Last Thursday around 3AM, my girlfriend, Danielle, and I went to the Emergency Room. We went because she was having a mental health crisis. We checked in and were quickly taken back to a room. So far we met two people, the receptionist and the nurse that escorts you to your room. These people were nice, and we wouldn’t encounter another nice person for hours. We were put in your standard emergency room quarters; one foam bed, one uncomfortable chair, a sink, a television, and a blue curtain for privacy. In ten minutes, a nurse came in. She took in everything Danielle said and wrote all key information in pen on her right hand. Several minutes later, a phlebotomist took Danielle’s blood while chatting with another coworker. She threw her gloves off but only one of the gloves made it to the garbage. The phlebotomist ignored this and left the room. Around 3:30-3:45, a doctor came in. He punched some info into a computer, rubbed his hand on Danielle’s shoulder, and said something along the lines of “We’ll get you patched up.” He informed us a crisis counselor will be in soon.
Two hours passed. It was about 5:30. I saw a night watchman occasionally pass the room while doing rounds and the only person to come in the room was the guy who emptied the biohazard wastebaskets. The nurses that did pass continued on and did not stop in. As a matter of fact we heard a few disgruntled employees complaining about being at work and one let the ER know that she only had six weeks left of work. These are things you don’t want to hear from your healthcare professionals, no matter how relatable the sentiments seem. Danielle, while not feeling great, was feeling well enough to be able to take care of herself. She pressed the call button, and we met the nurse that should have been checking up on her for the first time.
There are things I can disagree with but understand. When a person has thoughts of causing harm to themselves or someone else, the hospital has a right to hold a person until they meet a crisis counselor. I understand the reasoning for wanting to keep her. I also understand that hospital work is a very stressful and unpredictable job. These things, while frustrating, are fine. That said, there were several things that were not fine:
- Our nurse, let’s call her T, told us that the crisis people were on lock down. We would later learn this was a lie.
- T did not understand patient rights, even when handed a sheet of patient rights.
- T said she would try to expedite the process of seeing a crisis counselor. We later learned that T left to catch up on paper work.
- T, lacking bedside manner, told Danielle, a mental health patient, she was low priority.
But the worst part was, when Danielle questioned her about being in the ER the last two hours without anyone coming in to check up on her, T proudly said:
“Yes I have. I’ve had the night guard come by every 15 minutes to check up on you.”
15 minutes in a room full of instruments, cords, and electrical sockets. It doesn’t take 15 minutes to hurt yourself. I guess they counted on me, going on 24 hours without sleep, to hold everything down.
At 6:30, we were escorted into a different quarters. Our material items were confiscated and put into a locker, including phones. We were put in a room that only contained a bed, bedframe, and chair. The TV was behind a layer of metal and plastic. The doors couldn’t be opened from the inside. Lucky for us, the doors weren’t shut, but we could tell the nurses wished they could be. It was at this time we saw the crisis counselor for the first time. He was a younger guy and seemed weirdly jovial. He didn’t speak to us though. In fact when he saw our faces lingering outside the room, he turned his back to us. He made a couple jokes to the guards and left. We wouldn’t see a crisis counselor until the day shift crew clocked in.
At 7:15, a new nurse came in to check vitals. Danielle’s body temperature was normal but her blood pressure increased since coming in. Danielle asked the nurse if she knew when a crisis counselor would come in.
“A crisis counselor did come in, didn’t he?” The nurse said.
“No,” Danielle said.
“Really? He was here,” As if trying to convince Danielle she was wrong.
“He did not come in,” I said, and for some reason that sufficed.
Danielle fell asleep for an hour. In that time I heard one of the patients roaming the halls. He asked for medicine and he also asked if we would be getting out on Friday. The guards and nurse seemed to brush this off. Danielle woke up around the time the guards were handing out breakfast. The guard was nice enough to ask if Danielle wanted anything. Danielle asked the nurse again when a crisis counselor would come in, and she said she would call if one wasn’t here in ten minutes. Whether she did or not, I like to pretend that she did, because about 20 minutes after, at 9:15, we met the crisis counselor that would actually attend to her. He wasn’t too much older than either one of us, and he was very nice. It felt as though he genuinely wanted to help. The only problem was that Danielle needed this help at 3:30 or 4 in the morning, not at 915. The counselor and Danielle talked. He said he would have to call her psychiatrist who had authority on what to do. In the meantime, he would counsel. Finally, around 10:45 AM, he came back with news that Danielle would be leaving. We grabbed our stuff and waited for the discharge papers. While waiting, a guy about my age, a patient, struck up a conversation with me.
“First Valley (another hospital for those with mental crises) was the shit, man,” He continued, “I don’t know where the fuck I am.”
We hurried out the doors before they could change their mind. We got in the car and sped out of the parking lot.
I am a firm believer that you should never leave a hospital knowing you were better off staying at home. If Danielle had waited until 7 or 8 at home, she could have called her therapist and her psychiatrist, instead of racking up a hospital bill to have someone else do it.
If you go into the hospital and you have a broken bone, or you’ve been throwing up for weeks, you will be treated normally. As long as you are physically unwell, you will be treated with compassion. But if you walk in with a disease of the mind, if no one can clearly see what is wrong, you might as well not exist. I watched a doctor, several nurses, and one crisis counselor do this exact thing over the course of 8 hours.
The truth is, nearly 1 out of 5 Americans suffer from mental illness. 1 of 25 will experience a mental health crisis that will significantly impact their life in any given year (NAMI). It’s 2016, and what you read above is the level of care someone with mental illness receives. And that’s with someone ‘not’ sick standing with them the entire time. What of the man asking if Friday is his release day? Or the man who literally did not know how he got there? There was no one with them.
I wrote this for Danielle but I also wrote this for myself and anyone overly confident in the health care system. We learned that the crisis counselor who turned his back on us was the only one shift on that night. He was the only one on shift, I imagine, because there isn’t enough of a budget allowance to keep more than one mental health worker on graveyard shift. Yearly, between 5-20% of the US population get the flu(WEBMD), and I’m sure if she had walked in with the flu, the nurses, doctors, or anyone with authority would have popped their head into her room more. But I am resolved to go with what I know, and what I know is that, every night since our ER visit, Danielle has had nightmares of being held in some unknown location by authorities that would not let her leave.