The Worst Things

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“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” I get asked this question often when people find out what I do. They ask as if they actually want to know the answer, like they could stomach the truth, or like there has been one single event that tops them all, you know, one for the books; but reality is, they don’t want the truth, they simply couldn’t handle it. They’re looking for a gruesome story, some mangled nastiness that resembles a horror movie full of blood and guts, and while I have plenty of those images locked in my brain, that is not, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

The worst things I’ve seen aren’t single stories of disfigured human bodies, they are deeper and more real than anyone who doesn’t live this can imagine. They are memories built on countless events of reality. The realization that we are in fact temporary, that humans are capable of unimaginable things, and that horrible things happen to good and innocent people. Things that no one should see, yet we see them all, day after day, and somehow are expected to survive. A small child who has been intentionally dipped into boiling water, a tiny baby who has been flung against the wall like a wet noodle, a young mother, driving home from the grocery store, who lost her life to a drunk driver on a sunny Thursday afternoon, my first cardiac arrest, and the way his wife crumpled up into a ball on the floor at his bedside when we pronounced him dead. These are not just stories, they’re truths, and they are not what you share with your friends. They are what lives inside us, what drives us, and what changes who we are.

The funny thing is some people think my job is “cool” but they have no idea what I really do. I have this vivid memory of walking into one of our ED rooms a few years ago. In the bed was a woman who I had known since I was a child. My memory of her was contagiously happy, smiling, and full of life. One of those people whose presence is just gratifying. She isn’t a day older than my mother, she has children who are young adults, starting their lives and families. She should be baking cookies, buying baby clothes, and building dreams of her life yet to come; but she’s not. She is dying. Cancer had eaten her alive, literally, and she could no longer walk herself to the bathroom or tie her own shoes. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cry, to scream to the sky that life’s not fair, WHY would something like this happen to her; but I couldn’t. That’s not my job. My job is to be strong when everyone else is falling apart. To laugh in the face of death as it swallows us whole. It’s not fair, in fact it’s horrifying, and sometimes it takes every bit of strength you have just to keep standing; but you do. Is this some bloody story that makes me a hero, no, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s the harsh reminder that I am, in fact, a human, and just as fragile as I like to pretend I’m not. It’s not cool. It’s humbling.

The truth of what we do is far from the glamour of Greys Anatomy and Scrubs. It’s harsh and often times far to real for anyone to imagine. The things that we see and the people that we touch are forever with us. Each day, each patient, chipping away or building up the wholeness of who we are. If it weren’t for the people we work with we would never survive. We all would have given up long ago. These are the only people who understand that lump in your throat and that pit in your stomach. The only ones who get it, who know what it feels like to save a life, to hold the hand of a dying man, to laugh at something normal people would find horribly inappropriate, and to cradle a critically injured baby, all in the same day. The elite group of people who have had the privilege of being called every curse word in existence and then been professed undying love, in the same conversation. The ones who have amazing stories full of human strength and wisdom, to cover the stories that our hearts won’t let us tell. The ones I pump on chests with, start IV’s with, medicate with, triage with, round with, laugh with, cry with, and build my life with. The ones who speak my language and understand who I am. The most incredible people I know, and the only ones who know that the worst things we see, are really not things at all.

Photo credit: Whitney Dopler, Paramedic

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4 thoughts on “The Worst Things

  1. So beautifully written and so very true. The patients that are burned into my memory, the ones that I cried all the way home over, are often those who are dying and yet the family wants us to “do everything.” Thanks, Hollywood. Despite the fact that we “save” many, we cannot–and should not, in my opinion–“save” everyone. The elderly man, so full of cancer, running out of time, and yet the family pushes to admit him yet again for the hope that maybe this or that procedure or drug or surgery will cure him. The grandma with the devastating head bleed who will never return to her family, no matter how many holes we drill into her head or how many drips we start. The frail patient whose ribs we break and lungs we puncture in response to the panicked “yes, do everything” from the family–only to get her back, and then we move on to chest tubes and central lines, further assaulting this broken little body that should have been allowed to just fly home. And I’m left feeling like I did something wrong by doing my job. I’m left screaming inside, “Didn’t you ever talk about this? Do you know what your family member actually wants in this scenerio?” We know what “everything” entails and it’s not pretty. Sometimes heroes save lives, and sometimes they allow them to go peacefully and comfortably in their own homes, surrounded by those they love, and living out whatever moments they have by going on that last fishing trip with the grandson or watching that favorite movie with a daughter one more time. And this is why I will probably one day leave my ER career for hospice, trading the fast paced excitement for the slow paced fading.

  2. You have a gift for giving the lay people of the world a small glimpse of what nurses go through in their calling. As a spouse I see the emotional aftermath of these things. Between being there to support my wife after a day like that and then reading your articles I know two things… I could never do this work… and I still don’t truly know anything about it.

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