I woke suddenly this morning. My eyes opened and I was shot into the world. The reason for my abrupt stoppage of sleep is unknown. Not out of the ordinary, just, unknown. I was not woken by a nightmare, of that I am certain. However, the thoughts that began ghosting around my wounded mind were less than pleasant. One by one, ghosts of the past returned to me. Brining with them, their memories of trauma and loss. I tried to shake them loose, to think of something else but, this is a task much easier said and written than it is done.
Ghosts become thorns. Their agonizing grip onto my medic’s mind is an unrivaled pain and torment. Each thorn takes its grip, and with it, a little piece of my solace. Thus, begins a new day…
I sat up and let loose a begrudging sigh of discontent. I wanted so badly to just have a “normal” day but, alas, this is my normal – waking with thoughts of the past. Those thoughts carrying with them visions and smells of the days they come from. Sometimes I think the smells are the worst. But then, my ears replay for me the wraithlike screams that take hold and echo with an untamed ferocity. With those screams come faces. Faces of the acutely ill, dying or dead. Faces not easily forgotten. These are ghosts. And though they may not have woken me, they are certain to keep me that way.
As my brain played viciously with PTSD, I thought of one thing in particular – a young girl who lay dead on her living room floor. Her family, eerily stoic and silent. Standing around the corners of the room, watching us as we made our approach towards the youthfully deceased. She was 4-months-old, and was as lifeless as the pillow beneath her head.
My partner and I, in a concentrated frenzy, began working on this little girl. This lifeless little one. I began doing compressions on her chest. As I did, I was confronted with a frightful display of this tiny, young girl’s arms and legs violently jolting, each time I pressed down on her small little body. It was a sickening display of reality, and something you do not learn in the text books or the classroom. Her head jostled side to side as well as I continued desperately to restart her infinitesimal heart. I looked away. I had to. As I stared at a random bookshelf compiled of DVD’s on the other side of the room, I continued to push down on this child that lay on the underside of my hand. No matter where I looked, there was no escaping the reality of what we were doing. I even locked eyes with some of the family members during fleeting glances around the room. I was trapped by duty.
By this time, our backup had arrived. A talented crew of medics. Among them, a friend of mine. A welcomed sight amidst the travesty unfolding before us all.
I was now in charge of the drugs. My job was to hand over the requested pre-loaded syringes, and time-stamp each drug we pushed into this little one’s unstirring body. With each vial that I handed over to the other medics, hope began to dwindle. Occasionally I would peer over to the monitor to see what her little heart was doing – nothing – it was doing nothing.
During one visual overpass at the monitor, I unwittingly peered at the young girl on the floor. There was a tube in her mouth for us to try to breathe for her. A needle that we had drilled into her bone, so as to give her fluids and drugs. Wires and electrodes placed all atop her small-framed body. She belonged to a first nations family so, her ordinarily golden-tan skin was blanched. This made for a truly lurid sight. Should have just stared at the monitor…
This was not my first peds-code (paediatric cardiac arrest) but, there is nothing easy about seeing a child that should be at play, lain on a floor as cadaverous as stone. The looks on all of our faces solidified this fact.
When we had done all we could do on scene, we picked up this little girl, who had been kissed by death, and whisked her to the ambulance. While she lay on the stretcher, I could not help but notice the dichotomy between her petite stature, and the equipment that surrounded her. She looked so out-of-place on our stretcher. All of our gear, even the smallest of its kind seemed ill-fitting to her. This added another layer of horror to the already macabre scenario.
I hopped into the front of the ambulance and began driving to the nearby ER while the rest of my colleagues worked tirelessly on the little girl. Upon reaching the emergency bay, I readied myself to slam the ambulance into ‘park’ and then hop out and help bring the little one inside the awaiting trauma room. In doing that, I noticed another horrific sight, one that is seared into my brain, and will be until the day that I die I am sure. On the passenger seat, right beside me, was a crumpled heap of fabric. It was pink in color and fleece-like in material. It was a onesie. A Dora The Explorer onesie. It belonged to the young girl in the back. The one whose heart refused to beat. The one whose skin was as pale as a ghost. It was what she was wearing when my partner and I had arrived. We had removed it during the call so as to make it easier to treat her with our implementations. Someone must have tossed it into our truck before departing scene. I wish they hadn’t…
I never thought a simple piece of fabric could have such lasting effect on me. I would like to take the time now to tell you that I was wrong. There most certainly is a type of fabric that I will never forget. And in that moment, in that hospital bay, it lay within arms distance from me. And today, well, today, it couldn’t feel any closer.
We handed over care to the awaiting nurses and doctors. It would be of no use though. The little girl was dead. All that remained, was a small, pink onesie on the passenger side of the ambulance. I would retrieve that onesie, and carry it in my left hand. I was unwittingly squeezing it with a fist as I carried it towards the trauma room. All work had ceased on this little girl now. The once frantic trauma room was now somber and imperturbable. I placed the onesie on the bed where this little girl lay. I tossed it down by her feet, and walked away. My fist still clenched.
A little while later while I was cleaning the ambulance and restocking our gear, a shift supervisor neared me from behind. I would not notice her until she spoke. Now, I swear to you, when she did speak, I heard her say:
“Matt, I’m shaking”.
That’s what I thought she said, so I turned and asked if she was ok, but, what she really said was:
“Matt. Matthew, you’re shaking…”
A quick look at my hands proved her statement correct – I was shaking. Like a leaf.
I laughed it off and made a joke about low-blood sugars, and not having eaten anything on shift so far, and continued to restock the truck. This was late in my career so, I think I was more burnt out than anything. Having seen some things already, this just added to the expanding horde of images and experiences. Maybe too much.
Fast forward to this morning, and I am in my apartment, just waking up. A quick look at my hands proves that once again that I – am – shaking…
This is my “normal”. This is what it is like to wake up with PTSD. A rather unpleasant bed fellow. Not good at parties either.
It is the afternoon now. The shaking has subsided but, the thoughts and memories have not. I’m carrying this little girl today. Well, to be more precise, I suppose I am carrying her little onesie. It’s something that will not shake easily. I accept that. I have to.
I am however making a choice to not hibernate within my apartment, or my mind. I am going to the local coffee shop, and I am going to have a coffee, while immersing myself with the “normals” of the world for a while. Maybe I can replace the ghastly image of her young face, void of life, with that of a friendly smile from a pretty someone inside. That’d be nice.
I do not receive a lot of smiles anymore. I suppose that is because I rarely smile myself. Rarely find reason to.
Let’s see if coffee can change that…