Look, I know we’re in a recession.
I know that times are tight, money is a problem, and hospital emergency rooms are overcrowded and underfunded. I sympathize. Really, I do. But I had a very difficult experience on Thursday night as a direct result of a budget cut that eliminated the phlebotomists in the emergency room at our local hospital — one that may have put me in danger — and I’m writing to tell you about it.
I arrived at the E.R. at 8:30 p.m. with a high fever and a history of Stage IIIC inflammatory breast cancer. When the E.R. nurse came to draw my blood 3 hours later, I told her that I had had a lot of chemo and my veins were pretty bad. My right arm is strictly off-limits because of the lymphedema, so the veins in my left always have to be used for blood draws, and they’re not fully over the chemo yet. The nurse scoffed and told me, “There’s no such thing as chemo veins. I’ve never had a problem.” She put a small IV in my hand, and, 20 minutes later, picked my best vein (the only one people can usually get) for the second blood draw, a small one.
By the time the preliminary tests came back and the doctor determined that I would need a CT scan, that nurse had gone to lunch. The doctor reached for my arm to be sure that the IV was in place, and was surprised to find that the IV stub was the wrong size. It couldn’t be used for the CT because the contrast (iodine) couldn’t be flushed in fast enough. She began to look for another usable vein, and was frustrated not to find one. She called in another nurse. No luck. So the doctor began to try to prick new veins, but failed repeatedly to draw blood. She decided to reuse the one that had been stuck earlier, sticking it closer to my heart in an attempt to tap it for new blood. But it had been used already, and the blood clotted in the needle. She jabbed a nearby vein, but it blew. While I recoiled in pain, she tried — and blew — another vein, leaving me with two cm-sized purple scars and soreness on my arm today.
All this time, she ranted loudly about the incompetence of the first nurse, who took my good vein for a simple draw, leaving her nothing for the CT, when a CT was likely from the beginning. Over and over she blasted her, alternating her incompetence with pronouncements on my need for, “an immediate CT, one which you should have had days ago!” Finally, she said, “We can’t wait any longer,” and told the 6 ft tall male nurse to invert the bed, putting my head as low as it would go. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me, “I’m going to put this needle into your neck.”
Needless, to say, I began to panic and shake, and had a very difficult time of it. She did get the needle in, and the CT technician arrived soon after (apparently the IV only became an issue the minute my turn had arrived for the machine) to take me for my test. He, on the other hand, was nothing but kind, with encouraging words. The pillow on the CT table was so soft, and he talked to me like an equal, not a science experiment. By the time my test was over, I was calm again. He offered me the pillow and a blanket, two amenities not easy to come by in the E.R., and I was finally able to be comfortable while I waited for the test results. Well, as comfortable as you can be with an IV in one hand, two blown veins in the elbow, and an IV sticking out from the side of my neck like Herman Munster.
Test results that would show whether or not I had cancer again and my lifestopwatch would have to be reset. Because, you see, it wasn’t enough that the E.R. doc scared me with her jabbing and her frustration with the nurse-who-wasn’t-a-phlebotomist, but the E.R. doc also went on and on about whether or not it was cancer recurring — an occurence which my oncologist (at another hospital) has since assured me is almost never marked by a sustained high fever.
Days later, I’m still shaken by this, and when the phlebotomist came in today for a blood draw, I braced myself for a difficult time, warning her that my veins were shot in the same way that I had the original E.R. nurse. She saw the purple clots and very carefully chose a vein nearby that I couldn’t even see. The blood draw was quick and almost painless. It was incredible. I asked, “Is it because we’re on the oncology ward that you’re so good with chemo veins?”
“No,” she answered, “I’m a phlebotomist.”
I’ve since found out that the hospital fired or reassigned the phlebotomists working in the E.R. as a cost-cutting measure. There’s not a single one down there. And that includes the nurse who scoffed at me when I told her from an E.R. bed, “I have chemo veins.”