I sat in a St. John's emergency room for 7 hours — here's what I saw

Due to the shortage of healthcare professionals in the province, a lot has been discussed about the long wait times in hospital emergency rooms. To see what this experience is like for patients, CBC reporter Jessica Singer sat in the ER waiting room for seven hours. (Duncan Major - image credit)
Due to the shortage of healthcare professionals in the province, a lot has been discussed about the long wait times in hospital emergency rooms. To see what this experience is like for patients, CBC reporter Jessica Singer sat in the ER waiting room for seven hours. (Duncan Major - image credit)
Duncan Major
Duncan Major

"It's crazy back there," the nurse says as she points her thumb toward the triage area, where about five people with an assortment of injuries wait in line.

The two middle-aged women sitting to the left of me look at each other. One of them asks the nurse if the emergency room is short-staffed.

"We always are," the nurse replies.

It's around 9 a.m. in the emergency room at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's. As I turn my head to look at the dozens of exhausted faces around me, I can tell it's going to be a long day for many of them.

It's no secret that there's a shortage of healthcare workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. In September, Eastern Health asked people to stay away from its St. John's emergency rooms unless "absolutely necessary." The provincial government has even used Come Home Year branding in attempts to bring health care professionals back to the province.

Due to these shortages, there's also been a lot of chatter about the long wait times in hospital emergency rooms. To see what this experience is like for patients, I spent seven hours in the Health Sciences Centre's ER waiting room.

Finding ways to pass the time

When I sit down, I lean my head back and close my eyes for a moment, settling in for what's bound to be a long day. At least the chairs are surprisingly comfy.

I hear the sound of crutches hitting the white tiled floor. A middle-aged man hobbles in with a swollen right foot that's both shoeless and sockless, and it drags on the floor as he manoeuvres around, trying to find a seat. In the time I spent in the ER, I'd watch this man limp out of the room to see a doctor and then back to his seat at least three times.

Another middle-aged man gets up from his chair and finds a new place to rest, twisting to lean his upper body against the plexiglass barrier to his right. His left eye is completely shut, covered by a bulging black and purple bruise. Scrapes and scabs are scattered across his nose and upper face.

Duncan Major
Duncan Major

There's about 20 to 25 of us sitting in blue, vinyl chairs, some of which are separated by plexiglass. The room is warm and stuffy.

The only sounds in the room are ringing phones, nurses periodically calling patients' names and lots of coughing. There's a TV mounted in the upper left corner of the room. CNN is the only channel playing the entire day — the newscast is muted, with subtitles scrolling across the screen.

I look over at the television. The headline reads, 'surge of RSV cases leaving pediatric hospitals overwhelmed.'

Fitting, I think to myself as I look away from the TV.

The man with the leg bandage

I suddenly hear music.

A woman to the left of me wearing purple pyjamas shows the man beside her a TikTok video of people dancing — they both giggle, but I can tell it's only a brief distraction from the pain the man is experiencing.

"Oh my God, I can feel it like, bearing down on my foot," he says, grunting as he pulls up his left pant leg. There's a beige bandage, about three inches thick, wrapped tightly above his left ankle. He looks at it momentarily before leaning his head back and squeezing his eyes shut.

The woman in purple gets a phone call and the ringtone sings, "your son is calling you." She answers and says that the man with the leg bandage is "taking his chances" at the ER because it's too difficult to get an appointment with their family doctor.

"It would take weeks and weeks," she says into her phone, looking over at the aching man beside her.

Lunchtime for the long-haulers

Duncan Major
Duncan Major

An elderly woman sits in a clunky black wheelchair directly across from me, wearing a hospital gown with a white blanket wrapped tightly around her shoulders. A lime green tissue box sits on her lap, and every few minutes, she has a coughing fit.

She lifts a tissue to her mouth, releases wet, hacking coughs, and drops the tissue into the small black garbage can her daughter placed beside her.

It's around 1 p.m., and the long-haulers have a few options for lunchtime. Some have Tim Hortons sandwiches and coffee, while others opt for bags of chips from the vending machine.

I've brought two chocolate chip cookies from home, and as I snack on my "lunch," I hear the man with the leg bandage let out a shuddering breath.

"Stuff is just seeping out of my leg and it's seeping through the bandage," he says to the woman in the purple pyjamas. "My ankle is all swollen and it's going right down into my foot and into my toes and everything."

I put my cookies away and save them for later.

Would it be worse anywhere else?

After four hours of waiting, the man with the leg bandage gets called up to see a nurse.

"Thank God," he utters under his breath.

There are no windows in the waiting room and my phone's battery is about to die, so I'm literally twiddling my thumbs when two elderly women sit beside me.

They talk about the doctor shortage the minute they get comfortable in their seats.

"It's a waiting game," says one of the women, who is wearing blue jeans and a fuzzy, pastel yellow sweater. "It's quite the racket."

With around 30 people in the waiting room now, a nurse asks if some visitors and loved ones could give up their seats to patients. I look around the room one last time before I leave.

I see a woman with a sling on her arm, blood slowly seeping through a bandage on her right temple. She's been here for at least three hours.

I turn to look at a man in a white t-shirt dozing off in a chair in the aisle across from me, arms folded across his chest. He's been here for at least four hours.

The woman in the purple pyjamas is back, probably waiting for the man with the leg bandage. There's no telling how much longer they'll be here.

The two elderly ladies sitting beside me joke with each other that they'll be here until midnight.

I wish I could've told them to wear their comfy pants.

One of them asks the other, "Would it be worse anywhere else?"

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