February 21, 2017: My Baptism Under Fire

Believe it or not, after Sweet Tater read my Valentine’s Day story she actually suggested the topic for today’s column. This, even though my recounting of it and similar tales have made so many of her family get up and leave the dinner table only moments after they’d asked me what I’d done the past week. But I suppose it’s an occasion every healthcare worker remembers: my personal baptism under fire, that is to say, the very first time I was ever… well, regurgitated upon. So today I’ll defer to Sweet Tater’s judgment, and bring the story back from recollection’s vaults.

It happened in the early eighties, after the May primaries one year because the county in which I was working had not long before “gone wet.” A small honky-tonk had gone into business a couple of miles down the road, allowing people who lived in the community—and several from many miles outside it—to indulge publicly in all the excesses they had enjoyed in private during the county’s “dry” days. I won’t recount the place’s name, but it sounded something suspiciously close to the title of a bordello. But at any rate, a bunch of young nurses enjoying a weekend off decided to go a-honky-tonkin’ at the dive, and on that circumstance hung the entire chain of events that ultimately led to me. Apparently they found a drunk in the place’s parking lot that had fallen face-down in the gravel and possibly aspirated her gastric contents, and they themselves were buzzed enough to think it’d be just a wonderful frolic to load her up in their car and transport her to the hospital as a “Code Blue.”

I first heard about the incoming Code by a phone call from the ER, and initially I thought everything was deadly serious. But at that time, the hospital I worked in was being remodeled, so all ER traffic had to come directly by my workplace and I actually became aware of the patient’s arrival before most of the ER staff did. The drunken nurses’ attempts to unload the patient and put her on a gurney sounded, literally, like a bunch of giggling teenagers trying to “trim” a shoat (let them that readeth understand that’n), and the pig was justifiably complaining about the entire deal. I shook my head, grabbed my tray, and followed the parade down the hall. One could almost get a secondary high on the alcohol fumes, but that’s eastern Kentucky for you. Too many people drink, not to enjoy the taste of a beverage, but to get as drunk as they can as fast as they can.

The sober, on-duty ER caregivers took over as the happy young lovelies tittered and traipsed back out to their car to find more fun somewhere else, and since there weren’t enough nurses on duty to immobilize the patient and administer suction at the same time, guess who, with a strong back and a weak mind, got stuck with holding her down. The patient, whose eyes rolled wildly and whose arms were covered from shoulders to wrists with those old homemade do-it-yourself stickpin-and-shoe-polish tattoos so many people used to sport, was simultaneously fighting everyone close enough to slap, and trying to bat the suction apparatus away from her mouth so she could achieve the same result by running her own fingers down her throat.

“Here, John,” the senior nurse on duty, who was probably just as irked at her younger colleagues as I was, commanded. “Hold this bedpan close to her face while I turn up the vacuum on the suction.” I complied, stepping closer and grabbing the pan as she attended to the valve. All it took was that split second.

The patient never even hit the bedpan. The substance in question flew right across it in a deadly arc. At that moment I was baptized and confirmed as a True Veteran Healthcare Worker.

And so our dramatic liquor-inspired Code Blue was successful. By the time I’d run to the lab, wadded up my stinking, soiled white coat, hurled it into a corner and stalked back to the ER, the patient had evidently gotten rid of everything that was bothering her and was signing herself out against medical advice. I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that, so maybe that crazy, haywire excuse for an emergency put her on the strait and narrow. The honky-tonk finally closed down, and we’ve all grown up a little since then, even those hard-partying young nurses. But there are certain events you just don’t forget and, unfortunately, for me this is one of them.

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