Saturday, July 14, 2007

Code Red

Eager to experience the thrill of emergency medicine in the comfort of your own home? Try this nifty computer game, described thusly by its manufacturers:
You Are An Overworked and Underpaid ER Resident!

Interact with 35 patients and a top-notch ER staff. Uncover the triumph and tragedies in your patients' lives. Code Red will draw you in emotionally and keep you on the edge of your seat. It's the perfect game for anyone, with or without medical training, who wants to experience what it's really like to be an ER doctor. It's real life, heart pumping drama, and you're always at the center of the action.

You play an overworked and underpaid ER resident in a large public hospital. The city is up in arms after the recent death of a woman who was left untreated for 12 hours in your emergency room. Despite the scandal your job must go on, even in the midst of chaos. Every decision is critical. If another patient is lost, the next big headline might be about you!
I suspect that real ER docs -- and nurses -- would shudder at this scenario, rather than seeing it as a pleasant evening's recreation. The game was published in 2001, but that bit about the woman dying for lack of treatment sounds eerily like the recent ER scandal in LA.

However, I too can attest to the heart-pounding excitement of a Code Red, because we had one at my hospital this past week. Only in our case, "Code Red" doesn't mean "the city's erupted in riots and your ER's getting swamped." We have another code for situations like that, which I pray I never hear. Where I am, Code Red means "fire," which is quite bad enough.

Luckily, this fire (if it really was a fire and not a false alarm; I never found out) was in a non-patient-care area on an upper floor of the hospital. The ER's on the ground floor. I was talking to a patient when sirens and lights started going off in the hall. I rushed out to see what was going on, and heard the Code Red over the intercom. Medical staff were closing all the doors to patient rooms, and I helped them. After that, though, we kept about our normal business, if you can call it "normal" with klaxons and flashing lights going off every two seconds.

The noise was ear-splitting; the lights were migraine material, and maybe seizure too. Remember that scene in The Andromeda Strain where the super-secret biocontainment facility thinks the infected animals have escaped, and all kinds of lights and sirens are flashing and whooping, and the epileptic lady scientist falls down in a seizure, and everybody runs away from her, because they think she's infected? I kept expecting something like that to happen.

Instead, during the twenty minutes this lasted, the staff became increasingly tense and more and more wild-eyed. The patients, ironically, were calmer than we were, because the noise was much less severe inside their rooms. But out in the hallways, you could practically see people's heads exploding. I think the staff would have preferred a Code Red of the citywide-riot variety.

At one point, I asked an EMT, "Okay, so what would happen if there were a fire in the ER?"

He snorted. "We'd go up in a fireball from all the oxygen down here."

How reassuring. "But what if it was less serious than that? I mean, where would you move the patients?"

He shrugged. "Hey, I'd run for the hills. I don't know what the plan is for patient evacuation. There's a plan someplace, though."

More reassurance!

Finally the dentist-drill noise and disco-light action stopped, and everyone took a deep breath and relaxed. And into the blessed silence came the sound of an ambulance call over the radio.

Because I like advance warning if we might be getting a Code Blue, I usually listen to radio calls if I'm in the vicinity. This time, the paramedic said, "The patient's chief complaint is that she's just not feeling like herself."

The nurse who was taking the radio call looked at me, and we both started laughing. Not feeling like herself? We weren't feeling like ourselves, either.

I'll take the computer game, thanks.


  1. Sounds incredibly intense! I'm glad nothing happened like a seizure or anything. I'm glad you're safe.

  2. Oh man, you described it perfectly. Gives me a headache. But I'd get my patients out - at least to the other side of the fire doors.

  3. Great submission to Grand Rounds. Very funny ending. I'll have to come back to read more of your work.

  4. Great ending, and wonderful story-telling!

    Thank you for that laugh.


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