I Lost a Patient Today

Shared by Code 9 – Heroes and Families United

This is written by a nurse who bravely went to New York to help. The following is heartbreaking and may be triggering for some. The reason I am posting this is because some of these healthcare workers will develop PTSD and we need to be there for them. We will help anyway we can.

I lost a patient today. He was not the first, and unfortunately he’s definitely not the last. But he was different. I’ve been an ER nurse my entire career, but in New York I find myself in the ICU. At this point, there’s not really anywhere in the hospital that isn’t ICU, all Covid 19 positive. They are desperate for nurses who can titrate critical medication drips and troubleshoot NBC [Nuclear, Biological and Chemical – types of mass-casualty weapons].

I’ve taken care of this man the last three nights, a first for me. In the ER I rarely keep patients for even one 12 hour shift. His entire two week stay had been rough for him, but last night was the worst. I spent the first six hours of my shift not really leaving his room. By the end, with so many medications infusing at their maximum, I was begging the doctor to call his family and let them know. “He’s not going to make it,” I said. The poor doctors are so busy running from code to code, being pulled by emergent patients every minute. All I could think of was the voice of my mom in my head, crying as I got on the plane to leave for this place: “Those people are alone, you take good care of them”. I was the only person in that room for three nights in a row, fighting as hard as I could to keep this man alive. The doctor was able to reach the family, update them. It was decided that when his heart inevitably stopped we wouldn’t try to restart it. There just wasn’t anything else left to do.

Eventually, he gave up. It was just him and me and his intubated roommate in the next bed. The wooden door to the room is shut, containing infection and cutting us off from the rest of the world. I called the doctor to come and mark the time of death. I wished so much that I could let his family know that while they might not have been with him, I was.

I shut the pumps down (so horribly many of them), disconnected the vent, took him off the monitor. We didn’t extubate him, too much of a risk to staff. Respiratory took the vent as soon as I called. It’s just a portable one, but it’s life to someone downstairs. The CNA [Certified Nurse Assistant] helped me wash him and place him in a body bag, a luxury afforded only to those who make it out of the ER. Down there the bodies pile up on stretchers, alone, while the patients on vents wait for the golden spot my gentleman just vacated. We’ll talk about the ER another time. My patient was obviously healthy in his life. I look at his picture in his chart, the kind they take from a camera over a computer when you aren’t really prepared. A head shot, slightly awkward. I see someone’s Grandpa, someone’s Dad, someones Husband. They aren’t here with him. My heart breaks for them.

I fold his cute old man sweater and place it in a bag with his loafers, his belongings. I ask where to put this things. A coworker opens the door to a locked room; labeled bags are piled to the ceiling. My heart drops. It’s all belongings of deceased parents, waiting for a family member to someday claim them. A few nights ago they had 17 deaths in a shift. The entire unit is only 17 beds.

These patients are so fragile. It’s such a delicate balance of breathing, of blood pressure, of organ function. The slightest movement or change sends them into hours long death spirals. The codes are so frequent those not directly involved barely even register them. The patients are all the same, every one. Regardless of age, health status, wealth, family, or power the diagnosis is the same, the disease process is the same, and the aloneness is the same. Our floor has one guy that made it to extubation. He’s 30 years old. I view him as our mascot, our ray of hope that not everyone here is just waiting to die. I know that most people survive just fine, but that’s not what it feels like in this place. Most of the hospital staff is out sick. We, the disaster staff, keep our n95 masks glued to our faces. We all think we are invincible, but I find myself eyeing up my coworkers, wondering who the weak ones are, knowing deep down that not all of us will make it out of here alive.

A bus takes us back to the hotel the disaster staff resides in, through deserted Manhattan. We are a few blocks from Central Park. We pass radio city music hall, nbc studios, times square. There is no traffic. The sidewalks are empty. My room is on the 12th floor. At 7pm you can hear people cheering and banging on pans for the healthcare workers at change of shift. This city is breaking and stealing my heart simultaneously. I didn’t know what I was getting into coming here, but it’s turning out to be quite a lot.

Meeting My Psychotherapist

by Rob Leathen

I went public not for any sympathy and not for any pity but because I firmly believe that silence does nothing but strengthen stigma. Rob Leathen

Rob Leathen

So my first visit with my psychotherapist. How did it go? It was amazing! I was early, very early, as I always am. I sat in the waiting room looking around at all the signs, posters and books dealing with trauma, PTSD, support systems and the like. In that 20 minutes while I
sat there (yes I was that early), the gravity of why I was actually there set in and manifested itself as what I call an “almost”. For me an “almost” is defined as a welling up of emotions to the point of almost uncontrollably bawling my eyes out but then, as I have done so often before, stifling back those emotions and tears until those emotions and tears are no longer visible to the outside world. All part of that “mask” that many wear. Continue reading “Meeting My Psychotherapist”

Life Altering Event: Addiction

by Peggy Sweeney

At one time, I served as a consultant for a local hospital by providing help for adult and adolescent/teen in-patients recovering from chemical dependency and emotional trauma by way of one-on-one conversations and group support meetings. The patients shared their personal stories of grief, abuse, and other misfortunes that had influenced their need to find a way to cope with these events.

Flashbacks from a childhood of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse were common themes as well as feelings of abandonment by a parent due to death, divorce, incarceration, or the unwillingness to care for their offspring. Some adults remembered the shame they felt as children or teenagers when classmates and neighborhood bullies belittled them because of their appearance, physical abnormalities or social status. Continue reading “Life Altering Event: Addiction”

There Is No Superman! The Role of the Spouse in the Fire Service

by Peggy Sweeney

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to not only instruct firefighters on coping with traumatic loss and grief, but many of their wives and family members as well. When I would ask them for comments, questions or feedback, I usually got little or no response. Understandably, because spouses are very reluctant to talk in front of their firefighters about their feelings, their fears, or what is in their heart. Many of them wonder why the warm, loving and carefree person they married does not come home like that anymore.

I know what many of you fear: your spouse, partner or family member may be struggling mentally and emotionally with the traumas of his or her job. You realize that what they see, hear and feel on a recurring basis is beginning to play a major roll in how they view life, living and their job. When the call goes well, life is good! When their best efforts to save a life or protect property from ruin do not end positively, it is a BAD DAY! Continue reading “There Is No Superman! The Role of the Spouse in the Fire Service”

Stigma and the Elephant in the Room, to the Point of No Return and Back

by Rob Leathen

I went public not for any sympathy and not for any pity but because I firmly believe that silence does nothing but strengthen stigma.

Rob Leathen

Early in February 2019, I knew something wasn’t quite right with me. The continual arguments with my wife, the emotional outbursts, unexpected crying and anger. Anger with everybody and everything led me to the conclusion that I needed help. I started weekly therapy for what was likely PTSD

Stigma? “Screw the stigma,!” I thought. I went public with my PTSD battles. If just one person asked me one question about PTSD or one person reflected on the state of their own mental health or one person already suffering no longer felt alone than my going public was worthwhile. Little did I know my PTSD journey would turn in an unexpected direction. Continue reading “Stigma and the Elephant in the Room, to the Point of No Return and Back”

EMDR: A Therapy Session to Deal with a Problematic Incident

by Rob Leathen

Editor’s Note: Please read Rob’s article that describes his PTSD and how it brought him to the brink of suicide. Instead, he chose life!

Rob Leathen

My therapy session starts like every previous therapy session, with idle chat with my therapist about how my previous week was. The conversation has nothing to do with any of my previous incidents I have responded to or current things we’re working on. Regardless of the topic of conversation, I immediately feel at ease and comfortable, a feeling that comes from being in this office with my therapist and her welcoming judgement free clinic. It is my safe place. It’s a feeling I look forward to as I travel to my appointment even though I know how my session will end. Continue reading “EMDR: A Therapy Session to Deal with a Problematic Incident”

Line of Duty Death Survivors: What Do They Need to Cope With Their Grief?

by Peggy Sweeney

Funeral arrangement announced for local detective fatally shot in the line of duty

This newsworthy article is often overlooked by the casual reader. Local newspapers and e-news headlines report the sad event of another fallen hero; the tragic death of a brave police officer or firefighter who has died in the line of duty. A dedicated professional who sacrificed his or her life to serve and protect or that homes and property would be saved from the ravages of fire, floods, or other forces of nature. Continue reading “Line of Duty Death Survivors: What Do They Need to Cope With Their Grief?”

Five Questions on Department Mental Health Every Fire Chief Should Review

by Peggy Sweeney

The job of a fire chief is never easy. Whether you lead a volunteer company of 10 or a career department of several thousand, your bottom line is, or should be, the physical safety and mental and emotional wellness of your men and women.

I ask each of you as leaders of your department to take a step back and candidly review your attitude about the mental and emotional wellness of your department:

peer abuse… any figure of authority or power which may use intimidation as a primary means of motivating others… could rightfully be referred to as a bully” —Bullying/Wikipedia

1. Do you criticize or shun a firefighter because he or she struggles with the emotional aftereffects of traumatic calls? Do you turn a deaf ear when members of your department make fun of or bully them (also known as “peer abuse”)?

The mantra “suck it up and go on” is a cliché of the past. Continue reading “Five Questions on Department Mental Health Every Fire Chief Should Review”

Grief Study

Peggy Sweeney began her career as a mortician and bereavement educator thirty years ago. Since 1990, Peggy has developed and taught countless workshops on coping with traumatic loss and grief for professionals and families including the Grieving Behind  the Badge program for public safety officers, emergency response professionals, and our military personnel.

She received numerous certifications including Bereavement Trauma and Emergency Crisis Response from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She has hosted monthly support groups including Comfort and Conversation for grieving adults and teens and Halo of Love for bereaved parents.

Peggy also served her various hometowns as a firefighter, EMT-B, and Hospice volunteer. She has devoted her time and efforts to making a positive change in the lives of others and reducing the number of suicides that are becoming all too common in the military and first responder communities. She was humbled to receive the Firefighter of the Year award from her Texas fire department.

No stranger to grief, Peggy has experienced grief several times: the sudden death of her dad in 1975, the slow death of her mother to illness in 2002, the death of her baby brother 24 hours after his birth when she was 12 years old, the suicide death of my 49-year-old brother-in-law, and years of waiting for my estranged son to contact his family. But the most painful grief I have felt is the death of my baby due to an ectopic pregnancy. 

You may contact Peggy if you have a question or wish to suggest a topic of interest. peggy@sweeneyalliance.org

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