Sometimes, it’s OK to cry

Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist

She was sitting in the shadows on the far side of the life squad. As I approached, she lifted her face out of her hands and looked up at me. She had tears in her eyes. So did I. We had just witnessed the death of a beautiful, young child.

It had been an hour from hell for her and the EMS crew she worked with. They had received a call from the 911 dispatcher about a very sick child. They responded to the address, picked up the little one, tried to stabilize her and immediately started to transport her to the emergency room; lights flashing and sirens blaring.

In route to the emergency room, her little heart stopped beating. She stopped breathing. The EMS crew immediately started CPR and continued the high-speed transport with full CPR in progress.

The driver of the life squad never took his eyes off the road as he raced up the state route to Wilmington and the hospital. As he drove, an EMT radioed the nursing staff at the ER. Quickly, she related vital information about the patient, the reason for the resuscitation and their estimated time of arrival.

The ER nurse paged the “Code Blue Team.” Physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, ER techs and members of the lab team and pharmacy were waiting when the ambulance rolled up to the ER door. As the rear door of the squad opened and the cot rolled out, CPR was continued — compression after compression after compression. The resuscitation effort was passed from the EMS team to ER team without missing a beat.

The two teams blended into one. Every possible effort was made to keep the young child alive.

Sometimes, a resuscitation can go perfectly — every compression, every breath, every defibrillation, every IV access and every medication can be given — but the patient still doesn’t respond. That is what happened. The child died despite every attempt at preventing her death.

At the time, besides being the Director of Cardiopulmonary Services, I was the EMS Coordinator for the county. I worked on the development of EMS protocols, trained EMTs throughout the county in emergency airway management and worked with them on various protocols and procedures needed to treat and stabilize patients before they arrived at the emergency department. However, you cannot train EMTs on what it feels like to lose a patient, particularly when that patient is a child.

The EMT wiped tears from her eyes as I rounded the back of the squad and approached her. She apologized for her tears. She apologized for crying. She said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t let this bother me.”

Immediately, I responded, “The day something like this doesn’t break your heart and make you cry is the day you need to stop being an EMT.” This all happened about 25 years ago. The lesson is still as valuable today as it was on that sad day in the mid-1990s.

This past Sunday in church, a dear friend who works at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati asked for prayers for the staff in their emergency room.

They lost two children in just a few short days. Not only are there two grieving families in the area, but the entire staff of the emergency department are also grieving the devastating loss of two young lives.

Life squad members, regardless of whether they are full-time paramedics or volunteer basic EMTs, they all train to provide high-quality, pre-hospital care. Their mission and the mission of the personnel in every hospital emergency department throughout the nation is to provide life-saving care; to bring patients back from the brink of death. It feels great when everything works and the patient survives. It hurts when the patient dies.

The people who provide EMS services and the people who work in emergency departments deserve our support and our prayers. Particularly, our prayers.

I am convinced that sometimes angels can be found driving a life squad or working in the back of an ambulance. Angels can also be found wearing scrubs and lab coats as they work in the emergency room on people we care about; people we love.

Usually, they are rewarded by saving a life, but sometimes they cry. It’s OK to cry.

Keep them in your prayers.

Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.

Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist