ER: It Doesn't Stand for 'Exit Rapidly'


We’ve got a billboard on the interstate down here that tells us how long we would have to wait if we were in the hospital emergency room right then. It’s a great marketing idea, except that I - and people like me - see it not so much as an accomplishment in speed and efficiency, but as a challenge.

Ten minutes? Really? Really? Well, we’ll just see about that . . . If I knew where the hospital was, I’d go sign in at the ER and set my stopwatch, just to see if it were true. Otherwise, who’s going to call them on that? If you have a long wait, who’s to say that the board right at that minute didn’t go from 10 minutes to 1,000 minutes?

Despite me and my kind, the billboard current wait time is a great idea, especially if it’s anything less than 4 hours. Hospital ERs have a long history of leaving people to fester in infection and gangrene in the waiting room. But I think it’s going to take more than a billboard to wipe away that history.

I have very limited experience with the ER. Once for myself, once for each of my children, and once for someone else’s child - a kid at an out-of-state soccer game whose coaches didn’t know a) that an asthma attack can kill b) where the emergency parent contact list was, and c) that high school soccer players won’t tell you that they can’t breathe until you ask, “Who here can’t breathe?”

But those five trips to the ER are all it took to prove to me that no matter where in this country you go, hospital emergency rooms are    s     l    o    w.   It’s nothing like ER or St. Elsewhere or Marcus Welby MD;. Even the staff on Scrubs is faster and they let people die all the time.

Remember the SNL skit called “Appalachian Emergency Room?” I never thought that was funny until I went to an actual Appalachian emergency room. Technically, it wasn’t in Appalachia, but it was in Kentucky, so close enough.

A Kentucky emergency room is quite an experience. You know you’re in a Kentucky ER when:

1) there are as many people smoking cigarettes outside the big double doors as there are inside the waiting room, and half of them are in scrubs. The place is as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve (and almost as festive; See #2 below), but walk outside the door and there’s another party going on out there, this one with tobacco. And if you’re wondering where your doctor is and why it’s taking so long to get called - oh, there he is, lighting up another Marlboro with the triage nurse.

2) a trip to the ER is a family affair and another reason to get the whole gang together. When someone in Kentucky has to be rushed to the hospital, they take the time to gather up Granny and Jed, all the aunts and uncles and cousins, and a bunch of snacks. They load up the trucks and carpool it over there. During my 4-hour wait in a Kentucky ER, I saw one family arrive with a cooler on wheels. I didn’t understand at first. It was within the first hour of being in there, so I didn’t “get” it yet. I thought they had all been at a family picnic and some horrible disaster happened to infect them all with radiation or something. What could have happened to all of these people, seemingly related by blood, at the same time? One of the women lined up the kids on the floor and served sandwiches and juice pouches. Well at least they have their appetites. That’s a good sign. As it turned out, it was just one sprained ankle in the whole group. By the end of our wait, I had witnessed the comings-and-goings of a real slice of the Unbridled Spirit: A young couple was making out and got to about third base, if I remember my make-out baseball chart correctly; A small group of people were watching Blow on a portable DVD player; and one group came in with a guy in a wheelchair. He wasn’t hurt, he was just in a wheelchair and came along with the group of 12 for an uncle’s chest pains.

I haven’t yet experienced a Florida emergency room (knock on spongy mousepad material). But I’m excited about there being an upside: I get to time it.

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