Recently a number of people in my life have been spending time in the Emergency Room. I happen to be quite well acquainted with the hell located behind those constantly sliding doors (an occupational hazard of the chronic illness life), but it was interesting to hear tales from a new perspective. While their reasons varied from sprains and head injuries to appendicitis and chest pain, their experiences had quite a bit in common. They all went through a harrowing emotional journey, cyclical in nature and unique to the ER experience. I have come to realize that this experience is universal to all those who dare approach the triage desk, and have compiled a list of the five stages that occur in a constant, never ending loop.
Stage 1: Denial
Whether or not we have had prior experience with emergency care, the automatic reaction to a serious injury or ailment is to insist that we’re fine. There is a knowledge buried deep inside of us that warns us away from the ER at all costs. It is only after an extended period of dealing with pain or malaise coupled with the incessant demands of family and friends that we finally concede defeat and, forgetting to pack our phone charger, arrange for transportation. This stage can vary in length from a maximum of two weeks as our symptoms worsen to a fleeting thought if an ambulance is called when we are unconscious. The average time span, however, is 4 hours.
Stage 2: Panic
We may have convinced ourself that there really wasn’t anything to worry about and we are just here to get ourself checked out and appease those nags around us, but the minute we walk into the ER all of that changes. As the doors close behind us we are overcome with panic. We stumble to the triage desk, trying to control our breathing as we choke out what is wrong, desperately trying to communicate the urgency. When we are told to sit and wait we can hardly sit still and focus on calming ourself while wondering what our rapid heart rate means. We are called to the triage desk much sooner than expected and, uttering a hurried goodbye to whoever accompanied us, we rush over, positive that the short wait means bad news. We can barely get through the administrative questions, mixing up our phone number and address and dropping our health card twice. As the blood pressure cuff is placed around our arm and the thermometer under our tongue we hold our breath, letting it out only when the smooth plastic of the hospital bracelet is circled around our wrist.
Stage 3: Frustration
As we are sent back to wait on the wrong side of those dreaded sliding doors we grow confused. We thought that once we passed the doors we wouldn’t be coming back without some information. We feel a flash of anger and make a cutting remark to our poor companion. We sit down, but are on the edge of our seat. Pulling out our phone we make a Facebook status about how much we hate hospitals, and start complaining to about 8 people at once. Or we direct whoever is with us to do it and give us a play by play. Whenever we hear the crack of the intercom announcing that someone’s name is about to be called we quickly gather our things together and half rise every time the first syllable is the same as ours. This is followed by an exasperated huff as we look around the room to check if anyone was watching us. As time goes on these reactions become less and less energized.
Stage 4: Boredom
The phone is almost out of charge. We cannot bear to say another word to the person who accompanied us. We become increasingly aware of the cacophony of beeping that grows louder every time the doors separating the waiting room from the rest of the hospital open. Our eyes have adjusted to the fluorescent lighting that transports us to a dream world where everything is at once sharply focused and horribly muted. As we stare around at our fellow comrades in the waiting room we forget our earlier discomfort when we wondered whether they were contagious in any way, and we vaguely notice the same glassy eyed look on every face. We react to the intercom with only a slight turn of our head, our boredom overcoming any thoughts about why we are there in the first place.
Stage 5: Relief
The intercom crackles and a name is announced. We think we misheard it until our faithful companion nudges us out of our stupor. Our name has been called! We move slowly, limbs aching from lack of use, as we frantically try to make eye contact lest they call another name. In that moment we are flooded with relief, and when we are led to our very own cot we almost cry with joy.
Alas, this sense of happiness is short lived. As we change into our hospital gown, we start to slip back into denial. We wonder if we perhaps imagined the symptoms or were exaggerating. And we would hate for the doctor to come by and say that there’s nothing they can do. Maybe we’ve wasted everyone’s time by coming and we should just go. As we start to argue with ourself we are reminded of whatever convinced us to come in the first place. We then slip once more into panic mode as we wonder what the doctor will do and say. As the clock ticks on bringing no knock to the door, our frustration mounts as we wait for the doctor. The cycle continues as we wait endlessly for the doctor to arrive. The process is then repeated for every test and specialist, and appears to end only with the final relief of being released. As we feel the cool night air on our face at last many of us are seized with the realization that this trip hasn’t actually solved our primary issue. The panic of that thought gives way to a burst of frustration as we realize that we wasted an entire day, probably lowering out immune system in the process. We vow to never go to the emergency room again. But we will. We know we will. The cycle never ends.