How can it be that in America in the 21st century, someone with top-notch health insurance can sit for hours in what is supposed to be a fairly decent hospital with no triage?

I was about an hour from home, driving back from New York, when my husband called me.  I answered the phone (using my hands-free device, in case you were wondering) and heard yelling and swearing: from what I could figure out, he had been opening a window in our living room, but it was stuck, so he gave it a little tap with the heel of his hand.  The window, the rippled nineteenth-century kind, had cracked and sliced open his palm.  I told him to calm down and call 911, but he said he was bleeding badly and that they would be too slow.  Then he hung up, and when I called back, he didn’t answer.

When he finally picked up again, he was at the local firehouse, where paramedics put him in an ambulance and drove him to the emergency room at the nearest hospital, Howard County General.  I rushed there and found him in the waiting room with one of our kitchen towels wrapped around his hand.  I asked if the paramedics had bandaged his hand and he said no, they had whipped the towel off and stuck some gauze on the wound without looking it.   There was blood on his shirt, and I could see blood oozing from beneath the towel.

I went up to the desk and told them that my husband was sitting there bleeding and needed to be seen immediately.  A security guard was standing next to me, so I was careful to moderate my tone.  Apparently, in the past there have been some extremely annoyed people in the HoCo General ER.  The woman at the desk reassured me, and it wasn’t too long before they called my husband’s name and led us to a little room with a couple of chairs and a computer.

We soon found out what the computer was for: almost immediately, a woman came in and took our co-pay.  For the next three hours, other people strolled in and out of the room; one, a young woman who gave my husband an IV, said she worked part-time at the hospital on an as-needed basis.  She jammed the IV into his arm as if she had never handled one before.  After a while, a physician’s assistant came in and told us my husband would need an x-ray to make sure there was no glass still in the wound.  She pumped some painkillers into the IV, which improved everyone’s mood immensely, and sent us down the hall, where we waited until the x-ray technician had an available room.  

When they had finished, we were led back to the room we had been in, and there we sat.  Blood continued to seep from my husband’s hand.  The part-time nurse came in and mopped it up, then gave him some disposable towels with blue plastic backing so he wouldn’t continue leaking onto the floor.

Finally, the physician’s assistant came back in.  “Okay, let’s sew this up,” she said, and she removed the first layers of towels from his hand, then tried to remove the gauze the paramedics had given him, but it wouldn’t come off.  She went and got a long tweezers, and for the next fifteen minutes, she plucked the gauze away thread by thread.  When she had finished, she lay his hand down, looked at it, and gasped audibly.  No doubt unconsciously, she took a few steps backward.  In a bright, cheerful voice, she said, “I think we’re going to have to send you somewhere else for this.”

She made some phone calls to other area hospitals.  She called the plastic surgery people at the Johns Hopkins ER.  “They’re not interested,” she reported to us, and said she was going to try another unit.

“He’s a guitarist, if that helps interest them,” I said.  She and the part-time nurse both laughed, as if this was adorable.  

For the next half hour, she diligently called back and forth between hospitals and units, trying to sell my husband’s injury to them.  When she finally came back in and reported that Hopkins was going to take him, we were as elated as if we’d been accepted to a good college.

I left there after midnight and went home to catch a few hours sleep.  At about 3 a.m., they sent him to Hopkins in an ambulance, where an amazingly professional and caring group of doctors, nurses, and other well-organized people set upon him like a SWAT team and patched him up.  When I picked him up, I was amazed at the beehive of activity that surrounded him.  “It’s incredible that they let him sit so long with an arterial bleed,” one of the nurses said to me.  He sounded angry.

The Hopkins ER staff did a great job, and within a week, my husband was playing guitar again.  He told me the people at Hopkins had taken that very seriously, and he’d heard people talking about his guitar-playing as if it really mattered to them.  The scar on his hand is going to be a lot worse than it would have been if he hadn’t had an open wound for seven hours, but he can live with it.
For several weeks after this incident, I was totally irate.  I called a lawyer; I told the whole story to a state senator who said that something similar had happened to him in the HoCo General ER; I told anyone who would listen, and now I’m writing about it here.  My theme was as follows: how can it be that in America in the 21st century, someone with top-notch health insurance can sit for hours in what is supposed to be a fairly decent hospital with no triage?  My husband always corrects me on this and says they did have triage: taking his co-pay.

But my central question was this: how can people who seem to be intelligent, professional, and even caring, sit and watch while someone bleeds and bleeds and bleeds without doing anything?

About a week later, I was at an intersection not far from my house when I saw a young man in the median strip.  He was about my son’s age, and looked like one of my son’s friends, a little scruffy but more or less clean-cut, in a t-shirt and jeans.  In his hands was a cardboard sign that said, “Laid off.  Can you help?”

I reached for my wallet, but then the light turned green, and I ended up driving away without giving him any money.   And then I knew how they did it.

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About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.