Flu Patients Arrive in Droves, and a Hospital Rolls Out the ‘Surge Tent’
The population near Lehigh skews older — a lot of retirement homes sit in these rolling hills — and the hospital is rated one of the state’s top five, so ambulances often bring their sickest patients here, said Lindsay Houck, the emergency department’s nursing director.
Normally, about a third of them need admission, she said, while hospitals nationally average about 12 percent. This winter, admissions here are creeping toward 40 percent.
At Lehigh, the most acutely ill bypass the tent and are wheeled deep into the hospital, sometimes to the one-bed isolation rooms that no one may enter without a mask.
Eric J. Scott, 68, a programmer at a tech company, was lying in one of those rooms. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down into his yellow surgical mask as he described the one-two punch that flu had given him.
“I’ve had it for about two weeks,” he said. “I saw my doctor, and I felt like I was on the mend.”
“But when I went to the grocery store, it just hit. My fever shot up to 101.9, and I got a real bad pain in my right side, my ribs. I felt like I’d been in a boxing match with my arms up — no defense.”
Dr. Rafay Khan, who was treating him, said Mr. Scott might have coughed hard enough to crack a rib. He also had some pneumonia, which can cause flank pain, and would need his kidney function checked, too.
“I’m admitting him,” Dr. Khan said. “He’s over 65, and he’s not eating or drinking — I can’t send him home. He needs fluids and IV antibiotics and Tamiflu.”
Mr. Scott said he usually got a flu shot at work but “I just didn’t remember this year.”
In the surge tent, Mark Moyer, 20, and Sarah Rogers, 22, were waiting for a note from Dr. Marna Rayl Greenberg.
Because of their hacking coughs, their boss at a local shipping warehouse had told them to leave and not return without a doctor’s note.
But Dr. Greenberg, the hospital’s vice chair of emergency medicine, produced notes certifying only that they were sick. “You need to be seen again, and then I can write you another one saying you’re well,” she said.
The couple, who had matching hand tattoos of the date they met, were clearly struggling. Their jobs pay only $9 an hour, and until they recently moved in with her parents, they had been living in a car.
“Missing work really sucks,” Ms. Rogers said. “You have to pay your bills.”
Financial need, medical experts say, plays a big role in spreading flu: many Americans go to work sick because they cannot afford to miss days. Mr. Moyer had been ill for two weeks.
“The chest pain is the worst part,” he said. “I’m up till 2 or 3 coughing, and I got to get up at 6 to go to work.”
Ms. Rogers had been sick for five days. Because she used an inhaler, Dr. Greenberg offered her a prescription for Tamiflu, even though it normally is effective only within the first two days of infection.
Ms. Rogers’ head jerked back. “No, I heard it causes hallucinations,” she said. “I heard about a lady whose daughter got Tamiflu and tried to kill her.”