Nurse Triage: Don’t Leave Home Without It

By Gina Tabone MSN, RNC

I just got back from a rejuvenating week at the beach. On three occasions my fellow vacationers shared success stories about having access to a nurse while they were away from home. I was proud.      

Lost Medication: One morning an elderly woman was strolling down a sandy stretch of beach with her two sisters. One had accidentally left her carry-on bag in an airport restroom while traveling and had not realized it until arriving at her destination. She was not initially concerned when thinking about the magazines or snacks that were in the bag, but she began to panic when she realized that all of her medications were also in that bag.

Unsure what to do, she called her daughter and explained the situation. The daughter had an active role in her mother’s healthcare provision and her mom’s primary care physician had a 24/7 nurse line they had called in the past with other dire issues. It was after her mother’s primary care physician’s office closed, but with one call to the nurse line, a friendly voice on the other end assured them an RN was available to assist them.

For senior citizens immediate access to medications is often a vital necessity. Not having that access can be the basis for potential disaster, especially when the individual is nowhere near their primary care physician’s office. For this elderly vacationer it had become a frightening reality. However, this problem was one of many a triage nurse is specifically accustomed to solving. She alleviated the women’s anxiety and reassured her that the situation was under control. The nurse directed the woman to a store one block from the beach and provided enough of her prescription to get her through the entire vacation. The woman and her daughter thanked the triage nurse for her help – and the nurse reminded her to be sure to wear sunscreen while walking along the beach.

Chest Pains: One evening as I sat looking at the ocean and listening to the waves, I was interrupted by the familiar sound of a siren. The ambulance pulled into the driveway of a beachfront house just down the road. In any setting that picture is cause for alarm, but it is even worse when you are away from home. A short time later the ambulance headed back, most likely to a local hospital or healthcare facility. The next day we learned that a fifty-four year-old man had been sitting on his deck watching the sunset with his wife when he began experiencing chest pain.

His wife knew he needed medical care but had no idea what to do or where to go. She remembered seeing a magnet on the refrigerator with a phone number to call for medical emergencies. The emergency service was staffed by community triage nurses and available to anyone in need. The skilled nurse directed the woman to have her husband lie down and remain on the line while she contacted the emergency medical service for assistance. The nurse offered support and reassurance to the wife and was even able to speak to the husband. Once the emergency responders arrived, the triage nurse hung up and let them take over.

The chest pain ultimately ended up being cardiac in nature and potentially life-threatening. Once the local emergency department stabilized the man, he was transferred to the nearest major medical center. The wife called the rental company and thanked them for placing the magnet on the refrigerator. She said that the wonderful triage nurse helped her and her husband through one of the worst experiences of their lives. I wished the nurse could have heard their heartfelt compliment.

Sunburn: I heard the final story at the airport. As we waited for our flight home, I noticed a toddler with a bright red sunburn on her face and arms. That is an unusual sight these days, since many parents cover their children from head to toe with the highest SPF, waterproof lotions available. The child’s mother must have noticed me looking at her daughter with concern. She said, “You should have seen her yesterday.”

She went on to explain that a family friend had offered to put sunscreen on the toddler prior to a family outing. The family friend unknowingly applied a SPF 8 sun-tanning lotion instead of the mom’s sunscreen. After walking in the sun for only twenty minutes, the toddler’s cheeks and forearms began to turn red and blotchy. They decided to get out of the sun and assess the child’s condition. While her arms and face were warm to the touch, the young girl was happy and interacting with her family as usual.

Regardless, the mother was concerned about any present or future harm the sunburn might cause her daughter. She decided to call Mary Jo, the triage nurse at her pediatrician’s office, as she does whenever she has health concerns about her daughter. Mary Jo asked some specific questions about the symptoms related to the sunburn and assured the mother that it appeared the little girl was going to be fine. She suggested some basic home care instructions, which included giving her a lukewarm oatmeal bath, moisturizing the area while the skin was still moist and administering a dose of an over-the-counter analgesic if her daughter was uncomfortable.

The mother expressed to me her complete trust in the advice she receives when calling her nurse help line. She especially appreciates the respect and understanding she receives when calling, never being made to feel that her question is foolish or that she is overreacting. That is very important to any concerned parent who only wishes to make sure their child is going to be okay.

There is no denying that a call to a trained triage nurse is often the first step taken whenever a need for medical advice or instruction arises. Having this type of access to definitive healthcare is both comforting and effective. I was proud to hear these heartfelt stories from three strangers during my vacation. It further confirmed to me the value of a service that I have felt to be invaluable for decades.

Nurse triage – don’t leave home without it.

Gina Tabone, MSN, RNC, is the director strategic clinical solutions at TeamHealth Medical Call Center.

[From AnswerStat August/September 2015]