Apparently, I still have a relatively low threshold for being grossed out. Especially when so-called “gross out factor” is innocently paired with “the element of surprise.” When I walk into the trauma room I know, more or less, what to expect. A rush of adrenaline, perhaps a shocking sight, something to brace myself for. If I scour deep into my heart of hearts I am still stunned to find myself in the profession of nursing. I never saw myself in medicine, and it is not without a degree of disbelief that I find myself in one of the busiest ERs in the most populous city in the country. I am happy to be here, but I still feel like I have to prove that it’s not a wild dream to someone (maybe myself.) So, when I walk into the trauma room, along with my gloves, I also don a mask. It is a figurative shield of pseudo-bravery, utter calmness and serenity. Inside, my heart might be pounding and I may be thinking shitshitshit, but no one wants to see that on the outside.
However, I can’t pull on that protective mask if I don’t have a moment of fair warning.
I tried out my first 12-hour night shift the other day. I was paired with a wonderful preceptor, one who has many years of experience under her belt, and has oriented a plethora of new grad and recent-hires. She was very kind, no-funny-business, and utterly confident in my abilities. I did my best to live up to her expectations. I ignored my typical self-doubt and plowed ahead. The night sped by, hours melting away as I focused on remembering my patients, honing my skills, and keeping the facts straight. I assessed, I gave meds, I started IVs, I charted. Our partner on the team took “lunch,” so we took her patients. All along, my preceptor helped me organize my tasks, but took a background role to my work. Soon I realized that I was functioning more autonomously than I ever had before. Granted, I wasn’t flying completely solo, but I hadn’t crashed and burned either. I glanced at our chart rack and realized that I was caring for 12 patients. Twelve! I knew a little bit about each one, and what they needed from me. I felt pretty darn good.
Of course, my very next patient threw me a total curve-ball. A slimy, puss-laden softball. My preceptor told me to go assess a new patient that we had just picked up. There was a scant note from triage about a foot infection, and that he had left AMA (against medical advice) from another local hospital that very same day. She told me to get a history and help the patient remove his clothing and socks. I went in. I blanched at the smell. I stoically held my breath and put on my gloves. Our patient had already urinated in the bed and soiled his clothing. He was incontinent, but not because he was old, just because he didn’t care. I struggled to help pull his double-layer of sweat pants off; he didn’t help me. Suddenly, the fabric came free and I stumbled back a step, sweats in hand, along with one sock. What I saw made me gasp. No time to pull on the straight face. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the gist of it was a VERY fresh, and VERY infected total metatarsal amputation. I soon found out that the infection was osteomyelitis and the prior hospital had tried its full arsenal of antibiotics to treat it, with no success. Gingerly, I pulled off the second sock. My gift was a big toe amputation, in a stage of healing that looked much better off than the other foot, but certainly not pretty. The patient was not friendly, refused care, and stunk. I am embarrassed to say that I avoided his room whenever possible that night. He wasn’t a fun patient to treat, but he is one I will most certainly remember. It reminded me that I am still quite new, I am not an old hat in this business, and I can still feel shocked and grossed out. In fact, maybe I always will. It’s a spectrum, and my gross-out quotient has already improved dramatically. Maybe one day an infected TMA won’t even make me blink. Maybe, but somehow I doubt it.