been the same for me as well. I’m so glad to hear your own problems are now resolved. I can’t imagine going through four surgeries! Somehow we always find the strength, don’t we?

  3. thesinglecell

    I’m glad you’re alright now. It seems we’ve all had those experiences in the ER – it’s ironic that a place devoted to emergencies can be somewhere we sit, suffering, for hours. I was once in one for ten hours, bleeding into my abdomen, and despite a CT, nobody figured it out until the surgeon made the incision. (Surgeons don’t read CT scans; they rely on a tech to tell them what they see. The tech read the scan wrong.) Our bodies are mysterious things, no matter how much we learn about them. There is always something that can happen that no one will understand. Probably lots of things, really, on any given day, that we either don’t feel or don’t tend to because it’s too random and usually harmless. Amazing creatures are we!

    • Mind Margins

      I couldn’t help but have the thought that our bodies are really machines and can very easily break down, and that despite our best efforts at health things happen inside our bodies that we have no control over. It’s a helpless feeling to sit in the ER, knowing you’re at the mercy of a lot of people having to work together to figure out what’s wrong with you. Things can very easily go wrong, very quickly, and even the experts make mistakes. I guess the nest we can do is try to stay as healthy as possible and hope for the best.

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