Taking a Ride

Never, in my seventy years have I ever before been transported anywhere, lights flashing, in an ambulance. And it’s been twenty-seven years since I’ve been inpatient at a hospital. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, my medical history changed. My perspective also when my comfortable role as a professional provider of medical and social services was flipped to that of a vulnerable patient.

Asthma, exacerbated by a more than two week cold that had worn me down, collided with sudden nausea, hot/cold feelings and faintness alerting me to real trouble. Feeling I was going to pass out was scary. What if I do and no one knows what’s happened to me? How long before I’m missed? The down side of living alone slapped me in the face.

The wheezing made it official. I pulled the emergency buzzer in my apartment building and the night manager showed up to make the call. Before I knew it there was a gurney in the hallway.

Four young and buff, competent and polite men in their starched and pressed black uniforms sporting Wauwatosa Fire Department shoulder badges (and nice tattoos too!) guided me to the gurney and out the door.  The fact that I have such a sharp memory of the pampering of these handsome young men proves I wasn’t as close to dying as it seemed at that moment.

The blur of getting to the hospital was marked with IV insertion, oxygen placement and symptom questions before we even left the driveway. Calling me by name and letting me know we were three minutes out from the hospital was relieving as a gasped for air. Once there, the gurney careened down multiple corridors, past glassed-in computer stations. No one even looked up as I slid on by. Just another day at the office for them.

Once in an ER cubicle, a flurry of people buzzed around at lightning speed, each completing their small tasks before being replaced by the next contingent. They were calm and I was becoming so. It wasn’t until the rush was over and I was stabilized, waiting to see the doctor that I took stock of my situation.

In an out-of-body kind of way, I looked down at myself. I was in my stocking feet and pajamas. I had no shoes, no coat, no purse, no keys. How could they even know who I was? As I was pondering my predicament, a clerk wheeled her mobile desk in to ask for demographics and wasn’t at all fazed that I had no paperwork. In fact, I went through this whole experience never showing ID or an insurance card. I was a patient in the health care system that, in the jargon of the day, was my medical home.

But what if I’d been unconscious? How would they have figured out who I was? I recall in the ambulance they asked my name and birth date then probably checked the great goggle in the sky to find me in the system. I never thought I’d be so happy to have no privacy.

I mentioned to the clerk that I had no stuff and needed to call my niece; since I had no number she quickly looked it up on the internet. Luckily my niece was still so old fashioned to have a land line that was listed. And to pick up the call on the second ring! Within minutes I felt real again, like I’d become myself once I’d talked to someone who really knew who I was.

Expecting to be tuned up and sent home, it was surprising how quickly the doctor decided I’d stay the night to prevent relapse. Transport to a hospital room led to a less urgent but still relentless flurry of technicians poking and prodding in their specialized way. I teased my nurse, Tom how unimportant he was since he had to defer to three different techs before he could finally complete my nursing assessment.

But part of his activity was the best news. Creature comforts. The TV schedule and the menu. These days you order from a three page printed menu and your meal is delivered in forty five minutes. Just like a restaurant; anything, anytime from early morning to evening.

In both ER and hospital I was “dear”  “honey” or called by my name throughout. I felt like Michelle Obama. Each tech wheeled in their mobile cart, performed their test then entered results into the main computer sitting at my feet before hurrying off to their next patient.

Gone are the days of paper charts. No more entering notes at the end of a shift.  No searching. Where is the chart? Who has the chart? One tech could now see what the previous one had done a mere five minutes earlier. Never speak to me again about how impersonal it is that your health care providers are on-line, checking their computer screen throughout your visit.

All in all, I saw two respiratory therapists, two pharmacists, three phlebotomists, multiple nurses, medical assistants, nurse practitioners and an EKG operator. My symptoms could have been signs of a heart attack, I was told later; so I was on a heart monitor throughout the night. Turns out my heart is in fine shape. Good to know.

On three different occasions, for three separate reasons, someone approached with their mobile cart and draped over their arm were many long cords with clips on the ends. They’d pull taped squares off a card and tape them all over my body, then attach the clips to the taped squares on one end and to a machine on the other end. Once home, I’d spend days randomly pulling these little taped squares from an arm or leg.

Finally, the next day, a doctor showed up with a medical student in tow. After our long talk she revealed that she and the medical student had discussed me at length before coming into the room; she’d  been pretty sure she’d keep me one more day but changed her mind when seeing how well I was doing. I was happy to call for my ride home.

The discharge ritual was almost as complicated as the admission. Unhooking all the bells and whistles and seeing each necessary technician for discharge orders. Finally, wheel chair transport from bed to car. Some things haven’t changed. Now all I have to do is make some sense of the whole thing.

While my observations as an insider of the medical system may be unique, this experience has left me feeling human and vulnerable. I love academic medicine and feel so lucky to be connected to such a highly skilled medical system.  But this was a stark reminder that I’m not a young thing who can easily bounce back.

And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson. No one is immune. And while I was happy to get home I still recall how the whole experience was so fast and slow at the same time and the vulnerable feeling is fading but not forgotten.

Probably the hardest part was to accept that I’ve reached an age where my days of seeing my doctor for once a year check-up and thinking no more about it are gone. I have to do my part. So, I’m eating better, exercising more, hydrating and getting enough sleep. While I love that memory of those four young men fussing over me, I’m going to do everything I can to avoid another ride.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    Dec 14, 2015 @ 10:20:13

    So glad you’re home and back to your old self. It is really scary,but comforting to know you are in such capable hands.



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