During my surgery rotation as a third year medical student, my resident sends me to the Emergency Department to assess a new consult. She tells me to “make it quick” and I hustle down to meet my patient.
Mr. Jones is a 64-year-old male who rarely goes to the doctor. He has been vomiting for two days and has a fever. His heart rate is up and his blood pressure is low; his belly is swollen up like a beach ball. When I examine his abdomen, he winces in pain with even the lightest touch. The x-ray shows a bowel obstruction and free air in the belly, a sign of intestinal perforation. I know he needs surgery. Stat.
I text my resident who tells me I have five minutes to get the paperwork in order before transporting him to the operating room. As I am about to start writing my note, a frail, elderly woman emerges from a different room with a troubled expression on her face.
“I need help. My husband’s IV is beeping and we need to shut it off.” There is fear in her voice.
I quickly decide that her problem is not an urgent one. The IV is probably beeping because the fluid is done dripping in, or maybe the line is kinked. But the man with the busted bowels–that is urgent. I need to devote every ounce of my attention toward finishing my note and getting that man into surgery.
“I’m dealing with an emergency right now, but your nurse should be back shortly.”
“We need to stop the beeping!” She is on the verge of tears.
“It’s probably nothing serious. I’m really sorry but I can’t help you right now.” I put my head down and continue writing.
“The help here is awful,” she says, returning to her room with her sick husband and his
beepy IV. A knot forms in my stomach as I continue with my note.
Was there time to have helped her? Maybe, but I had a short deadline and was feeling the pressure. Relieving the concerns of this elderly lady would have taken away from the care I was providing for a the very sick Mr. Jones. So I prioritized, and in doing so, I failed to address her request, leaving her disappointed and probably scared.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, when I ignored one person and prioritized a sicker patient, I was doing something called triaging. Every day in the Emergency Department, doctors and nurses are forced to choose who needs help and attention more critically.
Before entering the field of medicine, I remember sitting in the Emergency Department as a patient with a fever and chills, watching others who came in hours later being treated before me. Nobody likes to feel ignored. What the general public does not always realize is that there is a triaging system, where patients are given a score from one to five based on how sick they are. It is a system that helps us deal with the sickest first, though it can lead to long wait times for those with less serious issues.
Though I postponed dealing with the concern of the elderly woman that day, I also learned an important lesson. In medicine, you need to assess and assign degrees of urgency, and in doing so, you can’t please everyone all the time. And you have to be okay with that. What matters most is that you prioritize to the best of your ability, and do your part to keep everybody healthy, and most importantly, alive.