All this occurred to me last night as I hunched over the face of an intoxicated gentleman who had lost a fight with the pavement. He was unresponsive, and I was painstakingly stitching back together the tattered pieces of his lips and forehead. Every time he exhaled, I was subjected to an intense and pungent smell of dried blood, saliva and alcohol. It’s an acrid scent, sour, with an overlying cloying sweetness. Very distinct and unpleasant.
And that, my friends, is the smell of the ER.
At least for me. I will never be able to smell that in my life without being immediately transported back to this place and activity (repeated so many times over the years). Fortunately, I am unlikely to ever experience this particular smell outside of the ER. Later, after the ER emptied out for the night, I discussed this with a few nurses & others. Not surprisingly, there was quite a diversity of opinion. One nurse insisted that the smell that, for her, screamed “ER” was that of melena (bloody stool from a brisk GI bleed — also very pungent) It can fill the entire department when you have one GI bleeder. You come into work, smell the melena the moment you walk in, and you just know what sort of shift it’s going to be. A tech said that the scent he thinks of as “ER” is the sweet plastic smell of freshly opened oxygen tubing. Another nurse came up with an inventive and hysterical bit of slang that I just can’t bear to repeat for, um, how shall I say it, the ammonia and fishy smell of unclean or diseased lady parts.
Ultimately (of course) we came up with a list of “Smells of the ER”:
- Alcohol, Saliva & Dried Blood
- Fresh Plastic Tubing
- Feminine Issues
- A Freshly Incised Abscess
- 80-proof Vomit
- Clostridium Difficile (a GI illness producing a distinctive smelly diarrhea)
- “Hobo Feet”
- Coffee Grounds in a tray (used by nurses to freshen the air and cover some smells)
Surely there are more — perhaps you can contribute some in the comments. It’s gotta be distinctive to the ER, though, or at least a medical setting. Just poop or vomit doesn’t cut it. And, like the plastic tubing, it doesn’t have to smell bad, necessarily.
So what do you think?
*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*