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Three Things I Learned from Being in an Emergency

Two weeks ago I wrote an article detailing the night I broke my back in a fall from my school's roof. An odd thing happened one week later. A crew of window cleaners were suspended by ropes outside my office window and one of them fell 50 feet to the ground.

I heard his scream and heard the horrific sound of his landing on the ground. His crew called for help and the ambulance was there in minutes. They took him away; and we were told we would get an update the following day. There was a hushed silence over our staff, which transitioned back to normalcy in short order.

Except for me. I was a mess. I was shaking and constantly on the verge of crying. I had a project due so I couldn't leave, but I also couldn't concentrate. I was right back on the ground the night of my own fall and felt like I should be doing something to help the kid that had just fallen outside my window. I felt ridiculous. Since my fall, I'd driven by plenty of accidents, fires, and other tragedies, and of course felt solemnly sad for those affected- but not shaken to the core. It turns out that while I can wax poetic about the larger outcomes of my experience, one quick flashback to the night of the emergency and I'm rendered a useless emotional mess.

The day after the window cleaner fell we found out that he was surprisingly well. He had a compression fracture in his ankle from where he first touched down and his hands were in bad shape from holding the safety rope during his fall, but it slowed him enough that the rest of his injuries were minor. I was quite relieved for him, but the night of my fall stayed fresh in my mind for the next few days.

I'm still surprised by some of my reflections, so I thought I would share three things that surprised me most:

3. Emergencies are boring.

I have heard war described as boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Emergencies can be the same way. If you don't believe that, observe an ER waiting room on a Friday night. You'll see parents who saw their child injured and then rushed them to the ER only to wait six hours to be seen because dozens of other peoples' night was even worse.

  • There are many hours spend unceremoniously laying on a gurney in a hospital hallway waiting for your turn to be examined by some machine and you notice the staff hides behind three feet of protective gear to protect them from the machine you are about to be INSIDE OF.
  • Not to mention the hours of paperwork and lectures by people who say the same thing all day to the point you're pretty sure they don't know if you're still in the room or not.
  • And the long, terrible nights that pass so slowly between fits of uncomfortable, drug-induced sleep, uninteresting television choices, nurses taking blood samples, and nothing to do to kill time until the morning finally breaks and the process starts all over.

2. All of the professionals in an emergency are humans too.

It turns out that paramedic, doctor, and nurse are all job titles, not saintly designations. The people who showed up to cart me off to the hospital, take x-rays, diagnose the injury, and tend to a thousand other tasks for me are just doing their jobs. I am only one stop in their rounds for the night. I knew this fact before the accident, but once I was at the hospital and in such pain, the experience was such a big deal for me, it was hard to believe everyone wasn't equally affected.

The day after my accident, doctors had to perform a surgery to repair my vertebrae, so they put me under general anesthesia. Here's a bonus surprise that I learned from an emergency, general anesthesia works like this: you have to get the patient as close to death as possible. I did not know that. That's why it's such a dangerous part of even the most simple procedure. They are playing chicken with death, and you are the vehicle... So when I came out of the anesthesia, I was deeply, deeply disturbed. I was confused, scared, and had the feeling that something truly awful had happened to me, something even worse than the fall. It was the middle of the night; I had been restrained so I could not move; and there was only one nurse in the room with me. I felt like I had been trapped in a Stephen King movie and needed some help getting grounded in the real world. I told the nurse I was scared and requested that he talk to me for a few minutes. He said that he didn't have anything to talk about. I said, I would be happy if he could just tell me anything, even the scores from the previous night's hockey game. He informed me that he didn't like hockey and left the room.

If that guy was with me right now, I would do my best to kick him in the balls. I was inside one of the most terrifying moments of my life and he could not have been a more horrible human being. Having said that, though, if I can remember that the memorable moment for me was 90 seconds of an average late-shift for him, I can easily picture him heading to his home later that night, cracking open a beer, and telling his roommates about the broken mutant in the recovery room trying to hit on him. It was his job and he's human. It wasn't a big moment for him, it can't be. We can't realistically expect our critical care and emergency medical professionals to stay in a permanent state of emergency with all of their patients.

Don't get me wrong, of the hundreds of people who treated me over the next few years, very few were jerks like that guy. Most were caring, professional, and attentive. And a fair number treated me with exceptional attention because my case was a unique one; but it was still just a job for them and that was often difficult to remember in the moment.

1. You are still you in an emergency.

I think Hollywood has had some influence on my perception of an emergency. I picture the accident happening in quiet, slow motion, and once at the hospital, the medical staff become the main characters, while the patient is a passive and often unconscious player. In real life however, I was the star of my emergency and it turns out, I was played by me. While this sounds obvious and maybe shouldn't be surprising, it did strike me as odd that there was no dramatic music, no altered state, just me in a series of painful and embarrassing situations:

  • I've heard doctors on television shows talk about how often patients lie to them, and I could never understand why anyone would do that, but it's because emergencies don't change who we are in that moment. The paramedics were asking me about my wet clothes and I didn't want to answer because I thought the coaches who threw water balloons at us might get into trouble.
  • The ER staff wanted an emergency contact number from me and I gave them my number because I didn't want them bothering anyone. I didn't comprehend how injured I was and didn't want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night for nothing. Finally a priest came over, took my hand, and said, "You're naked, injured, and you don't have a car here- we need a real number." That worked and I had them call my roommate, who called my family. As a funny aside, my Jewish co-worker, who had been on the roof with me and was now at the hospital, saw the priest take my hand and went and told everyone I was getting last rites because that was the sum total of what she knew about priests in a hospital.
  • A final surprising example of me being me during the emergency was during the initial examination in the ER. They couldn't give me any pain killers until they determined if I had internal injuries. So the entire time they were taking x-rays, cutting off my clothes, and completing their examination, I was in extraordinary pain and frequently screaming in pain. However, an even stronger feeling than the pain, was my embarrassment of it all. So every time I screamed in pain, I would follow up with a joke. For days after the staff commentated that I was one of the funniest people they had worked on in the ER. But the truth of the matter was, I was just needy. I was embarrassed and felt like I was being a burden with all of the screaming and such, so I made jokes so they would like me.

Now it's your turn.

Have you ever been in an emergency or high pressure situation and been surprised by anything that happened? Share your story in the comments section below.

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