I have a chronic digestive illness called ulcerative colitis, which forced me to go to the ER on numerous occasions in the last 13 years.

Ten to 13 years ago, I found my ER visits long and tiresome. However, I would usually be given a bed almost right away and get hooked to an IV while I waited for the ER doctor and gastroenterologist to see me. I would often be kept in the ER unit overnight and sometimes got hospitalised afterwards but was able to get some well needed rest. At the time, being admitted meant being transferred directly to a hospital room. But things started changing during the pandemic.

I had five UC flareups last year and ended up waiting between 12 and 14 hours in the ER each time I went. It would take a while for me to get a bed and I would often get sent home, regardless of the time, with an order to return the following day for a colonoscopy.

My last visit to the ER was a nightmare. I waited five hours just to do routine bloodwork and a COVID test, then seven more hours to finally get placed in an examination room with a bed to wait for the ER doctor. I got too comfortable after being seen and given a saline solution for hydration upon my request. A nurse startled me awake by unhooking my IV drip less than two hours later and sending me back in the crowded waiting room.

Because I can’t digest a single thing when I flare up, the only way for me to minimise my needs to rush to a bathroom on my way to the hospital and once there is to avoid eating for a while before I leave home. I continued not eating in the ER, yet still rushed to the bathroom to release blood. That’s actually the reason I ended up going to the ER rather than continue waiting for test results and trying to get a hold of my gastroenterologist.

The efficient nurses at the IBD clinic urged me to go to the ER if my UC symptoms got significantly worse, and the moment I saw blood in the toilet I knew I needed urgent care.

By the time I saw a gastroenterologist, I’d been tossing and turning on an uncomfortable waiting room chair for several hours, wearing a facemask of course. I desperately wanted to sleep but was afraid of doing so in case my name got called; not that I could have gotten any real sleep with the bright lights on and all the noise. I agreed with the gastroenterologist on duty about needing a colonoscopy, so continued starving myself once back in the waiting room. I became lightheaded and nauseated with a growing headache.

When I finally got called again, I had been in the ER for over 24 hours, watching more and more people get registered and become impatient with the long wait times. Instead of bringing me to the gastroenterology department for a colonoscopy as expected, I was informed I’d be admitted with no guarantee of a bed. I hadn’t slept properly or eaten in over 30 hours at this point, so felt exhausted, extremely hungry, and confused.

As soon as I found myself alone in the examination room, I burst into tears, not quite understanding what was going on. I imagined having to go back in the waiting room and sitting on a chair again for an undetermined period of time without food. I felt discouraged. Luckily, my husband arrived shortly after. With his help, I was able to get some clarifications.

My bed got moved to another exam room until a convenient spot in the ER hallway could be found for me. In my situation, I was lucky to get placed near the bathrooms but remained there for two days since no hospital rooms were available. I had a privacy curtain, but it obviously didn’t cut the noise and the lights were not dimmed at night, so it was hard to fall asleep. But I was extremely grateful to be able to lie down with a blanket again and also be allowed to eat.

Unfortunately, most of the hospital food given to me was not ideal for my flareup. Being served dishes like macaroni with tomato sauce was torturous. It looked so appetising, but I knew from experience eating it would only cause further urgent trips to the bathroom and more pain. My husband brought me safer foods, but it was still a struggle to keep things down which was stressful in the given environment. My weakened immune system made me vulnerable and susceptible to other illnesses and infection.

I desperately fought to leave the hospital once the steroid injections to treat the intestinal inflammation and internal bleeding started taking effect. My request to be discharged with a prescription of prednisone was granted, but other patients who had arrived in the ER before me were still waiting for a hospital room when I left. The patient beside me had been waiting for seven days.

I was told a few hospitals had to shut down their ERs during the pandemic, so the remaining ones are constantly at overcapacity. Hospitals are also understaffed at the moment due to burnouts.

Many people go to the ER for medical issues that don’t need immediate attention, hoping to get seen quicker than at a walk in, but it’s not the case. Patients are seen by priority, and neither the triage nurses nor registration staff can ever predict the wait times.

I’d like to reiterate my advice on not going to the ER unless you absolutely have to. If you DO go, I highly recommend bringing an overnight bag with you — with comfortable clothing, toiletries, a water bottle, food, a pillow, and a good book — because you’ll be there a while.

Born in 1981, Montreal author Chantal Bellehumeur recently has 19 published books of various genres as well as numerous short stories, memoirs, poems and articles featured in compilation books, e-magazines, and local newspapers. For more info, visit https://author-chantal-bellehumeur.webnode.com/products-/

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