And then there are the drug-seeking people; they're not usually hard to spot. They'll claim, "I'm allergic to everything but one drug ... it starts with a D?" That's the narcotic painkiller Dilaudid, and they damn well know the real name. But every drug-seeker seems to follow the same script: they'll come in claiming some legitimate, recurring problem, and then act as if the name of the only pain drug that works for them (which just happens to be a narcotic, every time) is some half-remembered riddle.
amickman/iStock/Getty Images"A former president said you should send some extra home with me. I think his name started with a W."
If this all sounds like I'm being judgmental, well ...
I said above that only a small percentage of what I see are actually urgent cases. Well, everything about the whole ER experience -- from the long wait to the annoyed look on a nurse's face -- makes more sense if you keep that in mind.
As for me, it takes only a few minutes to know if I like you or not. It's not going to affect your standard of care, because I'm a professional. But it might affect if I remember to tell your nurse you asked for a blanket, or if I go out of my way to offer you a written work excuse. Petty? Maybe. But this is what you're going to get until they finally staff hospitals with robots: ER doctors are human beings and compassion fatigue is an actual thing. Once you see enough gunshot wounds and car wreck victims, it gets difficult to care about someone who declares their chronic back pain to be an emergency.
LuckyBusiness/iStock/Getty Images"Sir, despite what the cereal mascot told you, you are not suffering an emergency deficiency of vitamin D-Licious."
If you think it's callous to be annoyed by someone who is truly in pain, you have to keep the context in mind. Everyone who walks in thinks their situation is an emergency -- it's right there on the sign -- but only some of those people are right. And there is no correlation between how much people complain/make demands and how urgently they need help. The person screaming for pain pills for their pulled muscle is going to have to wait behind the guy who is quietly hemorrhaging. And the person who has to wait is not going to like it.
Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images"I'm behind him?! If I'd known a wound from a .22 would get you to the front of the line I'd have shot myself on the way here."
Things that will earn my wrath: boasting that you have a "high pain tolerance" (if you've had that thought, it's almost certainly not true), not having any idea what medications you take, not having tried anything for your pain at home (you are young and healthy, it's OK to take a Tylenol for your toothache before coming into the ER), being above the age of 10 and bringing a stuffed animal in with you, the list goes on. Doctors are human, and we definitely do not have an endless amount of patience. And nothing in medical school taught me how to be forgiving of someone who, for instance, claims they couldn't afford the antibiotics that were prescribed for their child, but show up with cigarettes in hand.
If you're worried about pissing off your ER doc, remember: it's not hard to avoid. Just be honest about your symptoms, and don't be offended if we aren't always as sympathetic as you'd like. You have no idea what we saw 10 minutes before walking into your exam room.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Harsh Truths You Learn as a Doctor in the Third World and 5 Things Your Doctor Really Wants to Say to You (But Won't).
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