My 16 hour emergency room nightmare

I’ve only been to the ER twice (as a patient). A few years ago I fell and broke my arm. It was on Mother’s Day and when I got to the ER around 3 p.m., I was the only one there and I was done in two hours. (I asked why it was empty and the staff joked that “the fighting hasn’t started yet”.)

On Wednesday I had two episodes of my heart skipping beats. The first lasted for 15 minutes and the second lasted about 30. When I got up Thursday, it started again. I waited to see if it would stop again and after an hour, it had not. I decided to go to the ER. I arrived a little before noon. And then spent the next 12 hours in the waiting room. 12 hours.

When I arrived, because I was having a heart issue, I was taken to a triage room and given an EKG while I was accessed. The tech said it looked like Afib and sent me back to the waiting room. Two hours later, I was taken back in for a blood draw and then sent to Radiology for a chest x-ray. Then back to the waiting room. Around 4:00 a nurse went through the waiting room and took vitals signs on all the patients there. We were told that there were no beds in the ER at present. Around 6:00 they started having us come into the triage rooms for our vitals. I asked if they knew about how long it would be before I could see a doctor and was again told that there were no rooms available. At that point, I was wondering why they did not at least have one doctor who could just see the waiting patients. They figured this out and around 8:00 a doctor starting seeing patients in one of the triage rooms.

At my turn, the doctor told me he needed to do more tests. So back to the waiting room again. I was extremely frustrated by this time. I had been there 8 hours sitting in the same chair in the corner, trying to keep away from the other patients. A lot of them were wearing their masks with their noses out. (You still have to wear them in medical facilities and our county has a whopping 30% vaccinated rate.). I had already resigned myself that some of these people probably had covid and who knew what other viruses. One guy threw up a few chairs down from me.

When I went in for my 10:00 vitals check, I told the nurse that obviously my issue was not emergency – I had been there 10 hours and nothing had been done for me. I asked if there was a way I could be discharged to see a doctor the next day. I was polite but I was really, really freaked out at that point. It felt like being in prison. I had no control over my life. My heart beat had gone back to normal and I wanted so bad to just go home. But, of course, they couldn’t do that. I had to have the rest of the tests and see a doctor before they could let me go. (I could leave without medical authority but then I would be responsible for the bill. The thought had crossed my mind more than once but even in that hellish situation, I wasn’t that stupid. And, there was something wrong with my heart.)

So back I went to my chair in the corner. I had read half of the book I’d brought with me. I’d heard hours and hours of “Friends” on the TV above me. Now it was some game show. A guy sitting two seats away from me fell out of his chair having a seizure. I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide. I had been texting with friends throughout the day. One of them said she was coming out there. I nearly burst into tears at her thoughtfulness. Someone was coming and I wouldn’t be alone.

About midnight, after 12 hours, I was finally called to the back. They had a room for me. My friend arrived soon after. More blood was drawn, I had another EKG and was hooked up to a heart monitor. And then, again, waited. But at least I was laying down and had someone to talk to. And I finally got the story of why all of this happened. The ICU was full. The ER rooms were being used as overflow. Between that and critical patients coming in by ambulance, there had not been a vacate room all day. I had picked a particularly bad day to have heart problems.

The doctor came in after 3:00 a.m. I honestly don’t remember exactly what he said because once he said I could go home, I didn’t process anything else. I know it was something about how my irregular heartbeat was not the “bad” kind. He referred me to a cardiologist and sent in a prescription. I have an appointment Tuesday and will be in a much better state of mind to deal with all this. I was finally released a little after 4:00 a.m. Over 16 hours after I had arrived. I know it was not a typical experience and most of the staff were very apologetic, but damn, now I’m not just worried about my heart but what illnesses I was exposed to in all that time. This was something I hope to never, ever experience again.

That actually sounds exactly like a typical ER experience. I’ve never been an ER patient, but I’ve been to the ER with patients, and it is a multiple hour wait.

I’ve seen both kinds. My overall experience is 16 hours would be a 1 in 1000 event, not the norm.

But that was mostly pre-COVID. Half of America may have forgotten, or never learned, that we have a pandemic still raging. And it’s worse, much worse, in places with 30% vaccination rates. But the medical industry certainly knows it’s still going on. They can see it every day in the crowding and types of cases and all the rest.

When the ER is full and the wait times are long, more likely than not this is the reason why. There’s this idea out there that a lot of people are clogging up the ER because they go in for the sniffles or because they stubbed their toe or some other such silly thing. This is hardly ever the case. On the other hand, when patients who need to be admitted to the hospital have no place to go, that will rapidly reduce the space available for treatment of additional patients coming in to the ER. It’s also the case that most of the times this happens, it’s not because of a lack of physical rooms and beds. It’s usually because there aren’t enough nurses to adequately care for the patients that could potentially be in those empty beds.

I asked them if the problem was covid and they said it wasn’t. They also said this was happening in hospitals all over the city. And this is Memphis, a major medical center. One of the bigger hospitals announced that they had just released their last covid patient a week or so ago. I follow the covid stats and they have shown for weeks now that our new cases are dropping but ICUs are at 95% capacity. I have no idea what is going on with that. Maybe now that masks are optional, people are getting sick with illnesses they had been protected from this last year. Or the people who are still getting covid are getting sicker. It’s strange.

This was one of the problems. Some of the ER nurses were taking care of the ICU patients.

This sort of thing was an issue long before COVID-19. I did a rotation in emergency medicine as a second year resident back in 2004. This type of situation, while not an everyday occurrence, was far from rare. It’s due to hospitals being understaffed.

We’re going to see an exodus of medical folks from burnout over COVID. If we haven’t already.

I have to to take my 70+ year old multiple times a year to the ER.

A few times a year because her indwelling catheter fell out. Once or twice because the narcotics she is on caused her to get severely constipated requiring her ti manually de-impacted and then giving an enema. And just for giggles about two or three more times for a variety of reasons.

How long we are they varies. Sometime we are in and out of there in under two hours when a nurse changes the catheter. Other times we can be there for hours. I suspect it’s do a “triage situation” where other ER patients with more serious conditions get priority treatment. It is frustrating but understandable.

Incidentally I haven’t had to go to the ER myself in over 10 years now.

I know an acquaintance who went to a nationally ranked university hospital with a pulmonary embolism last fall. After waiting 8 hours without seeing a doctor he went home. The next day he went to the other hospital in town (a medium sized Catholic hospital) where he was treated immediately.

Wait. Memphis as in Memphis, Tennessee, in the US? Sorry, I’d assumed you were posting from one of those third world hellholes I’ve heard about from our last President.

I took my mom in one day, ten years or more ago, because she passed out. We waited in the ER at least 8 hours, with about five-minute total of attention. We were chatting with this couple that was also waiting all day. Eventually we just left. (turned out she was just dehydrated, and it was hot. )

Well after I got her home she was watching the news. They had a report about the long hospital waits. They intervierwd on camera the couple we were talking with. They were still there!

We’re also seeing hospitals being at capacity because now that we’re back to doing elective (non-emergent) surgeries and procedures we’re making up for lost time during the pandemic and the house is full.

A big city like Memphis is going to have multiple health care options:

  1. Multiple hospitals
  2. Urgent care centers
  3. Your own primary care physician (ask if you can get in right away)
  4. Calling the ambulance

Perhaps someone can advise on when to use each option.

OP: I think you may have made the mistake and went to the biggest and supposedly best hospital. These mega-hospitals often have the worst service. There could well be a small local hospital where you could have gotten in right away. Ask in a local forum (such as the Reddit sub-reddit on Memphis) about people’s experiences in this kind of situation.

We definitely have a lot of options here. I considered an urgent care center but was afraid I’d be told to go to the ER anyway. I’ve never experienced heart problems and was very scared. I didn’t want to take that chance. My Medicare Advantage plan only covers one of the hospital systems in Memphis. It is the largest and has four full-service adult hospitals. It is also the system I worked for for 22 years before I retired last year. (I did slip that information into some conversations during my visit, for what that was worth.) I chose to go to the closest one - second largest of the four - that’s about 10 minutes away. I was afraid to drive across town to the smaller ones and I’d never go to the biggest one as long as I had a choice because their ER wait times are legendary. It was just unfortunate that this happened when they were overwhelmed.

I got a text today asking for my feedback. I hate to rag on my former employer but I’ll have to be honest with them that they need to work on better ways to deal with these situations.

I’m always very frank in those surveys.

I’m following your thread with interest and I hope you’ll fill us in after your visit to the doctor.

I’ve been to the ER (different ones) many times with my late husband and with other male friends, before and after my marriage. Varying experiences, some great, some harrowing. I’ve been at least four times for myself with a complaint similar to yours.

16 hours, though?

I brought my parents to the er multiple times and can’t think of any time we were there more than 8 hours. Most trips were 4-6 hours.

Damn. I’ve been to the ER twice in Taiwan for me in 10 years, both of which were because of chest pains, and I got attention immediately. My son was accident prone and we have to have him stitched five or six times(!) and never had to wait much.

I went to the cardiologist this morning. The office visit went very quickly and smoothly. I was pleasantly surprised. There was only one other patient there and I was taken back as soon as I checked in. I guess covid has made changes to the old way of full waiting rooms and wait times at least in doctors’ offices.

The doctor said that my palpitations were not the dangerous kind, so I did hear that right in the ER. My blood pressure is a bit elevated and I’m having some shortness of breath so I’m scheduled for an echocardiogram and stress test on July 26. It appears that the heart palpitations aren’t connected to the other issues and they just came to light because of the ER visit. I asked what to do if my heart starting skipping again and he said to just relax and maybe take a baby aspirin. So I’m going to begin the relaxing part now. I’ve been pretty anxious that it was going to happen again but so far, so good.

That’s good news. Glad to hear it!