I was droopy eyed as I gave early morning report to the nurse taking over. You see, I worked twelve hour nights at a level-one trauma center every weekend. I was drawn to this schedule based on the high amounts of trauma cases that arrived early Friday evenings and continued through the weekend. I had made it to Monday morning and was ready for the 100 plus mile trip to my house. I sipped the cold coffee that I bought before I arrived to work–a little needed jolt of energy to help me on the road.
I walked out to the parking garage and was greeted by the cool fall air. It looked as though it had rained during the night. The trauma unit I worked on did not have many windows leading to the outside world, making one of my favorite lines to the oncoming staff, “what’s it doing out there? We could have a tornado and we wouldn’t know in here.” That morning I received the, “Oh it’s nice out there, a little cool. You know this Vermont weather.”
I pulled out of the parking garage and navigated through the busy roads onto the highway. My window was down, causing the cool air to startle me awake as I drove down the highway. This particular stretch connected town-to-town for a good 50 miles. I set my cruise control to 60, cranked up the rock-and-roll and allowed my mind to process my night in the unit. I couldn’t help thinking about how sad it is on Monday mornings, leaving behind people I worked with for hours, sometimes never knowing if they did ok during the week. By the time I arrived back on the unit Friday evening, most patients were gone. Every now and then I would hear about a particular patient, but usually it was just a void that sat with me–one that made you wonder if your blood, sweat, and tears made a difference. I was in a sort of daydream state when I snapped myself out of it. Feeling the effects of the long night, I rolled up my window, cranked up the cold air and turned up the radio. As I listened to the guitar and drums from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, I began to notice the car in front of me.
I left off the gas a bit to begin allowing more distance between us. I watched in utter helplessness as the car in front of began swaying back and forth. One minute the mid-sized, red sedan was in the right lane, then it would weave into the other lane. My stomach was unsettled, and my palms began to sweat. I left off the gas more, creating a much larger gap between us. I began praying in my head that whoever was behind the wheel would snap out of it and gain control of their car. Unfortunately, my prayers stayed with me and the driver of the mid-sized, red sedan approached on-coming traffic.
Fortunately, the other lane on the usual busy road was without any on-coming traffic. As I watch this driver weave back and forth, I felt thankful for this good fortune. As we approached a nearby town, in the distance I made out an oncoming car. “Please let him be in his own lane!” As the car approached, the red sedan weaved back in front of me as the loud whistle of the horn became a distance memory from the car passing by. Car by car continued passing. The red sedan was staying in the lane, however, moving on and off the shoulder of the road. I began blowing my own horn in a way to say, “Wake up you idiot. You are going to kill someone!”
I backed off the car again, slapped my own face to make sure I was awake and prepared for the worst. Still in my work scrubs, I thought, well once a nurse, always a nurse. The car weaved into the lane of an oncoming car as if to challenge it to a duel. The music was loud, the air was cranking but I will never forget hearing the sound that came after.
The once clean, crisp air was now filled with smoke, dust, and debris. I was not far away as I pressed on the brake and put on my four-ways. I was afraid of what I was going to find. Cars continued to race by as if nothing happened. I immediately went into nurse mode and headed to the car that held the victim in the matter. I approached the small, grey car to find a middle aged man behind the wheel. His driver’s side window was down or broken, however, I had immediate access to him. I called to him, yet his eyes remained closed. The smell of the oil and gas mixture caused me to pull my undershirt over my mouth. I reached in to turn on the car, when the man opened his eyes and began moaning. “I am John. I’m a nurse, sir, what is your name?” He answered with a few moans and groans but that was all. I continued to reach for the key and was able to turn off his vehicle. To my surprise I was quickly greeted by a very excited young man who was sort of hopping around the car.
“Sir, sir. I am so tired. I fell asleep. Are you dead. Oh my God please don’t be dead,” cried the young man driving the mid-sized red sedan. I tried to get a hand on this guy to snap him out it as he ran around the car a couple more times crying out. Finally, I got his attention and instructed him to sit down. I could tell his leg did not look normal and adrenaline has a wonderful way of not letting people feel pain. In this case, a deformed ankle that should not be walked on, yet alone hopped on, in excitement. I let him be as he sat on the side of the road, now busy with other vehicles that has stopped to provide help. I arrived back at the other car to find the driver barely responsive. I held his head and talked to him. I told him about my kids and who I was in an effort to keep his eyes opened. He continued to moan and cry out in pain. The steering wheel was pressing against his upper abdomen, seat belt intact, while blood oozed from his forehead.
It seemed like hours. I sat there holding this poor man’s head hoping to prevent any neck injury, while talking and ensuring him he would make it through this. Every now and then he winced and moaned. The young man sat there, beginning to feel the pain in his deformed leg. As the first responders from the local fire department arrived, I gracefully moved away and let them spring into action. My hands and scrub top covered in the poor man’s blood. I just sat there, silently watching the fire department cut the man out of his car. One rescuer inside the vehicle with the man, while a crew of three men cut through the steep rook and door. The noise echoed in my head as a reminder of how fragile life is. I already knew this as a nurse, however, to see it literally unfold in front of me was a new experience. I often think about this day as I sit listening to the radio or watching television. Every now and then, years later, it will just replay in my head as if it was a dream. I can still taste and smell the air, hear the excitement of the young driver hopping around on his fractured leg and feel the poor man’s blood on my hands.
Both men were taken to the hospital by separate rescue squads. The police eventually left and I slowly walked back to my car. I never bothered to look at the time, however, I knew it was a solid three hours based on the time I pulled into my driveway. I did not talk much about it once home. I was simply exhausted and ready to close my eyes. I have a different perspective now. I couldn’t help but think about other patients I have cared for. I couldn’t imagine what some of the scenes must have been like. To experience another life–there one second and gone or forever changed the next. In addition to the sadness, I felt relieved that people volunteer in their community to be there for others. To watch those volunteers work on the two people without regard to why it happened or who may have been at fault was just pure compassion for human life.
I drifted off to sleep, waking up periodically to make sure I was in bed and not in my car. My mind had a tendency to play that little trick on me sometimes. This time it was much more vibrant. The feeling lingered with me for many days after. I hoped my presence had some sort of impact on both people involved. I was never to know the outcome. I like to think they both did very well. I wish them both the best after all these years. Another chapter of doing what you can and moving on to the next episode. I am a nurse on-and-off the clock. It is who I am and what I am. I am just glad I was able to be there for these guys when they needed someone.