Staring at Ugly Curtains
Vital Signs

The triage nurse asked if I had driven myself to the hospital and when I answered that I had, she looked directly at me and said “Oh, hon…” It was a delightfully personal moment when I least expected it.

I had been feeling some pressure and tightening in my chest, needed to take deep breaths, and felt really tired. When I checked with WebMD it said I should get medical advice. It also said that I should call an ambulance, but that seemed a bit melodramatic. I live only five minutes from the hospital, so it was simpler just to drive.

Of course, I parked in the wrong place. I should have parked nearer to the emergency ward, but I chose a spot near the main entrance instead. That meant walking through a labyrinth of corridors and reading a lot of signs none of which said “Emergency” until I was fairly close to my goal.

When I got to the emergency department, the triage nurse was carefully housed behind glass doors, and she promptly disappeared just as I arrived. I had timed it perfectly for their reporting period between shifts.

Seated next to me was a woman with a badly bruised face and a chatty demeanor. She quickly deduced that my chest pains were more significant than her bruises, and she boldly strode up to the glass where the nurses were having their meeting. She banged on the glass and said loudly “There’s a lady here with chest pains,” and expected an immediate response. We were both surprised when many minutes elapsed. Reporting is obviously important.

The triage interview was irritatingly long, but necessary I suppose. I was glad that the nurse wanted to know if I was being abused in any way. When I said “No, I live alone,” she asked “And do you feel safe there?” Great question! I’m glad those questions are being asked. I’m even more glad that I do, indeed, feel safe at home.

The triage nurse then directed me to another office window where my ID was checked, more information was put into a computer, and I was given a wrist band. Then I was sent to the waiting room. And I waited.

Across from me was an older lady who had already been waiting for three hours. I’m sure there is a system for determining which patients get seen in what order, but it is not apparent to those who are waiting. I watched through the glass as clipboards were picked up by various people and then replaced in different orders, and I wondered how they decided which ones to place in front.

The lady from triage with the bruised face was seen almost immediately. She barely had time to sit down before her name was called. Both she and the older lady looked up in surprise.

I waited there for about ninety minutes. In that time I was aware of lots of comings and goings; three ambulances, an angry man, a man with a bandaged hand, a woman in a wheelchair, and many other people whose problems were not obvious. Most of them were accompanied by friends or family members who shared in their stress and wait-times.

Just at the point where I thought I was wasting everyone’s time and I should just go home, my name was called. I was taken to a room in the emergency ward where I explained my symptoms three more times to three different people, had my blood drawn, and was hooked up to a machine that measured my vital signs.

Then, they all left me alone to stare at an ugly blue curtain for the three hours that had to pass between blood tests. It was a good thing I had not had much to drink that day, because I couldn’t figure out how I’d get to a bathroom while I was tied to a machine. I tried to sleep, but emergency wards are noisy places. Loudest of all was Doug, a man who had been brought in by ambulance. I learned from overheard conversations that he was an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and “It was either here or the drunk tank.” The staff at his favourite bar had called for an ambulance when they became worried about him.

The public address system said that the hospital was “Over-capacity Level 1,” so in the midst of the over-capacity they had to deal with this loud, demanding, addict. He yelled repeatedly to be allowed to leave, complained that it was like a jail, told the nurse she was mean, asked to go out for a smoke, demanded the use of the phone, and on and on. Throughout it all, the staff remained non-judgemental, friendly, and firm. I was impressed.

To add to the staff’s burden, at one point I could also hear a woman nearby raucously complaining and swearing. She was probably drunk, too, and not in the mood to wait. I don’t know what her medical problem was, but she was demanding a lot of attention. I wondered how they would quiet her down enough to help her. Eventually, her shouting ended, but it took a while.

I don’t know how many examining rooms there are in the emergency ward, but they were all full of people staring at ugly curtains. All of us, whether loud or quiet, were treated kindly and efficiently. When I left the ward seven hours after I had arrived, I noticed a staff member trying to explain something to a woman who appeared to be a new Canadian, and I wondered if health care workers are taught how to converse with people whose first language is not English. It’s just something they have to figure out, I guess, like how to treat loud drunks.

The outcome of my visit is that I was probably suffering from temporary anxiety, my heart and lungs are in great shape, and I need to get more sleep. More importantly, though, I came away in awe of the kindness of strangers.  Thank you, Red Deer Regional Hospital and health workers everywhere.


  1. I always hold my breath a bit when a friend starts to tell a health care related story, hoping that it will be a positive experience. I’m glad that yours was, Anne, & am glad that you are OK.

    1. I suppose that health care workers come in for all sorts of criticism for things they have no control over. I’m glad to say that my experience, although time-consuming, was very positive. It’s very worrying to wait a long time for a diagnosis, but I am very relieved to know that I am in pretty good health, all things considered.

  2. That’s pretty much the way it is in Emergency Departments everywhere. Even when I get to triage and say heart attack (I’ve had two) the process seems inderminiately long. And my hospital has 54 Emergency beds. I’m glad all ended well for you and that you likely gained a new appreciation for blue curtains and what may lie behind them. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Eric. I certainly do have a new appreciation for what goes on in emergency departments. I’m sorry to hear that you have heart problems and I’m glad you have been able to get good health care. I tend to take it for granted, but I know that it isn’t available to everyone.

  3. I loved this blog, Anne. You were like the fly on the wall that night and really brought to light a night in life of ER staff. My best friend’s an ER nurse so it’s really neat to see someone, so eloquently, write about what that looks like! Thanks for that. And, of course, I am so glad you’re okay!

  4. My experience was similar to yours when I had a heart attack, aged 60. I went to my GP, who, when I finally saw him said I should go to the hospital. Just as I left he said maybe I should pack a bag. I drove myself – none of us realized it was a heart attack, got there about 5 pm. Parked in the wrong place, had to get a stranger to help me to emergency, I was bent over with pain at that stage. Didn’t actually see a doctor until 11 pm.

  5. What a nice read, and so lovely to hear some positive comments about healthcare workers. So often when you hear of hospitals, ambulances and healthcare it is in a negative light. Glad all was well, and hope you got some sleep!!

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