Guest opinion: During bridge detour, clogged traffic can kill
August 8, 2017
I step outside into the cool night air by the ambulance entrance at Valley View Hospital to take a breath and try to clear the webs of fatigue from my brain.
Working as an emergency room physician, my shifts are always full of dangerous possibility. I listen to the night. A distant ambulance wails, the early morning traffic surges past on Grand Avenue in haste.
I consider my career as an emergency physician at Valley View Hospital. Ten years working nights, weekends, holidays, festivals, cold winter nights, summer storms. Through sadness, tragedy, triumph and reflection.
I work in a paradoxical world of absolutes and uncertainties. A certainty that some of my patients will die without emergency care — opening up a blocked artery feeding blood to the heart, giving antibiotics and IV fluid to a patient with a deadly blood-stream infection, a child with a brain bleed after falling from a jungle gym.
Can we reduce traffic by enough to keep our ambulances and police responding to our calls?
And the uncertainty of time. Can we intervene fast enough, can we push intravenous fluid and antibiotics into the body ahead of a dangerous blood stream infection? Can we deliver a baby in those critical minutes with an emergency caesarian section? Can we breathe for a young woman in cardiac arrest, pump epinephrine and IV fluids into her body and bring her back from the brink? Is there time for another explanation or comforting words? Time defines what we do as emergency providers and often determines the outcome of our efforts to save a patient's life.
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Consider my patient who called 911 recently from his home near Eagle with chest pain. He knew something was terribly wrong. The severe pain and nausea was worse than anything he had experienced in his life.
The paramedics immediately recognized the familiar pattern of a heart attack and raced with him to Valley View Hospital. We knew he was arriving emergently, with the risk that he wouldn't make it in time. We also knew he was a good friend, and steeled ourselves for the difficult task of treating a life-threatening illness in a loved one.
He told me later he calculated that if he stayed conscious past the last tunnel he could survive. He did, just barely. He arrested once before we could open the blocked artery feeding his heart, the stent restored blood flow to his heart and saved his life. Ten minutes. That was the margin. Any longer delay and he would have closed his eyes in the canyon forever.
This uncertainty of time is what we all face with the upcoming bridge closure. Can we reduce traffic by enough to keep our ambulances and police responding to our calls? Can we regain those critical minutes?
Our roads are the lifeline of emergency care. Block them and everything slows down perilously. We lose the ability to save a life if we cannot get our patient to Valley View quickly.
As emergency providers, we must have those 10 minutes to keep everyone safe. Our friends', our loved ones' lives hang in the balance.
Stay off the roads this fall. Bike, walk, carpool, ride the bus, prioritize your time behind the wheel to essential tasks. Help us preserve that precious margin of time, which often is the only difference between life and death.
Ben Peery, MD, is an emergency medicine physician at Valley View Hospital and also the chair of the section of Emergency Medicine at Valley View.