Special Reports

Hospital braces for big weekend

Editor’s note:Penn State’s Blue/White weekend is one of the biggest weekends in Happy Valley. Dr. Theodore Ziff, medical director of the emergency department at Mount Nittany Medical Center, takes time to look ahead and provide insight into emergency treatment.

With thousands of fans in town, there are bound to be more patients coming to the emergency department. How do you handle the surge?

We plan for it. The emergency department is controlled chaos. We have systems and processes in place to handle patients that come to us with everything from a cut finger to chest pains or trouble breathing. Our staff is highly trained, and each person has a specific role and responsibility to ensure that every patient gets the best care possible.

When we know that the county will have a surge of people because of a football game, music concert or other event, such as arts fest, we plan accordingly. This means that additional staff is either on call or present in the emergency department and auxiliary support services, such as the laboratory and radiology.

We also have facility plans. For example, when we know there will be an influx of patients, we convert a patient area that is traditionally used for radiology patients during a normal week to patient rooms.

What is it like in the emergency department when a lot of people who are drunk need your care?

When people are drunk, they usually do things that they wouldn’t do when they are sober. So, when these people come to the emergency department, they might swear more, there could be a lot of crying, and they may be physically abusive to staff or unwilling to behave appropriately. Also, because they are highly intoxicated, they may have significant vomiting or other bodily functions that require our attention.

Our job is to take care of everyone. The types of injuries that we see from those who are intoxicated, or were in the presence of someone highly intoxicated, include lacerations or contusions from bar fights, trips and falls. We care for those suffering from broken bones and head injuries, as well as those who were victims of sexual assault. We also care for those who have a significant blood-alcohol level requiring medical observation.

Unfortunately, we care for those in car crashes and those who need significant medical care, sometimes surgeries, because of their injuries. And, on some occasions, our patients and their families will remember forever the effects of alcohol because of a life-changing or life-ending injury. These are rare, but always a possibility.

Do you call parents or the police if someone underage comes to the ED?

No. The police are called if a person wants to report a sexual assault or if the patient is behaving in a violent manner toward the staff or other patients.

Do others have to wait because of the time spent caring for people who are drunk?

The emergency department works under a triage system. Those who need care first will be cared for first. So, if a patient presents with chest pains, trouble breathing or severe injuries, that patient will be treated before someone who presents with less severe symptoms or injuries. However, every patient will be cared for in the emergency department regardless of their condition.

Do you think excessive drinking is a problem in Centre County?

I think excessive drinking is a problem nationally, as well as locally. Our culture glamorizes excessive drinking and partying. Locally, we each have a role to play in this issue, and it’s good to see that the community, students, alumni of Penn State and others are taking an active role to address this issue.

I am a 25-year emergency department physician. Excessive drinking did not start recently. We have seen this issue for a long time, but it’s increasingly getting worse.

In the emergency department, we will continue to provide uncompromised care to every person who comes to us, but my hope is that the resources that Penn State and this community have invested in this issue eventually will pay off with reduced crime, reduced damage and inappropriate behaviors, and fewer visits to the ED for alcohol-related problems.