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Overcrowding at a Pennsylvania hospital reaches a crisis level


And keeping people out of the hospital would provide relief finally for an emergency medical system that has been stretched to a near breaking point. An ER doctor in northeastern Pennsylvania has described her workday as - and this is a quote - "feeling that we're waiting for the Jenga tower to fall." That physician is Dr. Essie Reed at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and she joins us now. Dr. Reed, thanks so much for taking time.

ESSIE REED: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: If I were to walk into your ER right now, what would I see?

REED: I think you would see a picture that mirrors what's happening everywhere across the country. And it's full, right? We're making beds in places that don't exist and constructing new beds in hallway places and seeing sicker patients than we should be in our fast-track areas because that's the space that we have. And I can say with confidence that I'm hopeful that I'm speaking for my colleagues across the country 'cause I think we're all in the same boat.

BLOCK: And wait times - how long are folks waiting to get seen?

REED: It's been up and down the last few days, but it can be anywhere from 10 to 16 hours on a bad day.

BLOCK: Wow. What about in terms of treatment and the care that people are able to get if they're in the ER or if they're waiting to be admitted? What's happening?

REED: We are still, as I said, you know, making space. We're making sure that we can do the best that we can and provide the critical patients with the care that they need. So we're still seeing all of our usual traumas, all of our usual heart attacks, and we're making room. We're just working to make it happen.

BLOCK: Sure. Do you think it could get to a point where you have to stop taking patients or have to ration care?

REED: I hope not. I don't think we're there yet. And I am hopeful that, you know, people still keep getting vaccinated and get the boosters if they're eligible, and hopefully we can keep folks out of the hospital.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, that sure is the hope. We heard from another doctor on the program yesterday. She's the head of emergency medicine at a hospital in Rhode Island, Dr. Laura Forman. And she talked about the hospital running out of beds and IV pumps and even pillows. She said she had never seen anything like this in 20 years of emergency medicine. Does that mirror what you're going through there in Pennsylvania?

REED: That does resonate, yes.

BLOCK: Are you hearing from any colleagues in other places where it isn't happening? I mean, is it a wave that is kind of working its way across the country and other folks are just sort of anticipating and dreading what's heading their way?

REED: I think so, yes. When I speak with friends of mine that practice in other parts of the country, you know, further to the north, further to the west, they're seeing the same sort of things we are here in the northeast.

BLOCK: And when you talk to patients about vaccination and about boost - getting boosted, are you hearing the same resistance that we've been hearing all through the course of the pandemic? Or are minds getting changed?

REED: I would say it's a mixed picture. Some patients are now - you know, unfortunately, it takes them getting sick to think about getting the vaccine. But for some folks, despite getting sick, they're still declining the vaccine. And so it's hard to know how much progress we're really making.

BLOCK: Yeah. That's got to be just so discouraging for everybody.

REED: It's very defeating, I think, and that's probably in every level with everyone that I work with just to know that so much of the suffering is unnecessary or could be prevented.

BLOCK: Yeah. Do you know whether first responders are also facing the same sorts of problems? In other words, are response times much longer now if somebody calls 911?

REED: I think it's all a trickle-down effect. And so we worry about that consistently. If the hospital runs out of beds upstairs, we're boarding patients in the ER, which means that we are, as I said, kind of making beds, if you will, and trying to make space, which slows down our pre-hospital colleagues' turnaround times. And so we do worry that their response times would increase. And when somebody calls 911, we don't want them to have to wait for those critical resources to be available to the community. So I think, yeah, the trickle-down goes all the way down to our community partners and EMS.

BLOCK: Sure. Dr. Reed, what keeps you going?

REED: I have excellent colleagues and a wonderful support system of family and friends, and I couldn't do it without them.

BLOCK: Yeah. I imagine that it's got to just take a toll on all of you. And I know everybody appreciates the work you're doing.

Dr. Essie Reed, emergency room doctor at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., thanks again so much.

REED: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.