4 (Not So Serious) Truths About Human Behavior from the ER

When I tell people I work as a nurse practitioner in the emergency department, the most common response I receive is along the lines of “I bet you’ve seen it all”. I suppose I kind of have, but I don’t think people actually know what exactly they are referring to when they say ‘all’.

There are a few different kinds of “seen it all”. There’s the blood, guts, and gore. These stories involve severed limbs and the like. I have a little more “see it all” to do in this particular category given that the ER where I work only recently became a trauma center. But, there is a kind of “seen it all” in which I am well versed. Human behavior.

Observing patient after patient over the years and their interactions with friends, family, hospital staff, and sometime the voices in their head (seriously), has allowed me some interesting insight into the way people behave. If you’re a nurse, an NP or a PA, I’m sure you feel the same. Here are a few of my more uncanny observations.

1. You can actually get drink on Listerine

I first heard the theory that you can get drunk on Listerine in high school. I never knew anyone who tried it. And, frankly, I was too nerdy to be in the underage drinking crowd. Later, during my nursing education, I recall learning that alcoholics should avoid using mouthwash as it can trigger cravings for more palatable alcoholic beverages. Then, I began to work in the ER and my understanding of the Listerine intoxication theory took on a whole new meaning.

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It turns out, you can actually get drink on Listerine. Very drunk. In fact, it’s a phenomenon commonly observed in the emergency department. The typical story begins with a mouthwash theft from a local Walmart and continues from there. I have to say, Listerine intoxication smells much better than a lingering odor of whiskey and really freshens up the scent of the emergency department.

2. People are obsessed with their poop no matter the age

Grannies and old men are commonly accused of being bowel obsessed. But this is only because the rest of us more sprightly folks just don’t admit to or talk about our fascination with poop. For example, mothers drag their children to the emergency department because they “haven’t had a bowel movement in three days”. Upon further questioning about the situation, I discover they just haven’t had what mom considers enough of a bowel movement. Moms love to talk about poop.

Men in their 30’s aren’t even exempt from this poo preoccupation. They present to the ER at all hours of the night for stools to loose, too green, and too few. Some even bring in their own unsolicited stool samples. Yep, it’s safe to say, we’re all captivated by our crap!

3. Bugs really do crawl into people’s ears in the middle of the night

Occasionally when I’m working the night shift, a patient checks into the ER because some sort of insect has crawled into their ear while they were sleeping. Can you imagine being awakened to the feeling of a cockroach in your ear canal? It makes people freak out. I have removed misguided spiders and beetles and even ticks from the ears of squirming patients sometimes pulling the offending insect out leg by leg. It isn’t pretty.

4. Everyone’s cell phone is always out of batteries

It never ceases to amaze me that when I walk into an exam room patients and their many family members are almost always all charging their cell phones. Patients presenting for treatment of strep, which consists of about  20 minute ER visit, take the opportunity to recharge each and every device on their person.

Charging phones and the like seems to take top priority upon arrival in the ER. Patients with fractured ankles clamor for their spot on the wall before mentioning pain medication. Family members plug in before placing their wheel-chair bound loved ones in a comfortable position. This begs the question- who’s calling you and why is it so important?


What life truths do you observe in your practice?


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3 thoughts on “4 (Not So Serious) Truths About Human Behavior from the ER”

  1. Drinking gallons of soda and juice, and urinating urgently at least every hour even at night, does not seem even a little abnormal to some people…even given the knowledge of their insulin dependent spouses. Really!

  2. I’m often more amazed at how many people come out without an insurance card, ID, and A RIDE HOME. Can you tell I worked in the ER too? Also I have noticed family members want to “help” so much they offer things to the patient they can’t provide and then turn around and ask us for it.

  3. 99% the population believe they have a ‘very high pain tolerance’ – meaning their current issue must be serious because it hurts really bad! Oy. And ditto above on the craziness of folks seeking medical care with zero ID and no insurance card. “Can’t you just look it up?” Sure, buddy I will find all of your insurance information in the same crystal ball that tells me exactly how “long the wait is?” and if of if not you’re going to get “that one cough medicine that starts with a P” (promethazine anyone?) I do sincerely love most of our patients but still, people crazy. That is the truth. Thanks for this great blog Erin! I just started NP school after twenty years of nursing.

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