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Death on the Iob ByEric Cohen
was changing the sheets on an
emergency room cot. It's one of
the only things they let me do
during my emergency room clini-
cal training as an EMT-Basic. I
savored the experience - cleaning
was a welcome break from stand-
ing around and waiting for a nurse
to order me around.
But then a paramedic saw my
EMT student uniform and gave me
a heads up about a cardiac arrest
that was en route to the emergen-
cy room. "Hey chief, there's a code
blue coming into Trauma Room 2,
you should get in there!"
When I walked into Trauma
Room 2, there were three doctors,
two residents, three nurses and
two emergency room technicians.
We all stood around an empty bed,
awaiting the arrival of the ambu-
lance and the patient.
"You're on compressions," the
leading doctor said to me. OK, I
thought, no problem. I'm certified
for this - 100 compressions per
minute. Just sing "Stayin' Alive"
by the Bee Gees in your head, and
compress at the rate that Barry
Gibb sings, "Ah, ha, ha, ha...." Let
your training take over.
The doctors were talking among
themselves, something about "the
eight ball." One of the techs was
trying to make idle conversation
with me. I wasn't listening to her.
When the paramedics brought
the patient into the room, the first
thing I noticed was the smell of
vomit. It was caked in his hair,
around his neck, down his chest.
He looked like Paul Bunyan with
his heavy work boots, jeans and a
plaid, flannel shirt. His brown hair
was a thick, curly mop.
Suddenly I was standing above
him, my hands between his nip-
ples. I thrust the bottom of my left
palm straight into his heart 100
times per minute. It wasn't like it
was on the training mannequin.
The mannequin didn't come with a
breakable ribcage. "Ah, ha, ha, ha,
stayin' alive, stayin' alive."
This time, though, John Tra-
volta wasn't busting a move and
there was no stayin' alive. There
was only a 20-year-old college
kid artificially pumping a stopped
heart in vain.
What they don't tell you in the
movies is that CPR works about
five percent of the time - on a
good day - when you begin imme-
diately after the heart stops. This
man had collapsed 30 minutes
prior to me beginning compres-
I tried to focus on what the
doctors were doing - after all, I
want to be an ER doctor one day.
was movement all around "Time of death, 22:23" was all I
doctors shouted at each heard. I'm sorry, Paul Bunyan.
looked at ultrasound moni- "Good compressions," a resident
tarted IV's, checked pupil said tome.
ity and filled big needles "Yeah, great compressions.
edicine. I was at the center Damn, did you feel his spine?" the
chaos, essentially pump- main doctor said.
s man's defective heart for A nurse joked, "Hey, Eric, need
that he wouldn't be brain- some new shoes? This guy's boots
rom oxygen deprivation if are nice."
ctors were somehow able to The paramedic who had brought
the guy in needed a signature so he
could return to his ambulance, "I
M y first don't think this patient can sign at
the moment," he said.
icounter with Their morbid sense of humor
sickened me, but this was the first
patient who time I had seen a person die. This
was just another Friday night for
ildn't be saved them.
I tried to act like I wasn't both-
ered by the situation. I want to
be an ER doctor one day, and this
his heart, was just a standard cardiac arrest,
arging... CLEAR THE right? I washed and scrubbed my
NT!" I heard. shaking hands and arms up to the
patient's body jumped six elbow, but I couldn't stop think-
into the air as electricity ing about the dead body on the bed
d through his.heart in an behind me. According to what the
t to restore some sort of car- patient's friends told the paramed-
ythm. It didn't work, and I ics, he had woken up that morning,
l the compressions again. dressed himself, gone to work and
yes were vacant, glassy. I donated blood. Now he was at St.
't understand anything the Joseph's Emergency Room, dead
s were saying, even though at 29 years old.
ed to. I thought to myself, what if we
had saved him? What if, just like
in the movies, the EKG machine
started beep-beep-beeping with
a viable heartbeat right after we
Then, suddenly, the pieces
snapped together. I realized that I
wasn't upset and terrified because
I couldn't handle such a serious,
frightening situation. I was upset
because, for the first time in my
young life, I was part of saving
someone's life - and we failed.
This terrified me, but it also legiti-
mized my work as a pre-med stu-
I don't enjoy preparing for
the MCAT or studying when my
friends aren't. Medical school is
a four-year gauntlet of stress and
debt. I've been told a dozen times,
"If you're considering any career
path other than medicine,' do
And yet I've never been more
willing to dedicate myself to being
a physician. I would have the skills
and knowledge to be in charge of
an emergency situation. I'm not
naive enough to expect to save
everyone, but if failing feels this
abysmal, then saving a life must be
extraordinary. And that's worth
-Eric Cohen is an LSA junior
OF THE YEAR