Amy Mason had toughed it out for hours one day this past July, trying warm soaks and heating pads and deep breathing to soothe pain that felt like her bones were being sawed with a rusty blade.
She knew this was a life-threatening emergency of sickle cell disease, in which her misshapen red blood cells were getting stuck in her blood vessels like tree limbs in a storm sewer. But she delayed going to the emergency room; previous visits hadn’t gone well.
Just before midnight, Mason, 34, finally had her boyfriend drive her to a Mobile, Ala., hospital. She told the triage nurse that she was having one of the worst sickle cell crises of her life and that she was off the far end of the 1-to-10 pain scale. She was told to wait.
As the hours passed, Mason begged her boyfriend to take her to another hospital, then passed out from the pain. She awoke, she told STAT, to her boyfriend’s shaking her and pleading with her to stay with him. I can’t do this anymore, Mason whispered.
Daylight broke. Around mid-morning, an ER nurse told her, you know, we’re not a pain clinic. She gave Mason a small dose of the narcotic Dilaudid.
“Every time, it’s a battle,” Mason said about the ER, where the staff suspected her of faking her condition in order to score opiates and viewed her as a non-emergency because she “only” had pain. “Nobody cares about people with sickle cell.”