Very early in my career, I witnessed a horrible tragedy that changed me in so many ways.
I was young and naive, just out of nursing school. I was working in the ICU at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center in Florida. It was the original unit with only eight beds. There was no open heart surgery or cath lab at the hospital, and Trauma Hawk didn’t exist yet. The ICU sat directly across from the ER and we frequently were asked to assist in severe cases when necessary.
On this day, the experienced nurse decided I should go to the ER, even though I told her I didn’t feel qualified. When I got there, I noticed five people around one stretcher in the corner. I went to the bed and almost passed out: A tiny girl of six in a dirty, bloody dress was lying there. She had long blonde curls and ghostly pale skin.
“What happened?” someone asked.
“Hit by a car,” was the response.
She wasn’t moving. The side of her head and chest appeared crushed, and blood was everywhere.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Hold the blood and squeeze,” said the ER nurse.
I did and felt my muscles sting, I was squeezing so hard. Try as we might, it was all to no avail. She was dead. I was in shock—I had never seen a dead child. I had only witnessed one death, of an elderly patient, in training.
As I stood there with my mouth so dry I couldn’t speak, the ER doctor said, “Come with me.” We started walking down the hall to the waiting room, toward the family. I thought, Oh no, I’m not the one who should go. I wanted to scream, “Wait, get another nurse!” but I just kept walking. I felt like an imposter.
Two other children, around eight and 10, and a young man, probably in his late 20s, were sitting in chairs in the waiting room. The man was in dirty work clothes and there was a small box on the table by the chairs. The father’s eyes were so pleading and appeared so desperate that I immediately felt the sting of tears in my eyes. The doctor informed him that his daughter was dead.
The father slumped back down in his chair and put his hands over his face and began to sob, the children began to cry and grabbed their father, and I thought, What can I possibly do? I can’t make her come back to life and I cannot take away the pain of his grief.
I put my hand on his shoulder and he grabbed my hand. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I get you anything?”
“No,” he sobbed. He clutched my hand so hard.
I just stood and cried, holding his hand.
The father began talking about how it happened. In a quivering voice, as if to try to make sense of it or deal with the reality of the last hour, he said, “I picked them up from the sitter because it was my visitation day. I was tired from work and so I decided to take them to Burger King for dinner.” The little girl and her siblings had pleaded for a canary. He felt bad about his recent separation from their mother, so to make up for the turmoil, he decided they could have a bird. They walked, holding hands across the road, to Kmart and picked out a little yellow canary—hence the box on the table. I realized then that the bird was in the box, which kept moving ever so slightly as the bird chirped.
His little girl was so excited and happy about the bird; as they walked back across the road, she clutched the bird box in one hand and his hand in the other. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait and broke her grip, running toward the sidewalk when a car hit her, sending her flying. He blamed himself.
“It was no one’s fault; it was an accident,” I said softly.
Family began to arrive, and his estranged wife came and they embraced. Final arrangements and paperwork were done, and arm in arm, they left with the little chirping box. I remember thinking, How could that little box and bird come out of the tragedy without even the tiniest dent when the little girl was so crushed and broken?
As they left, the father and family thanked me for what I had done. But, I thought, What had I done to be thanked for?
As I was walking back down the hall to ICU, it struck me that I was not an imposter—I was a nurse. Although I had not provided the kind of care the more experienced staff had, I was present and willing to do what I could. I realize in retrospect that I became a nurse that day.
To this day, the memory of that event evokes a physical response in me. I will never forget the little girl, her family or that little chirping box.
Susan Anderson, RN, CCRN, has been a critical care nurse for more than 30 years. She works at Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Fla. This story was written for her clinical ladder requirement and she found writing it very cathartic, since she’s carried this memory with her all of these years.