Author Question: Emergency Care of the Suicidal Patient

Riannon Asks:

I’d really appreciate your help in answering some questions. I’ve Googled as much as possible, and I just can’t seem to find answers for some things.

At one point in a play I’m writing, a character attempts suicide. His goal is not actually to die, but he does go through the process. What happens is that he’s very drunk and it’s a combination of probably alcohol poisoning and a lot of pills, something relatively accessible lying around the house, but potentially lethal in a high dose and then he calls 911 right afterwards.

So my questions are:
1. Would he be allowed to have visitors the next day? Essential for plot reasons.
2. Would visitors have to be family members or something or would friends/acquaintances be able to fudge their way in?
3. Before someone visits a patient, is the patient told that they’re coming and who they are? (I have very little knowledge of how hospitals work.)
4. How screwed up would he be physically?
5. Would he have to be committed to psych, and if so, when?
6. What could he have overdosed on?

Jordyn Says:

Hi Riannon!

Thanks so much for sending me your questions.

1. Would he be allowed visitors the next day? Depends on where he is at in the process. I’ll give you the process a patient goes through at our hospital, but you might need to adapt it if your play is located in a specific town, state, etc.

When a patient comes in with a suicide attempt, they are placed on 1:1 observation. The patient must be “medically cleared” before they can participate in a mental health evaluation. What that means is that they are no longer in danger medically from what they ingested AND that they are clear mentally to participate in the process. For instance, our patients would have to be below the legal limit for alcohol in order to participate. During the time of medical clearance and during the mental health evaluation (as for pediatrics parents are involved in the process) the patient is allowed to have visitors. A limited number. We try to keep it to two at a time and generally only immediate family.

If the patient is deemed to be a danger to themselves and does not voluntarily consent to treatment, then they are placed on an M1-Hold. This will have different names in different areas, but it is a legal document where the patient is involuntarily committed to a mental health institution for stabilization for about three days. Most mental health facilities will strictly limit visitors and may not let anyone visit during the initial 24-48 hours. Depends on the facility.

2. Could family/friends fudge their way in? I think I’ve mostly answered this above. If the patient is at a mental health hospital probably not without inside help. These are generally locked facilities that will keep a close eye on who is coming and going.

3. Is the patient notified of visitors? I can give you the ER answer and that is it depends. If the patient is unconscious then probably not. If the patient is conscious then we do want to inform the patient of who is there, but we would likely keep it to immediate family. We don’t want to inflame an already volatile situation so if the patient would become harmful to themselves or others then visitors are restricted. Pediatric patients will sometimes try and not have their parents visit, but parents are part of the process, so we encourage them to be at the bedside as long as the patient can be safe.

4. How screwed up would he be physically? Depends on a lot of factors. What he took. How much he took. And how long before he sought medical care.

5. Would he be committed to psych? If so, when? Yes, in this instance, he would be committed involuntarily if he did not agree to a voluntary admission. This would happen once he’s medically stable and after his mental health evaluation. Sometimes, patients may not be medically cleared for 12-24 hours (sometimes longer depending on the drug’s half life). Then we have to wait for an available mental health counselor which can take an additional 3-6 hours. Then waiting for placement could be another 3-24 hours. It can be a very lengthy process. Mental health beds are not that easy to find at times. Patients are held in the ER until they have a bed placement. It is also a requirement of our hospital that patients be transported by ambulance to their mental health facility and generally family members are not allowed to ride in the ambulance with them. This is a safety concern for the EMS crew.

6. What could he have overdosed on? This is really up to you as the author. Any drug can be toxic given in enough quantities and alcohol ingestion on top of that can make things much worse. Some of the more common medications most people have at home that can become easily toxic, in my opinion, would be acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

Hope this helps and best of luck with your novel!

Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist

I’m so pleased to have Sarah Sundin back. This week, she’ll be discussing the role of the pharmacist on several different fronts during WWII. I’ve found this information absolutely fascinating!

Welcome back, Sarah.

In the 1940s, the local drug store was more than just a place to get prescriptions filled and pick up toothpaste—it was a gathering place. If you’re writing a novel set during World War II, it helps to have an understanding of this institution.

As a pharmacist, I found much about my profession has changed, but some things have not—the personal concern for patients, the difficult balance between health care and business, and the struggle to gain respect in the physician-dominated health care world. Today I’ll discuss the role of the pharmacist in the 1940s.  On February 16th I’ll describe the local drug store and how its role changed during the war, and on February 18th, I’ll review the rather shocking role—or lack thereof—of pharmacy and pharmacists in the US military.

The Profession of Pharmacy in the 1940s

Although the term of druggist has been abandoned by the profession—please do not use it in your contemporary novels—in the 1940s, the terms of pharmacist and druggist were interchangeable. The 1940 US census counted over 80,000 pharmacists. The majority worked in retail pharmacy, with only 3000 working in hospitals. In fact, less than half of hospitals had a pharmacist on staff.

A cornerstone of pharmacy had always been compounding, the practice of mixing a prescription from raw ingredients. Pharmacists made creams, ointments, elixirs, suspensions, capsules, tablets, suppositories, and powder papers. Only pharmaceutical grade ingredients could be used, approved by the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) or the NF (National Formulary). Every pharmacist owned a copy of the USP guide—the 11th Edition (1937) or 12th Edition (1942). The USP guide provides chemical data on each substance. By the 1940s, pharmacists compounded less—about 70 percent of prescriptions were filled with manufactured dosage forms.

In the 1940s, the pharmacist was a vital member of the community. Often viewed as more accessible than physicians, pharmacists were relied upon for health information and the treatment of minor ailments.

Education and Licensing

The first four-year Bachelor’s of Science degree in pharmacy was offered by Ohio State University in 1925. The four-year program became mandatory with the incoming class of 1932. The doctor of pharmacy (Pharm. D.) degree was first offered by the University of California, San Francisco in 1955, and did not become mandatory until 2000. Therefore, in World War II, pharmacists were addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss.”

In 1942, sixty-eight colleges of pharmacy operated in the United States. In addition to general education requirements, pharmacy students also studied pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy (deriving pharmaceuticals from raw substances, such as plants), pharmacology (the effect of a drug on the body), and business. To increase the chance that a student would finish his degree before being drafted, most colleges of pharmacy adopted a year-round, three-year program during the war.

Each state had its own licensing requirements and examinations, and there was no reciprocity between states. For example, a pharmacist licensed in California had to take a new set of examinations if he moved to Michigan.

Manpower Shortage

In a nation of 130 million, over 11 million would serve in the armed forces during the course of the war. This produced a manpower shortage on the home front, and pharmacy was not immune. As a class, pharmacists were not exempt from the draft, but local draft boards could declare individuals as “necessary men” if their enlistment would negatively affect the health of the community. During World War II between 10,000-14,000 pharmacists served in the military. Due to this loss, approximately 15 percent of drug stores closed during the war. The west coast was hard hit when all Japanese-American pharmacists were forcibly interned.

However, more opportunities opened for women as colleges and employers actively recruited them. While less than 5 percent of pharmacists in 1940 were female, the percentage of female pharmacy students rose above 15 percent during the war.

Effects of the War

Due to store closures, the average store filled 13 percent more prescriptions than before the war. This increase in workload was balanced by depletion of other goods due to rationing and shortages. In addition, citizens were encouraged to take better care of their health so they could contribute to the war effort, which led to an increase in physician visits. Overworked physicians dispensed fewer drugs from their offices and sent more patients to pharmacies. As a result, the average drug store enjoyed an 80 percent increase in sales during the war.

Pharmacists dealt with shortages of ingredients and medications. A serious shortage of quinine, used to treat malaria, led the military to collect the majority of the nation’s quinine stock. Also, shortages of alcohol, sugar, and glycerin taxed the ability of pharmacists to compound. Each pharmacy received a ration of ten pounds of sugar a week for compounding purposes.


My main source was this excellent, comprehensive, and well-researched book: Worthen, Dennis B. Pharmacy in World War II. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004. (Website of the Lloyd Library and Museum, which has many articles and resources on the history of pharmacy).

United States Pharmacopoeial Convention. The Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America, Twelfth Edition. Easton PA: Mack Printing Company, 1 November 1942.
Sarah Sundin is the author of the Waves of Freedom series (Through Waters Deep, 2015, Anchor in the Storm, 2016, and When Tides Turn, March 2017), the Wings of the Nightingale series, and the Wings of Glory series, all from Revell. In addition she has a novella in Where Treetops Glisten (WaterBrook).

Her novel Through Waters Deep was a 2016 Carol Award Finalist, won the 2016 INSPY Award, and was named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” Her novella “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in Where Treetops Glisten was a finalist for the 2015 Carol Award. In 2014, On Distant Shores was a double finalist for the Golden Scroll Awards from both AWSA and the Christian Authors Network. In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.

A mother of three, Sarah lives in northern California, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies. She enjoys speaking to community, church, and writers’ groups, and has been well received.

Drug Warning: Flakka Insanity

There is a new drug on the market— not a legal drug, but a new synthetic drug called Flakka that is creating havoc in south Florida and could be coming to your hometown.

What’s causing concern among law enforcement is that Flakka addiction became endemic in Broward County in a matter of months versus drugs like cocaine that took decades.

Flakka (alpha-PVP) is a synthetic crystal manufactured in China and sold via the internet. It arrived on the scene in Florida in 2014. It is ten times stronger than cocaine and far cheaper that cocaine, crack, and heroine.

Users of Flakka can suffer from dementia, psychosis, and paranoia. One of the biggest side effects is a state excited delirium which causes users to feel invincible yet deathly afraid. In this state, they can exhibit superhuman strength where it could take six to eight police officers to restrain them. Excited delirium leads to a rise in body temperature that can lead to heat exhaustion and even cardiac arrest. Some users have described this state as feeling like their “blood is on fire” and strip off their clothes because of it.

What’s also concerning law enforcement are the accidental and self-inflicted wounds that are killing Flakka users— more than forty deaths in the last year in Broward County alone.

Even more concerning is the after effects of the drug once a user stops. Some addicts suffer long term acute lapses in memory, difficulty articulating words, and poor concentration. Its effects on unborn babies is unknown, but one nine week premature infant boy has died with Flakka in his system.

There is no known reversal agent for the drug, only symptomatic support can be given.

Be on the lookout for this deadly drug in your community.

Information for this blog post largely came from the show Intervention which aired November 15, 2016.