Like many people, I suffer from occasional health issues. My health issues have been part of my life for the last fifteen years and come in the form of unexplained bowel obstructions. These bowel obstructions come on suddenly and without any rationale or reason. I’ve been to many expensive doctors and endured invasive tests at some of the best hospital systems in the world only to find out that there is nothing that can explain why this happens.
If you’ve experienced a bowel obstruction, you know how truly awful they can be. I estimate that over my lifetime (so far), I’ve had at least 30 of these episodes. Sometimes they happen when I’m on vacation, or visiting friends, or traveling for work but the protocol has always been the same. If I can’t tolerate the symptoms, I must go to the emergency room. I’ve been to ERs all over the country and have experienced the good and the bad along with it.
I’ve been semi-expecting to have a bowel obstruction at some point during the current pandemic, but as always, I never expect it when it happens. Early one morning last week I woke up around 4:00 a.m. with all of the signs. Breathing through the pain, I called my gastroenterologist as soon as the office opened to see if anything could be done before I subjected myself to the emergency room during a pandemic. Unfortunately, there wasn’t and I was stuck with my only option. I packed what I needed for a hospital stay into my washable backpack and had my husband drop me off at the ER, which was the first major difference in this very abnormal experience.
When I arrived, there were no other patients waiting to be checked-in, so I was able to see a nurse right away. Other than the fact that the nurse was wearing a full-face respirator, everything was relatively “normal”. After my vitals were taken, I was instructed to have a seat and wait for a room to open up. As I walked into the waiting area, I saw the section for patients experiencing virus symptoms, which was in the same open waiting area, but behind a metal sign. I wasn’t impressed by this fact, but at that point, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I found the cleanest looking spot in the most isolated area and tried my best to manage my symptoms without drawing attention to myself.
As I sat waiting for my name to be called, the nurse checked in with me several times and let me know that I’d be able to get oral Zofran for my severe nausea and that they would be taking a blood draw while I waited. After an hour, the nurse returned to let me know I was “third on the list” to get a bed. An hour after that, I was told it would be “soon”. As I approached my third hour, I started to weigh my options. At what point do I leave? The Zofran worked wonders and I was already feeling 75% better. Do I continue to wait in the ER and obsessively use the hand sanitizer and hope no one sits too close to me, or do I leave and suffer at home? At that moment, there was a rush of new patients in the waiting area and as I scanned the room, I saw my number on “the list” get pushed back, and back again. I approached the nurse’s desk and asked if my bloodwork results were back and had them read the numbers back to me. Knowing the typical signs of a severe bowel obstruction (low potassium is one), and knowing my potassium was in the normal range helped me make the decision to go home. I called my husband, used the hand sanitizer once more, and waited outside to be picked up.
Upon arriving home, I stripped off everything I was wearing, or carrying with me and threw it directly into the wash. I jumped in the shower and scrubbed every inch of myself until I felt clean. I crawled into bed and put The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu and watched it until I fell asleep. On reflection, this entire experience should have gone differently at many steps along the way. I wonder why my doctor didn’t want to talk to me, but instructed through the nurse to go to the ER? Why couldn’t I have received a prescription for Zofran and monitor my symptoms at home? Or if not, could I have been treated right away at a different hospital? I wonder why the ER wasn’t more isolated and why I wasn’t given any special instructions to monitor myself for Covid symptoms after I left. It was a strange experience and I can only hope that we can figure out how to better manage the ways we deliver healthcare during this global health emergency. I walked away feeling that it was a little too relaxed for an emergency situation in a pandemic.