An Introduction to Last a Lifetime
By Shon Pernice, Navy, National Guard
Writing Type: Prose
By Shon Pernice
Working in a level-one trauma emergency room, you witness unnatural deaths that are shielded from public view. When you get baptized by your first adolescent death and get to know them at that hour, their essence attaches itself to you for the rest of your life. I cannot shake her memory or the experience. I still see her when she visits me in my dreams or in a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. Her story must be told.
In the late 90s, I worked the 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift as an emergency room technician. One night, an ambulance call punctuated the emergency system radio. An adolescent trauma code was coming in hot (lights and siren). Over the radio, I could hear the siren wailing, the constant horn demanding that traffic get out of the way, and the extreme sense of urgency in the paramedic's voice. Those medics were playing chess with God and just got checked in a corner of life's precious board.
The young girl was rushed in on a stretcher while CPR was being performed. She was intubated, and her breathing was being performed manually. The cardiac monitor was erratic and unreadable while the chest compressions were being performed with a sense of urgency. She was moved onto the ER bed, and our medical team took over. We fought for her life. We had never met this 12-year-old girl, had no clue of her background, and yet her life was just as valuable to us as our own child. That was our job.
After we exhausted every life-saving tool and maneuver we had with experience, the emergency room doctor observed brain matter leaking out of her left ear. CPR was halted to observe the cardiac monitor and look for spontaneous heart activity. We held our breath hoping for a miracle. Instead, the time of death was announced.
ER medical workers and trauma teams have attitudes. We go for the win every time. I have witnessed some miraculous comebacks from death. We do not get attached because when we bring them back, or sustain life, we transfer care to surgery or another department to fix whatever brought them to us. We high-five when we do the impossible, and lament to God when things do not work out in our favor.
After the time-of-death was called, the trauma team departed. Usually, a nurse and a technician clean up, perform post-mortem care, and complete paperwork. Nurse Carla and I stayed back for this duty. We received word that family was in the waiting room. As Antoinette lay naked on the cot, we cleaned up the blood and brain matter and tried our best to make her look as presentable as possible. I grabbed a clean white sheet and covered her up to her chin. She still had the IV tubing attached to her body. I removed the cardiac wires and shut off the monitor to remove one more mechanical confirmation of death. As I was performing my duties, Antoinette's grandma stepped into the trauma room.
Grandma walked in slowly and looked over her loved one as if she had been through this before. Apparently, our preparation of Antoinette passed her inspection. Carla and I stood silently about six feet away to offer support. Sometimes, family members fainted at the sight of death, and we always had to be prepared for that.
Grandma started to tell us about 12-year-old Antoinette, whose life we had just fought for. She had attended church services earlier that day and sang in the choir. She was an A student and wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. Antoinette was going to fix dinner for her grandpa. Her trauma was the result of crossing a busy street after picking up groceries with her father. Both were wearing dark clothing. Their clothing and a vehicle's high rate of speed were a bad combination.
In the Emergency Medical System line of work, a dead body is just that--dead. You shut off the emotion and perform the task at hand with no feelings or emotional attachment. That is how you survive emotionally. Antoinette was brought in dead--non-breathing, no heart activity or brain function. Now, grandma had just brought Antoinette to life in front of me. I felt my body react to the words that my soul absorbed. I started to tear up. My stomach felt twisted, and I saw how glossy Carla's eyes were too. Then my tears broke the emotional dam and ran down my cheeks, collecting on my light green scrub top. In a shaky voice, I excused myself and escaped to the nearby X-ray control center. Carla followed right behind me. I was overwhelmed with sadness as we cried together and grieved over the loss of that beautiful child.
Due to patient privacy, stories like this are locked away in emotional vaults. They sometimes peek at us through copious amounts of alcohol and awaken us from sleep. Despite self-medication, counseling, or confessionals, death still pops up when you least expect it. Your dreams, thoughts, and various other moments in your life are forever affected.
In the ER, stickers are made to label lab specimens and patient records. I kept one of Antoinette's stickers for more than 15 years. I cannot explain the attachment, purpose, or the unprocessed feelings. I am writing this story hoping to let Antoinette rest, give purpose to her death, and educate others what front line medical workers face every day.