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  • Sweating the Small Stuff
  • Tim Cunningham

As an emergency nurse, I often do not notice the small stressors as compared to the loads of intense physical and emotional suffering I witness while working at a level–one–trauma center. The horrendous deaths and injuries caused by gun violence, motorized vehicles, people in emotional distress and those suffering from chronic diseases build up on the mind as a veritable ‘scrapbook of nightmares.’ Emergency providers know, in taking on this profession, that this is ‘all in a day’s work.’ Consequently, we put our selves at risk for emotional burnout as we bear witness to profound suffering while trying to improve lives.

I see the traumas, the end–of–life decision making thrust upon families amidst a medical crisis and the other aspects of emergent suffering as bails of hay, against which I tried to build coping mechanisms in order to experience them but also be able to let go. For the most part I am confident to report that I have been able to work through major traumatic situations without belaboring the emotional residue. What I have failed to notice though are not the bails of hay, but individual straws of which they are made.

A straw that nearly broke my back came to my pediatric emergency room as a 9–year–old girl who was involved in a low speed motor vehicle collision. She was restrained in the passenger seat; and although she was walking at the scene and crying, she was backboarded by EMS and placed in a cervical spine brace. On arrival to our emergency department she presented with normal vital signs and mutation. Her only complaint was diffuse abdominal pain. We preformed a FAST (Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma) exam, which was negative for free abdominal blood. Despite our efforts to make the patient comfortable, we were unable to ease her pain. The patient reported that her pain decreased after we took her off the backboard, but she still did not feel herself.

Our attending and resident physicians decided that this child should have an abdominal computed tomography scan (CT) to rule out organ damage with subsequent bleeding. According to hospital protocol, this decision was within our standards of care. I stood by the family when the physician team discussed the plan of care and noticed the parents’ collective body language, which was troubled. I left the room with the physicians but not long after, the family subtly requested that I speak with them.

The family was concerned about the radiation to which their child would be exposed. At the same time, they too were concerned about her abdominal pain and understood that a CT could confirm serious abdominal injury. They knew the gravity of the worst–case scenario and wanted to do what was best for their child.

The mother asked me if this girl were my child what would I do.

My first thought was: No CT, go home, watch her and return if symptoms worsen. My second thought conflicted with the first as I realized this was instruction that fell out of protocol differing from the opinions of the physician team. I paused before responding and found myself sputtering some pointless information about CT scans and mechanisms of injuries sustained from car accidents—I [End Page E9] was filling space, avoiding their question as I pondered the best answer.

The girl’s parents told me that one was leaning towards the CT and the other against, they wanted my advice to make a decision. They pressed me saying, “What would you do.” Although I felt an uneasiness and nausea in that moment, I told them my truth, which was that I would go home without the CT.

The family appeared relieved and I felt the sensation of stress leaving my body as if I had just taken a deep breath. Contented, but a daughter still with abdominal pain, the family left that evening with specific instructions to watch for adverse symptoms.

In that moment, I felt like I had done the right thing but by the end of my shift I left work questioning my choice. I lost sleep that night because of...


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pp. E9-E11
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