Nightmare on Huron Street: Seven Hours in the ER

Yep. ER = Emergency Room. Not a place you want to spend time but if you have to go there, be prepared—to spend time. I had a late night medical emergency that convinced me to go to the ER. Before I go any further in this report, I’ll say that I’m fine. The emergency was a blood pressure spike and the ER team handled it well. I’ll have a couple more tests and maybe new medication. 

About 1am, I woke up with a funny feeling of pressure in my chest. Something told me my heart was misbehaving. I got up and took a blood pressure reading on my home monitor. It was unusually high, so of course I did a web search. Cleveland Clinic’s advice was to get medical attention. So I dressed, got a taxi and went to the Northwestern Hospital emergency department on Huron Street. Checked in at 2:05am, told the nurse I had very high blood pressure and was afraid I might be having a heart attack. She told me to sit down and someone would call me to be checked. 

It’s a good thing I wasn’t having a heart attack. An hour and a quarter later, a nurse passed through the ER calling out in a stentorian voice, LASTNAMEBISHOP. She took me to a cubicle, heard my story, took my BP (now higher than it was at home), asked me if I had other symptoms of a heart attack. I didn’t have any of those symptoms, which was a relief. She herded me back to the properly named waiting room to wait to see an ER doctor. It was 3:30am.

His blue bowling shirt
was stained with what
I hoped was food.

Now the real waiting began. It was Sunday night so maybe it was less gory than a Saturday night. I didn’t see anyone carried in bleeding out from a knife attack or gunshot wounds. A man sitting near me was sleeping in his chair, mask below his chin. A security guard woke him and told him to put his mask over his nose and mouth. The man fell asleep again. A few minutes later, he fell off his chair onto the floor. He didn’t even wake up right away, just lay there in a puddle of orange—orange pants and orange shirt. A security guard woke him and told him to sit on the chair. He did. He also pulled his shirt up to expose his entire chest and belly and fell asleep again. Not a pretty picture. 

It was the middle of the night and unsurprisingly, people were sleepy. The only seating was straight chairs, some with arms. Blankets were in a warmer cabinet. Two men pulled their hoodies over their heads, wrapped themselves in blankets and spread out over two chairs to sleep. One of them kept coughing and hacking. I moved as far away as I could get. 

A guy named Charlie kept dashing in, to sprawl in a wheelchair. His blue bowling shirt was stained with what I hoped was food; his white hair stood up spikily all over his head; but it wasn’t done with gel. He was maskless. The nurse who was keeping a lookout at the entrance seemed to know him. She kept hollering at him. Charlie, you have to wear a mask. Get out of here. And with the help of a security guard, she pushed him out the door. He returned again a little later and the act was repeated. I’m not wearing your fucking mask, he kept saying. I had the feeling he used the waiting room as a resting place. Maybe he’s homeless, I thought—or unhoused (the term preferred today). 

It was the middle of the night but I was awake. Totally awake. Yes, I could have read a book on my phone. (I was just finishing Isabel Allende’s masterpiece, Eva Luna.) I tried and couldn’t concentrate. I was fixated on the passing of humanity in the waiting room. And I said to myself, I should be taking notes because this is raw material. 

Three and a half hours passed; I could see daylight outside the big glass doors. Finally, LASTNAMEBISHOP was called again. 

Now it was about 6:30am and I was led to an ER bed to change into one of those hospital gowns (I use the term loosely). A nurse and a resident wrapped my arm in a cuff for constant BP readings, attached an IV to my arm for repeated blood draws, and pasted electrodes on my chest for repeated EKGs. Soon they pronounced me almost healthy and left me to await the real ER doc. Now I was determined that I wasn’t going to let them admit me to the hospital. If I was almost healthy, I was going home. As soon as possible.

She cried inconsolably,
sobbing loudly,
occasionally shrieking
in agony.

The entertainment was aural now since my bed was curtained off from the rest of the ER denizens. Equipment, stretchers and wheelchairs rolled by. A woman across from me began crying, then sobbing loudly, inconsolably. A nurse and then a doctor came by to ask her what was wrong. They asked repeatedly and sympathetically. She continued sobbing, occasionally shrieking in agony. I figured either someone she knew was injured or worse—or perhaps she was deranged. She kept sobbing without cease. Finally, half an hour later, she was wheeled off and silence (relatively) prevailed. 

Waiting, waiting. And the waiting wasn’t nearly as interesting as it was in the crowded waiting room. Two hours later, the ER doc arrived with another doc and the resident. Another blood test. The doctor wanted to know about my exercise routine,  my diet, my sleep habits. The tests were all looking good. No heart damage, blood tests normal. He said—to my relief—that with no evidence of heart damage and no symptoms of heart attack, the BP spikes needed followup, but I didn’t need to be hospitalized. 

So at 9am, all the attachments were removed; I got dressed and went home. Exhausted, from a night sitting up in the waiting room. Happy to make a cup of tea, eat breakfast and get ready for the day.

PS. Yes, I’m doing the followup. Stress echocardiogram this week; appointment with my internist next week.

Pro tip. If you need urgent care for a cold, flu, injury, infection or many other health problems, you can go to an immediate care center. Northwestern, for instance, has 25 of them in Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs. Amita and Northshore do too. They’re open seven days a week and most of them take walk-ins. Hours are typically all day into early evening. I’ve used them in the past and the wait is usually fairly brief. Some of them give current wait times on their websites. That wouldn’t have worked for my situation; the urgent care center would have sent me over to the ER for care. Personally, I would not go to the ER again unless it was absolutely necessary.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.