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What Happens in the Emergency Room?

Article Translations: (Spanish)

When Ben was 4 years old, he loved to play Batman. He'd put on his Batman pajamas and pretend to fly all over the house. But one night, just before bedtime, he tried to "fly" from one end of his bed to the other. Ben missed his mark and ended up banging his elbow hard on the wood floor. Ouch!

His mom put ice on it, but his elbow got really puffy (swollen) and he had trouble moving his arm. "Batman," she said, "We're going to the emergency room."

When you need help right away, the best place to go is the nearest hospital emergency room. Also called the ER, this place is open 24 hours a day and there is a lot of activity going on. Nurses and doctors are there all day and night to care for medical problems that need quick attention. At a children's hospital, the ER will be just for kids.

Getting to the ER

Your parents might take you to the ER in their car, but if you need to get there really fast, they will call 911 to get you an ambulance. Ambulances bring kids to the ER quickly and have trained people to help you during the ride. Their sirens clear a path through traffic by warning other cars to get out of the way. If you got to the ER in a car, you will probably see a few ambulances parked outside the emergency room.

If you are not too sick and there is time to pack, you may want to talk to your parent about packing a bag with your favorite books, crayons, toy, or stuffed animal.

What Happens First?

When you go into an ER, the first thing you or your parent will usually do is sign in at a front desk. This is a way of letting the emergency room staff know that you are there and what your problem is. If your medical problem needs super-fast attention, you may be taken right in to see a doctor.

If not, the next step is seeing a triage (say: TREE-ahzh) nurse. This nurse makes sure that the sickest people get to see the doctors first.

If you have to wait a while, you'll probably do it in the waiting area. The waiting room may have toys, books, magazines, computers, and a TV to keep you busy until an exam room is ready or until you get an X-ray. The triage nurse might tell you not to eat or drink until you see the doctor.

Your Turn!

When it's your turn, someone will call your name and guide you to an examining room. There, you may have to wait a little bit longer for the doctor.

An ER exam room has a bed for you and a chair where your mom or dad can sit and keep you company. Some of these rooms may have something that looks like a small TV screen. That's a monitor used to keep an eye on a person's heartbeat and breathing.

You also might see an oxygen tank and tubing for people who need help breathing. You may notice other equipment, too. But just because a piece of equipment is in your exam room, it doesn't mean you will need to use it. This equipment is there, just in case, to meet the needs of the many people (which may include adults) who come to the ER for treatment.

When the doctor arrives, he or she will talk to you and your parents about your medical problem and examine you. At this point, the doctor will decide what should happen next. In Ben's case, he needed an X-ray. The X-ray showed that he had a broken arm and needed a cast.

Other kids might need different tests, such as blood tests or urine (pee) tests. Sometimes kids need fluids or medicine through an intravenous catheter, also called an IV. An IV is a thin plastic tube that is inserted into a vein so you can get the medicine or fluids you need to feel better.

Most kids go home after the doctor figures out what the medical problem is and decides how to treat it. You may be given some medicine while in the ER or a prescription for medicine that your parent can pick up at your local pharmacy.

Sometimes, the doctor decides to admit someone to the hospital, which means staying overnight. This may sound scary, but your mom or dad can stay with you and keep you company.

Some hospitals have child life specialists. These are specially trained people who can help you deal with any stress or pain you may be having and they can use models or drawings to help explain any procedures you might have. They have great suggestions to help you get your mind off things if you are getting really worried while you are in the ER.

What Happens at the End of the ER Visit?

If, as in most cases, you are going home, the ER doctor might tell you to "follow up" with your regular doctor. This means to visit your regular doctor soon so he or she can see that you're doing better and answer any questions that you or your parents may have.

If you got stitches or a cast, the ER doctor will tell you how long it will be before they can be removed.

ER Talk

ER doctors and nurses may use words that are new to you. Here's what some of them mean:

  • admitted: to stay in the hospital overnight
  • discharged: to be sent home from the hospital
  • triage: a process that helps doctors see the sickest patients first 
  • chart: a paper that contains information about you (like your temperature, heart rate, and treatment plan). Most of the time now, all of this information is recorded in the computer and saved.
  • injection: a shot
  • IV: intravenous catheter, which is a thin plastic tube inserted into your vein to give you medicine
  • papoose: a soft board with Velcro straps that is used to keep arms and legs still so doctors can put in stitches or take care of an injury without you moving around too much
  • stat: to do something as fast as possible
  • sutures: stitches, which are strong strings to help close deep cuts and help them heal

And what happened to Ben? About 3 hours after he tried to fly, he was ready to leave the ER. His mom helped him into the Batmobile (the family car) and took him home.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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