The real casualty of the emergency department is our compassion

Humanity is replaced by selfishness as the waiting room fills with sick children and worried parents

Some primal, maternal force inside me, far stronger than any social norm, has taken over, and I do not care what others think of me so long as my child doesn’t come down with anything else. Photograph: Thinkstock

Some primal, maternal force inside me, far stronger than any social norm, has taken over, and I do not care what others think of me so long as my child doesn’t come down with anything else. Photograph: Thinkstock


There could have been a sense of community in the emergency room of the children’s hospital. A sense that all us parents are in it together. All for one, and one for all. But there isn’t. Instead, people are tense, frustrated and worried. They are borderline irrational. They want their sick child out of there as soon as is humanly possible. And they couldn’t give a hoot about anyone else’s.

A woman holding a baby while pushing a buggy attempts to navigate her way through the exit after her sick child’s name is eventually called. She is struggling to inform his father by phone that his temperature has hit 41 and that his breathing has gone shallow, again.

As she does battle with that stubborn hinge, no one gets up to help her. We all just stare blankly ahead and stroke our children’s hair. Because, worn out by a system that would bleed even the best of us dry, nobody cares to help anybody but themselves. And the dynamic within this room has descended into Lord of the Flies.

Seats are guarded because there aren’t enough of them. An unofficial “No Fly Zone” has appeared around a grey-looking child who has recently vomited. This makes the room feel yet more claustrophobic. It’s about 25 degrees and the only sign of water is at a vending machine around the corner.

The “Please Turn Off Your Mobile Phone” signs are universally ignored. The only reading material in the room dispenses advice about infection control and MRSA.

Each time a voice crackles over the intercom, you sense all the hopeful ears within the room strain to hear whether their sick child will be next to be seen. Then universally raise their eyes to heaven as they try to decipher the garbled name.

One bloke actually stands up and openly announces to the room that his child’s name is John Byrne but that he’s going out to check anyway, because he’s not about to miss his bloody turn.

That gives the room the sense of solidarity it needs as heads nod vigorously. But it doesn’t last.

Hysterical toddler

A young mother arrives in, struggling to hold a hysterical toddler who has angry, raised blotches all over her little face. She looks around hopefully for somewhere to sit and console her child, but each parent visibly recoils at the sight of her.

I find myself pulling my toddler closer and planning our escape route in case she should decide to come anywhere near me. Our nappy bag edges halfway onto the adjoining seat in the hope that they will land somewhere else.

Some primal, maternal force inside me, far stronger than any social norm, has taken over, and I do not care what others think of me so long as my child doesn’t come down with that.

All the other faces around the room must have been equally unwelcoming, as the woman eventually resigns herself to squatting on the floor with her sick toddler on one knee and her bewildered five year old perched on the other.

All the other occupants just study that floor intently, conspicuously oblivious to their predicament.

We thank our lucky stars that we’re not having to deal with whatever that is. We look at our watches and pray for redemption beyond the magic door.

The electronic noticeboard has a conspicuous blank after “The expected waiting time is . . .” and no one bats an eyelid. Because most of us are probably better off not knowing what the answer is. It also tells us that if we decide to do a bunk after having seen the nurse, but before we actually get near a doctor, we will get charged the €100 anyway.

I wonder what that says about us as parents? Concerned enough to bring the child to hospital, but not concerned enough to wait to get them seen? Or perhaps it says nothing more than that, with hindsight, we are unwilling to run the gauntlet of this waiting room unless our child is on the verge of cardiac arrest.

Our name is finally called. My child is young. I’m lucky, for now. I pity the parents with the teenagers who will probably see the next day inside this sorry room.

Another message on the wall informs us that “Patients will be seen in order of priority, not order of arrival.”

Magic door

I want to point at that sign as I slide discreetly towards the magic door with my tail between my legs, for fear the room may turn upon us because we have been here only two hours. And some inhabitants look like they might as well have brought a tent.

We see a nurse who asks whether my daughter had been wearing a helmet when she fell off her scooter. I nearly choke up as I say “No”. She feels the urge to spell out the fact that she should have been.

I resist the urge to point out that she has a split lip, and she would need to have been wearing an American football helmet to have had the desired effect. But I don’t, because she is just doing her job. And becoming defensive and aggressive is not part of mine. Mine is to Do a Better Job Next Time. And to ensure the helmet is worn.

She looks after my little lady wonderfully. Far better than I did in letting her fall in the first place. We see a doctor who gives her a teddy and has her eating out of her hand within seconds. She cleans her up and sends us home with reassuring words that her lip will be fine and her scooting career can recommence whenever she feels up to it.

As I pass the dreaded waiting room on my way out, relieved and calm now that I know my child will be okay, I think how somebody should have opened the door for the woman with the buggy.

How someone should have offered the mother with the screaming baby a seat. But we didn’t. I didn’t. Because I was too scared to do anything but think of my own child.

But that doesn’t make it right. And it matters little if my child is safe and well and free of rashes, if she isn’t kind. If she grows up oblivious to the needs of others, and doesn’t learn to share what little she has with those in greater need.

Perhaps someone should have built a bigger waiting room, I reason with myself. A bigger hospital? A bigger list of doctors? Or perhaps I just need to build a bigger heart. And make sure that my daughter does too.

Perhaps the real casualty of that emergency department was that we didn’t choose to help each other.

We could have made the best of a bad situation. But we didn’t.

Instead we taught our children that it is okay to let a sick baby sit on a cold floor, so long as we ourselves are comfortable. Shame on us.

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