If you really want to know what an emergency room is like, go as a patient. I did just that when I went to the Columbus Medical Center Emergency Department on Sunday night, April 3, 2011. It’s a really nice new facility, with a professional and friendly staff, which is now a state designated Level Two trauma center that serves 13 counties in West Georgia and East Alabama. But, there were problems, and they are the same problems emergency rooms face all over the country.
Since I definitely suffered a trauma when I fell backwards onto a sidewalk, hitting my head, I figured I wouldn’t have to wait long to receive treatment. After all, there was a really big lump on the back of my head, and I am on a blood thinner for my heart condition atrial fibrillation, which meant I could have been suffering internal bleeding. I was wrong.
It was on a Sunday night and the emergency room was packed with people waiting to be treated. I knew that all emergency rooms stay very busy because people, who don’t have healthcare insurance and can’t afford to pay for treatment, go there to be treated for non-emergency conditions, things like colds and sore throats. But I figured that triage would get me in fairly soon after arrival. After all, a head injury with possible internal bleeding should trump a cold.
I estimate that it took about forty-five minutes from the time I signed in until I saw the triage nurse, a warm, empathetic lady, who honestly explained the situation. (Being more concerned about my condition, I didn’t think to advise the staff that served me that I might do a blog on this, so I won’t be using any names.) She said that some people would be waiting seven hours, and that the average wait for a night that busy was probably five. I let her know that with a head injury, on a blood thinner, with possible internal bleeding, I couldn’t wait five hours. She said she knew that and my wait would not be that long since I was a three. That put me in the middle of the triage line. There are five triage categories. She explained that five is for people whose condition is the least urgent. One, she said, is for people who need to see a doctor immediately.
Since it was an unusually busy day with a lot of vehicle accidents, including one that involved five motorcycles, there were more number ones than normal. I would estimate that it took about two hours for me to see a physician, a really nice man, who decided I should have a CT scan. He said the big bump on the back of my head, an external injury, concerned him a lot less than a possible internal jury. Fortunately the scan showed my brain had not been injured. He gave me instructions on caring for a concussion and , after an almost five-hour visit, a friend, who had taken me to the emergency room, drove me home.
Though retired, my reporter’s curiosity , which, after fifty years as a broadcast journalist will probably never go away, inspired me to learn more about the emergency room situation, not only at the Columbus Medical Center, but nationally. The common description used by reporters that the facilities are overburdened and understaffed had a true ring to it after my experience. I’ll tell you what I have learned and discuss some possible solutions in a future post. Stay tuned.