Thursday, June 4, 2009

Easing the ER Experience

For three years, I have been an Emergency Department volunteer at Pennsylvania Hospital. And volunteering there is the closest I get to meditation every week. It is great to leaving the sitting position and get moving purposely around a cramped urban ER.

I joined the Pennsylvania Hospital team to satisfy my insatiable curiosity about medicine and after watching ER for a dozen years, I had skills to bring to the table. Not only that, I was once a nursing student and felt I might feel at home in a hospital environment.

After three years, I learned next to nothing about medicine, but I do have a general feel for the assessment and testing procedures of a hospital. I know the general course of someone's visit if they come in for chest pain, abdominal complaints or a headache. Basically, the doctors will true to rule out something serious before they send you home. Unfortunately, that means you might spend 7 hours in the ER for a stomach ache. And no, you can't eat until the test results are back. But the nice thing is you will be starving and will eat the bland turkey wrap I offer you.

I can offer a little bit of advice to those of you who may visit the ER sometime. (I am not qualified to dispense any medical advice. These are simply tips to deal with the flow in the hospital. If you have any health or medical questions, please see a licensed provider.)

Be prepared for long waits (if your problem is not emergent or urgent) during the busy times, which are the afternoons or evenings. The ER tends to be really bad the day AFTER a holiday. The Tuesday after Memorial Day was absolutely horrendous. People generally would prefer to go to the ER on workdays rather than on their days off. This is not to say that people have frivolous complaints when they come to the ER, but they often have symptoms for a few days before they come in. Whenever possible, try to see your regular doctor first to get assessed. However, your regular doctor will send you to the ER at the hint of something serious (eg. chest pain or appendicitis) so you might not be able to avoid the crowds.

Bring a friend with you when you go to the ER. They can keep you company and help you pass the time. And they can help advocate for you. Sometimes your friend can make your stay more comfortable by gently asking your nurse about things. But remember, a lot of things are in the doctor's or the lab's hands so just because your nurse is hustling doesn't mean the process will go quickly.

Sometimes it's smart to try to get your needs met from different staff. For example, a volunteer can get you a blanket, water, ice chips, and food faster than a doctor. Techs are great for helping you move in bed, get to the bathroom, and answer basic questions. Nurses are the go to people for all medical problems and urgent needs. Use the call bell (or yell out "nurse") if you want to see a nurse quickly. Often they are busy with many patients and can't check in on patient rooms unless there is a pressing medical reason for it.

Probably the most basic piece of advice is to communicate with your nurse and doctor about what is going on with you. And try to listen and ask questions when a health provider is talking with you. This sounds obvious, but sometimes it's hard to communicate clearly because there are a lot of distractions in the ER, not to mention the symptoms you are experiencing.

That is my common sense suggestions from being a volunteer in an ER.

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