Bad day at the ER

I’ve had a mastectomy, I warned the nurse who was bending over me to open my gown and place sticky electrodes on me for the EKG.  “Hmmm?” she asked, pausing a moment in case there was something she didn’t fully understand.  Just warning you, I said, since I’ve apparently scared nurses before, and they didn’t react well.  “Oh, honey,” she told me, “No problem.  I worked in oncology for years before I came down here.  I’ve seen it all.”  We made chit-chat about the hospital’s oncology ward, one of the better ones, and one where they really take a look at the needs of the whole person.  I remembered a good experience I’d had up there, with a Reiki-performing chaplain, and lay calmly while she smiled, finished attaching electrodes and performed the test.  “Another nurse will be right in.”

And with that, Nurse #3 swept in, not bothering to take my history (the first two didn’t either) or ask me questions beyond, “Trouble breathing?” before she told me that she would be inserting an IV for the CT scan.  I have chemo veins, I told her.  I’m a tough stick, because the chemo shriveled my veins.  “Oh, that’s no problem.  I can stick anyone,” she scoffed, and took a look at my arm.  I showed her which vein usually works, and which one they used for my bloodwork on Monday, at the oncologist.  She swabbed the inside of my elbow, and stabbed at a vein.  She didn’t get it.  She stabbed again, slightly farther up on the same vein.  This time, she got it, but she couldn’t get a flow started.  (Chemo veins.)  She wiggled the end in the vein, trying to get blood to flow. (Ouch.)  After a few moments that felt like hours, I began to have trouble.

I’m going to pass out, I warned her.  I knew I would, because I have before when they’ve had trouble with my veins.  (I had also warned her of the possibility before we started, but she blew that off too.)  I’m getting closer, I warned her.  My husband looked into my eyes and said, “Stay with us, honey.  She’s working on it.”  The nurse stabbed another vein, the one that had just been used on Monday.  It didn’t work.  I continued to talk, trying to keep myself upright, and telling them that I was passing out, because I was.

When I came to, my husband was there, looking calmly into my eyes and speaking.  The nurse was frantically stabbing my arm, having stopped only because he asked her to, knowing that I would awake with a jolt.  The doctor swept in, asking what was going on, as the nurse continued to try to get a vein.  I wasn’t okay, I told her.  I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands.  And it was getting worse.  As I began to lose consciousness again, the doctor lowered my head (I was still propped up!) and directed my husband to hold up my feet.  He held me up and gently put his hand on my legs, to let me know that he was there, with me, supporting me.

The nurse continued to try to get a vein.  I can’t feel my legs from the knees down, I said, and I can’t feel my hands.  I can’t feel my elbows.  I can’t feel my legs at all now.  What’s happening?  I’m scared.  I’m going to pass out again.  I’m scared.  I kept talking as if somehow that would help.  As if by communicating what was happening inside my body they could stop it from the outside.  I could see the nurse bending over my poor arm, having no luck with the IV stick at all, although she insisted she just needed another minute.  I could hear the doctor, standing at my head, saying, “I’m going to stick it in her neck.”  I could hear myself saying, no, not my neck.  That was so bad before.  Don’t let them put it in my neck.  The nurse tried one more time, getting a vein, but the IV bag wouldn’t flow quickly enough, and then I began to lose consciousness again.

“Her blood pressure is dropping!” said someone, one of the many nurses who had somehow appeared, crowding the room, “Heart rate 28,” said another.  “Get the crash cart!” yelled the doctor.  “Where should I put the contrast drinks?” asked a nurse hovering on the edges. “Not now,” said the doctor, and repeated, “Where is the crash cart?  Go. Get. The. Crash. Cart.”  As they worked on me, all I could see were worried faces and bent heads, and I continued losing feeling in my legs and arms.  “I’m going to stick this in your neck, now,” said the doctor, “I have no choice.”  As it went in, I hardly felt it, although I sure remembered the fear from the time before.  “I’ve almost got it!” said the nurse, but thankfully the doctor didn’t listen, and started IV fluids through my neck, in addition to the two flowing into my arm.  “Wide open,” she directed, squeezing the topmost IV fluid bag tight, and then “Her pressure is 40 over 20.  WHERE IS THAT CRASH CART?”  It must have come in then, because they slapped the paddles on me (Did you know they’re like stickers now?  Although they do cover most of your chest.) as the doctor directed, for the third or fourth time, “She needs a room.  She needs a room NOW.”

I would find out later that I needed a room because they didn’t have the appropriate monitoring equipment in the first exam area, and they needed to see my blood pressure and heart rate return to normal.  Which it wasn’t.

I’m a little fuzzy on what happened next, but I was soon being wheeled down the hall into an ER room, with new nurses, and the return of the CT nurse, telling me to drink the contrast, when I couldn’t even sit up … or feel my arms or legs, from my belly button on down.  I was in no shape to go take a test, and my husband stood between the nurse and me and said,


“Get the doctor.  I want the doctor to clear her for this test before you take her away.  She just had a problem, and I want to be sure that everyone knows her status before she drinks anything.”  The CT nurse skittered away, with a mumbled comment, but the doctor soon returned.  I’m so cold, I said, and they layered blanket after blanket from the warmer on me, and my husband (I wish I could use his name here, but you all know I don’t) held my hand and stayed with me, telling me that I would be okay.

I asked about the kids.  I asked for stories of the kids.  I wanted to hear that they were okay with the friend we’d left them with (I knew they were), that they were happy, and I wanted to focus on them and how much I loved them and how much I wanted to pull through this and be with them once more.  He told me story after story, distracting me, helping me focus on them while I warmed up, while my blood pressure rose, while things returned, at last, to normal.  Nurses came in and out, but I didn’t see them.  I didn’t hear them.  All I could hear was my husband, the love of my life, telling me about our children, the loves of our lives, and how we would be home soon.

And in that way, my temperature slowly rose.  My blood pressure returned to a low normal.  The boules of saline rushed into my veins unnoticed and my body returned to the body I’d known before.

The imperfect, scarred, swollen, uncomfortable body I’d known before, and I settled back into it, grateful that I could feel it again, hopeful that I would be okay, and would be back in time for the children’s bedtime, and I could snuggle them to sleep once again.

We spent another six hours in the ER after that, having tests and waiting for results, but finally I was cleared to go home.  The tests were negative.  No pulmonary embolism.  No metastasis.  But still, it would take days to fully recover from my bad day at the ER.

43 Responses to Bad day at the ER

  1. jr says:

    The brusque culture of ERs just shocks and amazes me. I used to volunteer in one, and was warned beforehand that I had better be tough and competent, because there wouldn’t be any hand-holding: “these guys aren’t the touchy-feely type.” But where else are people so vulnerable, so afraid?

    My mom, who was profoundly afraid of anaesthesia after a pretty traumatic surgery as a child, once went into full respiratory arrest on waking up alone after an operation as an adult. I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t have happened if she’d been allowed someone to hold her hand and gently and lovingly talk her through it the way your husband did.

    Glad you’re OK.

    • whymommy says:

      Thanks. And this is yet another reason why I believe no one should have to be in the ER alone. AND I hope that my friends here locally will call me if they ever need to go — I’ll watch their kids or sit with them in the ER as an advocate, any time of day or night.

      You MUST bring an advocate to the ER if you can. Surprisingly, it makes a world of difference.

      • Lisa says:

        I know who I’m calling! She’s been there for me before ;). Call anytime!! I’m glad Superman straightened them out!
        Much Love!

      • Liz says:

        I 100% agree with you. It’s so crucial to have someone with you who’s an effective advocate, who can negotiate and defend a person at their most vulnerable. Brutality, indifference to pain or anything a patient says, mistakes, casually being ignored. ER workers do a lot of good, but they’re not all kind and they’re not all smart. And the bureaucratic nature of it is inherently bad. They screw up!

  2. slouchy says:

    Awful. I am so sorry.

  3. Angela says:

    What a nightmare. I’m so glad your husband was there for you. And that you’re home and ok now. How scary!

  4. Amy says:

    I am so glad you are ok, and so angry that this happened to you in the first place.

  5. pgoodness says:

    how horrible, I am sorry that happened to you; so thankful your husband was there with you.

  6. Jennifer says:

    What a nightmare. I’m so sorry this happened, but so glad you have such a wonderful partner in life to love you through all the hardship. Lots of hugs.

  7. Spruce Hill says:

    Gosh Susan that is so horrible! I can’t even imagine, I am sitting here with tears in my eyes rolling down my cheeks. Wishing I could give yu a big hug! Your Hubby Is so awesome!

  8. Susan K says:


    I don’t know what to say. How awful. How frightening.

    It must be a terribly difficult job to work in an ER. Especially an ER in this country, where so many of the patients aren’t emergencies. To find the balance between speed and efficiency and nurture and compassion, while at the same time maintaining your own sanity and peace. Day in and day out, too much empathy must wear you down.

    Thank God for that wonderful husband of yours!

  9. Spacemom says:

    Oh S-
    I am sorry you had a crash. I would too with all of that stabbing. Did they ever figure out what caused the breathing issues?

    Thinking of you!

  10. upsidebackwards says:

    Thank goodness WhyDaddy was there! That is so awful, especially after what had happened last time. Did they even figure out what exactly caused you to go so low?
    I know this experience has left you more and newer scars, and not just on your arms, but I am going to hold on to that last paragraph. No PE. No mets. Those two sentences have me cheering. Long-distance hugs!

  11. Niksmom says:

    Oh, God, I am so horrified that you had such an awful experience AGAIN. I hope you are able to write a letter to the Director of Nursing and copy the chief of staff. They need to know their people are not doing their jobs well.

    Your husband is getting my vote for husband of the year. Thank God he was with you.

  12. kgirl says:

    Horrible. I almost passed out just reading about it. Glad you are recovering.

  13. My god…

    It’s unimaginable, that people at their most vulnerable could be treated that way. Thank god for your husband and your own will to pull through.


  14. alice c says:

    I am so sad that you had such a traumatic experience – that sort of memory never leaves you.

  15. Magpie says:

    Oh honey, I’m sorry. Hope you’re better.

  16. Heather says:

    Oh I have a horrid ER story or two of my own and feel sick reading your account which I’m sure doesn’t even match the reality of it. So glad your dear sweet husband was right there with you.

  17. Horrible. I am in tears. And to think you went there for a stupid CT scan that could have been done WITHOUT the ER except for your stupid insurance company. It makes my blood boil.

    I hope that crash cart has a BIG FAT price tag that they have to pay now. But there’s no price that helps you recover from what you went through.

  18. justenjoyhim says:

    Oh my, Susan, that’s awful. I am so sorry you went through that. I had tears in my eyes reading that. Huge *hugs* to you.

    (and thank you so very much for the wonderfully kind and thoughtful gift you sent me; I appreciate it)

  19. Susan,

    I am practically shaking from this post…terrified of what was coming.

    I’m thinking of you, hoping for the best.


  20. Nicole says:

    I had tears from this, and am so glad you are ok and had your wonderful husband there. We are so lucky that our hosp where we had our kids have treated them so well on our ER visits , it did seem to be an anomoly.

  21. MaureenM says:

    As a nurse, your experience troubles and saddens me. It appears that the ER nurse was so hell-bent on getting a line in you that she completely forgot to pay attention to anything else around her. And that’s just plain wrong and unsafe. I would definitely suggest writing a letter to the Director of Nursing about what happened.

    From a physiological perspective, it sounds like you experienced a vasovagal nerve response to your phlebotomy torture. Although definitely scary, this is a pretty common reaction to stress and pain. As in your case, it can be treated quickly with IV fluids and a drug called atropine, and should not leave any lasting effects.

    I’m very glad to read that in the end you did receive very good news. What a relief.

    You are truly an inspiring person. I really enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for sharing so much of your life.


  22. Amelie says:

    Oh Susan, what a scary and terrible experience. I’m so glad your husband was at your side.

  23. That is terrifying.

    I am so glad you are still here.

  24. Donna says:

    You deserved better…a lot of people do. I am very glad to hear that your husband was with you— for more than one reason. That nurse had tunnel vision at your expense. So glad it wasn’t due to mets. Rest-please if you can…that sounded sooo scary.

  25. Sheri says:


    Tears are streaming down my face. What a terrifying experience. You know I live right across from our local hospital. Please feel free to call me if you or the boys need any support around hospital visits (or anything else).

    You handle all of your health concerns with such grace and perspective. I truly admire you.

  26. Oh Susan. I am so so so sorry. Thank goodness for your amazing husband and for your amazing willpower to stay with us. Sending you lots of love!

  27. marty says:

    I’m just mad. Mad that they kept sticking you. Mad that they didn’t listen to you. Mad that you had to go to the ER in the first place. Mad at the whole thing.

    I hope you are better now – that your arm has recovered and your breathing is normal.


  28. Bon says:

    this has me in tears, Susan. i’m so sorry. and so glad you had your husband there, your lovely husband. give him a thank you for us all, will you?

    i’m also glad there was no embolism, no metastasis. but wow. wow.

  29. De in D.C. says:

    I am so sorry you had to go through that ordeal. The logic of insurance companies is truly mind-boggling at times! They would rather pay for the cost of an ER visit than actually make a decision and approve a simple test? Asinine!

  30. NYFriend says:

    I am so glad you are still with us!! Bad day is a serious understatement. I am so very glad that WhyDaddy was there with you. I am in shock over here, and I am so sorry you had to go through such an awful, horrific experience. I am happy to hear that the tests were negative though.

    Super big hugs to you and all the boys…

  31. donna says:

    Please update us….how are you doing? You have my mom radar on alert. Did they ever figure out what was wrong? Hugs- Donna

  32. Stimey says:

    Oh jeez. I am so sorry. That is horrible.

  33. I am relieved that you are better and feel horror at your experience. Thank goodness your husband was with you and could effectively advocate for you.

  34. Oh, Susan. You are so brave, I can’t even believe it. Braver than brave. I am just so thankful that you’re home and are all right and that your husband is the saint he is.

    You are an amazing writer; thank you for sharing this with us–it’s a reality check, and it so puts things into perspective for me, right when I needed it.

  35. Amy@UWM says:

    So sorry to hear about this experience! Emergency rooms are supposed to make people better, not worse! Hoping you’re doing much better now. Thinking of you…

  36. NoRegrets says:

    so sorry. and thank you loving husband too for me.

  37. Aunt Becky says:

    I am so glad that your husband was with you. Wow. What a hideous experience that was for you.

  38. adkamanda says:

    I am so glad that he (special sound that his name must have as you say it, think it, when writing this) was there with you. And that you are here.

  39. I got goosebumps reading this. Take care and be well.

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