Life Events: ER and COVID-19

Let me start with this: I am OK.

Saturday morning I was ok. Got up, played with Remy. Did a bit of picking up to vacuum the living room. At 11 I took Remy upstairs to cuddle with daddy while I made a cup of tea and used my inhaler. I felt my asthma flaring up and I hadn’t even done any real cleaning yet!

My husband came downstairs sometime after 11:30 and looked at me and said, “You look like you need to use the nebulizer.”

I always argue this. I hate the nebulizer. I didn’t argue this time. I did need it. I could feel it. I hate it, but I know breathing is kind of important.

I use the nebulizer, but I still feel like I just can’t get my breath. Every inhale hurts.

I log into my health insurance site to get a teledoc. I don’t know what else to try. I’m #23 in line for the teledoc. I wait. My hubby is dealing with Remy, who is cranky. We haven’t had lunch.

My sister drops off wings for us about 1pm, not that I can eat or watch Remy long enough to let my husband eat. I am beginning to fight panic, I do not want to go to the ER. I do not want to expose myself, my husband, my son, or the rest of my family.

I think it’s almost 2 when I am still #10 in line for the teledoc. I still can’t breathe, every inhale feels worse than the last. The panic is real and it is all I can do not to burst into tears. Logically, I know crying will make everything worse.

We call my sister and have her come watch the baby. When she arrives, he starts screaming (empathetic little snot, I swear). My husband has to put on my socks, I can’t bend over because of the pain in my diaphragm on every breath. With socks and shoes (my pregnancy shoes are still around and slip on nice and easy), my husband plans to take me to the hospital. My best friend is a nurse, and despite them not being the absolute closest, she recommends either Northside or St. Joseph’s. We head to St. Joe’s.

My husband isn’t allowed to come in with me. Hell, he isn’t allowed to drop me off at the emergency room door. They buzz him into a doctor’s parking lot right next to the emergency room and I have to lean on him to get to the door. He is told by the nurse he isn’t allowed to even come inside, he will have to go home.

The nurse at the door puts a mask on me. She helps me to a wheelchair and wheels me to the check in where they check my insurance. My husband is outside leaving his contact information with the outside-the-hospital nurse station. I am alone, I can’t really talk, and it hurts.

Because I’m having “acute respiratory distress” I am triaged with other respiratory patients – where they are processing flu and COVID-19 patients. Fortunately, the hospital isn’t busy. There is an older woman who is taken into the triage room just as I arrive there. The nurse leaves me in the wheelchair to wait my turn.

When the older lady comes out the nurse takes about 2 minutes to clean the room. The two of us patients are well more than ten feet apart, and both of us have masks on us. This has been torture, but it gave me time to pull my rocketbook out of my purse. I outline what’s going on so when they ask (inevitably) hopefully I won’t have to try to speak.

They take my temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. Temperature 98.1. Blood pressure 148/110. Pulse 108. Oxygen 98%. The nurse writes up the information and then goes to make sure a room that should be open really is open.

The woman who was in the triage waiting room when I was brought in is still there when the nurse wheels me out and down the hall to the actual ER rooms. I am put in the room directly in front of the nurse’s station. I can hear bits and pieces of what they are saying out there, and since listening to that is a hell of a lot better than letting myself focus on the panic and pain I am feeling… I try.

The triage nurse who brought me in/back tells the doctor I’m not flu-symptomatic. I’m an asthmatic and can’t breathe. They discuss how to handle masks. They assign a stethoscope to my room (to my room – more in a moment). They discuss whether I am allowed a nebulizer treatment. They put in the request to have the respiratory specialist come to my room.

It feels like hours, but a nurse comes in with a face shield, mask, yellow tissue-paper gown over her own to put heart monitors on me and does an EKG. Clearly they want to make sure this isn’t a heart attack (I would have been mildly surprised if that turned out to be the case, and terrified). They aren’t in a panic or rush to get this because my oxygen saturation is so high. I am getting oxygen so my cells aren’t necessarily dying right now.

The doctor finally comes in and washes his hands and puts on a pair of clean gloves. He is wearing a yellow paper-tissue gown over his scrubs. He listens to my lungs with a bright orange stethoscope, which he then hangs from the cabinet in the room. He doesn’t get to use his own tools, this is now mine (so to speak) and will not touch another patient. He tells me my breathing is “course” not wheezing. I’ve written down that I know I’m fighting panic so he says he’s going to see about getting me something for that.

Before he leaves, he throws away the gloves he wore and uses the hand sanitizer. He rips off the yellow tissue-paper gown and throws it away in the trash can by the door. There is another discussion outside my door, now the respiratory specialist is there and they are clearly arguing over what is the latest recommendation and requirement for a patient who can’t breathe well. They are arguing if I am “bad enough” to merit the more serious treatment options.

The portable x-ray is the first thing. They have everything wrapped in plastic, and the technician touches me as little as possible, uses clean gloves and sanitizer (both before and after putting on the gloves). As she goes to leave, she strips the plastic from the machine and puts it in the trashcan by the door. No one else will touch that plastic on that x-ray machine. She strips off her yellow tissue-paper gown and throws it away too.

The respiratory specialist finally comes in with two inhalers. I’m apparently not approved for a nebulizer treatment and honestly I don’t mind. I’ve already tried that damnit. By now the pain has intensified on my right side, literally like my diaphragm just can’t expand. In my own head, I am screaming “something is wrong with my diaphragm, this isn’t my lungs” – but I can’t talk and my purse with my rocketbook is on the other side of the room. Before the respiratory specialist leaves, I gasp out a request for my purse. This gives me my rocketbook and my phone. I can finally message my husband and give him an update.

Time has little meaning when all you can do is focus on each breath. It could have been ten minutes, it could have been forty. I suspect it was closer to ten minutes because it felt like hours. The blood pressure machine beeps madly every time it checks my blood pressure. I look once and it’s 152/96. My pulse stays near 100. I stop looking, but I can’t stop listening to the machine wailing the warning that my body is in an unhappy place.

A nurse comes in and puts and IV in my left arm. This is the worst needle stick I’ve ever had. She makes me bleed. And not just into the vials she’s collecting. There is a splash of my blood on the bed the size of a good sand-dollar and I don’t know how much on the floor (she had to clean it up and I was too focused on breathing to lean over to look). She collects about five vials of blood, gives me a pain-something medicine, a panic-something medicine, a saline drip (which is good since at this point it’s at least 3:30pm and I haven’t eaten since about 7am and that was just a banana), on the saline drip she puts magnesium sulfate and into the IV a shot of some kind of steroid.

I am left alone.

This is the worst. I am still in pain, telling myself the pain meds will kick in. The room begins to spin, I couldn’t have told you up from down or left from right. I feel my head rolling as my sense of balance vanishes. I am nauseated and gag at least once (gagging when your diaphragm is in pain hurts like hell by the way). I look for a panic button – there isn’t one I can see. I consider trying to stand and get to the door, but I know I can’t. I am afraid of causing myself more harm. I might have blacked out. I might have fallen asleep. I’m not sure.

Sometime later I am aware again and the pain is mildly less. I no longer am breathing with the ragged edge of panic. I no longer feel a need to vomit. I still have no idea how much time has passed, but the heart, blood pressure, and pulse machines are no longer screaming. When the doctor comes in, and listens to my lungs with the orange stethoscope, I know immediately I am going to be discharged. Again, he’s wearing a yellow tissue-paper gown which gets thrown away as he leaves the room. I message to see how I am going to get home.

It isn’t very long now and a nurse comes in to discharge me. They have a folder of prescriptions they want me to fill. My parents are apparently outside and waiting for me at the emergency room entrance. A security guard comes to make sure I’ll be out in a “timely” fashion which I will. At this point, I just want to go home.

I can now walk, though I am extremely glad the ER entrance is not very far. My parents have come to pick me up and I get in their car with a sense of relief and exhaustion. We stop at CVS on the way home to get the prescriptions started. My parents take me home. All I wanted was a hot shower, real food, and pajamas.

As I write this on Monday evening, my diaphragm is almost completely back to normal. I feel it twinge when I yawn or hiccup. Sunday I was still sore and about as strong as a kitten. I couldn’t pick up my kid without pain.

I am convinced I pulled my diaphragm. The only way they could have diagnosed that for certain would have been a CT scan and I don’t entirely blame them for not doing it. They wanted to free that bed up for a potentially more scary case than mine. I hate that I needed help when so much is going on in the world – believe me, if I could have gotten it under control by myself, I would have.

Now, the big question I am asking myself – could I have been exposed to COVID-19? I mean, yes. I was at a hospital and that is a hotbed of where the worst of patients are likely to be. But if I was exposed it was not by one of the staff of the hospital. They were paranoid. They were professional. They were amazing.


4 thoughts on “Life Events: ER and COVID-19”

    1. Thank you. I hope for a lot of people the fears around COVID are a distant and strange thing. But perhaps this kind of up-close look into it will help people understand why social distancing and shelter-in-place are so important. If the ER had been busier. If there had been more people around me coughing I would be even more frightened because what choices did I have?


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