George Clooney, Where Were You?

I might be living in the slow lane these days, but I’m also learning a hell of a lot…, foggy chemo brain and all.  And one of the keenest realizations is that there is nothing sexy about the emergency room.

I know.  Shocker.

Nurse Hathaway and Dr. Ross looking pensive.

Sexy, dreamy, steamy hospital romance.

But for those of us who spent the mid 90’s following Nurse Carol Hathaway as she followed Dr. Doug Ross,
or the more recent medical addiction of Meredith and McDreamy, there is a mystique about the place.  Big city hospital action.  Lots of sex in closet utility rooms.  And very good looking doctors.

My "exception." (along with half of the female population)

Rewind to about a month ago when I found myself on the phone with an on-call doctor around 8pm on a Monday night.  I was having some complications right after a chemo treatment that were startling enough to place the call.  After going through all the symptoms with the second-in-command as he worked through his symptom decision tree, I was headed straight to the OHSU Emergency Room.

To minimize household disruption, Dan surreptitiously put the girls to bed and I snuck out to meet my chariot, aka my ever-helpful twin sister, Kelli.  Before I left, I assured Dan that I’d be home before he hit the pillow for the night. But upon arriving up on the hill and stepping into the waiting room of the ER, I could sense that this was going to last much longer than your 9pm NBC drama. And I was right.

A much better model of the infamous duck bill mask.

Kelli parked the car while I headed in.  Smacked hard by the glare of fluorescent overheads and a big waft of hospital smell, I said hello to the woman who was greeting all the sorry new comers. I explained my situation which I later learned I’d be asked to do around 500 more times, and she said, “OH! You’re a chemo patient.”  And then she swiftly handed me my “duck bill” mask, first line of hard-core germ defense. It looks like all those SARS and Swine Flu masks except it was shaped like a duck’s bill (I wasn’t a pretty site, I guessed, as I was gamely trying to hinge it atop by nose and below my chin.  Kelli confirmed my hunch when she spied me at reception and promptly burst into laughter. Yes, I looked like a tired, bald duck.  I will spare you my own photo.)

You see, low immunity is one of the biggest issues chemo patients face. One of the main side effects of all those powerful drugs is a weakening of the lymphatic system as white blood cells are destroyed. Which means I am much more likely to be sick if exposed to ill people. And this means I might have to delay my next round of chemo until I’m ready to fight with all of my strength again.  That gives those bad guy cancer cells more of a chance to combat my carefully orchestrated chemo treatment plan.  Not good.

Unfortunately, hospitals, and especially the ER, are one of the easiest places to pick up unwanted nastiness.

After telling my story a second time to the admitting nurse who also took my vitals, I learned that they would try to get me a “sealed” room that had a pressurized door to keep out the germs.  Chalk one up for OHSU, I thought.  And then she sent me back to the waiting room to wait for a bed. It was a busy night she said and it could take a long time.

Kelli and I got as comfortable as we could on a slippery blue vinyl love seat. In the corner, a lonely TV featured Buzz Lightyear saving the day, underscored by scratching interference just loud enough to grate on my last nerve.  I tried to go to my happy place and Kelli and I both glued ourselves to our Facebook newsfeeds and NYTimes apps..  Just as I was about to lay my weary head back, she whispered urgently in my ear, “Ker! Lean onto me.  There’s something smeared on the sofa behind your head.”  “What!!? Oh damn, you’re right!  Ewww!”

Let me tell you, it was hard for this tired and worried duck to stay in her no-stress bubble.

On our right was a woman who had clearly seen some hard times that was openly weeping with head in hands.  Very sad.  Given that she was near the children’s area, I couldn’t help but anxiously wonder about her story.

Opposite us was an old guy who, between hacking sounds, made call after call to distant relatives including “PeeWee” and assured them that “sorry to wake you.  Just wanted you to know I’m going to be all right.”  Despite our best efforts, we managed to piece together that he’d called the police and asked them to bring him there for some kind of treatment. I felt for the guy, but to be honest, I think he was enjoying the drama of telling his plight more than anything.  He never stopped talking.

To my left were a couple of young guys.  One of them had apparently chopped the end of his finger off, but that didn’t stop them from going on. And on. Finally they got tired of waiting to get the finger sewn back on and my suspicions were confirmed.  They had a severe case of the munchies.  “Dude.  You know what sounds good?  Taco Bell.  Let’s come back tomorrow.”  “Dude!”  Next thing you know they were leaving and asking the weary door lady how to catch the bus for a 4th meal.  

You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

Kelli and I grimly waited on and two hours later were ushered into a room that had a door, yes, but was anything but hermetically sealed.  In fact it kept sliding slowly open every time you closed it.  But it didn’t matter.  I was just happy to lie down and get out of waiting room purgatory.

A few nurses shuffled in and out and after donning an awkward hospital gown, the next order of business was a urine sample.  I soldiered out trying to avoid my back side being exposed and tiptoed across a minefield of patients that lined the common areas.  This included a miserable fellow who looked strung out and sat hunched on the edge of a rolling bed, picking at a sad hospital meal. Straight across was the restroom. Safe! Or so I thought.

Inside a scene that was worse than most gas station loos greeted me.  It was all I could do to stomach the situation and try to wrestle the complicated procedure of filling the sanitized cup while holding my breath and navigating the littered surroundings with drapy gown. Good thing for the duck bill mask.

I returned back to the relative safe confines of Kelli and my “room.”  It was around midnight and it was all I could do to just go horizontal. Things got marginally better once we asked to turn off the bright overheads and bribed the custodian for a warm blanket (in return for smiles of relief).

But then I met Nurse X.  She was just starting her shift and proceeded again, now for about the 10th time, to ask to review my “situation” and take my vitals as well as my blood. It became very clear, very fast, that no one really had an understanding of cancer patients in this setting.

They were here, of course, for code red situations that required immediate action.  Just one example: we heard the nurse in the next room inquiring loudly… “So were you trying to kill yourself?” Eery and so sad.

How I pined for my chemo nurses and the peaceful assurance of the 7th floor cancer center!  It’s all so relative in my after-cancer world.

X was a very strange and maddening character.  She said things like “Do your flanks hurt when I do this”?  (Just what are flanks, anyway?)  And then there was the “Are you popping”?  I never did figure out what that meant.  She asked me what my pain level was, from 1 to 10.  Then she qualified by saying 10 felt like being on fire and to test me: “have you ever really been on fire?”  My irritable response was “why yes I have, during the natural childbirth of my 2 children.”

At one point, X also said, “Are you really 42?”  “Are you really?” which sounded like, “Are you really that ancient?”  This is a teaching hospital and everyone that attended me looked about 14 years old, including Nurse X, so I probably did seem old.  Finally about 2am, I got sick of my scarf and tore it off my head.  When X came back in I really startled her with my bald self.  Served her right.

Trying to put up a good front!

Finally, after going through many more nurses and doctors and even more explanations and vitals, they ruled out the things they were most worrying and decided I would be sent home, with instructions to call the clinic the next day (after 7 long hours, more rest and fluids was the solution offered).

1541 SE Lexington

I got home around 4am and took the longest shower in the history of 1541 SE Lexington St. I was determined to scour myself of that dreadful experience. And finally I landed with a very long sigh into my waiting bed.

I was grateful. And not just for the memory foam on my queen sized mattress. But also for the grace of having great health care and incredible treatment at the OHSU Knight Cancer Center.

All those ER faces and the stories attached to them kept flashing before me and I realized that my challenging experience was the only kind of “healthcare” many Americans know.

And at thousands for the visit, it is an inefficient and expensive reality. Maybe Obama’s plan will change it.  I hope so. In the meantime, demanding a warm blanket and coping with bad lighting are the least of most people’s concerns.

I continue to gain a little more perspective every day and appreciate all that I have as well as the many fine doctors and nurses trying their best in the ER.

But still. From this point on, I am determined to only have an “emergency” during clinic hours.

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  1. Dawn Weeman
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    The only reason she asked if you were really 42 is because you still look like you are 26 – especially when you wear your cheerleading uniform. Maybe you can wear that to the ER next time.

  2. Ian hoyt
    Posted May 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi cuz, the only time I ever got prompt attention at the E.R was with Abigail, all she had was a bad cough, so next time borrow an infant from a neighbor or fake a head injury. Better yet I agree with Erika no more trips.

  3. Mindy
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Your sense of humor and your writing ability continue to amaze me! I would love to read a book written by you!
    You are in our thoughts daily! You are in our hearts always!
    Hope you and the girls are enjoying snuggling together in your battle blanket. Hugs and kisses to all of you! Ken, Mindy & “The Boys” (i think Hadley calls them “Her Boys”)

    PS McQuin is about to pass JG in height! And JG is not happy about it! Scooter is working on becoming the football stud and is positively buff. Cole scored a 2050 out of 2400 on his SAT as a sophomore! We know who has the brains in the family! And tell Dan that McQuin has taking up pitching baseball…..going to take advantage of being 6’5″ and a lefty!

  4. Anna Cornell
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Kerri, I love your hospital bed photo. You are gorgeous.
    xo Anna

  5. Erika
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Love the post but no more ER visits for you. Now that you know that Clooney, McDreamy, McSteamy, etc. are no where in site there’s no reason to visit again – right :) Not to mention there are much easier ways to get your 4th meal.

    We’re celebrating your half-way mark. Can’t wait to see you after #4. Chin up. XOXO.

  6. Dalla Johannsdottir
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I once met a very handsome american doctor in the ER in Reykjavik, I hit my head in the shower after gym class and he put some stitches in. That experience wasn´t bad at all!
    Eyja has been to the ER twice in two weeks, she hit her head and had her forehead glued together. And last weekend her grandma fell on her and Eyja hurt her foot, grandma was ok. Eyja can´t walk yet but nothing was broken. It was a bit weird to explain how her grandma fell on her.
    We hope for no more ER visits for you! The Alaska pictures on the last entry are great. You and Dan are a handsome couple and Hadley is so cute!
    All the best from volcano island, kisses and hugs!

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