This story is by Natalie Aydin and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Rhonda…he needs oxygen, stat. And make sure that Foley bag is hooked onto the low side of the bed so his urine won’t back up into his kidneys.” Dr. Lane Sterling was directing traffic during the rounds on her shift like a conductor leading an orchestra. Everything had to be timed perfectly. Dr. Sterling had been in motion for 18 consecutive hours, and she still wasn’t done with her job. Even though she was constantly surrounded by people, she oftentimes felt alone in her head.
In some ways, this fiasco was worse than residency. She had 20 patients in the Emergency Room, with more on the way, and her Intensive Care Unit was almost at full capacity. The ICU had 100 beds, and there were literally only five left. Twenty percent of her ICU patients were on vents. All of those had a 50/50 percent chance of survival. You either made it or you didn’t. A real coin toss if there ever was one. All of a sudden, her cell phone went off while she was silently monitoring the most recent E.R. patient.
“Yeah, this is Sterling. What’s up?”
“We need you in the ICU…we’re going to have to intubate Room 111.”
“Okay, I’m on my way.” Sterling rushed towards the Covid unit.
Usually E.R. docs didn’t really have much interaction with the ICU. But ever since Covid had hit, it was all hands on deck. You had to be flexible. Before she went into the patient’s room, Sterling found a sink near the nurse’s station where she could wash her hands. Then, she put on shoe covers. Next came the gown, then the mask, then her face shield, and lastly her gloves. By the time she had doffed all the necessary gear, her team was already waiting in the room for her to perform the intubation.
“The patient has been anesthetized,” the head nurse blurted out. Sterling began to insert the tube from the mouth to the trachea, so the patient would breathe to the rhythm of the lung machine. This would ensure the woman didn’t try to breathe on her own, and, as such, work against the machine. The patient would be given sedatives and painkillers continually to make sure she could tolerate intubation as long as the ventilator was needed. This would basically put her into an artificial coma so she didn’t panic.
After the procedure, Sterling scanned the entire room, making sure everything was in proper order. Offhand, she mentioned, “Gina…don’t forget to start the patient on IV hyperalimentation.” Lane sighed. This patient was probably going to have a long, lonely road to recovery. Silently, Sterling hoped the woman wouldn’t have to be on the ventilator long. Typically the longer a patient was on the vent, the less likely chance there was for survival.
All of a sudden, Sterling’s phone went off. “Yep. Sterling here.”
“Come to the E.R., stat. Code Blue.”
“What’s up?” Gina asked.
“Code Blue in the E.R., everybody. Sorry, gotta run!”
And, before she knew it–after taking off all her PPE hastily, but in proper order, then trashing it –Sterling was rushing back towards the E.R.
“What are her numbers?” The paramedic was performing CPR with the EMT-Basic pretty aggressively in a tag team when Sterling got there.
“A 54-year-old woman–her BP shot up to 182/123, and her Pulse Ox was 40% just a few minutes ago. She’s breathing, but no pulse.”
Sterling and Rhonda took over CPR.
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, Sterling announced, “We’ve got a pulse!”–smiling through her exhaustion. “Back online.”
After waiting around awhile to make sure the patient was stable, Sterling clocked out and sauntered over to the cafeteria for a plain cheeseburger and a can of soda. Honestly, you just never knew what was coming next. Before she could take a bite of her burger, her cell phone went off. She took a small sip of soda and then answered before the second ring.
“This is Sterling.”
“We’ve got two incoming gunshot wound victims. Get over here, stat!”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
Sterling left her meal on the table without even bothering to throw it away. No time! She ran towards the E.R. like her life depended on it.
As soon as the doors of the E.R. opened, Sterling sprinted over to the first bay.
Patient #1, a 20-something male, was bleeding from the leg. She could not stop the bleeding–the bullet probably got his femoral artery, she figured. What complicated things was that Patient #1 also had a gunshot wound to the stomach–very vascular. She tried to patch him up as best she could, considering the fact that he had yet another gunshot wound to the chest. However, his wound to the stomach was actually more severe in a way, because he was hemorrhaging from his middle.
“I need blood!”
Patient #1’s blood pressure was dropping. “He’s going into shock…get Johanssen.”
Dr. Johanssen was there in a flash. “Hey, Lane…what’s up?”
“He’s gonna die on me…can you take over? I have to see how the next patient is doing. I sutured his stomach, but his leg won’t stop bleeding and he’s got a bullet wound to the chest.”
Sterling moved to the next E.R. bay. Patient #2 had taken two bullets to the chest–a woman, early 30s. She was in cardiac arrest. After a brief assessment, Sterling decided she was going to have to perform emergency thoracic surgery.
First, Sterling and her team intubated the patient, put her on a vent, and started all the necessary IVs. She would’ve sterilized the area to be cut, but again, there was no time. After making some initial incisions, Sterling used her Lebsche knife to get through the sternum, and then opened the patient’s chest cavity wider with the rib-spreader. After she checked for any pooling of blood, she repaired some relatively minor cardiac injuries. Next, Sterling performed some internal cardiac compressions, and cross-clamped the aorta. Then the coup de grâce came, as she realized she was going to have to collapse and compress this young woman’s lung to save her.
By the time Sterling had gotten Patient #2 all stitched up and stabilized, Dr. Johanssen was done working on Patient #1.
“How did it go?” Sterling asked, bracing herself for the worst.
“He didn’t make it.”
Sterling put a hand up to her mouth. “Oh, man…I’m sorry, Vic. I know you did everything you possibly could’ve.”
“Considering the circumstances–”
“Yeah, he was bleeding out all over. Thanks for taking over. I think that young
lady’s actually got a chance, though…” Sterling trailed off.
“How long have you been here?”
“It makes 24 hours in five seconds,” she joked, looking at the second-hand on her watch.
“Why don’t you clock out and get some rest? Must’ve been a helluva day, for you.”
“Ugh, you can say that again. I’m out, Vic. Peace!” Sterling gave Dr. Johanssen an elbow bump, and then headed straight for the exit.
Later on, Sterling was curled up with a glass of sparkling grape juice on her couch, pretending like it was alcohol. Lane literally never drank, mainly in order to stay sharp on the job. Every few minutes or so, she’d have some cheese on a cracker and then wash it down with the grape juice. No one was there but just her. She reflected on the events of her day briefly, and all of a sudden just felt very alone–hopeless, like there were no other humans on the planet. What a day! In this moment, Lane felt literally every emotion, but all she could do was weep.
After crying, though, she felt better. Lane had the next two days off, and now all she could think about was going for a run in the morning after having a light breakfast. Soon enough, though, she was in a deep sleep, comatose on the couch until the bright morning sun broke through her window.