The parking lot wasn’t crowded when I pulled my car into a spot outside the Emergency Room at my local hospital around 2:45am on that Tuesday morning in mid-September. In pain, I hobbled through the automatic doors, hoping that my middle of the night arrival and the nearly empty waiting room would translate to a short wait time.
Little did I know that I was about to have an experience like so many others recently: a scary and exhausting ER wait because of a hospital overwhelmed by Covid-19.
I drove myself, telling my boyfriend to stay home since I didn’t know visitor policies and I needed him home to get the kids off to school. Within minutes of checking in, I had blood drawn and an IV line running a bag of fluids. I was still optimistic about my wait time when I was led to a hallway and shown to bed 17.
And that’s where I stayed, in pain, alone, in a hallway for the next seven hours.
I’ve been in emergency rooms many times, and I wasn’t naive to think I’d be in and out in less than a few hours. But as hour after hour ticked by, my calm patience morphed into frustration, then to a need for answers, and eventually to an almost panicked concern for my health.
Unable to sleep, I was forced to observe my surroundings that included several other patients in hallway beds. I overheard the medical history of an older gentleman, who had come in with chest pain, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and was unvaccinated. I overheard every word of the conversation between a doctor and a woman who was pregnant for the first time, a low-talking woman who probably broke a bone in her foot and needed x-rays, a vociferous woman who asked every staff member who passed her when she was getting a room, and a disheveled, slow-moving man with a thick cough who was being discharged with a blanket, a soda, crackers and kind words.
I watched a nurse open a door to a room I was coveting and clean up and console a male patient who urinated on himself. I watched a husband lift his wife out of a wheelchair to use the restroom because no one was available to help. I watched seemingly unconscious people being wheeled in on stretchers. I watched the same doctors and nurses and other staff repeatedly walk briskly up and down the hallway, always on a mission, always someone to get to. There was constant movement, constant noise coming from every direction.
From three to five AM, my first two hours in the ER, I detailed my symptoms and medical history to a series of different people whose names and job descriptions instantly escaped me, ending with a doctor who told me nothing significant other than I was about to be taken for a CT scan of my abdomen. For every person who asked, I held up my phone to show the photo of my vaccination card that my boyfriend texted me because I forgot to bring my hard copy.
Because I was visiting a hospital in the same healthcare system as my primary care physician, I was already signed up for the electronic chart that allows me to communicate with doctors, schedule appointments and see test results. Thanks to that system, I was texted at 5:45am that my CT results were in: acute appendicitis.
I stopped the next nurse who walked by, explaining that I was freaking out about the test results I was sent. Twenty minutes later, my doctor confirmed I had appendicitis, that I was on that day’s surgical schedule as an add-on, that I couldn’t leave the hospital to wait the unspecified period of time at home before I was squeezed into an operating room. She didn’t have to explain it was because my appendix could rupture.
The doctor also promised that she put in an order for pain meds, anti-nausea meds and antibiotics. That was approximately 6:05am. I didn’t get those meds until 9:20am.
After waiting three hours for a diagnosis and realizing I would be in the hospital for many more hours and possibly overnight, I made the requisite phone calls to my kids, my parents, my coworkers. I was told my boyfriend wasn’t allowed to visit until the results of my Covid test, which was taken at 6:30am, came back. I didn’t know where he would sit even when they gave him permission to come.
At 7:15am, as my pain steadily increased, I rolled out of my bed and limped to what I gathered was a nurses’ station.
“Do you know the status of my meds?” I asked no one in particular. I got apologies, some tapping on a keyboard and a “let me see what I can find out.” One perpetually smiling night nurse came over to say goodbye to me as her shift ended, but she didn’t know where my meds were either.
At 8:20am, I recited my history yet again to a man on the surgical team. While I was thrilled to get confirmation that I was indeed on the surgical schedule, I wasn’t thrilled to learn I might not get in until the end of the day. I could be waiting until the evening. I still couldn’t go home. I still couldn’t eat. I still couldn’t get visitors. I asked him if he could check on my meds. He promised to look into it.
At 9:00am, someone asked me if I wanted a pillow. I declined, but asked if instead she could please find out if I could get some pain medication. I must have finally asked the right person because within ten minutes, a nurse wheeled her computer over to my bed, informed me my Covid test was negative, confirmed my boyfriend could now visit, and then pushed meds for pain, anti-nausea and antibiotics into my IV. As the pain dissipated, I vaguely remember her walking away with a promise to call the OR and “nudge them” for a surgical timeline for me.
Whether it was the nudge of a compassionate nurse, someone’s concern that my appendix could rupture, or simply a strike of luck, things finally started progressing.
At 9:40am, about seven hours after I stepped into the ER, someone handed me two gowns and a paper bag for my clothes and other possessions, explaining I was about to move.
“Two gowns,” he said. “Because some people want more than one to use as a blanket.” I was still in a very public hallway. Very shaky from the drugs, I baby stepped my way to the restroom, removed my clothes in exchange for the two gowns I clumsily put on with one open in the front, one open in the back, and baby stepped back to my bed as I hoped my hallway counterparts would offer me a semblance of privacy by looking elsewhere.
From there everything became a blur of activity as I was prepped for surgery, my boyfriend appeared at my bedside, I met with the surgeon and anesthesiologist and was wheeled into the operating room. When I opened my eyes I was in the recovery room, told the laparoscopic appendectomy was successful, wheeled into another room to meet my boyfriend and pushed in a wheelchair to his car. I was home around 3:00pm, about twelve hours after I arrived in the ER.
It wasn’t until the next day when I was scrolling through social media as I rested at home that I realized I should consider myself lucky to have gotten in and out of the hospital with emergency surgery as quickly as I did.
A local news station had posted a video on Instagram of a patient care supervisor speaking at a briefing about how the recent Covid-19 increase is affecting patient occupancy in hospitals in my area.
“We’re at capacity,” she said. “Nurses are tired, the [emergency department] is getting crushed.”
She went on to say her hospital is facing a surge of Covid patients and that nearly all of those patients are unvaccinated.
I read the caption more closely. The briefing was held the same morning I was in the emergency room. And the woman was talking about the hospital I was in.
Days of recovery left me with time to reflect on my experience, watch the news and read more and more articles about how Covid spikes throughout the U.S were affecting the healthcare needs of non-Covid patients like me, as well as the morale and energy levels of hospital staff who were struggling to keep up with the demand.
As miserable and scary as my ER experience was, I know it could have been much worse. Others haven’t been so lucky. My appendix could have ruptured. I could have been forced to transfer to another hospital that had more beds open. I could have had a surgical complication that required an ICU bed that wasn’t available. And because of the high number of Covid cases combined with my exposure in a hallway, I could end up with a positive Covid test, a breakthrough case even though I’m fully vaccinated.
I also think about what my appendicitis experience should have been like had the hospital been at normal capacity. Empty rooms would have been available for me to get one instead of waiting in a hallway. A room would have allowed me a call button to talk to nurses instead of having to roll off my bed and walk to find help, a bathroom nearby to change in, a place for my boyfriend to sit beside me so I wouldn’t be alone with my worries and pain. Nurses would have been available to get me medication before I had to beg for them.
As the pandemic continues to go on and on with no end in sight, I try to practice gratitude for the positive instead of holding on to frustration about all the things that should be different.
Now, three weeks post-surgery, I’m thankful that my emergency appendectomy was successful.
I’m thankful that I’m almost completely healed and back to normal.
I’m thankful for the doctors and nurses working hard through an incredibly challenging time.
And I’m thankful that my vaccination status has kept me healthy through it all.