Today, I hugged a stranger

Today, I hugged a stranger.

And I didn’t know his name.

We had just operated on a young man, probably in his late teens.  He sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen, and was in critical condition.  When he lost pulses in the trauma bay, we cut his chest open and spread his ribs.   His lifeless body laid there as we held his heart in the palm of our hands, and pumped it — over and over again — to mimic life.  We placed a clamp on his aorta to minimize blood loss, and to ensure that blood preferentially travels to the brain.

We pumped his heart tirelessly, afraid to let go, afraid to give up, afraid to say “enough.” And just when we thought we had lost him forever, a flicker of hope jarred us as his heart began to beat again.  We rushed him to the operating room, and a team of anesthesiologists, nurses, and residents met us in the room.  We worked together quietly and efficiently, all too well rehearsed.

“Male in his late teens, multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen.  He has a left femoral cordis, and two large bore peripheral IVs.  A resuscitative thoracotomy was performed in the trauma bay.  Aortic cross-clamp time was 2053.”

That was all the information they needed as we worked to put him on the operating table and prepare him for surgery.

In two hours, he had received multiple blood products, and we were not able to control the bleeding.  When a patient receives massive blood transfusions, it often thins the blood so much that it very difficult — almost impossible — to control bleeding.  He was in critical condition.  We packed his chest, and temporarily closed it to assess the situation when his status improves.  He would need massive resuscitation in order to survive more surgery.

I was unsure if we would save his life.  I was unsure if this young man will ever grow to get married, have children, or see the colors that form when the sunlight meets the rain.  I left the operating room, defeated.

And in the hallway, there he was, sobbing in a corner, alone.

He was in his mid-40s, wearing a grey shirt and muddy boots — I could tell he worked in construction.  He had a muscular build, and by the smell of his shirt, I could tell he had worked all day.  I walked up to him as he held his face in the palm of the callused hands, and I stared as tear drops fell onto his worn jeans.  I grabbed his head and pulled him into my chest.

I embraced this stranger as he sobbed into my chest, leaving behind small little patches of despair and pain.

Today, I hugged a stranger.

I hugged him with the hope that I could lift some of this pain from his shoulders, with the hope that I could take on some of the burden of his hopelessness.  And I felt my eyes well up from the same pain, as I thought of my patient — a male in his late teens with so much to live.  As I held him, I felt his sobs slow to a whimper.  I stepped back, wiped my tears, and walked away without saying one word, without looking him in the eyes.

I went to a nearby bathroom, and sat on the floor to let time pass.  After a few minutes, I washed my hands, washed my face, and walked back to the operating room to check on the patient.   The chief resident had re-opened his chest, and was massaging his heart.

“He lost pulses,” she said, as she motioned me to take over compressions.

I pumped his heart in the palm of my hands — over and over again — but his heart laid still.

Everyone went quiet.

We bowed our heads in understanding.

***

I stood behind as the team left to prepare for cases.   The air was warm and thick in the operating room as I cleaned his motionless body of blood.  The nurse and I moved his body onto a stretcher — his bloody Tommy Hilfiger boxers remained on the operating room table.  We worked together somberly and efficiently, all too well rehearsed.

The phone rang — like an old, nasty alarm clock — and pierced through the thick air.  A nurse was on the line.  The family wanted to see their son.

We wheeled him to the recovery unit, and the nurses prepared the room with boxes of tissues and cups of water.  I took one last look at him, and felt my eyes well up  — another young victim of gun violence.

As I left the room, there he was walking toward me, toward his son’s body — in his grey shirt and muddy boots.

He took one look at my tearful eyes, and embraced me.  He pulled my head into his chest, and by the smell of my scrubs, he could tell that I had worked all day. He embraced me as I sobbed into his chest, leaving behind small little patches of despair and pain.

Today, I hugged a stranger.

Edwin Acevedo, Jr. is a general surgery resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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