What to Expect at the ER

Ask anyone who works in an emergency room what the biggest misconception is about the place, they'll tell you: It doesn't work on a first come - first serve basis.

They're hoping if you understand how an ER functions, you'll be more patient if you ever visit one.

It may sound like common sense, but emergency room workers say sometimes folks need to be reminded that they treat patients according to severity of their injury or illness - not the time of arrival.

If someone comes in with a condition that is life or limb-threatening, he or she gets to jump to the head of the line so to speak.

Emergency physician Dr. Cliff Erickson says, "Something in a 30-year-old, otherwise healthy, person would not necessarily be life-threatening in somebody who has, say, advanced diabetes and high blood pressure and heart disease. Simple pneumonia can actually be very life-threatening in that case."

That's why step one in the ER is triage, a French word that means "to sort." That's what nurses do to patients essentially, hoping you'll trust their judgment.

Registered nurse Linda Kassel explains, "There are times when we have assessed that patient, and their condition isn't as emergent as they think it is."

So depending on who else is there, you may have to wait, and even when you do make it to the next step, time may not elapse as quickly as you hope. If you need a test like a CAT scan, for instance, it may take several hours. The preparatory contrast fluid needs time to make its way through your body.

Therefore, the bottom line is plan to stay a while, and if all goes well, you won't have to.

Dr. Erickson states, "It's tough for us to give a prediction - as to how long a visit will take and so forth - because it depends on everything else going on in the department that day."

Between staff number, day of the week, time of day, patient volume and severity of cases, that's a lot of factors. The staff at St. Mary's say their busiest days are Sundays and Mondays.