The next time you have an embarrassing situation or accident, I want you to keep in mind that compared to what doctors see on a daily basis, it is likely no one will blink twice. Here are some of my favorite emergency room stories – all true – from my career in medicine to date.
1. Peanut butter balls
A 5-year-old girl came in with her sister, who was pregnant but unconscious, in an ambulance. We kept asking the little girl what had happened to her sister, and she kept saying, “She needs her peanut butter balls.” We were absolutely confounded and running every test we could think of and had neurology, psychology, OBGYN (me) critical care and even gastrointestinal looking at things.
Then, one of the little third-year medical students who was watching from the corner came up and said, “I think I know the problem.” Everyone gave an eye-roll or a skeptical look, but she went on bravely. “It isn’t peanut butter balls. It’s phenobarbital. Her seizure medicine. She had a seizure and needs her meds.” The young doctor-to-be got an ovation from the entire ER.
2. Hungry schizophrenic
A woman was brought down from the psychiatric unit with a distended belly and in a lot of pain. As gynecology chief, I was called in to see if I had anything to add. The CT scan showed a large mass in her abdomen, but it was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. As radiology and surgery were reviewing it, I went over to her and said hello and asked her how she was doing. She said that we had it all wrong, that it wasn’t a tumor.
What was it? No answer. Did you eat something? Maybe. What was it, maybe? It might have been my sheet. Your sheet? Yes. Why did you eat your sheet? I was bored. Why didn’t you tell anyone? No one asked. True story.
3. The homeless guy on MTV
In Seattle, a scraggly looking guy, presumably homeless, came in the ER with a laceration on his forehead. The attending told me, the fourth-year medical student, to go take care of it. As I was sewing him up, I was talking to him, and he turned out to be really intelligent and funny. He said he got jumped walking back to his car after a show. Who was the band? Were they any good? He laughed and said, “Pretty good, I hope. I’m in it.”
There are thousands of bands in Seattle, so I humored him some more. What’s your band called? “Soundgarden.” It turns out that I had just watched one of their videos on MTV in the break room. I recognized him now. He’s the drummer. So every time I have seen them on TV since then, I always look to see how his scar is looking.
4. Assaulted friend
I was called to the ER to evaluate a sexual assault. She was so beat up I didn’t recognize her as a nurse from Labor and Delivery that was a very good friend. I was so angry. She was so calm and just said, “Do you job and be thorough, so when they catch him they can convict. Don’t be mad. Don’t make any mistakes.” Cool as a cucumber with her face all covered with bruises and cuts.
I cooled down and I got the evidence, they caught the guy, I testified and they convicted and sentenced him for a long time. I’ll never stop admiring her for her calmness and bravery. Amazing woman.
5. Can’t go home
A young woman came in by ambulance, 16 weeks pregnant, and thought she might be leaking fluid. She had been home alone. I went down and evaluated her and diagnosed an infection that was easily treatable. I explained it all and said she was free to go.
“I can’t go.”
“You can go. You and your baby are fine. We have a ride waiting.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Are you unsafe at home? Are you scared?”
“No! I just can’t go!”
She then looks around and whispers, “I ain’t got no pants.” She lifted up the sheet and sure enough, no pants, no undies. Nothing.
I am not sure what more you can even say about that one. I think the take-home lesson is that there is almost always time to grab some pants on your way out the door.
6. Exploding uterus
A patient of mine came into the obstetrics triage area with some pain at 32 weeks. In the process of evaluating her, I was looking at the baby with ultrasound and I literally saw the baby pop out the top of the uterus. This is a bad thing. Really bad. I grabbed the gurney, ran it to the elevator and down the ER, yelling for pediatrics and nurses.
In less than three minutes, we got the baby out, and somehow it did just fine and is a beautiful, feisty 17-year-old young woman today. There are still gouges in the floor of the unit where I took the corners as fast as I could. That took a few years off my life, I think.
7. Being at the right place at the right time
I was called by the ER that one of my patients was in the parking lot bleeding. It was a woman with twins, near term. I saw her in the parking lot, leaning on her car, with blood running down her legs. The ER staff got there about the same time and had an IV into her before we even got through the ER doors. I could see the people waiting in the ER with looks of horror as we ran by with blood running down onto the floor.
The OR staff was waiting when we got there. I didn’t even have time to change. I quickly scrubbed, and by the time I was gowned, she was asleep and draped and still actively bleeding. The babies were out within a minute, and amazingly, though premature by six weeks and stressed by the placental abruption, they did great and are two of the rowdiest set of twins you will ever see. That probably took a few more years off my life, too.
8. Cellphone hide-and-seek
I was called one night to evaluate a woman, still fairly inebriated, who had been asleep/passed out, and her also-inebriated partner had hidden her cellphone in a body cavity, but didn’t tell her which one.
After I figured out which one it was (in the lower colon), we gave her some sedation and I set out to retrieve it. The phone kept buzzing and ringing every minute or so. When I finally got it out she wanted to see who was calling and laughed. It turns out that her boyfriend, who was sitting in the waiting area, was the one calling. Actually, that was kind of funny.
9. Follow post-op instructions!
I got called one night to see one of my post-op hysterectomy patients in the ER. The ER attending sounded very worried so I got there ASAP. When I got arrived, her husband was pale and looked terrible as he sat in the corner. The patient, however, was laughing and talking on her cell phone. She hung up and said, “I did a no-no. I know you said no sex for at least six weeks but I felt so good I thought I’d give it a try (three weeks early).”
“Did you have bleeding?”
The ER nurse then moved her sheet down, where some moist dressings were covering about 12 inches of small intestine that had herniated out (she had recently had a hysterectomy).
“Crazy, huh? Just popped out of nowhere. You can fix that, right?”
After taking one more selfie of it, we took her back to the OR and fixed her up. And I will say that the second time around, her husband would not touch her until they both came in and I absolutely guaranteed him that it wouldn’t happen again.
So, whatever happens to you and you need to be seen, don’t worry about it. It would take a lot to surprise the ER staff.