As a profession, nursing usually carries with it long shifts, achy backs, disrupted sleep patterns, and an unusual amount of physical, mental, and emotional stress. While nurses make a comfortable living, the vast majority of nurses agree the wages don’t line up with the stress and responsibility level. Still, 3.8 million of us put on our scrubs each day and punch in to be there for complete strangers when they are having the worst day of their lives. Everyone finds their own motivation for working in this hectic and oftentimes thankless line of work. For me, the biggest reward is when I know beyond any doubt that I have made an impact on another person. This is never more true than when you play a part in saving a life.
Before I became a nurse, I worked as an EMT with a local fire department. We were a 911-only agency and I would respond to an average of 5-10 calls per shift, ranging anywhere from car accidents to heart attacks, childbirths to “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Of the many memorable calls to which I responded during my 7 years as an EMT, the one that always puts me in my feel-goods when I reminisce took place on a warm, sunny Sunday morning in June. Our truck was dispatched to a call for a man down.
I was brand new with the department AND brand new as an EMT, so I was riding as a third man on the ambulance along with our driver and crew chief. Our call was for an unconscious man in his front yard. While en route, central dispatch updated us that the man was not breathing, had no pulse, and CPR was being performed by a neighbor. From my seat in the back of the ambulance, I could feel the effect of the update as the accelerator hit the floorboards and all eight cylinders began roaring over the wail of the siren. This was my first cardiac arrest call and I immediately began reviewing the steps of BLS in my head.
When we arrived, I clambered for the AED while my crewmates loaded their shoulders with the jump bag, suction unit, and extra oxygen bottles. We raced up the front lawn of a beautiful two-story house and found the victim and the neighbor in the side yard just a few inches from an iron fence. The victim was a man in his fifties and had been mowing his lawn when he went down hard.
He was actually quite lucky as he had finished the front yard and was moving to the private, fenced-in backyard when he dropped. Had he made it to the secluded backyard, his neighbor would have never seen him fall and no one would have called 911 or started rescue efforts. We jumped into action immediately, my partners began cutting clothes and sticking the AED pads on. Charlie, my mentor, ordered me to set up the Ambu bag and begin respirations.
Tip for beginners: GET COMFORTABLE. Take the extra few seconds to get comfy because, as it would turn out, my position squatting against the iron fence at the patient’s head is where I ended up for the duration of the code.
After a short while, plenty of extra help arrived. Police officers and an engine company rotated performing CPR while my fellow EMTs assisted the paramedics as they obtained an IO line, pushed medications, and delivered shocks with the Lifepack. The medics attempted intubation twice but were unsuccessful. I assured them I had good ventilation and saw chest rise with each squeeze of the Ambu bag.
After a round of CPR, about 25 minutes or so into the code, the paramedics indicated they had ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation, aka the patient had a pulse) and we rolled the patient onto a backboard to carry him. My Ambu bag was still in my grip and I continued to deliver breaths every 6 seconds. With a groan, I unlocked my knees and shoved myself off the fence so I could continue venting the patient as we crossed the lawn to the waiting stretcher.
Loaded and en route to the hospital, I continued to squeeze precious oxygen into my patient’s lungs. It was a few moments into our drive that, amidst the sirens and radio chatter, the discussion of what medications were given and when, I felt resistance. Concerned, I repositioned the patient’s head and tried squeezing again. Looking over toward the patient’s chest, I noticed chest rise. I waited and saw the chest rise again. But I was not squeezing the bag.
“He’s breathing,” I stammered over the controlled chaos in the back of the rig. Everyone stopped. “He’s breathing on his own.”
Life returned to normal in the weeks following this call, up until I returned to the station for a Wednesday evening duty crew and my mentor shook my hand. I’ll never forget the news he passed on to me, that we had saved that man’s life and he was discharged from the hospital, back home, and living his life again with his family. Our crew was being recognized by the township for a job well done.
The best reward from this experience wasn’t the medal pinned to my uniform shirt. It wasn’t even the knowledge that I played a part in saving a life. The reward came a few years later when I decided that working as a chef and restaurant manager wasn’t my path and I signed up for nursing school. Since then, I have saved many more lives and have had the opportunity to brighten the days of even more. I’ve held the hands of people as they’ve had their last breaths just as I’ve been the first to hold a newborn baby. I’ve given a lot to the nursing profession, yet it has given me so much more as it has offered me the opportunity to be there when it counts to make a difference.