Television shows portray emergency rooms as dangerous places – patients high on drugs or involved in gang violence may be aggressive, agitated or unpredictable, and their family/friends/enemies may behave in similar ways.  Doctors and hospital staff may be at risk as a result.

But you might be surprised by three incidents I observed during a relative’s recent hospital stay for orthopedic surgery on the east coast.

In the first case, a visitor became upset.  Perhaps the patient he was visiting was unhappy – not a surprising reaction to an unwelcome injury or illness.  Perhaps something had gone wrong with the patient’s care and the visitor was angry. 

But his response was to walk up and down the hall, yelling obscenities and making threats at top volume to every nurse, aide, and other employee he saw.  Of course, the sound carried, and all patients and visitors were subjected to this frightening behavior as well.  Security escorted him out.

In the second incident, a teenager refused to leave his hospitalized father’s side, and he locked his mother out of the room.  The hospital employees saw this as a high-risk situation:  two patients in that semi-private room were out of their reach. They called security – announcing 20-30 times over the public address system a “Code Grey” and the room number.  Within minutes, three uniformed security officers converged. 

In the meantime, the boy’s mother was standing in the hall, repeating over and over, “I’m his mother.  He’s 15 years old.  Tonight is a school night.  He has to come home with me.  I have rights over him.  I’m his mother.”

That wasn’t the whole story – it turned out that one reason the boy refused to leave was that his mother had slapped him.  The security officers were low-key, and managed to get all the visitors to relocate to the lobby; they somehow dealt with the situation there.

In the third incident, a patient kept trying to climb over the bedrails and get out of bed – despite recent surgery that meant that she needed to lie still. She was shouting and pleading with the nurses and aides, screaming for help, swinging at them, demanding that they release her.  It was 5:30 a.m.

The nurse called the patient’s doctor, who failed to return a number of pages. When he finally called in, he ordered medicine to calm her down.  But in the meantime, the entire floor had been awakened by her behavior, and the staff were on edge.

The next time you visit or stay in a hospital, have some sympathy for the doctors and nurses, who must always be prepared to shift in a second from compassionate caring to high alert to safeguard both their patients and themselves.