Lessons From the Road: Avoid the ER

By: Sydna Marshall

A few weeks ago I found myself in the ER at midnight in a new city.  Let me backup the story a bit. I had planned a road trip to Dallas with my bestie (we’ll call her “A” for now) for a beauty conference. Two days before the trip I ran a 102.6 fever for the better part of the day. The morning of, as I was doing my treatments and finishing my packing, I felt the familiar band of pain around my chest. I mentally ruled it out as merely remnants of pain from my blockage earlier in the week and carried on with my morning. I drove the hour north to pick up A and start our trek up to Dallas. We stopped for tacos and queso along the way. I took some pain meds for that persistent and annoying band of pain. A few hours later, we checked into our hotel, picked up our beauty boxes for the conference, and had a happy hour cocktail in the bar followed by sushi in the rotating tower.

Fast forward to 9p: CF changes on a dime. Suddenly, that pesky band of pain that I’ve absently noticed and ignored for the day is front and center. I can barely take a breath, much less a full breath, post-treatment. By 11p, I’ve laid in bed silently crying as the pain spikes up to an 8 and then back to a 6. It dawns on me that the band of pain is pleuritic pain. After texting multiple Cysters and weighing the pain with the inability to breathe, my recent 20% drop in lung functions and the fever I ran earlier, I finally make the decision to wake up A (who is for once sleeping peacefully, without interruptions, in the absence of her four kiddos) and have her drive me to the ER.

We arrive at the ER with this naïve idea that my CF clinic, albeit on-call at this late hour, will communicate with the CF clinic in Dallas. I’d already given A all of the information, phone numbers, and instructions for getting everyone, including my husband Adam, on the same page. Over the course of the evening and early morning hours, hundreds of texts and calls between A, Adam, and the on-call care team at home transpire in an effort to expedite the process.  Since it’s not my first rodeo with pleuritic pain, I’ve already determined before we even got settled in the ER that I desperately need instant-relief pain meds and a chest X-ray. Am I the only one who self-diagnoses? When you’re in and out of the doctor for the litany of health problems in addition to CF, you become the expert on your own body. I digress.

Over the course of the 12 hours in the ER, my port is accessed a total of four times, with one of them being a needle repositioning, before we get anywhere. To administer IV medication and run blood tests, two different nurses start dueling peripheral lines, one in my left hand and the other in my right elbow.  Meanwhile, other nurses attempt to get my port working, which won’t flush or draw back blood. My vein blows on one of the lines, and the other is dangerously close. I have a chest X-ray taken, a CT scan with contrast of my lungs, every blood test imaginable, an EKG, several rounds of morphine, two doses of vancomycin and two albuterol treatments.  I’m told I have a potential pulmonary embolism, a virus causing pleurisy, a mucus plug, or sepsis. Twelve hours in, and about 10 minutes after Adam arrives at the Dallas ER, my repeated requests to be moved to my home clinic, care team, and hospital are heard and I’m care-flighted from Dallas back home (Adam has to drive back home). Once admitted to my home hospital, they have me repeat nearly every test the Dallas ER did less than 24 hours prior as none of my medical records transferred with me from the ER. Five days later the medical records from the ER finally make their way to my home hospital and care team.  In the end, it was determined that I had a virus, which accounted for the difficulty in breathing, pleuritic pain, and fever. It was a very long, traumatic, stressful, and a trying 12 hours away from home. And, I missed my conference entirely, but that’s another story.

I’ve since had some time to reflect on this jaunt to the ER. The biggest takeaway for me – CF clinics do communicate but getting the ER to communicate with the CF care team is nearly impossible.  Having a port is a blessing, but it requires orders from your doctor, not just any doctor, to access and use heparin or cath flow in the event that it’s not working properly (or, in my case, repeatedly accessed incorrectly).  I learned that complaining of chest pain at a new hospital where none of my medical records are accessible means a round of tests to rule out heart problems, despite knowing that it’s my lungs. I learned that transferring medical records from one hospital to another is a royal pain in the you-know-what.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but I know I could have avoided the entire debacle if only I had heeded my inner voice the morning I left for Dallas when I first felt the band of pain around my lungs.  For me, it’s often hard to gauge when it’s important to say no and upend plans, especially when it impacts friends and family around me. If a trip to Walgreens completes a vacation in my house, am I an overachiever for my trip to the ER?

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