I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the ER, and I’d like to think I haven’t already become jaded or cynical. But I’ll reluctantly admit that I’ve rolled my eyes once or twice when a young, healthy patient strolls into the ER at 4AM complaining of intense pain that couldn’t wait until morning for an office visit.
A few weeks ago, I reluctantly became that patient. At about 11PM, I started having gnawing abdominal cramps. By 3AM, the pain had moved to my right upper quadrant and I was writhing in bed, unable to find a comfortable position. Tylenol didn’t help. The pain was in the right spot to be my gallbladder, but I wasn’t nauseous and I don’t exactly fit the traditional patient profile of someone with cholecystitis. My wife called off of work for the next morning and took me to the emergency room. I didn’t know what else to do.
When you’ve spent the past four years thinking from the physician’s perspective, becoming the patient is an odd experience. You know what to expect, but you don’t know what’s going on from one minute to the next. You find yourself trying to help the nurses, but there really isn’t anything you can do besides give a thorough history and be a good pin cushion. Unfortunately, most hospitals don’t keep an ultrasound tech on hand past midnight these days. By the time I left the ER, I was given some Zofran and a recommendation to follow up as an outpatient. I’m not really sure I expected much more than that when I came in.
The next morning, I called the family physician that I was on rotation with. She thought I should get the ultrasound, and I agreed. At that point, I had an inkling that I’d be getting my gallbladder taken out the next day. The exam showed acute cholecystitis, and I went straight back to the emergency room. This time, I had to wait nearly 3 hours to be seen by a physician. When you’re working in the ER on a busy night, it’s not uncommon (or unreasonable) to see patients with non-life threatening conditions wait extended periods before being treated. When you’re a patient in that same ER who’s sitting in the waiting room with no medication for your pain, that’s another story.
Fortunately, the ER wait was the worst thing about my experience in the hospital. Once I got up to my room for the night, it was almost as if I were staying in a nice hotel for the weekend. The only thing I had to do was wake up in the morning, answer a few questions, take a nice medication-induced nap, rest again, and go home. Everyone in the hospital from the transport team to the nurses and physicians were incredibly friendly and helpful. Having attentive nurses made me feel so much better as a patient because it compensated for my feelings of helplessness (or rather, futility) lying in a hospital bed.
As I was wheeled into the operating room the next morning, my wife was more nervous than I was. We’d both scrubbed in on quite a few laparoscopic cholecystectomies, and we both knew what to expect, but I was actually excited to finally experience everything as a patient. I know it sounds weird, but I wanted to know what it felt like to be put under with anesthesia and to wake up groggy and loopy. I wanted to know what the different pain medications we hand out so freely to patients actually do to your body. And I wanted to know what sutures and dermabond feel like. Now that I’ve experienced all those things, I’ll know what to tell my future patients to expect. I’ve gained more respect for my future colleagues, more appreciation for everything that the nursing team does for their patients, and, perhaps most importantly, more empathy for my patients.