Flu patients are flooding North Texas children's hospitals, causing waits of up to eight hours and challenging doctors to keep up with the onslaught.
At Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, the emergency department treated more than 13,000 patients in September -- 4,000 more than during the same month last year. Much of the spike has come in the past week.
"This is the largest volume surge I've ever experienced," said Dr. Kimberly Aaron, Cook's medical director of emergency services. "I sleep when I can; four or five hours here, and then I'll take a break, sleep a little more and come back. We all know what our limits are."
Children's Medical Center in Dallas is seeing two or three times its normal number of patients, said spokeswoman Jessica Newell.
"There are a lot of sick kids out there; we know that," Newell said.
Despite the high number of cases in the emergency room, the hospital is not admitting any more patients than usual, she said. Most are treated and sent home.
"The severity of the illness is looking very similar to the seasonal flu," Newell said.
To deal with the rush, hospitals are getting creative.
At Cook Children's, the normally empty hospital boardroom is now doubling as a patient waiting area.
Staffers who work in other parts of the hospital are volunteering to help out in the ER.
"We do whatever we can do," Dr. Aaron said.
Patients are surprised at the long lines.
"I was shocked when I walked in," Dora Moran said. "There are so many people there."
Moran brought her son, Justin Ream, 14, to see a doctor after he started coughing, running a fever and had trouble breathing.
"I feel real terrible, just awful," Ream said. "I think it's crazy. Over half my school is out with swine flu."
Hospital managers said they might soon force overworked doctors and nurses to take time off if the current pace continues.
They said they fear the problem may only get worse because the normal height of flu season is still weeks away.
Also, the Texas Department of State Health Services said Wednesday that the swine flu vaccines are expected to trickle in slower than planned.
Some 3.4 million doses of the vaccine were projected for Texas by mid-October, but the latest estimates are only half that amount will be available.
"It's a fluid situation," said DSHS commissioner Dr. David Lakey. "All of us will have to be patient and flexible as we meet this challenge."
Texas is ultimately expected to get 15 million doses of the vaccine as soon as it can be manufactured, he said.
Any delay could mean more cases for emergency room physicians.
Despite the long waits, patients are just glad to finally see a doctor.
"Everybody appreciates it, I'm sure," said Justin Ream's mother.
Doctors X-rayed Ream's chest to make sure he was not congested and treated him with intravenous fluids.
"I'm getting better," the eighth-grader said. "It's just going to be a slow process."