Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nix to the Knitting Needles

Last week I got e-mail from my friend Inez, who’s an avid knitter. She reported that a friend of hers had gone to the ER and discovered, in the waiting room, a basket with knitting needles, yarn, and instructions for how to make squares for a blanket. The idea, presumably, was for waiting patients to produce squares that would then be assembled into a finished blanket and donated to some good cause.

Inez thought this was a nifty solution to waiting-room boredom, and since I volunteer in an ER, she wanted to let me know about it.

My very strong initial reaction, I’m afraid, was, “Knitting needles in an ER waiting room? Are you nuts?”

This reaction may say more about me than it does about the idea. If I were a kinder, gentler person, not to mention a better Christian, I’m sure the notion would have filled my head with lovely visions of waiting patients happily knitting blanket squares as insurance against the sudden, catastrophic failure of the ER blanket warmer.

But I’m not a kinder, gentler person; I’m myself, and my four hours a week volunteering in the ER and its immediate environs -- including the waiting room -- have given me a pretty good idea of what can happen there. So instead of seeing lovely piles of warm blanket squares, I had vivid, unwanted visions of small children running with knitting needles, tripping, falling, and putting their eyes out. I saw other small children accidentally putting their parents’ eyes out. I saw the parents of screaming small children (even those with eyes still intact) threatening to use the knitting needles to put the triage nurse’s eyes out if the family’s three-hour wait didn’t end in transfer to the actual ER within the next five seconds. I saw feuding family members attempting to strangle each other with yarn, babies choking on blanket squares, and intoxicated or demented patients using blanket squares as bandages, eyepatches, or diapers.

In short, I imagined a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. The tenth circle of hell: ER waiting room, with knitting needles.

Perhaps I have too lurid an imagination? But it’s worth mentioning that my husband, who spends as little time in hospitals as possible, raised his eyebrows when I told him about the knitting idea. “Hey, how about woodworking? You can hand out lots of nice sharp cutting implements.”

I routinely give crayons and paper to cranky children in the waiting room; crayons are blunt enough to minimize the chances of accidental blindness, although I usually check with the parents first to make sure that the kids won’t eat the crayons. I once hunted down a pillow for a patient who felt so miserable, and had been waiting so long, that he was lying on the floor (the staff usually discourages this, but the triage nurse that day took pity on him). But there are reasons most ER waiting rooms are barren wastelands bereft even of magazines.

For one thing, anything that isn’t nailed down tends to walk off. This is why the television’s not only bolted to the wall, but bolted so high up that you’ll dislocate your neck trying to watch it. I’ve periodically seen lovely collections of shiny toys in various hospital waiting rooms. The toys never last long.

Secondly, people in hospital waiting rooms sometimes become extremely upset at each other, themselves, or hospital staff, and no one wants them to have anything handy that could be used as a weapon. I once saw a triage nurse act as a bouncer, charging into a family dispute where two women were screaming at each other. I’ve heard a security guard talk about relieving a patient of a large, lethal switchblade. During my ER-for-volunteers tour, we were told that ER staff routinely get jumped by patients. I’ve never actually seen this; in the ER proper, anyone who might pose a threat gets put in restraints very quickly. (Restrained patients sometimes think that because I’m the chaplain, I’ll be a kind, gentle Christian and undo their restraints. Not on your life, buddy.) But that’s the ER proper: the waiting room’s another story.

And third, there’s the germ problem. Do you really want to finish off the blanket square that a previous knitter sneezed or coughed or bled on? Sometimes people donate stuffed toys to the ER, but when we give one to a patient, the toy goes home with that child. Teddy bears can’t be autoclaved, and the ER produces enough dirty laundry as it is.

Don't get me wrong: Hospital waiting rooms are no more inherently dangerous than airport lounges or subway stations or coffeeshops. Crazy stuff can go down anywhere, and if anything does happen in the hospital, a security guard -- or a burly triage nurse -- will be there within seconds. Obviously there’s at least one hospital in the country that considers knitting needles in the ER waiting room a fine idea. Maybe when I post this, I’ll be flooded with comments from hospital personnel telling me that their waiting rooms are full of people happily playing darts and practicing small-engine repair with power tools.

Even so, I strongly advise that if you want to knit, you should bring your own supplies from home. In fact, it’s not a bad idea -- especially if you have small children -- to keep an “ER bag” packed with books, toys, coloring materials, and simple craft supplies. Being empty-handed in a waiting room can make for a very long wait indeed, and watching that TV won’t do your neck any good.

Update on 10/18/06:

Knitting in other parts of the hospital, though, can be a very good thing. Check out this article about knitting as spiritual care.


  1. Knitting needles in an A&E dept . . . another fine idea from someone who has never worked in one, certainly not outside the hours of 9 and 5. I mean, did they ask anyone who works there, or was the skull and crossbones a bit of a giveway?

  2. My son is a night shift hospital security officer. I can guarantee you that those knitting needles would NEVER remain in the ER waiting room for an entire shift. Probably wouldn't make it 5 minutes before they were removed as a safety precaution.

    Doubtless this plan was OK'd by someone who's office door is behind a couple of locks.

  3. I agree with everything you said except for one thing...I do think ER's are inherently more dangerous than the subway or the airport, for all the reasons you already mentioned. Love your blog.

  4. Some years ago in the hospital where I worked (another hospital in another city, and not my current position) the Security Department decided to participate in the research spirit of a research and teaching hospital. In this downtown trauma center, all folks who entered walking, whether patients or family members, had to go through a metal detector. Security personnel began to track what weapons they confiscated from folks who came in (again, both patients and family members). After four months they set up a poster presentation. The results were truly frightening.

  5. A metal detector . . . wow. It's occasionally occurred to me that that would be a good idea, but then I've always thought, "Oh, come on, Susuan, you're really being too alarmist."

    It's sobering to think that someone has actually done this. The results sound even more sobering.

  6. We have a collection of pictures of some of the more bizarre traumas that make it through our door...

    One of my favorite was a guy who had a crochet hook stabbed through his hand, coming out the other side, compliments of his rather upset girlfriend...

    so, no, I wouldn't think knitting needles were a good idea...

  7. Anonymous11:16 PM

    I think it is very telling that we both submitted knitting posts to change of shift. I actually started knitting while my son was in the hospital after his stroke. I kept at it and when he was in the hospital for his last surgery it was a great stress reliever. I think that everyone should learn how to knit.

  8. Anonymous7:04 PM

    This is funny as I was just talking about picking up my knitting...

    I have to agree. Whiel this is a nice "idea" tehre is no way it would ever work in ANY ED I have ever been in...


  9. Anonymous7:04 PM

    Oh, and I can't type tonight...sorry!


  10. Love the skull bag. Somebodys gotta be crazy or live in the tinest town, maybe the security guard gives you lessons," knit one purl two" any way thats the craziest thing I've ever heard. I have a few times pulled out my needle as a weapon in a dark parking lot( not needed or used but a sharp tool just the same" By the way I love your BLOG. :o)


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