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Deciphering the ER Triage Formula

I want to know what the formula is. I’m speaking, of course, of the formula that gets one person back into the emergency room to be seen, while another waits and waits with the sick, cranky, disheveled masses.

I have accompanied my friend to this antechamber of the ill and injured. Prior to bringing him here, I called ahead to several ERs and tried to make a calculation. All the kind people on the telephone gave the same reply. A hint of empathy, but a little too rehearsed: “This is our current wait time now, but that can change quickly.”

And sure enough, a couple of complicated patients can create a bottleneck behind those secured double doors. And besides, the waiting room is only one of two vital pathways that allows you access to the world beyond. Ambulances drop patients off at a separate entrance you cannot see, so you never know how many patients get ahead of you through the back door.

Everyone in the waiting area is calculating, comparing their illness with that of their waiting-room compatriots. The lady leaning over in her chair, puking incessantly, seems sicker. That guy with the sniffles, he can definitely wait. The infant goes before everyone else, even the puking lady. If you were not already there for uncontrolled high blood pressure, the mental image of others being chosen ahead of you is enough to cause the stroke that you went there to prevent.

The longer you sit and wait, the worse you feel. Plus you get mad, which does not help the situation. And as you sit in the waiting room, you feel like a magnet for all the viruses and other bugs surely floating around the place.

Finally, mercifully, they shout your name. No anonymity here. But for once you don’t care, because it’s finally your turn.

Scott Matthew Bolhack
Tuscon, Arizona