Note: Today I speak with an acquaintance and former COVID patient about her recent experience in Mercy Medical Center’s emergency room. For the sake of her privacy I am not disclosing her identity.
Doni: Hi there. I was so sorry to hear that you had COVID-19. I’m glad you’re finally on the mend.
Thank you for reaching out to Food for Thought/A News Cafe to share your recent experience as a COVID patient at Mercy Medical Center in Redding. I know this is a difficult, personal conversation. Let’s hope your story will provide information, insight and suggestions for both the public and healthcare providers during this pandemic.
Can you please start by explaining what happened that led you to Mercy Medical Center’s emergency room?
I had been with friends who had tested positive with the coronavirus. We were all sick with several COVID symptoms. I was having a lot of difficulty breathing for about three days, so I called my doctor and had a parking lot appointment where I was tested. The physician’s assistant was very concerned. He said that I did not look good. He felt there was something else besides the general COVID symptoms going on. So the PA sent over an order for blood work and a chest X-ray, which I had the next morning.
My doctor called the next day and was very concerned. He said that I had bilateral pneumonia and he wanted me admitted to the hospital. I asked if he was going to call and admit me, and he said that he wanted me to go through the ER because they had doctors who were more skilled with COVID, and I would get some great new breathing treatment. He said to just take an overnight bag. So my husband dropped me off at the ER with just my overnight bag. Patients get dropped off outside in the parking lot and hospital staff decides what they will do with you.
Doni: So your doctor thought that the emergency room was a good place for you, considering your symptoms. What do you think your doctor had hoped would happen for you at the emergency room?
My doctor had hoped that I would get admitted. He also called them after I had been there for about an hour to express his concern that with my other health problems, and being high risk, he wanted wanted me to be admitted.
Doni: What actually happened when you arrived?
After I was put in the parking lot admitting area, a nurse came over and asked me why I was there. I explained to her that although my COVID test was not back, that I was 100 percent certain that I was positive for COVID, and that I was having difficulties breathing. I said I’d had a chest X-ray that morning that showed I had bilateral pneumonia, and that my doctor had sent me to the emergency room because he wanted me to be admitted. My temperature was 100.7, and this was my third day with a temperature. She then took me to a portable room area that is the hospital’s quarantine area for patients with COVID, or who have symptoms of COVID, or who want a COVID test.
Doni: So you were in an area specifically designated for possible COVID patients. Can you describe what made this area special and different from the regular, general-population emergency room area?
This area had about six seats, I think. I sat just inside in a seat on the left, and there was a portable wall to my left that I couldn’t see past unless I looked around. However, I could hear people talking. I could hear everything that was said. There was no HIPAA privacy at all. When the PA (physician’s assistant) came in he just walked in front of everyone and asked what they were there for, and their names. A nurse handed me a portable phone when I was seated that she wiped down and handed me. She said that the hospital’s admitting department would be calling me on that phone, and when I was finished to put it on a tray.
Doni: Perhaps one of the reasons why you were on extra high alert – other than having COVID – is that you have previous experience in the healthcare system. With that viewpoint, what most alarmed you about what you observed?
I found it very alarming that when I finished with the phone and I set it on a tray, it rang again immediately. So I picked it up and said hello. The person on the phone asked who they were speaking with and I said my name. They said, “Oh, OK, is there someone named (blank) in there?” I said, “Um, not sure,” and turned to the room and asked if anyone by that name was there. Indeed, it was a young gal sitting across from me. The person on the phone asked me to hand the young woman the phone. So I hesitantly did, but I’m thinking to myself, “This is crazy. I have COVID and was just talking on this phone and they are having me hand it to this girl.”
The phone rang three more times, never being cleaned before being handed to other patients.
The next alarming thing was after about three hours I was very thirsty. I asked an employee who came to take a patient if there was somewhere that I could get a drink of water. I was directed outside of that quarantined area to a community water fountain. I said, “You want me to use that water fountain!? I have COVID.” And they said, “Yes, that’s the water fountain.”
I used that water fountain three different times, as I had no other options. It was the fountain in the main ER waiting room, where the patients without COVID symptoms wait.
Also, I was very surprised that I was there for eight hours. Not once during that time did anyone come in to clean anything. Nobody wiped down any seats that people with COVID symptoms had been sitting in, where new people came and sat. It was shocking to me.
Doni: You said you were there for eight hours. During that time, what treatment did you receive?
After about seven hours a nurse came in and apologized to the four of us who were there who’d been waiting for so long. The nurse said that with the COVID situation this was the hospital’s resolution for the safety of patients, and that obviously the system was broken. The nurse said the hospital was trying to come up with a better solution.
The nurse said a new person had just come on shift and would come in shortly to get us all out of there. During that eight-hour period of time they did a new chest X-ray on me, through my clothes, which I thought was odd. And I had blood work done twice. I never saw a doctor, and was not given anything to help me breathe.
Finally, when the new PA came around 11 p.m., I was told they’d be sending me home, that their tests didn’t show that I was sick enough to be admitted, even though MD Imaging’s X-ray that morning showed otherwise, and my doctor felt I should be admitted. I told the PA that I had taken a Prednisone around 3 p.m., and had used my my inhaler, because I was getting desperate. So on discharge just before midnight, I was given a shot of Kenalog (a type of steroid), and was given prescription for a three-day supply of Prednisone to get me through for the injection to work well, and I was given a prescription for a refill on my steroid inhaler that I had been using.
Doni: Did you get the impression that admissions were reserved for only the very sickest COVID patients?
Because I never got to speak to an actual doctor, at the end of night the PA just said that their X-rays didn’t look like the X-rays MD Imaging had taken that morning at 11, and so the doctor felt that I was fine to go home. Keep in mind that the hospital’s X-rays were taken through a very thick shirt, and I had my bra on. They did have MD Imaging’s X-rays. They had sent for them. They never spoke about how sick you had to be to be admitted. Conversation was very limited.
Doni: How were the hospital staff in this COVID section outfitted with regard to PPE and gear? Did you get the sense that those staff members only worked in that area reserved strictly for COVID patients, or that they also worked in other parts of the hospital?
There wasn’t any staff who stayed in that area. The nurse who brought me in there from the parking lot area was in PPE attire. She said she had purchased her own face shield that connected to her scrub top. Everyone else that I saw had on scrubs and a mask. I can’t say if they had on shoe coverings and gloves. The nighttime PA, I believe had on shoe coverings, gloves and a mask. I’m thinking that they all worked in the ER, and this area was separated off. You got the feeling that none of them wanted to come in there.
Doni: Would you be inclined to go to the ER again with COVID complications?
I honestly would not recommend anyone going to the ER at this point, unless it was a dire emergency. I would go to the hospital only if I was a direct admit from my doctor, not the emergency room there.
I can assure you that people were exposed by me and it bothered me. I couldn’t believe it.
Doni: What suggestions do you have for the hospital, for the sake of the staff and patients?
My suggestion to the hospital is that they need to really reassess their program that they implemented for COVID patients. They need to have the area cleaned. They need to tell their patients who are sitting in there that they will be getting a phone call, and then give them a clean phone. They need to have water available in that area, for sure.
The care was so poor, and there was absolutely no privacy. I can tell you the names of everyone who was there in that room with me that day, and what was wrong with them.
Doni: As a COVID survivor, do you have any suggestions for the public, both in terms of not becoming infected, but also what to do in the event someone becomes ill?
As a survivor, I would say to people that you cannot count on other people protecting you. I wear a mask in public, and I am a faithful hand-washer. I also use sanitizers when I am out. I try not to touch my face.
But you can do everything to protect yourself and it’s still not going to be 100 percent. You cannot control the actions of others; say that you live with or work with. There are a lot of non-mask wearers out there, and just your mask isn’t going to protect you.
So if you have a high risk, stay at home if you are worried. Order your groceries and have them delivered, or have friends or family shop for you and leave the groceries at your door.
Doni: All good suggestions. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
If you think that you are having symptoms – even if you think that it’s just a cold or allergies – you should go get tested. Once you get tested, avoid people and avoid going out until you get your results.
Thank you. I really hope that they (hospital administrators) read this and make changes.
Doni: I understand this has not been an easy conversation, and I appreciate the courage it took for you to share your story.
I hope you’ll continue your full recovery and that you and your loved ones will remain safe and healthy. Take care. Thanks, again.
UPDATE, Nov. 29: The patient featured in this post shared the cost of treatment by MD Imaging for chest X-rays, as well as Mercy Medical Center’s emergency room visit:
“11/5 MD Imaging charged $109 for the X-ray and for it to be read.
11/5 Mercy billed $10,434, which included the charge of $1198 for the exact same X-ray, even though they had the one from earlier in the day (taken by MD Imaging). My insurance paid a flat rate of $6710 for the ER Fee. Did not pay the X-ray as billed.”
Note: I know people who work in both Redding hospitals, and without exception, I have found them to be stellar, dedicated healthcare professionals. This piece is about hospital systems, and clearly, today’s post addresses one woman’s experience on one day in one Redding hospital. This story serves as a wakeup call, as California’s COVID numbers climb, for healthcare facilities to implement the very best systems and practices during this pandemic, for the sake of staff, patients and the community.