“It Could Be Worse”

There’s nothing like spending a few hours in a hospital emergency room for putting things into the proper perspective.

My daughter woke up early the other Sunday morning with severe abdominal pain. It matched all the descriptions she found on the Internet of appendicitis, and it kept getting worse. That’s how we ended up spending much of Sunday afternoon and evening in the emergency room.

Given a choice, Sunday afternoon at 3:30 is probably a better time for an ER visit than, say, 11:30 on Saturday night. Even so, as we started across the sidewalk to the door, my daughter said, “Look out, Mom, don’t step there—that’s blood.”

Once we had checked in at the desk, we discovered the probable source of the blood. A gangly teenage boy holding a red-spattered towel to his forehead was describing to the admissions clerk how his skateboard had flipped out from under him.

Then two young women, obviously sisters, came in with a little boy of about three. The mother and aunt were upset; the little boy looked fearful and had obviously been crying. We heard his mother tell the nurse, “He stuck a rock up his nose, and we can’t get it out.”

Of course it wasn’t funny. Not really. Besides, laughing at traumatized toddlers is something one simply doesn’t do. But I couldn’t help murmuring to my daughter, “See? Things could always be worse; at least you don't have a rock up your nose,” and she started to giggle but had to stop because it made her belly hurt.

Just as everyone ahead of us had been taken inside and my daughter’s turn was coming up, in through the front door came an elderly man in a cowboy hat, supported by his wife and a younger woman who was probably their daughter. My daughter told me, “I won’t be going next after all; that looks like a heart attack.”

And indeed, at the magic words, “chest pain,” the need for preliminary paperwork instantly vanished, and he was in a wheelchair and through the double doors. We didn’t mind waiting a bit longer, either. We’re still grateful that my father—another elderly man in a cowboy hat—received the same kind of life-saving attention for his heart attack a few years ago.

Then it was my daughter’s turn, and we spent the next three hours in a chilly examining room where she was poked, was prodded, had blood drawn and an IV started, did not throw up, and ultimately found out that her temperature and white blood count were both normal.

Along the way, we also learned what to do for a small child with small objects in his nose—cover the unoccupied nostril and blow into the other one to make him sneeze. The nurse who told us this had personal as well as professional experience. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “My son did that all the time. Rocks, bead, sunflower seeds—you name it, it went up his nose.”

Eventually, the doctor told us the test results were inconclusive. This didn’t mean she did not have appendicitis. But even if it was her appendix, it wasn’t going to do anything dramatic like burst in the next couple of days. Surgery was not immediately called for. He recommended going home and waiting. If she got worse, she should come back.

That was reassuring—sort of. Until, as we were leaving, the doctor passed us in the hall and said cheerfully, “See you in 24 hours.”

She got worse. She went back. Twenty-four hours later, she had traded her appendix for three little incisions. They’re the most expensive body piercings she has ever had.

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