It’s almost 9 a.m. I’m just getting off my last 24-hour shift on labor & delivery. The last week or so has been hectic, making this morning my best chance of re-stocking my fridge and pantry before the exhaustion fully sets in. I leave the hospital and head straight over to Walmart. I make my way around the aisles, picking up necessities as quickly as possible and proceed to the checkout line.
As I enter the area, I notice a frantic woman, crying, face red, hyperventilating, struggling to produce pertinent information to those near her. I’m scanning for the source of her distress and my eyes soon find a man collapsed on the floor. He’s pale and already receiving a round of CPR from a bystander. I reassess the situation. The small crowd gathered around includes loved ones of unknown relation, a Walmart manager, and a shopper on the phone with EMS. I drop my basket and offer to tag in for CPR as needed. I stand nearby ready to trade places.
This is the first time after being certified for six or so years that I have found myself in an emergent situation requiring CPR. I always thought I would be nervous or scared to approach the scene and that there would be time to feel nervous and contemplate if I should approach, or question if I really know what to do since I’ve never had to. But there isn’t. There’s no time in this situation and there’s no time in between the progression of my assessment, processing, and decision making. It’s in you to serve, to help, to care and the words — How can I help? — will leave your mouth before you’ve had a chance to feel scared for yourself. At least it did for me.
Within seconds, the police department arrives to the scene. An officer comes in and forcibly takes over compressions. EMS still hasn’t arrived. Another officer approaches the loved ones and tries to elicit a history on what happened and gather pertinent health information. His partner has now been giving compressions for one minute — although it’s felt like 10. My attention shifts to a gentleman from the nearby hospital who seems to be related somehow. He has been around since I arrived. He kindly offers his assistance and tries to calmly inform the police officer that given how long this man has been down, his compressions are losing effectivity.
“He needs mouth to mouth resuscitation in conjunction with the compressions,” he says gently but firmly.
EMS still hasn’t arrived. There are no masks or defibrillators in the store. All we have are the willingness of good samaritans. Time is moving so fast yet so slow, as I’m watching this man go from pale to completely purple in the face with every compression. The gentleman from the hospital is insistent on correcting the current technique of CPR.
“Back the fuck up!” the officer yells.
“Get the fuck away!” he continues to all of us who are only trying to help. In an instant, the man is being escorted away by a third officer. The officer continues to perform compressions with no assistance until EMS arrives several minutes later. The woman, I say to myself. Where is she? I look for her in the crowd only to struggle to understand how she is still standing on her feet.
EMS briskly steps in with their equipment. “Charging … stand clear,” the defibrillator announces as I watch with a pained sigh of relief.
Even with EMS arrival, I struggle to feel at ease realizing how long this man had been down, how long he had been receiving poor CPR, how inconsiderate and prideful that officer was. My heart was breaking, thinking of this man’s family as I watched the woman fall apart, and my blood boiling, as I tried to make sense of the officer’s blatant disrespect and disregard for the situation. At this point, I am equidistant between this scene and my groceries. I grudgingly return to pick up my basket and to reassume my position as shopper/exhausted student. The past 10 minutes rid every ounce of exhaustion my body had after this long shift and I began to feel something rising in my chest that I didn’t want to deal with inside this Walmart.
I quickly scan my things and rush out to my car. I sit there alone for twenty minutes, letting the frustration and confusion precipitate at the edge of my eyes. My last shift on L&D was full of important lessons, but this experience scorched into my brain what we all claim to already know and we do know. In life, but especially in healthcare, compassion, competency and awareness are crucial. They form the strongest threads interwoven into our humanity as health care professionals.
Our humanity cannot be sacrificed. Quality care cannot be sacrificed.
Image credit: self photograph courtesy of the author.