The night the emergency room staff vanished
|“333-365 Corridor.” Photo by Karen Mardahl on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.|
One of the strangest events of my medical career occurred on a spring evening in 1975. It was during one of my outpatient months as a pediatric resident at a large medical center in New York City. During the day, I took care of infants, children, and adolescents in the pediatric clinic; at night, I saw pediatric patients in the main emergency room (ER).
On this particular evening, the ER was fairly quiet. I sent home my last patient around 11 p.m. and there were no more patients for me to examine. I headed toward the on-call room upstairs to try to sleep for an hour or two after I told the head nurse to call me when any more patients came in.
On my way out of the ER, I walked past the open door to a small room in the back known as “the kitchen.” Nurses, attendants, and secretaries often brought cookies or a cake from home to leave on the counter for their colleagues to eat. This evening, there were two beautiful lasagna casseroles. I looked at the thick sprinkles of ground parsley on top of the light-yellow pasta. The lasagnas were pristine: neither had been cut into yet.
I was tempted: a resident is always hungry because it is often impossible to eat at normal mealtimes when you are busy. I would always eat whatever food was lying around, but on this evening I wanted to get some sleep, so I resisted the temptation.
At 3 a.m. the phone in my on-call room rang and someone told me that a new patient had arrived for me in the ER. (In 1975 we did not have pagers yet for most of the doctors in the hospital.)
When I re-entered the ER a few minutes later, I immediately noticed an eerie silence. I could not find any doctors or nurses near the nurses’ station or in the examining areas. As I continued looking around, I began to feel as if I were in a “last man on earth” movie, but I told myself that there must be a nurse somewhere, since I assumed it had been a nurse who had phoned me. When I finally found a nurse, it was someone I had never seen before.
She told me that the entire night staff in the ER had been overcome by an intoxication. I had left the ER at 11 p.m., and around midnight the head nurse had walked over to another part of the hospital to see the hospital’s nursing supervisor, to complain that she could no longer work in the ER because “everyone there is laughing at me.”
The supervisor went to investigate and found many of the ER staff laughing uncontrollably. Some also could no longer stand up. She found the ER’s radiologist sitting in front of the x-ray viewing screen, mesmerized by an x-ray in which he told her the heart was beating. In the ambulance bay, she found a driver revving the engine but going nowhere.
The nursing supervisor called for assistance and found beds for all of the staff, most of whom soon fell asleep. She arranged for a small number of substitute doctors and nurses from other parts of the hospital. She also found someone to phone all patients who had been sent home earlier that night to make sure that no illnesses were missed, and she arranged for physicians to check the patient records and x-rays. The only error discovered was the misreading of one x-ray, and that patient was called back in.
It did not take her long to realize that there had been marijuana in the lasagna in the ER kitchen, and everyone on the ER staff had eaten some of it. Later in the morning, the city police found out further details.
A nurse on the night shift had been at a party before going to work, and he had brought the two lasagna casseroles. The parsley sprinkles turned out to be marijuana. He told the police that he had come to work directly from the party and had asked his host if he could take some food to share with his coworkers in the ER. The police believed his claim that he had not known about the marijuana, and they said there was no evidence that anyone else had tried to target the hospital.
This occurred at a time when marijuana was illegal in all US states, although it was nevertheless widely available. Today, however, it is even more widely available, because marijuana is now legal for recreational use in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia.
The work of an entire hospital unit was disrupted for many hours because someone naively brought in food from a questionable outside source, and because almost 100% of the ER staff ate some of it. The lives of many patients were placed at risk that night, although fortunately no one was harmed.
EDWARD TABOR, M.D. has worked at the US Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute (NIH), and Fresenius Kabi. He has published widely on viral hepatitis, liver cancer, and pharmaceutical regulatory affairs.
Winter 2023 | Sections | Personal Narratives