An Ottawa man had such a distasteful experience in the Civic hospital emergency room that he drove himself to another hospital with a broken arm, an event that occurred one month before another man was shown a similar lack of compassion at the Civic.
A hospital official later apologized to the man who broke his arm and said it had taken corrective action, but he now doubts that after reading about the similar incident last week.
That incident involved a 19-year-old man with an injured back who was told to lie on the floor of the Civic’s emergency room after telling a health worker he was going to pass out from his pain.
The two episodes come as hospitals are facing an overcrowding crisis and health workers – especially those in crowded emergency departments – are increasingly at risk of what health-care experts describe as “compassion fatigue.”
The man, who arrived at the Civic emergency department on Oct. 25 after breaking his arm playing soccer, says his pain became so intense that he sat on the floor with his arm elevated. His heavy breathing, dry heaving and obvious distress drew the attention of nearby patients, one of whom notified the desk, but without response.
When the man, who has asked that his name not be used, was called in to see the triage nurse, he says she first scolded him for sitting on the floor. “I explained how much pain I was in but she showed no understanding or any sympathy whatsoever and repeated herself again,” he later wrote to the hospital’s patient advocacy office.
The nurse asked why he was there and he said he thought he had broken his arm, explaining he’d had a previous break and was left with metal plates and screws which he thought might be causing his extreme pain. “She told me not to make my own diagnosis and started egging me into a debate over how to respond to her question.”
He says she continued to argue with him as he breathed heavily and shook from pain. “She was probably having a bad day and I was her target.” Eventually, he was so desperate for help, he stood up and said he couldn’t take it any more and was going to drive himself to the Queensway Carleton Hospital. “She said, OK, you do that.”
The man said he was quickly diagnosed with a broken arm at Queensway Carleton, given pain medication as well as support for his arm and scheduled for surgery. He says he shouldn’t have driven himself there, though, because he was in obvious shock. “I was not in the right state of mind to be driving. I think she should have picked up on that. I think they would have held responsibility if something had happened to me on the road … it’s the same as leaving a bar late at night.”
The clinical manager of the Civic emergency department later contacted him to apologize for his experience, saying she had spoken with two nurses and told them it wasn’t acceptable. “My case was particularly bad in my mind because I left the hospital in a very unsafe state,” he said.
He said he does not think his concerns were addressed “if a similar thing happened to another patient.”
A spokesperson confirmed Thursday that the hospital apologized to the man at the time.
“This incident was not acceptable,” said Kate Eggins, director of communications and engagement with The Ottawa Hospital.
“The Ottawa Hospital strives to provide compassionate care during all of the 177,000 annual visits to our emergency departments and we appreciate the many positive letters from patients who describe heroic actions by our staff. And, when we fall short and don’t live up to our commitment to compassionate care, we take action to improve.”
This newspaper has heard from several patients with complaints about what they see as lack of compassion during recent hospital experiences across the city. Overcrowding is taking a significant toll on staff as well, especially those who work in the emergency department, said Dr. Alan Drummond, an emergency physician at Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital and co-chair of public affairs for the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.
“Burnout is an issue and it is a growing concern, both among emergency physicians and nurses, but I think more so emergency nurses. A lot is being asked of them. They feel unsupported on a daily basis. They are the ones bearing the brunt of the stress of trying to keep this leaky boat we call health care afloat.”
Drummond said the incessant demands and lack of support can lead to “compassion fatigue.”
“We have to remind ourselves that it is not the patients’ faults. But if we get this kind of behaviour, I think the hospital has a problem.”