Wednesday, September 28, 2005

23 hours and 59 minutes

I know you've all been waiting to hear about my odyssey in the ER so here it is.

I go through this anxiety phase every September. I usually just take tranqs for a few days and sort of shrug it off, but this year it was especially bad. I had been feeling terrible for a couple of weeks, tightness in the chest, dizzy spells, shortness of breath. I was convinced I was going to have a heart attack. It's not an entirely unreasonable fear. I have a family history.

What I've done for years when I reach this state of complete panic is go see Harvey, my doctor of 35 years, who has them run an EKG, which he looks at and tells me I'm fine and I go home and get over it. This time of course I had a new doc and he looks at the EKG and says he thinks it's showing a previous heart attack. He wants to send me to the ER in an ambulance.

Now I'm sitting there thinking he's wrong and I'm not going anywhere in an ambulance but I'm stuck now with dealing with it or leaving the office AMA. Then if I really have a heart attack, the insurance company probably won't pay. So I make him call in the doctor in my family for a second opinion. She shows up and takes charge. I already feel like an idiot for going in, in the first place.

She drives me to the hospital. I've never waited less than a couple of hours in an ER. This time I barely sat down, in a full waiting room, before I was called in. Minutes later I was having my first EKG in private little room where they made me put on a hospital gown. The tech left the stickers on me for future use and left me on a stretcher in the hall. I was attached to the wall with an automatic blood pressure sleeve, a heart monitor and an oxygen meter on my index finger that reminded me of the movie ET. It had a little light beam that makes your finger glow red at the tip. They slapped a nitroglycerin patch on my chest.

I was interviewed and charted by two nurses and two doctors in the first hour. By this point it was clear the intial EKG was flawed and I didn't have an heart attack. Nonetheless they were determined to rule out all possibilities. My main concern at this point was not to get admitted because then my $2,500 deductible would kick in. Not a problem. They can hold me for 24 hours for observation in the CEU but they don't have a room yet. It was really busy.

So I waited on the guerney in the hall for another three hours. Every twenty minutes a new nurse would come by, take my vital signs and ask the same questions. Symptoms, medications, age, weight, blah, blah, blah. In the interim I discovered I was lying under a huge poster that listed the symptoms of stroke. Not the best place for a hypochrondiac who imagines heart failure. Fortunately there was much to distract me from such deadly reading material.

While I was there they brought in a 50 year old guy who fell off a ladder, a couple of old ladies with undetermined maladies, a baby who was brought in inside some kind of enclosed pod attached to an oxygen tank and three elderly and very confused black men. One was a riot. When the doctor asked his name, he said Clint Eastwood. He was kidding.

I finally got moved a step closer to the CEU. They rolled me around the corner and stuck me in an examing room. It was divided in two by just a curtain. I spent another couple of hours there. I had another EKG. They took more blood. Yet another couple of nurses starting taking my vitals again and the PA came in to take yet another history. I got really tired of telling that story.

One of the elderly guys ended up in the other half of the room. He had a parade of nurses and doctors coming through as well. Somehow, the communication was breaking down between them because every new person started out talking to him as if he would understand before they realized he had dementia.

They needed to catherize him to get a urine sample. It was painful to listen to. In the end it took 4 nurses and a doctor to get it done. Poor old Ernie just wanted to go home and go to sleep. Meanwhile the hall was filled with ethnic mix of ambulatory patients. I realized I was the only white patient there. One big Asian guy kept pacing the halls on his crutches, begging for food. I hadn't eaten all day myself.

At about 9:00pm they finally wheeled me to a private room. It kind of felt like a cheap motel. It had sliding glass doors across the whole front with a curtain across it and a curtained off bathroom area. It even had a TV but the remote didn't work and I was hooked onto all these fixed monitors and couldn't reach it to try manually. At this point I was assigned one nurse and a LPN. They brought me this depressing meal. It was some kind of stew over noodles with overwarmed dried out peas and a tiny wilted salad. I ate the salad and was happy to have the juice and a gingerale. They came and did another EKG. They drew more blood.

The monitor in this room was so sensitive that every time I moved it would set the alarm off. Sometimes it just beeped for a while but sometimes it would wail until you touched the screen. I kept expecting the staff to come rushing in with a crash cart. No one ever even checked. It was like trying to sleep with the alarm on. Just as I first dozing off, yet another PA came in to intake me. She turned on the TV which did help mask the other noise but since the remote was broken I was stuck with one channel. I chose dumb old movies. I finally fell asleep watching Smokey and the Bandit.

I didn't sleep much with the perpetual alarm. The movie changed to Easy Rider. There were no windows so there no sense of day or night. When they took the next EKG I figured it must be morning. The Asian guy was still pacing around asking for food. I realized I had been bumped in front in of a lot of people to get the private room. I felt guilty.

They brought me French toast and a bowl of lumpy looking grits for breakfast. I took one bite of the toast and wanted to vomit. I was nervous about my stress test. Like I could fail it?

They took the echocardiograms and obviously I passed the stress test. When the EKG cart passed me by, I knew I was going to get sprung. It took hours before they released me and I was still a prisoner in my bed, being hooked onto all the monitors. I watched two more depressing movies. One was about a kid who had AIDS and one was about a guy whose father had a stroke or something. Ted Danson was in that one.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the motel feel, the LPN gave me a little questionaire asking me to rate my stay. The last question asked if anyone in particular had been especially attentive. They had to be joking. At least two dozen people had attended to me. I couldn't remember one name.

In the end I was there for exactly 23 hours and 59 minutes. I underwent every test known to man and they showed that every single major organ is fine but they added a prescription for nitro to my arsenal of medications.

This was only the third time I've ever spent the night in a hospital. I hope I never have to do it again. Next time I think I'm dying, I think I'll just take a tranq and wait and see what happens.


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