What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? I was asked this question a few days ago when someone learned about me being a flight nurse. In all the times that I have been asked this question, I am unable to give a satisfactory answer. I usually say, “I see a lot of hurt people.” So I decided to answer this question, not just for the inquiring minds, but for myself.
I struggle with the question, even now, as I sit here gathering my thoughts. There are a couple of reasons I struggle. The first reason is, to be honest, I can’t remember the worst thing I have ever seen. Is this a blessing or a curse? Without a doubt this is a blessing. God has no doubt given me the gift of forgetfulness, when it comes to remembering the human tragedies that I have seen as I have nursed people back to life. Let me also clarify that, on several occasions, there are families and patients I have thought about after my shift is over. Some of which I have prayed for. In addition, if I have taken care of you in the last few weeks, I will remember, or if it’s introduced or mentioned. Let me assure you, this is not a case of short term memory loss. The things I have seen have made a profound impact on the decisions that I make day in and day out.
So PLEASE, don’t take this the wrong way, especially if I have taken care of your loved one and you see me at the grocery store or around town. For example, on occasion I will have someone tell me, “You took care of my mom!! Remember the 83 year old that you flew 4 months ago who was in a coma and you had to put a breathing tube in!!” I am going to hug you and say, “How is she?” All the while, I will be trying to recall that specific flight. I know it’s not your “everyday.” But then again it’s not every day that you almost lose your mom or see them with an endotracheal tube sticking out of their mouth, however it is my “everyday.” Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes things happen in this field that is not my “everyday.” Mass causality incidents, rescues, or impaled objects in a human body, just to name a few….and of course I can recall those types of incidences as I sit here pondering. Nonetheless, when that question is asked of me, and I am demanded an answer, I truly am unable to point to one specific incidence. I don’t think the answer they are looking for is, “I am unable to recall.” And so…I believe that this is how I am able to have the “desire” to continue to take care of the sickest of the sickest. All because I like to go home without letting that shift consume my thoughts, further allowing me to go back to the base, ready for the next flight.
The second reason I struggle with this question, is when I am asked, my heart and mind urge quietly, telling me, “Don’t go there.” Because if I do, by chance recall an event, or the question does drag forth a situation from way back in my mind that I haven’t forgot….It’s BAD! It’s something that I’m not going to share with you. That can be a loaded question, especially if I have seen a mass causality or gunshot wound to the head in the last few weeks. That innocent person behind the question….well, I want to keep it that way, innocent. Innocent to the pain, suffering, trauma, and what we do to fight the inevitable, death.
There are many times a particular event has played over and over and over in my head. To narrow it down to that one time, at that given moment, when the question is asked, is not going to happen. I know that is why I am able to get up and put that flight suit on. I have been given a drive to be a nurse. I’m able to forget the bad, all while remembering the good. It’s my coping mechanism. Not that I try to forget, it’s the way God made me. If I wasn’t given the ability to forget, I’m afraid I would probably think twice about taking my next assignment. Instead, when the tones go off, I am able to confidently strap on my helmet and be prepared for what I will see when we land. I will be able to give my ALL, to keep you alive and get you to an intervention as quickly as possible, so that hopefully you will have a quality life when it’s all said and done.
Now, to answer this question with an answer that is probably not the answer you are expecting. It’s not the dead, bloody, mangled body that bothers me. When I see something that we would define as horrible, I am not thinking in that moment “this is the worst thing I have ever seen.” It’s the circumstances that go along with it. The emotions…
SO, here is my answer. It’s the worst when I am flying a dad, who was the driver and the only survivor in a motor vehicle accident. I think about how this dad is going to have to go on living with guilt because he didn’t put his child in a car seat and now his baby is dead. Or it’s the worst, when on the way to the hospital, my patient is showing obvious signs of brain death and I think about how the patient’s husband is going to have to make the decision to discontinue her life and decide to let her go.
Or even worse, the most selfish act that I’ve seen, is when a patient is declared “brain dead” and kept alive forever, by the same machines and drugs we would use to save a life. All while wasting away in that hospital bed, suffering without the quality of life, because letting her go to meet our Maker, is just too hard of a decision for those living here on earth. Or I could say the worst is, when you hear a frightened baby crying out for his momma, within a mangled mess of what’s left of the car, as he remains safely strapped in his car seat. While at the same time we work vigorously to save his mother, who is located in the ditch, after getting thrown out of the vehicle… I could go on and on with these disheartening stories.
Therefore, I hope this quenches the curiosity for those that have asked this question. Let alone, at least now you know why, when asked, I will still be unable to give you a specific answer.
Grace and peace be with you.
Lesley Karonika, RN BSN CCRN CFRN EMT-B