My Emergency Room Experience

April 12, 2010 in Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

In Australia, the latest buzz is all about the appalling state of the country’s health system, and in particular Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s reform plans to halve the waiting time in emergency rooms in hospitals from 8 to 4 hours.  To someone like me, who had only previously experienced ER on TV and in movies, that seemed like an awful amount of time.

Well yesterday, thanks to a nasty dislocated pinky while playing basketball, I finally got a chance to experience it for myself.  And I must say my diagnosis of the hospital system is not positive.

So I was playing an intense game of indoor pick-up basketball, and somehow, around 11am, when I leaped to intercept a deflected pass, the ball crashed into the pinky on my right hand.  From the sickening crack I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, and I was right. The finger was all twisted and mangled, and it freaked me out because I had never experienced anything like it.

The smart thing to do would have been to pull the finger back into place immediately, while the adrenaline was still rushing through my body.  But being ignorant of such things and wary of causing more damage, I took my mutilated finger to the gym reception, where the ladies there wanted no part of it.

“You better go to the doctor,” they said.

So a friend drove me (in my car) to the nearest medical centre and dropped me off.  I don’t know when this happened (must have been recent), but these days  it’s no longer free to see a GP.  I had to shell out 40 bucks to see a doctor.  After about 20 minutes, this old fella took me to his office, examined the finger (ie looked at it), and tried to pull it back into place.

After several painful tugs, he shook his head and said: “I can’t do it.  You have to go to the ER at the hospital.  Get X-rays and stuff.”

Actually, he left the office to ask a colleague, who chickened out and flat out refused to help.  So that was that.  20 minutes of waiting in pain, a 5-minute consultation, 40 bucks out of my wallet, and nothing accomplished.

I got prescribed a box of painkillers (another 16 bucks), and had to call my friend to come pick me up and take me to the nearest hospital.  The one we went to was only 10 minutes away and it was one of the biggest in the city.

So we parked in the garage and headed in.  There was a small glass window where I told the nurse my “problem” and she opened the double doors for “authorised personnel” only.

I was told to take a seat (there were only six or seven plastic chairs to pick from) and waited for about 15 minutes before a nurse came and took me into a room.  I had to give her my details, name, address, birthday — all the basics — and then describe what happened to my finger.  She told me I’d have to get an X-ray, and then sent me back out to wait.

After another 15 minutes, another nurse came and took my Medicare details (that’s the Australian health system).  She also asked for my name and address and birthday.  Then I was told to wait again.  It was another 20 minutes or so before another nurse came and handed me a form, and directed me to the X-ray lab.

During this time, I witnessed several other people come in with various ailments.  Some obvious, others not.  They all had to take a seat.  Some didn’t even have chairs to sit on.  In the meantime, cops and paramedics stood around, chatting and sipping beverages.  Every now and then they would wheel someone in on a bed, but I would say the vast majority of the people I saw probably just had some drunken mishap.  There was one particular crazy-looking guy that kept edging towards the exit, but the police had to keep telling him to come back, or else they would have to lock him back in the room.

Anyway, armed with the form, I walked through the zig-zagging corridors to the X-ray lab, my finger throbbing more than ever.  I placed the form in the tray under the tiny glass window, and waited another 5 minutes for them to type in the details before my name was called.

I went in and had my hand X-ray taken.  It took about 10 minutes, but only because there was some problem with the machine they couldn’t figure out.  At least they gave me this protector thing for my groin (for the radiation) when the machine was on.  Again, I was asked for my date of birth.

After that, I had to head back to the front office and tell them I had my X-ray done.  Then I had to take another seat, where I waited another 15 minutes before I was called in to take a look at my X-rays.  Yep, as expected, it was dislocated (the bones connecting the middle joint were completely out of whack).  But luckily, no break.

I was told to wait, and that with only two people in front of me, it shouldn’t take too long.

About 40 minutes later, a doctor finally came out and led me into one of the rooms.  Of course, he asked me for my date of birth and details again.  I was told I had two options — happy gas, or two injections on either side of the finger to numb it out.  Given that I had to drive myself home afterward, I went with the latter.

I laid down on the bed and took the injections, which were painful but not as bad as I imagined.  By that point I just wanted it over and done with.  With the finger completely numb, I couldn’t really feel anything when the doctor pulled the bones back into place.  He told me it was more difficult given the elapsed time, which allowed the swelling to get worse.  It literally only took 10 seconds.  It actually took longer to stop the bleeding from the two needles.

He taped up the finger and wrote me a letter.  I would have to go to a different hospital in the city some day during the coming week and get the finger examined, he said.  I’d have to get there before 9am, no appointments, and he told me it would take “ages” as there’s always a lot of people waiting.  Fantastic.

And just like that, I was done.  The whole experience at the emergency room took me just a shade under 2 hours.  And the killer blow on my way out?  Another 14 bucks for parking.

Driving home, the whole time I was thinking about how drawn out and procedural it was.  I had to deal with no less than 5 different people, all of whom asked for the same basic details.  I had to wait no less than 6 different times, spanning from 5 minutes to 40 minutes.  At no time was I given a clear indication of how long any of the waits would have to be.

As long and brutal my experience was, it was just a dislocated finger.  Painful, yes, but no big deal.  And I only had to wait for 2 hours in total.  Just to think that people with much more serious problems than I had having to wait 4 times as long as I did to get treatment.  I just read today that many wait for more than 24 hours.  That’s just crazy.

No wonder the whole place was plastered with posters saying that the hospital has a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for aggressive behaviour towards medical staff.  There are also reminder posters for staff to monitor and continuously check on waiting patients.  I would imagine angry outbursts happen all the time.

I don’t know what can be done to fix the hospital system, but clearly, something needs to be done.