An Accident in the Time of COVID-19
There are no good times to get hurt, but some times are worse
As in, during a pandemic that affects the entire health care system. Due to a most wretched adventure a little over a week ago, my husband and I have learned this firsthand. The day began as typical, or as typical as ten weeks into lockdown gets: I was writing, the dog was sleeping, and my husband was out for his daily, socially-distanced bike ride.
He was cruising along, nearly home, keeping an eye on the large, mask-clad family walking their bikes across the street in front of him. Looking to the right to make sure they’d cleared his path, he nearly missed seeing the one straggler, a boy perhaps eight or nine years old who’d decided to catch up by dashing across the street with his bike. With barely six feet to impact, my husband grabbed his brakes, hard.
His bike has very good brakes.
Luckily, he also had a very good helmet. His wheels stopped cold and he went flying over the handlebars, landing mostly on his face, except for the part of him that landed on his shoulder.
He missed the kid.
My phone burbled with his ring tone. “Honey, I’ve crashed my bike. And, um, I’m attracting a lot of attention . . .”
I was already halfway to the car. He’s an experienced cyclist who once rode alone across France and most of England, but two years ago he hit some wet leaves and ended up with a broken right collarbone and cracked pelvis, resulting in a 10-day stay in a dreary rehab hospital and six weeks in a wheelchair. It was nearly a year before he got on a bike again.
Nothing slowed down the paramedic response; that’s the good part
By the time I arrived on the scene, less than a mile from our house, Husband was already in the back of the ambulance, looking a bit stunned and as though he’d come out on the wrong end of a bar fight (or so I imagine; he has never been in a bar fight).
His shoulder hurt and he was shaken up, but his major systems seemed to be in working order. However, he takes blood thinners (long story) and, as such experiences so rudely point out, is no longer at an age where one bounces off the pavement. The EMT in charge was concerned about the possibility of a brain bleed, which was all I needed to hear. I said I’d follow them to the hospital.
“Just promise me, if you see our lights and sirens go on, you won’t try to keep up with us,” said the EMT. I nodded, jumped in my car, and followed the ambulance the 17 miles to the nearest functioning emergency room, trying not to hyperventilate every time the ambulance’s brake lights came on.
As I said, it wasn’t my first rodeo. Having my first husband die in mid-life from sudden cardiac arrest, and seeing Husband Now through several harrowing medical emergencies, following an ambulance is not my favorite thing to do.
But here’s one thing emergencies teach you: how you feel about them, especially how much you wish they weren’t happening, is beside the point. The thing to do — the only thing to do — is to suck it up, remain alert, and be there for your loved one.
But in the time of COVID, being there is not an option
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until after I’d seen my husband (conscious and smiling, but still) rolled into the receiving bay and I had run around to the front ER entrance, that I wasn’t going to be allowed in. I mean, just no. I was handed a slip of paper with the emergency department’s phone number on it, and politely but firmly turned away.
In whatever medical emergency I’ve been party to — with my first husband, with Husband Now, with raising two active boys (back then I suggested to our regional hospital that I should have my own coffee cup in their ER) — my role has been to remain at the injured or ill person’s side, offering support, providing another, less traumatized, pair of eyes and ears. Not only could I help field questions, I could listen carefully to the doctors and nurses, and gauge with my own eyes their reactions.
It was comforting to the patient, and reassuring to me; I had a clear sense of what was going on and what was being done.
But with protocols in place to prevent the transmission of coronavirus as much as possible in hospitals and medical offices, nobody but the patient gets in. So I waited in the car for two hours, practicing my most calming breathing techniques.
Husband emerged with a clean CT scan and a sling on his arm
So, now he had a broken collarbone on the left side; we joked he’d have a matching set. Relieved it wasn’t any worse, we called our favorite pizza place and got take-out on the way home.
The huge hematoma — as in, orange-sized — on his left elbow was uncomfortable, but it had been wrapped and iced. After pizza and TV, we went to bed exhausted.
But overnight, things got weird
He was shivering at times and drenched in sweat at others. And not to over-share, but in the morning it was evident that his urine was the wrong color: dark and rusty. It was a Saturday, so the quickest way we could figure to get attention was to call our provider’s advice nurse hotline. We were told a doctor would call us back later that afternoon, or we could just go to the emergency room.
But not the same ER we’d been to the day before, because that’s not the one in our network. We had to go to the one at our provider’s medical center, an hour away. We chose not to wait around; off we went to the second ER.
And again, I waited outside. And waited. For five hours (wherein I learned that there is no public restroom within a five-mile radius, until at last I found a Smart & Final Iris warehouse store that allowed me to use theirs. Now I own some very cheery paper plates and napkins for the Memorial Day barbecue I’m not having). Husband kept me updated through phone calls and texts: another CT scan of his abdomen revealed no internal injuries, blood work looked fine, maybe a urinary tract infection? Anyway, antibiotics.
But the arm, I said. That swelling looks bigger. And harder. “They didn’t have much to say about that,” said Husband, who was exhausted. He’s not the typical ask-no-questions male patient and is usually a diligent advocate for himself, so home we went.
And then, a fever. And more swelling
More phone calls, more emails with photos attached to his doctor. Who wanted another X-ray, but that couldn’t happen until Husband was tested for COVID. And that had to be done back at the medical center, an hour away. So, back we went.
Meanwhile, we weren’t getting answers as to what was up with the increased swelling and the sweats and, now, gastric distress (the description of which I will spare you, but it’s not the typical kind associated with antibiotics). Husband, who I’ve seen go through his previous travails with the determination of a prizefighter, was miserable, a beaten puppy who could barely drag himself out of bed.
The test results came back by the next morning: no COVID-19. So off we went to the medical office to get an X-ray, and see if we couldn’t get a doctor, any doctor, to take a look at his arm (since his doc was off that day). I hoped that since it was just the medical office and not a hospital they’d let me in as an attendant. No dice.
A doctor did see him; she sent him back to emergency
Back to the medical center an hour from home. Five more hours, more X-rays, and another evaluation by yet another doctor. No, surgery wasn’t called for. Different antibiotics. Not much to say about the continuing, low-grade fever and the soaking sweats: hey, it’s not COVID.
As of this writing, we are deep into Memorial Day weekend. My husband’s regular doctor still hasn’t seen him, and by that I mean physically, in person, three-dimensionally, seen him: felt the swelling in his arm, checked out the size of his elbow (which has progressed from orange-sized to the size of a pomelo), or compared his weakened demeanor to his usual hearty self.
This isn’t life-threatening. But it’s far from ideal
We are generally very satisfied with the care we receive from our provider, and happy that their model is non-profit and doesn’t impose a tsunami of paperwork on us when we’re least able to deal with it. We think it would make a good model for the kind of universal system America so desperately needs.
But under the cloud of coronavirus, everything is more cumbersome, more time-consuming, more strewn with obstacles. The result, in our experience, is slower and less attentive response. I’m sure that if we were indeed up against a truly dire emergency — a heart attack, say, or a stroke — the system would go into hyperdrive as it should. But with something in a gray area, such as this, we’re left with uncertainty and frustration.
In non-pandemic times, the swelling in his arm, his here-and-there low-grade fever, and his out-of-proportion weakness and discomfort would have been addressed days ago. As it is, we’re left to gut it out through the long holiday weekend and hope for a face-to-face visit early next week. Which I will not be able to sit in on.
Your takeaway? Stay out of the emergency room
Not to be a wet blanket as we embark, wisely or not, on the Great Reopening — but watch yourself. All that active stuff you like to do in the summer is great, but consider the risk before you jump on the skateboard or the hang glider. Wear all the protective equipment you can get your hands on. This is not the time to be macho.
Because if you end up in the hospital, you’re there alone.