Saturday, February 21, 2009

Emergency Room

A man died at the end of the eleven-to-seven shift in the emergency room at UMass Memorial Medical Center last week. He was hit by a car while jogging at twilight and then life-flighted there, the largest emergency medical facility in central Massachusetts.

After a mostly sleepless night at my daughter’s bedside in the ER, I went to the coffee shop around six-thirty. I returned to find a scene of controlled panic as doctors, nurses and technicians struggled to keep the new patient alive. His cubicle across from my daughter’s bed was crowded with people and machines—all there in a valiant attempt to save him. But in the end, they couldn't.

I watched the doctors and nurses disperse, peeling off blood-spattered face masks, gloves and smocks. They acted serene and detached, as they must; but the lack of emotion was surreal. In the outside world, we react to death with so much emotion.

A nurse in bright flowered scrubs who had just walked in to start her shift whispered to her cohort, “That’s a lousy way to start the day.”

The clean-up staff began their grisly task. Four large cardboard cartons marked BIOHAZARD were set up in the hallway and lined with special plastic bags. Bloodstained linens, dressings and medical paraphernalia were tossed into them. It seemed like everything in the small room was being dumped into those boxes. I was struck by how much blood there was.

Several nurses continued working inside the room. I couldn’t see, but I supposed they were cleaning up the body.

The cleaning crew wiped down the electronic instruments and tossed the wipes into the boxes. When they finished, the boxes were sealed up, stacked on a dolly and wheeled out. Finally, the crew washed the floor in the room and the hall.

When everything was finished, the deceased patient lay in the room awaiting his family. Every couple of minutes, a nurse or technician would come by, look into the room and then turn away. I guess there's still a morbid curiosity about the dead even among medical professionals.

One nurse in particular—a middle-eastern man with a black close-cropped beard—seemed very emotionally involved. I guessed he was the nurse assigned to the patient.

Even though his shift was over, he kept coming back to the room. He moved things around. He wiped down a shelf by the door. He arranged the furniture.

It was clear he was having a difficult time letting go of this patient. I wondered if he wanted to make everything right for himself, the patient or the soon-to-arrive family.

He put on his jacket, threw his backpack over his shoulder and started to leave. As he walked by the room, he looked in. Then he took off his backpack and jacket and put them on the nurse station counter.

He opened a package of moistened wipes and went into the room again. A few seconds later, he emerged. He took one last long look, put on his jacket and picked up his backpack.

I watched him walk down the long corridor, the death weighing heavily on his shoulders.

My daughter still slept, so I walked back out to the waiting room. Outside the large windows, a construction crew was already at work backfilling around the foundation for a new addition. They were oblivious to the drama that had just taken place inside.

A small yellow backhoe danced a mechanical ballet as it dug into the pile of fill, turned and then dumped. Over and over again.

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