The ER Conundrum: Life, Death, & Inconvenience


Last Saturday, Stump was stung by a bee. It was a hot afternoon and Stump was splashing in his pool. One moment, a honeybee was hovering just a bit above his head, and the next thing I knew, Stump was wiping at his face, crying, “Sting me!” I lifted him from the pool and Kellie pulled the tiny brown stinger from his forehead.

Stump has been stung before, and I knew enough to worry. I brought him inside for a dose of Benedryl and sat him in front of the TV, so that I could watch him. I knew that swelling on its own was not a sign of anaphylaxis, but still it was alarming to watch his face transform. The swelling spread from his forehead to his eye. Though the left side of his face was normal, the right side was unrecognizable.

And then he started coughing. It was a little cough, one that I wouldn’t have thought anything of on a different day, but it was undeniably regular. Every twenty seconds or so as he watched Handy Manny—cough, cough.

If you google “signs of anaphylaxis”, “difficulty breathing” is the first thing on the list. If you continue this investigation, you’ll discover that coughing counts as difficulty breathing.

It was the kind of situation I’ve found myself in too many times since having kids: I’ve got a problem that might be urgent—a fever that spikes at 106, say, or an asthma attack in the middle of the night. It’s probably okay, though—my child is responsive and his color looks fine. But what if I’m wrong? What if it’s not okay?

In this case, Stump didn’t start coughing until fifteen minutes after the sting and true anaphylaxis usually happens immediately. It seemed like the most likely scenario was that Stump would continue to cough until the Benedryl kicked in. We could probably stay home. But if I were to follow the internet’s guidance, I’d bring him in just to be safe.

The closest ER is an eight-minute drive from my house, and I know what to expect there, especially on a full-moon Saturday evening. The waiting room would be packed with a wild assortment of people: people coughing behind medical masks, people taking up a bench all snuggled in blankets, people with one sock off and an elevated foot, people crying on their cell phones, people moaning, people just sitting quietly with magazines and waiting.

And so, faced with a probably-ok-but-scary situation, I always picture the ER and think, Really? Do I really need to go there? Now?

Because first of all, the ER feels like its own risk, the opposite of what a body in crisis needs. When my child is sick I don’t want to bring him to a room full of suffering strangers, to make him wait for hours past his bedtime, to take off his clothes and have a new doctor press a cold stethoscope against his chest.

But also, I can’t deny that I just plain don’t feel like dealing. Sometimes I’d rather keep my own vigil; I’d rather worry from the comfort of my couch.

And this time I would have. I would have tracked Stump’s cough until it eased and then I would have continued on with our evening. Except then he started moving a tongue in a circle on the inside of his mouth as if trying to ease an itch. When I asked him about it, he looked me in the eye and said, “bye-bye.”

The nurse at the check-in desk had close-cropped hair and a nose ring. She took out her stethoscope and listened to Stump’s breathing across the counter. “He sounds clear,” she said. She examined his tongue. “We’ll get you seen,” she promised. “If anything changes, you come and tell me right away.”

But nothing changed, except that Stump’s Benedryl-induced stupor wore off the moment I set him down in the ER waiting area. He ran through the aisles of patients and climbed up on the windowsill to examine the statue of Mary in the twilight. “Go there?” he asked. He pointed to the bike rack outside and said “Playground?” But there is no playground at the ER. These are some of the ways that Stump passed the time:

  • Ran to the end of the ER corridor.
  • Discovered that the main lobby of the hospital was accessible to us, and totally empty. Experimented with echoes.
  • Pressed the buttons on the water fountain until the whole front of his shirt was soaked through.
  • Chose a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine, ripped it open down the middle, and then insisted on carrying the “whole bag!” with him at all times.
  • Went outside for a change of scenery, yelled “hi” at the woman trying to talk on her phone, successfully broke free from me to stomp on the landscaped beds.
  • Returned to the empty lobby and took off his sandals. Discovered that soles of feet were now black from stomping on dirt. Washed feet in bathroom sink.

one-eyedWIt was ten by then, and Stump was getting tired. This didn’t mean that he was slowing down; it meant that he was hitting me. Stump is not the kind of kid who is capable of getting sleepy in an ER. Stump does not get sleepy until everything is quiet and all the lights are out. We had waited two hours, but when I looked around I realized that all of the people sitting in the waiting room were the same people I’d seen at our arrival. As far as I could tell, no one had seen a doctor yet.

I’m embarrassed now to admit this, but: I wondered if I was allowed to leave. Like, once you checked your kid into the ER, was it easy to check him out? Would I be accused of child neglect? Would I be judged? Because it was well past bedtime, and though Stump’s eye looked awful I was pretty damn sure he was going to be okay.

And so, I hovered near the check-in desk, trying to gauge my options. The same short-haired nurse who had listened to Stump’s lungs was still there, and a woman with black hair and bright pink lipstick had joined her. An older woman leaned into their space and asked for information. “Do you know how much longer it’s going to be?”

The short-haired nurse shook her head. “I can’t tell you that,” she said, annoyed. “Some people are waiting six hours and I’ve got ambulances coming with new patients. If you want to leave that’s up to you.”

When she left, I approached them sheepishly. “I know you can’t advise me,” I whispered to the nurse who wore lipstick. “But we’ve been here two hours, and he’s tired, and I’m thinking he’s probably not going to go into shock at this point, so—“

“Oh honey,” she interrupted. “You’re so sweet. He looks great. I think you’re fine.” I understood that she meant this as a compliment, but I felt a little stupid for having waited so long. She tapped the short-haired nurse on the shoulder. “These guys should go home, dontcha think?” she asked.

The short-haired woman looked up from her computer. “Well, he sounded clear when you came in and I’ve been watching him run around the last two hours.”

“Okay,” I said. The other nurse had already handed me a waiver and I was signing it.

The short-haired nurse spoke again. “But officially I’d recommend you wait for the triage nurse to see you. She can assess the situation.”

“Oh,” I said, looking back and forth between the two women, and then back down at the waiver.

“I’m just giving my professional opinion,” she said. And then, I swear, she winked at me. “If you want to go home, I totally get it.”

I bolted out of there into the warm night air, clutching Stump at my side. The moon was rising; it was orange. Stump pointed at it and said “The moon! The moon!” By the time I had navigated out of the hospital campus and turned onto the main road, he had fallen asleep.

When I laid him on the bed, above the covers, both eyes closed, his breathing steady, measured, normal, you might not have guessed that anything was ever wrong.



  1. Oh, the horror of it all! (In the first part…) and then the laugh out loud humor in his antics. You’ve captured so well the great dilemmas of parenthood. Glad everything is ok!

  2. Visiting the ER is always terrible! But I definitely understand why you went. And at least you got a good humorous story out of it, though ‘m sure it was super stressful at the time!

  3. I guess people working in ER have been so used to what we (people who don’t frequent ER) would normally think as “emergency.” Same experience here (I’m from the PH) – different tales with the same ending: a thought bubble that says “shouldn’t have gone to ER.”

  4. Glad he is okay. Love the reference to what the ER is like on a full moon. The dramas of parenting.. and your ability to capture each moment so perfectly- subtext, inner world, external world and all.

  5. Same, I always argue with myself whether we need to go to emergency or not and on a full moon, now that would be interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s