Jess Myers is a Twin Cities-based reporter for The Rink Live, a Forum Communications' hockey website. During the coronavirus pandemic, Myers describes his own visit to a health care facility.
The chest pain came on suddenly at 8:30 on an otherwise ordinary weekday morning, while doing nothing more strenuous than putting chicken in the slow cooker. Aches and pains are common when you are over 50, but when the Apple Watch showed a spiking heart rate and breathing became labored a short time later, the situation was quickly deemed more serious.
“I need you to take me in,” I told my son, 20, and we embarked on the 20-minute journey to the nearest emergency room that is a part of our insurance network. I tried to stay calm. Heart rate fluctuating, chest still being hit with sharp pains. I also tried not to think of what I might find at a hospital in this time of pandemic.
The medical facility had three clearly marked entrances. Two of them -- for the birthing center and the one with “EMERGENCY” in bold red letters -- were standard. The third door, designated just for those with COVID-19 symptoms, was new.
“I’m having chest pain, and my heart rate is spiking,” I said, taking my cloth mask off to speak more clearly and to take a few deep breaths, which was becoming more challenging.
The emergency room was otherwise empty. The desk attendant was covered head to toe in personal protective equipment, which should have been expected in this time of extreme caution at medical facilities.
“Please stand over there, sir,” they said, pointing to a series of nylon ropes like you would see while in line for movie tickets. “I need you to put your mask back on, and please put this one on over it,” as I was handed a second facemask.
So much for breathing easy.
The check-in process included several questions about COVID-19 symptoms (none) and exposure to coronavirus (none that I know of -- we’ve been staying close to home). As I was finally shown to a small room with a bed and one glass wall, I got another round of questions about fever, headaches, dry cough, etc. Still none. And still no real attention paid to the possible heart attack in progress.
One nurse entered the room after a few minutes to take my vitals and start an electrocardiogram. She wore what can best be described as scuba gear, with a pack on her back creating air pressure which, via black tubing, sent filtered air to a clear mask covering her head. She was friendly, if distant. Heart rate calming down. Chest still hurting. Hard to breathe through the two masks.
Alone in the room, I heard a voice come over the speaker. “Can you pick up the phone behind you? The doctor would like to speak with you.” Even after being driven to the hospital in fear and pain, I was getting a remote visit from a doctor, likely sitting in a chair not more than 20 feet away, but not coming to my side of the glass wall.
In total, I was there for four hours. I had blood drawn twice. I had two EKGs and a chest X-ray performed, all without leaving the bed. My temperature and blood pressure were taken more than once. When I asked to use the restroom, a kind of portable outhouse was wheeled into my small room, for fear of me spreading germs to the actual bathroom down the hall. I saw the one nurse in the Jacques Cousteau suit and spoke to her through my two layers of facemask. A doctor spoke to me over the phone three times. I still have no idea what he looked like.
In short, I was left feeling like I was a potential virus threat first, and a person with a medical issue second.
I did not have a heart attack. My pulse normalized over the next few hours. The chest pain slowly went away over the next day or so. None of the tests could explain the trouble, aside from normal anxiety, which cannot be uncommon in this most unprecedented time. The doctor, over the phone, told me that I did the right thing by coming in, just to be safe.
My son picked me up in the midst of an April snow squall, and we drove home in silence, where I rested for a few hours, still unsure about the whole ordeal. After some time to think it over, I was left with some ideas for the caregivers and those in need of care.
If you are having a medical issue, by all means, go to a clinic or hospital. Cuts, concussions and cancer do not go away in a time of pandemic. If you have a strange lump or an unexplained pain, get it checked out. The nicest thing I experienced on this unplanned adventure was very little wait time, as the hospital I visited looked akin to a very clean ghost town.
If you are a medical professional, working on the front lines in this scary and uncertain time, bless you. The work you have done, are doing and will do between now and whenever we return to any kind of normalcy will not be forgotten. You are heroes. Hard stop.
But some friendly advice based on experience is just this: when you see someone walk in the facility doors, they are likely in pain, and afraid, and they do not want to be there any more than you want them there. They are looking to you for help. They are in need.
Most importantly, they are a person, not just a potential vessel for a virus. Please treat them as such.