Here's Something: Zen and the art of emergency health care

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For me, the topic of health care has been a mostly theoretical and political one since Obamacare debuted.

But two Saturday nights ago, in the throes of severe dehydration after running a half-marathon, the need for health care became real.

After seeing a TV commercial for a hospital emergency department, where I fled for help, I’ve been reflecting on my treatment there. The commercial, which I saw for the first time the day after my visit, promised speed and good care.

I had vomited and suffered diarrhea almost constantly for about eight hours before I arrived at 8:45 p.m., dizzy and nauseous. I filled out insurance-related paperwork before sitting down in a brightly lit reception area, where I was surrounded by chatty moms and children playing games. Seeking but not finding solace amid the cacophony, I brought over a wastebasket in case I had to vomit and did my best to recline in my chair.

After 45 minutes I happily heard my name called and was ushered into a room for an initial consultation. Then I was led into the emergency room and given a bed. I was so relieved, thinking I’d soon get intravenous bags of life-restoring saline and nausea medication. I was wrong. Nurses informed me that this particular Saturday night was turning into the busiest of the year.

“Why did I run that stupid half-marathon? And why did I eat that piece of stomach-turning, greasy pizza afterward?” I kept asking myself.

Long story short, I was surprised by how much I had to self-advocate. I had to ask for a blanket because I was freezing. I lay in bed until about 1 a.m. before receiving my first IV drip. I had to alert the nurse over the intercom when the bag was empty – three times. No one even replied when I requested cold water for my dry mouth. Even a doctor on duty agreed that getting saline shouldn’t take that long.

My experience was on a busy night in a packed ER. You may be treated differently. My nurse thanked me for my patience when I finally left around 2:15 a.m. – not really feeling much better, but just wanting to get out of there.

I’ve had stressful jobs and consider myself empathetic, so I know the nurses and doctors were doing the best they could. I was trying to forget the whole experience until I saw that TV commercial. I’m writing out of concern for those who watch the commercial and arrive at the ER expecting what they saw on TV. Like most “as-seen-on-TV” products, the consumer is left wanting.

The hospital’s advertising also reminded me of Robert Pirsig, the recently deceased Maine author who wrote “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The philosophical – and somewhat psychedelic – book uses a motorcycle trip to explore what “quality” means. I remember the brush with insanity the main character had attempting to define the word. The book concludes that “quality” is unattainable because it’s a relative term, and people define it in their own way with their own backgrounds.

Same with the ER’s motto. If you’ve suffered Third World medicine, yes, being in and out of the ER in six hours with a clean bed, needles and IVs is great quality. However, if you’re not expecting to self-advocate and wait, then you’ll be disappointed with the quality of care.

Of course, I realize the nurses and doctors want to give great care. They are saints, and I told them that. But health care is also a matter of money. The hospital had two doctors on that Saturday night. From what I gathered, they work 12-hour shifts. Should there have been five or 10 doctors on each shift? That would improve “quality,” but at great expense.

Being a health-care administrator must be a tough job, determining how long the patients have to wait – and suffer – before getting help. All I know is that my suffering was exacerbated by not knowing when I would finally be treated. I would have appreciated being kept informed, rather than relying on my Zen mind tricks to ease my own suffering.

The experience also showed me just how important emergency health care is and how we as a society need to make it better. But like Pirsig’s protagonist, that elusive goal may drive us all crazy.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.