Getting in to see an emergency-room doctor on Monday afternoon at east Mesa’s Banner Baywood Medical Center was treated like a lottery win.
Patients cheered when — after a 10-hour wait — Wayne Frazier’s name was called.
He hobbled toward "the back," the actual emergency room, hooked up to an IV as he endured abdominal pain likely caused by kidney stones.
Banner Baywood, at Power and Broadway roads, is facing its annual influx of winter residents. The seasonal change is more pronounced than at other hospitals because it’s near Leisure World and other large retirement communities.
Instead of about 160 to 170 patients per day, the emergency room sees about 190 to 200 patients a day from November through April, associate administrator Mindy Richardson said.
And since the average patient during the winter is 74 years old, screening and treating them can take more time.
"Just because of the degree of illness that older people have, that complicates things. When an 80-year-old person comes in with abdominal pain, it’s not going to be an easy thing to solve," Richardson said.
The average wait to see a doctor is five hours, she said, but at busy times like this it can easily stretch into nine or 10 hours.
For that reason, the hospital has patient advocates who serve as morale boosters.
Gus Reyna, who led the cheers for Frazier on Monday, said it’s his job to keep those waiting in good spirits and as comfortable as possible. He cracks jokes; doles out pillows, blankets and juice; and alerts nurses if someone’s condition worsens.
He tells patients he’ll answer most any question, other than "how much longer do I have to wait?"
Pat Thornton of Apache Junction was in the packed waiting room for the second time since Christmas. This time, she accompanied her adult daughter, who was suffering from dizziness and heart palpitations.
Last time Thornton herself came in with the agony of a pinched nerve, but left in frustration after spending nine hours getting lab tests and assessments by nurses, but mostly waiting to see a doctor.
She said she’s had surgery at Banner Baywood before and has always received excellent care.
"I’m not saying this is a bad hospital. I’m saying we need more emergency (care), something," she said.
Banner Baywood, like just about any other hospital, does what it can to get people out of the hospital as quickly as possible.
People with cuts and other injuries that demand immediate care but can be treated quickly go to a "fast track" area.
At about 4:30 p.m., the entire hospital went into a "code purple," which is declared when the staff needs to free up as many beds as possible to make room for people like Frazier.
At these times, anyone from administrators to clerical workers can be asked to don purple vests, which transform them into temporary medical staff grunts who help get as many people discharged as possible.
Recovering patients being shooed out of bed "aren’t always happy about it, but most of the time they’re very understanding, because they don’t want to be the person who’s waiting in the lobby," Richardson said.
Patients are taken care of as they wait: They are assessed upon arrival by a triage unit and about once an hour by nurses monitoring the waiting room.
They can be moved up in line if their conditions worsen. Of course, that means they can also be bumped back.
"Somebody who’s waiting in the lobby may be told they’re third in line, but then five ambulances may come in," she said.
The emergency department sees about 68,000 people a year, has 42 patient beds, and during peak periods is staffed by three doctors, 14 nurses and a physician’s assistant.
Visits to the emergency room are jumping 10 percent to 12 percent a year.
Last month, Phoenixbased Banner Health approved a 110-bed expansion to the 239-bed hospital, which will make it easier to free up the emergency room as patients are admitted to the hospital, Richardson said.
The adjacent Banner Baywood Heart Hospital is in the process of nearly doubling its 111-bed capacity by putting 51 more beds into commission.
But building Banner Baywood’s expansion will take 18 to 24 months, Richardson said, and "we have a couple of winters to get through before then."