In my early twenties I worked in Madison, Wisconsin as an Emergency Room orderly (nowadays called a “technician”). On my off hours I volunteered as a medic for a local ambulance service and was skilled at CPR. So in the ER I was often called upon to help with resuscitation efforts in cardiac arrest cases. Being a young guy, that was very exhilarating for me.
One night at the ER, the ambulance brought in 19-year-old boy who had been riding his motorcycle when a pick-up truck ran a red light and broad-sided him. I was assigned to start compressions on his chest while the nurses established IV access.
The boy was mangeled. His arms and legs were bent at nauseating angles. And with every one of my chest compression, blood came from his eyes and nose. He had not worn a helmet and his skull had be shattered.
Suddenly I started recalling how I found my best friend dead a few years earlier. I thought of how this boy’s parents would be told tonight that their son had died. Tears started to roll down my cheek. My compressions slowed down. I wasn’t going to be able to continue — I was too sad. But I told myself, “Stop. Be strong. Keep pumping.” So I shut down part of my mind to keep going.
The boy died, of course. But I remember that day like yesterday because that was the beginning of shutting down a very human part of my mind — a part I would shut down more and more easily each time in the years to come while I worked and lived in intense situations.
Several years ago I read a study that showed that many ER employees have many traits in common with soldiers with PTSD. After reading the article, I read up a little more on PTSD and I understood a little bit more about myself. This post was inspired by Joshua Allen’s post about suffering in his childhood with a crippling hyper-mirroring system which he learned to “cauterize” in order to survive a normal life. His use of the term “cauterization” reminded me of exactly what I did in the ER that night. What I needed to do to work in Emergency Medicine wasn’t half as intense as what Joshua apparently went through and nowhere as deep as what soldiers in battle must do, but the process sounded similar.
Question for Readers: Do you have any similar “cauterization” stories?