Women in labor. Missing toes. Gunshot wounds. These are common emergency room stories, at least on TV. Although these events can and do occur in real life, most true tales of life in the ER are slightly less dramatic. But that doesn’t mean the ER isn’t a stressful place, where clinicians are focused on the most important bottom line: saving lives.
“There’s very little downtime,” explained Maureen O’Connell, RN, an assistant nurse manager in the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center Emergency Department. “There’s an adrenaline rush when we go into emergency mode — we’re immediately focused on what we need to do for patients.”
Hollywood would have us believe that the ER is a hotbed of unusual injuries and major disasters. In truth, most patients who come to Lahey are coping with ordinary complaints. That’s why people with life-threatening emergencies get preferential treatment: It may be annoying when you’ve been waiting for an hour with a broken toe or a stomachache, but the teenager who’s been in a head-on car crash or the man who’s suffered a massive heart attack requires more immediate attention.
“Our goal is to get the sickest patients the fastest care,” said O’Connell. “There’s never a wait for a true emergency.” Here, she shares some of her most memorable emergency room stories.
Falls are one of the most common causes of trips to the emergency departments.
“We see a lot of people who are suffering injuries after falling down,” said O’Connell. “These aren’t just the elderly but people of all ages and at all times of year.” While many falls may only result in minor injuries, others are more serious. Patients taking anticoagulant or blood-thinning medications are more likely to experience bleeding, including bleeding in the brain, which is identified with imaging scans.
Heart problems are another common issue that brings people in the ER.
“We recently treated a man who had suffered a heart attack,” O’Connell recounted. “His wife was actually a retired nurse and was questioning whether she should have brought him in early. A lot of our work is comforting people and telling them they’re doing the right thing.”
Lahey also treats an increasing number of patients who have experienced a drug overdose.
“We just saw a young person the other day who overdosed and didn’t make it,” O’Connell recalled. “His family thought he was doing better and didn’t realize he was using again.” Often, ER clinicians are able to successfully treat patients with Narcan. These patients usually receive recommendations for various drug treatment resources, although it’s up to them to decide whether they’ll follow through on getting clean.
One of O’Connell’s most heartbreaking emergency room stories involves a teenager who was killed in a car crash the night before Thanksgiving.
“We see mothers cry all the time, but I’ll never forget the howling of his father crying at his bedside,” she said. “I was driving to Thanksgiving dinner the next day and had to pull over because I was in tears.” It’s a somber reminder of the need for ER clinicians to practice good self care in the face of devastating loss.
“We have to tuck those feelings away to deal with later on so we can keep helping patients in the moment,” O’Connell explained.
The Downright Weird
With plenty of new buildings going up in the area, it’s no wonder that construction accidents are a source of visits to the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center Emergency Department.
“We see some strange injuries, like those caused by power tools,” said O’Connell. “Recently, a man walked in with a nail in his head. His buddy was using a nail gun — and missed.” The hospital’s proximity to hotels and function halls makes it a frequent stop for drunken wedding guests, too.
“More than once, we’ve had someone who drank too much at a wedding. It’s pretty surreal to see brides and grooms hanging out in the waiting room with the other patients,” said O’Connell.
Despite the occasional laugh or cry, O’Connell stresses that she and her colleagues in the ER love what they do.
“You have to be a bit of a medical detective, and it’s a challenge every day,” she explained. “We have a great camaraderie that keeps us going for our patients.”