Everything can change with the snap of a finger. How many times have you heard that? How many times has it actually happened to you?
We were watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest that evening at the station. We just had a nice fancy steak dinner, courtesy to one of my coworkers. With a full stomach, I was all snuggled up in my lazy chair, prepared to enjoy an easy and relaxing evening. The crackle of the radio can be heard in the background as the movie unfolded before us. We kept an ear on the radio as we watched the foreign film, it sounded pretty busy in the city. Things were just getting exciting halfway through the movie. Then the unexpected sound: Dooo-deeeeeeee and static erupts from our station’s pagers. We were getting paged routine for a transfer.
I looked at my partner and smiled as I struggled out of the lazy chair. Looks like we’re getting paid tonight. I half wanted to stay and finish the movie in the comforts of the station.
Once in the ambulance I radioed dispatch.
Dispatch: “99Kilo3, Routine transfer to …”
My partner was scribbling down the info on a notepad.
Dispatch: “…pt has meningitis non-contagious…”
My partner and I glanced at each other. That’s something to keep in mind, we’ll take the appropriate precautions when we get to the hospital.
Me: “99Kilo3, 10-4. Thank you.”
The weather had changed from earlier, it was starting to rain. None-the-less the drive was relaxing, as we chatted amongst the pitter-patter of the rain on our vehicle. An easy routine transfer, I’m good with doing that for the evening.
I pulled up to the ambulance bay, in front of the ER and pulled the extra heavy new ferno stretcher out of the ambulance.
Partner: “Hello! Good evening, we’re here for the transfer.”
Nurse: “Oh yes, he’s just in bed 1.”
Partner: “Great, so what’s his story?”
The nurse briefed us on our patient’s history.
Partner: “I hear he’s got meningitis.”
Nurse: “Yes, but the test results came back negative.”
We strolled over to our patient who was in a non-isolation room. As we were preparing for the patient for the transport, I took a set of vitals. Hmmmm patient feels hot to the touch…So I took a temperature. Came back quite high over 38 degrees Celsius.
Me: “Did he have a fever earlier?”
Me: “Well he’s got quite a temperature now.”
I told the nurse the temperature as he looks surprised.
Me: “So the test results for meningitis was negative?”
Nurse: “Yes, we did a blood and swab test. He has a stiff neck and headache, so we’re sending him to the other hospital to get checked out.”
I looked at him. For some odd reason I just felt wary, like I didn’t want to believe him. I know they haven’t done a lumbar puncture (LP), but I trusted a fellow healthcare provider.
There was nothing exciting about the transport. As we rolled our patient to the test room, a technician met us. He looked surprised when he saw us.
Technician: “You know the patient has meningitis right?”
He was throwing a gown on himself. Slightly puzzled I glanced at my partner.
Partner: “We were told by the hospital he’s negative on the test results.”
The technician had a funny look on his face which I didn’t like. Regardless he ran the tests, and afterwards called the doctor. They seemed to be having a serious chat, but I didn’t pay much attention as I chatted with my partner and was admiring this photo of a massive fish which was three times the size of the fisherman who had hauled it in.
Technician: “The tests went fine, you’re good to go.”
We thanked the technician and prepared for our trip back to the original hospital. I didn’t like the look the technician had on his face, nor that phone call, it just felt weird.
Me: “Hey (to my partner), how about we throw a mask on our patient, it doesn’t hurt to do so.”
The night was dark, and it started to pour rain. Visibility was poor and there were no street lights, I took my time on the drive back. There was no rush, safety’s first.
At this point, we’ve spent about four hours with our patient and was about 10 minutes from our destination.
Dispatch: “99Kilo3, landline please.”
Great, this is not a good time for me to landline…It was taking a lot of effort for me to drive safely in the downpour and poor visibility. Not to mention I just reached a very curvy section of the road. I fumbled and managed to grab the cell phone without taking my eyes off the road.
Me: “Hey, can you call dispatch? I gotta focus on driving.”
I passed my phone to my partner who was in the back with the patient. After a couple of minutes my partner pokes her head through the doggy hole that connects the patient compartment to the driver’s compartment.
Partner: “Hey, dispatch just called, says the patient is positive for meningitis. We gotta take isolation precautions, gown up, gloves, N-95 Mask, etc. Sierra 9 (supervisor) will meet us at the hospital.”
Me: “What? Positive?”
Partner: “Yeah…I know…”
What? Are you shitting me?!?!? The hospital just told us he was negative, even though we asked several times. Now it makes sense…the technician, that odd look on his face when he saw us without isolation gear on, and that strange conversation with the doctor on the phone.
I looked down the dark road, with the heavy pellets of rain hammering down on my windshield. We have possible exposure to meningitis…what does that mean? Where does that lead us? I felt betrayed by the hospital, by my fellow healthcare providers. If they haven’t ruled out meningitis, don’t tell us they have! It would have been all good, we would have gowned up and taken the necessary precautions, it would have been another ordinary call. I was feeling a mixture of emotions, anger, frustration, helplessness…it swirled inside of me. What the hell!
I pushed most of my emotions out of the way as I tried to focus on the road. The last thing I need now is to get exposed to meningitis AND get involved in a car crash.
Dammit! I shoulda trusted that weird sensation I had. It wasn’t a gut feeling, nor did I get hair standing at the back of my neck, just a wariness, I should have trusted that. It wasn’t possible to keep all my emotions and thoughts at bay. The night seemed to have taken a remarkable shift. One moment it was a relaxing good evening, and within a split second, turned into an evening I could have lived without.
Think positive, think positive. What’s the likelihood of you actually getting meningitis? I know the classic symptoms which involved a very high fever, stiff neck, sever headache, sensitivity to light, hence I was suspicious in the first place when I found out our patient was racking a high fever and had a stiff neck and headache. I also know that they often do an LP to determine meningitis (only later after looking it up, did I realize that’s the only definitive diagnosis, not blood tests or cultures), I know that it is contagious and is spread mostly via the respiratory tract through large water droplets. I know that the likelihood of contracting meningitis isn’t high, but that’s not the point! I still felt betrayed, and there is still a possibility of having contracted the disease. Am I going to be a carrier of the disease? Will I bring it back to the station, to my fellow coworkers? What about my family? Do I have to take medications? What’s going to happen to us, and how is this all going to unfold? I couldn’t help but think of these questions. It’s impossible to explain the feelings and thoughts that went through my head that night. I remember one time, one of our instructors in my paramedic course told us a story about how he was exposed to meningitis. He expressed how he felt, his emotions, I thought I could emphasize and understand what he felt that day. But I realize it’s impossible to fully understand those raw feelings and thoughts until you have experienced it yourself. And I don’t wish for anyone to have to go through what I felt that day and still feel today as I wait for the lab results from my patient. It’s impossible to not think of what if…it doesn’t matter how low the chances are of getting infected, there’s always a chance, there’s always that what if… in the back of your head.
Needless to say, when we stepped back into that hospital’s ER, this time in full gown, masks, gloves, etc, the nurses there avoided our eyes, one seemed to attempt at hiding behind the counter. They knew they messed up. I preferred if they all kept silent, but there is always one who talks.
Nurse: “I’m sorry about this.”
Yeah right you’re sorry.
Nurse: “It must be really tough…”
Easy for you to say, you weren’t with the patient for the last 4 hours in a small box, not quite the same as the hospital with good ventilation and large spaces (I especially felt for my partner who was the attendent).
Nurse: “…I called, as soon as I found out I called them to let you know.”
As soon as you found out…so you decided to change your mind on the patient status after 4hrs? Good job. “As soon as you found out” should have been when we came in to pick up the patient. I wonder who the doctor in charge was, I sure don’t see her anywhere. You can’t possibly understand how we’re feeling right now.
All these thoughts rolled through my head, but my partner and I kept silent, “professional” as they call it. We transferred our patient into the isolation room as the nurses donned gowns. The patient was quite sick, I hope they take good care of him. Without a word, we left the ER.
It’s going to be a long night.