When, a couple times each year, dozens of our county teenagers train to become EMTs, they know they are taking on a challenging, heavy responsibility. But probably none of them are ready for the kind of horrible death our community experienced a week ago, when a 15-year-old-girl walking home from school in Rockville was struck and killed in a crash involving two cars that news reports say may have been drag racing.
In the deepest sense, none of us, not the doctors or the nurses or the techs whose daily routine may always find them facing untimely death, a terrible cancer revelation, or a sudden stroke, are ever ready either for a shocking death like this. We are experienced because we have called codes we could not bear, and then searched for the strength to tell a spouse or parents or — worse in some ways — grandparents that their loved one has died. But we still were crying in the code room that day. All of us experienced nurses, cops and doctors.
Outside the code room itself, our techs, secretaries, therapists, and housekeeping staff were all watching and listening for fragments of the tragedy and praying or pausing in their jobs to think of the unfolding pain so close at hand. Their faces showed the worry, the thoughts of their own children at home or just dropped off at school. They hoped we might share whatever was appropriate. And they all offered whatever support or help they could give in these painful moments.
Somehow, though, the most intensely affecting part of that entire, disastrous afternoon was the young EMT who had delivered the poor dead girl to our ER. She had performed CPR during the long ride, twenty or so minutes after first arriving — no doubt to her horror — at the brutal accident scene. Once she arrived at our ER and we took over, she waited at the back of the trauma room for the quick, but inevitable pronouncement of death, and tried to keep her composure.
She didn’t need to stay, but kids — inexperienced kids — don’t know this. I don’t know what I said, maybe something like “it’s OK, you did exactly what you were trained to do,” but whatever it was, those few words were all it took for her to start sobbing.
Later, after the parents arrived and had the news broken to them, and then more school, church and community members arrived and had the news broken to them, I saw the EMT still collecting equipment but really just wandering in a daze. My son is an EMT, and I told her about my son’s first experience with death as a professional, which was at the tender age of 17 or 18.
“He told me that it made him realize that the reason he’s there is to help people when they are at their most vulnerable.”
That had been a year or two ago and I remember how my heart felt full and grateful for having raised someone with this mature a soul, and I thought sharing his perspective might help her.
But sometime even later than that, another thought struck me about these teens rescuing teens: the ones who come back and stay with the job really are called to a higher purpose when they come back the next day and the next, each time taking the chance they may have to confront another sudden death, a murder, a suicide, a drowning. They train for it, they learn the job and mostly they don’t have to use those skills. But each day when they come in they might, as we might, and none of us ever knows exactly when that might be.
So this is a small way to thank them for their courage, their dedication and their spirit. They are the best of our communities and we truly can be proud every time we see a fresh face wearing a sweater with an EMT logo.
Julian Orenstein is a pediatric emergency physician. He blogs at The Shift.