Emergency department staff deal with a lot of stressful situations. We kind of get used to it, after a while, so most of it doesn’t get to us. Only rarely is something so emotionally traumatic that it really rocks the whole department and each staff member personally. Let me tell you about what I think if one of the most stressful things we encounter in our job.
As I was walking in for my shift, there was a huge commotion going on in Room 6A. I quickly learned they were trying to resuscitate a nine-month old baby boy who had been found unresponsive at home by family members.
I put down my ice chest and Timbuk2 bag and slipped in to see if there was something I could do to help. It is hard for me to adequately describe what was going on. This is as stressful a situation as arises in the emergency department. A baby is dead or trying to die. Everyone is doing everything possible to save a little life with so much potential. Every thing that needs to be done on such a little thing is more difficult than in most adults. IVs are hard to start. The breathing tube is hard to get into such a little windpipe. CPR is difficult to do correctly. It is really challenging and the stress brings appropriate emotions to the surface.
At the bedside were two emergency physicians, an emergency medicine resident (specialist in training,) and two pediatricians. In addition, there were nurses, emergency department technicians, clerks, radiology technicians, and other curious staff. At one point, I counted thirty-two people in the room. I then walked out into the hall and counted sixteen more there, mostly cops and paramedics. You can imagine what a crazy scene that is and that nothing else was going on in any other part of the emergency department.
The team worked well together but, in spite of all of their efforts, there was no response and no signs of life. The resuscitative efforts were ended. That left the emergency physicians with the painful job of telling the family their baby was dead, which is one of the hardest things we ever have to do.
After the shift ended, those caring for the baby had a debriefing session where they could talk about things a bit and make sure everyone was OK. Since we almost never find that necessary, this illustrates how unusual and stressful a baby’s death is for us in the emergency department.
In deaths that are obviously from natural causes, we encourage family members to come see the patient before the body is carried off to the morgue. But in situations like this, there is always the suspicion of non-accidental death so the police treat everything like a crime scene. They won’t let any family members near the baby. That makes it really hard for the family and also for staff to start to come to a resolution. It is really tough.
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