Onslow County man’s 10-hour ER wait sparks calls for change

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WITN) – Last year, we reported on a patient who waited 16 hours in ECU Health’s emergency department. Unfortunately, long wait times in emergency rooms can be deadly.

In 2022, a patient in Wilmington died after waiting more than five hours in a hospital’s emergency department. The healthcare system, especially emergency departments, has struggled since the pandemic.

Jamie Willis, from Onslow County, experienced this firsthand in May when he waited over 10 hours in Onslow Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.

Willis, who has multiple brain injuries, was brought to the hospital by ambulance after his primary doctor noticed unusual behavior.

“Something just wasn’t right with him. He just wasn’t able to follow commands, follow instructions,” explained Willis’ caregiver, Donna Lee.

Despite the urgency, Willis waited for hours, at times becoming unresponsive. “It was very scary,” Lee said.

At around 10 p.m., Lee demanded action. Willis was eventually evaluated due to the long wait time. His discharge form showed he had an intracranial hemorrhage or brain bleed, and he was placed on a hospital bed at a 30% angle to help with the bleeding.

“I’m in hopes that this will help so somebody else’s family doesn’t have to go through what he has gone through,” Lee said.

Rose Morgan, chief nursing officer at Onslow Memorial, acknowledged the challenge of long wait times but emphasized the use of a triage system to evaluate patients immediately.

“If they’re a lower acuity, they may be asked to wait,” Morgan said. She admitted that patients’ conditions could worsen while waiting.

Morgan explained that the pandemic has led many to use emergency departments as primary care, contributing to longer wait times.

Onslow Memorial has added more staff and patient advocates, improved discharge processes, and worked with community partners to address these issues. However, Morgan admitted, “We also sometimes have to apologize that we have not met our patient’s expectations.”

Willis and Lee felt ignored during their wait. Willis even wondered if he would survive. “I said well, they neglected me. I may not make it through this,” he said. Despite changes, there are still unanswered questions about Willis’ experience.

“If they come in an ambulance, there’s a reason they came in an ambulance. Deal with them first,” Willis said.

Morgan noted that a nurse monitors patients via video, but Willis and Lee said no one personally checked on him during their wait.

Willis hopes sharing his story will prompt changes in how critically ill patients are handled in emergency departments.