FeaturED Nurse Spotlight

When the Line Between Nurse and Loved One is Blurred

December 13th, 2003. The night that is forever etched within my brain. I was working a 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift that night in an ED I had only been working for 3 months I really loved emergency and specialized in trauma nursing. To this date, I remember exactly what I was doing prior to THAT call coming over our radio. I was finishing up paperwork on a medical-surgical admission and the tech was getting ready to transport my patient upstairs.

A crackle over the radio always gets our attention, because we never know what is coming in next. I was standing over by the copier, finishing up my paperwork. “Yeah, this is MFD, and just a heads-up call…but we are going on the scene to two officers’ shot from MPD…just wanted to let you know.” Ok, this is completely horrible. My stomach IMMEDIATELY dropped to my feet. The feeling that I had was similar to that which you feel at the top of a roller coaster ride. Only this particular feeling had absolutely no joy, no excitement or feeling of anxiety, only one of fear, loathing and complete disbelief. At this point in time, I had no idea where Bryan was, or if this was his beat where the two officers were shot. I recall one of my last thoughts…Oh my God, IT CAN’T BE HIM. My co-workers immediately looked at me and I must have had some bizarre look on my face.

Ok…keep calm.

Refocus and redirect your thoughts, this is just something minor, I am a happy newlywed and all my hopes and dreams are finally coming true. We are fixing up the house so that my mom can come from California and have a fantastic visit over the holidays. We just cut down our Christmas tree the other day. Bryan couldn’t get the smile off his face as he picked it up and slung it over his shoulder like it weighed two pounds. When we got home, we put up Bryan’s Gordie Howe ornament and he was so excited.

Back to reality.

My co-workers were torn between getting prepared for a major trauma, calling the blood bank and reassuring me. I still remember one nurse saying to me, “It’s not him. There is no way.” She told me with such confidence that I truly believed her. WHY is he not answering his phone at such a crucial moment? So, I decided to hang up and try again. The same thing happened; it rolled over to his voicemail. Well, this is where rational thought kicked in. I thought that he’s probably on the scene of whatever horrific crime just took place and I know he is helping out. That was what Bryan did as a cop. He helped out, and he ALWAYS backed up his fellow officer. Even if he were “off-duty” in his marked squad car he would back up a fellow law enforcement officer. Ask any good cop, there technically is no such thing as “off-duty”. I had no doubt in my brain that he was at his fellow officers’ side at this critical time. All time seemed to slow down, and the clock was dragging. I couldn’t get a hold of him on his cell phone.

This was ridiculous; I could not stand waiting any longer. I decided to call dispatch and verify that my husband was not the one that got shot. I called and a female voice, unknown to me answered, “Hello?” “Hi, this is Bryan’s wife; it’s not him is it?” I asked tentatively. “Hold on, one moment,” she replied. What? Did she just put me on hold? My stomach immediately did a dive towards my feet, again. I felt as if my life were going down a huge downward spiral, and I really didn’t know the depth of where it was going, where it was taking me or what events were really transpiring in this moment. Time … again the clock was slowing down, laughing at me. In what was more than likely a minute or two (but what seemed like eons), she came back on the line. “Can you get to the hospital?” an unknown female voice asked me. “I AM AT THE HOSPITAL,” I raised my voice in nervousness, fear, anxiety and everything in between. I think I let out some kind of primal scream at this point. I don’t remember hanging up the phone; I don’t recall saying anything else. This person had just confirmed every cop’s wife’s worst nightmare, never mind the emergency/trauma nurse inside of me that had seen and treated well over a hundred gunshot wound victims. I knew that depending on where he was shot, that his injuries could be life-threatening or that he could be just hit in his 22-inch bicep.

In my mind, I pictured him coming in sitting on the gurney chatting with the paramedics, smiling and laughing. I decided that the latter idea was definitely what was going to happen. As a law enforcement officer, my husband was extremely street smart. This was not happening, NO WAY, NO HOW. He could defend himself and I knew that he was smart enough to get himself out of any bad situation. This was NOT happening to him, to me, to US.

This is so completely unfair!

We were just becoming an “us”. We had just bought a house in January and gotten married in May. I remember hearing all of the familiarity of preparing for a trauma. I couldn’t understand why the ER doc on duty was telling the clerk to call for O negative blood, or why she was instructing for someone to get the general vascular surgeon on-call to the hospital ASAP. What is going on? I don’t understand this scene. Why are they doing all of this for a gunshot wound to Bryan’s arm? I guess you could say that that sneaky little thing called denial slinked like a snake into my thoughts in order to protect my brain from my heart.

At this time, the trauma team was setting up for the worst-case scenario. My brain was completely out of nursing mode, with no regard for what was going on in the trauma room. I was as detached from the nursing aspect as someone could possibly be. I was a wife at this point, not a trauma nurse.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the siren speeding into our ambulance bay. I remember looking up and seeing the light bar flashing red on top of the ambulance that my husband was in.

Instead of seeing him sitting up, holding his right bicep as I had imagined, he was lying flat on the gurney. The paramedic pushing the gurney was holding the Ambu bag, which was attached to Bryan’s endotracheal tube. To make matters worse, the other paramedic was doing CPR. His skin color was worse than pale, he was the color of a white sheet. WHAT? WHY is he doing CPR? My husband rolled by me and I almost fell flat on my face from shock. I caught myself, barely. I don’t remember anything about anything. Did he just roll by me dead? Ironically, one of the paramedics that brought Bryan in was a personal friend of ours. The next thing I know, I was asked if I wanted to come into the trauma room as they were working on Bryan. I, of course, said yes.

The first thing I remember seeing is his left sock was half on and half off of his foot. The other thing that I noticed was his color. It was a pale alabaster that I had seen associated with death one too many times. This was it; my husband was basically dead before my very eyes. I knelt down at the head of the gurney and I began to cry. I started to rub his shaved head with my hands, and I whispered ‘I love you’ over and over in his ear. His chest was going up and down as chest compressions were still taking place. I remember a nurse saying that one of his veins had blown, and the ER doctor was trying to put in a central line for better venous access. However, his veins were all flattened from being in a shock for so long, and it was difficult for the physician to gain access. I remember that someone from the lab was kind enough to think of the hard floor and she brought me a pillow to put under my knees. Years later, I will always remember her kindness.

There was staff everywhere around Bryan trying to valiantly save my husbands’ life. Bryan’s parents and his brother were over standing in the corner, crying. I looked up at the heart monitor and the only thing that I saw were spikes from the cardiac compressions that were being done. There was absolutely no heart activity. I remember looking at his is chest film that was up on the x-ray box. His left lung was full of blood. I knew it was his chest x-ray because the outline of the St. Michael pendant that I gave him in the shape of a badge was partially in the picture. I was led up to the hospital surgery waiting area. I thought that I should call my mom, my aunt and my uncle. My emergency department director who came into the hospital from home had already called my brother and his fiancée.

I remember looking around the waiting room, and by this time, my brother and his wife were there. My brother’s head was down, and I could see that he was sobbing. I went over to him and hugged him. I still thought that maybe there was a chance at this point because my mind was not allowed to override my heart. Some of my co-workers and friends who had heard over the scanner what had progressed came over to me. I locked myself in the bathroom with several of them because I was so sick and tired of everyone staring at me in the waiting room. I assured them that the surgeon was going to cross-clamp his aorta, and magically retrieve the bullet from his left ventricle, sew him up and he would regain his blood pressure, and all would be fine.

Not so, I would later find out.

We finally emerged from the bathroom and, eventually, the trauma surgeon came out of the OR suite. Looking at his face, I knew. The facts that my mind would not allow my heart to believe were beating down on me now. He started his speech with ‘we tried everything’ and I don’t remember what else he said. He wiped a tear away from his eye as he spoke to me. All eyes were on us as he spoke with me. When he had finished speaking to me, I thanked him for doing everything that he could. All I wanted to do was see him. Let me see him already so I can confirm that this nightmare is actually beginning. He told me that the staff would come and get me when I could go back. I went back into the PACU and I saw Bryan lying there on the gurney, motionless, pale and when I felt his hand, his skin was cool to touch.

I knew the temperature of his hand was too cold to be alive. I had taken care of patients post-mortem for over fifteen years. The fact that my husband’s hand was as cold as death did not compute. It simply didn’t make sense to me. The breathing tube was still in his mouth, and there was tape around it. I thought his teeth were so white and beautiful. I wanted to rip that tube out and pretend that he was okay. His right hand had writing on it. He always wrote down calls on his hand, much the same way that I wrote a report from the paramedics on my glove in the ER. I thought in this moment I would take one last moment to touch him before everyone else came in. In reality, I wanted to crawl on the cart next to him and hold him. The last time I saw him, he was sleeping in our bed on his stomach, his right-hand kind of falling off the edge of the bed. I debated waking him before I left for work. I knew that he had done some last-minute Christmas shopping and that he got in bed well after 10 a.m. Since it was approximately 2:40 p.m., I decided not to wake him since he had to work the night shift again tonight. I will always remember the last picture of him asleep in our bed, as that was the last time I saw my husband alive. Moments like this will always live on in my brain. It’s almost liked a snapshot in time, emblazoned in my brain and underneath this particular photo it would say, “The last time I saw him alive”.

Since that night traumatically has passed, I have gone on to move through my grief journey and started my nursing career over in essence. I have since gone on to earn two master’s degrees (Master of Science in Nursing and Master of Forensic Science) one more BCEN certification (TCRN). I moved from the Midwest to San Diego, California after this all happened approximately 10.5 months after my husband was shot and killed in the Line of Duty. There was no way that I could start over where he died. Every time I went to the store, people asked me if I was related to the officer that was murdered. I looked for him in every local cop car. It was all too much. For the longest time, I considered leaving nursing completely, because my husband died on my watch. As I began to heal, I realized that there was nothing I could have done and that he would not want me to lose my career over his death.

Today, I am one year into my Doctor of Nursing Practice studies in Executive Management and Leadership. I have continued on my lifelong learning journey and I am grateful that the human mind has the innate ability to heal after such a traumatic life-altering event. I know that Bryan would be proud of me today.