Dear register nurses, CNAs, and triage staff:
This piece is dedicated to you. You see, while you may not be doctors, you will have the power to make or break a hospital visit for a chronically ill person. You have the power to impact someone like me forever, whether it is in a positive or a negative way – that will be up to you ultimately.
I’ve been struggling to put this into words for a few months now. You see only three weeks after my brain and neck surgery, I ended up in the ER (this was in December). This was perhaps the most terrifying day of my entire life. I thought I was going to die.
I woke up with a throbbing headache. It was pretty bad but I assumed that maybe it was because I had missed my last dose of pain medicine. So, I took my medicine and managed to get some water down, before camping out on the couch. I was pretty miserable. I turned on Netflix and drifted in and out of sleep for a few hours. When I woke up, my headache was just as bad, and I began vomiting. Okay. So, it was pretty bad. But it was probably just the percocet causing nausea? Right? Wrong. I was stupid. I knew there was something wrong. But instead of just going immediately to the emergency room, I waited. I waited and it got much worse. I went down hill as the hours passed. Soon the vomiting was becoming non-stop. I couldn’t eat or drink. The pain was inching from an eight to a nine, something I had rarely experienced in my life. Moving hurt. Opening my eyelids hurt. Everything hurt. I felt like my brain was going to leak out of my ears. Finally, we hit the the twelve hour mark. I couldn’t even keep my medicine down to manage the pain. I was throwing up every few minutes. I start choking on my own vomit and my husband saw me turning blue, somehow I manage to get it down and gasp for breath. At this point, he’s like, “hospital now”.
It still hurts unlike anything but I am scared to go to the ER. You see, I’m scared because I’ve been mistreated in hospitals before. I beg my husband just to take me to urgent care instead and call my neurosurgeon who is one state away. He concedes and takes me to an urgent care clinic only five minutes from our house. They get us in pretty immediately. But my heart rate is through the roof around 120ish, I can’t stop throwing up, and I’m curled up on the table in the fetal position. And it’s pretty clear they do not have the equipment to care for me. As soon as the doctor sees me, she says I need to go down the street to the emergency room and she won’t charge us for the visit. She kindly gives me a vomit bag and hurries us out.
The closest ER, much to my chagrin, is a Catholic hospital. Great. Catholic hospitals are notorious for providing bad care, especially for women, but we can’t really afford to make the trek 20 minutes across town to the military ER. We get to the hospital and the receptionist is pretty nice, but she seemed a bit irritated that I was loudly vomiting into a bag. We barely get a chance to sit down and they bring us back into triage.
The triage nurse asks with an irritated tone why I’m there, and if I had consumed an energy drink in the last hours, because my heart rate was still about 120 and my BP was 150/90ish.
All right dude. We just told you I had brain surgery three weeks ago and I’m experiencing the most excruciating headache I have ever had in my life, and you wanna know if I’ve been pounding down energy drinks? Did you miss the part where I said I haven’t been able to keep anything, water included, down? How about the non-stop vomiting? As a nurse, please tell me they taught you what intractable pain was?
This is when I notice the intake room is fucking filthy. My stomach sinks measurably. I already regret my decision to come to this hospital, but I’m here and I know I need help. The triage nurse takes me back and gives me a gown to change into. My husband helps me in the bathroom change. I put it on backwards, intentionally, because he said he was going to hook me up to an EKG. I’m trying to make his job as easy as possible.
This nurse has the audacity to give me shit for putting it on wrong, like I’m too stupid to put it on right and it was uncomfortable to see my breasts, and I explain I was trying to make his job easier to attach all the wires. I have never been made to feel ashamed of having breasts by a healthcare professional ever in my life. I’ve been through some pretty humiliating procedures too and no nurse, male or female, has ever made me feel as this man did for my breasts being partially exposed. I’m sorry – but you’re a nurse. You cannot seriously expect not to be exposed to the bodies of human beings, including those of the opposite sex ever, even if you do work at a Catholic hospital. I think my husband can sense I’m regretting coming to the hospital now. The triage nurse hooks up the EKG and thankfully leaves. A new nurse enters the room and starts prepping an IV so she can give me zofran and two doctors enter with her. The doctors ask what’s going on and we explain I just had a craniectomy, C1 laminectomy, C2 laminoplasty, dural graft and cerebellar tonsil resection and I’m experiencing an excruciating headache, etc etc. The doctors leave to call my neurosurgeon for recommendations.
My new nurse is this sweet young woman with red hair. She warns me the dilaudid is going to make me feel like someone is sitting on my chest and that it’s going to hurt initially. This sweet woman holds my hand as she gives me the pain meds. Then she explains they are going to keep me for a bit while they figure out what to do. Finally sweet relief. I am finally not vomiting non-stop and she turns the light off as she leaves. She returns with the doctors after a little while, explaining they are going to get a CT to make sure I didn’t spring a leak, but that it was probably rebound from my steroids. The nurse sticks around for a few minutes chatting with my husband and I, pleasantly cracking jokes with me, and asking if I need anything. She treats me completely different than the triage nurse – with empathy, kindness and dignity.
I eventually a CT, and the CT technician makes me change my gown right way, because he also is made greatly uncomfortable by having the gown tied in front. I feel pretty gross and ashamed by this point. And I am starting to get nauseated again. After my CT, my vomiting starts back up, and it’s becoming uncontrollable pretty quickly. Thankfully, my nurse comes back and sees this. She has already given me the max dose of zofran but I ask her if she can get the doctor to give me more, because the vomiting is greatly aggravating my headache and it looks like we’ll be waiting for a bit longer. She gets the doctor to prescribe another dose and manages to get my vomiting controlled again. After awhile, the doctor reappears to let me know my CT looks great and that they spoke again with my NS, he said I was experiencing rebound and they prescribed a med-pack to deal with it. Finally, we’re approaching discharge.
When we got home, I asked my husband if he thought I was overreacting to how the triage nurse and CT technician treated me. He agreed that they acted very disrespectfully by shaming me, and agreed that the other nurse who took care of me was the absolute sweetest. I wish I had remembered her name, I would have sent her a damn fruit basket. Nonetheless, we decided we’re never going to that ER ever again.
You see nurses – you can make the absolute difference in our visits. When I got to that ER, I thought I was dying. I was almost certain I probably had a CSF leak, which is incredibly dangerous. Remember the power you have. Remember you might be the difference between a person choosing to seek help again. Remember to treat your fellow humans with empathy and dignity.
And to the nurses out there who already do that, thank you for everything you do. Thank you for all the blood, shit and piss that stains your clothing, thank you for saving our lives, thank you for holding our hands when we’re in pain, thank you for laughing at our desperate attempts of humor in our darkest hours, thank you for the overwhelming emotional burden you take on and thank you for being you.