Working in the medical profession, especially in Emergency Services, can be emotionally traumatic. You'll see things you've never even imagined possible. These medical workers, including doctors and nurses, made it through these harrowing experiences to be able to tell the tales to us. Maybe they wish they could forget these intense times in the E.R. or on the ambulance, but in the end, they're stronger for it.
Smokey And The Bandage
“I’m a physician scribe who is essentially an errand boy for ER physicians. I had been working for about two weeks when I got a call saying a VSA was coming in (vital signs absent). This was my first VSA. Usually, when this happens, we only get the patient’s age and a one or two-word explanation of what happened (stroke, heart attack, etc.). In this case, it was a burn.
I’ll never forget when this guy was brought into the room by EMS. My initial reaction was, ‘What is that?!’ The guy was completely head-to-toe red and black. He had been smoking at home with the gas on and fell asleep and was burned alive. They recovered his pulse but his blood gasses indicated he would be dead within the hour, so there was nothing to do for him, unfortunately.
When I went in to get a closer look at him I saw his skin on his hands was falling off like an insect might shed its skin. The rest of his body was covered in blisters, but probably the most disturbing thing was the smell. The entire emergency department smelled like a smokey fireplace for the rest of the day. Poor guy was only 40 or something too. Put a lot into perspective.”
Be Careful With Over-The-Counter-Meds
“I had a lady with TEN (toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome) a rare, aggressive substance reaction where your skin starts to separate and slip off your body.
I was helping the nurse wrap her up. I picked up her arm and the skin ripped at the bicep and slipped off like a wet sock.
I was horrified. The top of her tongue and the bottom of her feet also slid off later.
Bonus? It was a reaction to Tylenol.”
That’s No Baby…
“As a paramedic, I responded to a call of ‘traffic accident, baby ejected.’ We prepared for the worst we could imagine. I arrived in about 8 minutes and there was a trooper on scene trying to clear the area of bystanders and preserve the scene. He had covered the ‘baby’ with the yellow death-sheet troopers carry in their trunks. When we lifted the sheet to check vitals/pronounce death, and it was not a baby, but the top half of the 19-year-old girl that was driving the small pickup truck about 50 yards away.
She was driving and arguing with her 19-year-old husband who was the passenger. They were doing about 55mph on a two-lane road and met an oncoming truck pulling a doublewide mobile home. She ran under the front corner of the mobile home, cutting her in half. Her bottom half remained in the driver’s seat, while her unhurt husband watched as the truck then skidded another 50-60 yards, sideswiping a minivan, sending it into the ditch upside down. It looked like a movie set. Her top and bottom looked unhurt. The husband was absolutely freaking out about what he had just seen. He was babbling incoherently, running around swinging at people, just a mess. A witness who lived right in front of the scene started having chest pains and had to be transported. We took the husband, and I called medical control and actually got orders to give him IV benzodiazepines, something paramedics normally can only give for grand-mal seizures. The driver of the big truck was fine but was also very, very distraught at what he had just witnessed. That was 16 years ago, and I can still remember pulling up to that scene like it was yesterday.”
The Swamps Of Dagobah
“I was taking call one night and woke up at two in the morning for a ‘general surgery’ call. Pretty vague, but at the time, I lived in a town that had large populations of young military guys and avid speed users, so late-night emergencies were common.
Got to the hospital, where a few more details awaited me — ‘Perirectal abscess.’ For the uninitiated, this means that somewhere in the immediate vicinity of the butthole, there was a pocket of pus that needed draining. Needless to say, our entire crew was less than thrilled.
I went down to the Emergency Room to transport the patient, and the only thing the ER nurse said as she handed me the chart was, ‘Have fun with this one.’ Amongst healthcare professionals, vague statements like that are a bad sign.
My patient was a 314lb Native American woman who barely fit on the stretcher I was transporting her on. She was rolling frantically side to side and moaning in pain, pulling at her clothes and muttering Hail Mary’s. I could barely get her name out of her after a few minutes of questioning, so after I confirmed her identity and what we were working on, I figured it was best just to get her to the anesthesiologist so we could knock her out and get this circus started.
She continued her theatrics during the entire ten-minute ride to the O.R., nearly falling off the surgical table as we were trying to put her under anesthetic. We see patients like this a lot, though, including chronic substance abusers who don’t handle pain well and who have used so many narcotics that even increased levels of pain medication don’t touch simply because of high tolerance levels.
It should be noted, tonight’s surgical team was not exactly wet behind the ears. I’d been working in healthcare for several years already, mostly psych and medical settings. The other nurse had been in the OR as a trauma specialist for over ten years; the anesthesiologist had done a residency at a Level 1 trauma center. The surgeon was ex-Army and averaged about eight words and two facial expressions a week.
We got the lady off to sleep, put her into the stirrups, and I began washing off the rectal area. It was red and inflamed but it was all pretty standard. Her chart had noted that she’d been injecting needles through her perineum, so this was obviously an infection from dirty needles or bad substances, but overall, it didn’t seem to warrant her repeated cries of ‘Oh Jesus, kill me now.’
The surgeon steps up with a scalpel, sinks just the tip in, and at the exact same moment, the patient had a muscle twitch in her diaphragm, and just like that, all heck broke loose.
Unbeknownst to us, the infection had actually tunneled nearly a foot into her abdomen, creating a vast cavern full of pus, rotten tissue, and fecal matter that had seeped outside of her colon. This godforsaken mixture came rocketing out of that little incision like we were recreating the funeral scene from Jane Austen’s ‘Mafia!’
We all wear waterproof gowns, face masks, gloves, hats, the works — all of which were as helpful was rainboots against a firehose. The bed was in the middle of the room, an easy seven feet from the nearest wall, but by the time we were done, I was still finding bits pasted against the back wall. As the surgeon continued to advance his blade, the torrent just continued. The patient kept seizing against the ventilator (not uncommon in surgery), and with every muscle contraction, she shot more of this brackish gray-brown fluid out onto the floor until, within minutes, it was seeping into the other nurse’s shoes.
I was nearly twelve feet away, jaw dropped open within my surgical mask, watching the second nurse dry-heaving and the surgeon standing on tip-toes to keep this stuff from soaking his socks any further. The smell hit them first. ‘Oh god, I just threw up in my mask!’ The other nurse was out; she tore off her mask and sprinted out of the room, shoulders still heaving. Then it hit me, mouth still wide open, not able to believe the volume of fluid this woman’s body contained. The anesthesiologist went down next, an ex-NCAA D1 tailback, his six-foot-two frame shaking as he threw open the door to the OR suite in an attempt to get more air in, letting me glimpse the second nurse still throwing up in the sinks outside the door. Another geyser splashed across the front of the surgeon. The YouTube clip of ‘David at the dentist’ keeps playing in my head—‘Is this real life?’
In all operating rooms, one thing the same: there is a bottle of peppermint concentrate. Everyone in the department knows where it is, everyone knows what it is for, and everyone prays to the gods they never have to use it. In times like this, we rub it on the inside of our masks to keep the outside smells at bay long enough to finish the procedure and shower off.
I sprinted to our central supply, ripping open the drawer where this vial of ambrosia was kept and was greeted by—an empty box. The bottle had been emptied and not replaced. Somewhere out there was a godless heathen who had used the last of the peppermint oil, and not replaced a single drop of it.
I darted back into the room with the next best thing I can find — a vial of Mastisol, which is an adhesive rub we use sometimes for bandaging. It’s not as good as peppermint, but considering that over one-third of the floor was now thoroughly coated in what could easily be mistaken for a combination of bovine after-birth and maple syrup, we were out of options.
I started rubbing as much of the Mastisol as I could get on the inside of my mask, just glad to be smelling anything except whatever slimy demon spawn we’d just cut out of this woman. The anesthesiologist grabbed the vial next, dowsing the front of his mask in it so he could stand next to his machines long enough to make sure this woman didn’t die on the table. It wasn’t until later that we realized that Mastisol can give you a mild high from huffing it like this, but in retrospect, that’s probably what got us through.
By this time, the smell had permeated out of our OR suite, and down the forty-foot hallway to the front desk, where the other nurse still sat, eyes bloodshot and watery, clenching her stomach desperately. Our suite looked like the underground river of ooze from Ghostbusters II, except dirty. Oh so dirty.
I stepped back into the OR suite, not wanting to leave the surgeon by himself in case he genuinely needed help. It was like one of those overly-artistic representations of a zombie apocalypse you see on fan-forums. Here’s this one guy, in blue surgical garb, standing nearly ankle deep in lumps of dead tissue, fecal matter, and several liters of syrupy infection. I finished my required paperwork as quickly as I could, helped him stuff the recently-vacated opening full of gauze, taped this woman’s buttocks closed to hold the dressing for as long as possible, woke her up, and immediately shipped off to the recovery ward.
Until then, I’d only heard of ‘isopropyl showers.’ It turns out 70% isopropyl is about the only thing that can even touch a scent like that once it’s soaked into your skin. It takes four or five bottles to get really clean, but it’s worth it. It’s probably the only scenario I can honestly endorse drinking a little of it, too.
As we left the locker room, the surgeon and I looked at each other, and he said the only negative sentence I heard him utter in two and a half years of working together:
‘That was bad.’
The next morning the entire department (a fairly large floor within the hospital) still smelled. The housekeepers told me later that it took them nearly an hour to suction up all of the fluid and debris left behind. The OR suite itself was closed off and quarantined for two more days just to let the smell finally clear out.
I laugh now when I hear new recruits to health care talk about the worst thing they’ve seen. You ain’t seen nothing, kid.”
You, Sir, Are An Optimist
“EMT here – A husband and wife were riding a Harley on the freeway at 70 mph. Hot day. Husband was wearing leather chaps, leather jacket, and full helmet. The wife was riding on the back in jeans, a small half-shell helmet, and a bikini top. The wife fainted, fell off the motorcycle, and rolled. She had multiple broken bone and internal injuries. There was road rash over most of her body. But the thing that sticks with me: both of her ‘girls’ were ripped off her chest.
I was in the ambulance bay when the husband rolled up with a couple other Harleys. Heard him talking on the phone to someone saying, ‘Yeah… she fell off the back of the bike. I think she’s going to be OK though.’ Uh, no… she isn’t.”
“I went on a police ride-along once, and we responded to a collision on the highway at about 2:00 AM. For the previous two hours, I had stayed either inside or just near the car for serious calls. This time, I recognized my friend’s boyfriend who was a paramedic already on the scene, so I approached. I didn’t want to distract him or anyone else who was working, so I just stood and watched him work on one of the victims.
I don’t know whether the man was the driver, passenger, or passerby, but his eyes were wide open and darting around, and he was red with blood from his neck to his knees. My friend’s boyfriend calmly picked up what looked like a pile of wet laundry (it was the man’s insides), place it in his lap, and softly said to him, ‘You’re not going to live.’ All the breath left my body when I heard him say that. Somehow, it was clear that he meant it as something tender and human-to-human in the last moments of this man’s life, but it chills me, and that’s all I think about when we’re talking.”
There Will Be Blood
“I work in a mental health institution. Somebody pulled their bedside alarm. I was the first person to respond and it was in a patient’s bedroom. Blood. Lots of it and everywhere—on the ceiling, walls, floor, bed—everywhere. I looked at the patient and I saw that his ear was on his shoulder.
It turned out that he had slammed his head in the door so hard, so many times that he had peeled his ear away from his head and it was holding on just above his shoulder attached by a little bit of skin. I can still see it clearly in my mind, even after five years.”
Digging For Gold
“I used to be a nurse’s aide. I once had to put a very obese woman on the bedpan (she was only mid-40’s) and I left. She put her call light on, and when I answered, she said she was all done. I turn her on her side to remove the bedpan only to see that it is empty.
My first thought was that she had been mistaken about having pooped. But then I look and realize that her butt cheeks were so massive her entire dump couldn’t make it the length of her cheeks and had gotten wedged in between them. I had to dig the entire load out of her as by hand. It was only about two months into the job, and it gave me some serious second thoughts.”
The Good News Is, No Broken Bones
“I am an X-Ray tech and have an ER rotation. Once I got called to do arm and leg portable x-rays on a patient who had been in a motorcycle accident where he had fallen and rolled more than 50 feet. This poor guy was on his back with a neck brace on holding his arms and legs as high as he could off the bed so they weren’t touching anything, holding them and whimpering from the effort and the pain. Lots of his skin, entire layers had peeled off like using one of those wire cheese slicers, it was blackened and red and just blood everywhere.
Doing the x-rays with a portable x-ray machine means you have to put plates underneath the limbs at various angles and manipulate the machine arm as well, so I had to move his limbs around a lot and he would just shriek whenever I had to touch and manipulate his arms and legs with little to no skin on them, and he was just sobbing when I had to ask him to hold still while I took the x-rays. I felt so bad for him. Fortunately, nothing was actually broken it was all skin that was damaged.”
“A few years back when I was a medical student I was doing my primary care rotation when I had to see a morbidly obese lady for a gynecologic issue. She said she was having a lot of itching and soreness in her lady parts. Even as I set up for a pelvic exam I could already tell it wasn’t gonna be good. I could smell a foul odor already and I haven’t even looked. I was gloving up when I got so nauseated and I was about to get sick. So I excused myself and lied to my attending that I had a problem taking a look in her cause she was so obese and I didn’t have much experience with such a challenge. The truth was I just couldn’t stay in the room. It smelled like a rotting corpse.
A few minutes later, my attending calls for me to show me what he found. I thought for sure it would be an aborted fetus but I was wrong. I go in with my mask and there my attending dangles this cylindrical object covered with bloody debris. It was a tampon. She apparently had difficulty removing it a week ago. My attending kept saying, ‘It stinks like a mag!’ The embarrassed patient was crying and I felt bad but I had to step out of the room cause I was starting to regurgitate my saliva and was about to puke.
To this day I can’t forget that smell. It took a few weeks before I was able to go down on my girlfriend again. I think that was my deciding factor as far as not going into OB/Gyn. I just don’t wanna encounter the rotting smell again ever.”
“In my EMT class, an instructor was telling me about one of her calls to a freeway accident. There were two cars involved, and one of them had an elderly couple in it.
Since she was so small, my instructor is often assigned the job of crawling through the windows of the car to stabilize patients while the crew works on prying the doors open.
She crawled into the backseat of the elderly couples car and held manual C-Spine for the woman (holding someone’s head in place to prevent an injury by twisting the spinal cord). As she held the head, it came off in her hands — the woman had been decapitated by the accident.
She had to take a couple of weeks off after that and talked to a therapist to help cope; I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through something like that.”
“My Boots Have Never Been The Same Since”
“I’m an autopsy tech/death investigator.
A morbidly obese man had died in a cheap motel room with the heat cranked up and wasn’t found for several days.
By the time we got him to the morgue, he was horribly bloated from decompressed gas and was purple and green all over.
Our forensic pathologist went to make the initial Y incision, and the force of the escaping gas blew gore all over us and the ceiling while making a sound like a wet balloon with the air being pinched out. We all paused for a moment as the worst stank I have ever smelled enveloped the room like something that had crawled out of Satan’s butthole.
Then we burst out laughing because it was all we really could do.
It didn’t help that he was leaking liquefied fat all over the floor, that stuff is SLIPPERY! My boots have never been the same since.”
“My dad has been a nurse for nearly 20 years. He has moved around from working on the ER to radiology and now the ICU. He is one of the most well-respected nurses in the hospital. I would know because I worked at the same place as a phlebotomist.
Anyway, our hospital is a ‘bariatric center of excellence’ so you know what that entails: some pretty big patients.
So this one day, I go up onto the fourth floor in the neuro unit to get a blood draw and as soon as I step off the elevator, I smell feces. Really foul, rotten egg smelling feces. I don’t think much of it as the hospital is older and is poorly ventilated (I know, right?) But when I get home, I ask my dad about it since the ICU is on the same floor.
He said that they had a guy who was 550 lbs in the unit, and he was having some abdominal pain. It turns out he hadn’t had a bowel movement in almost a month. Before he was transferred to our ICU, other clinics had tried giving him a few enemas to no avail.
So my dad is saying that he is putting in one of those balloons into the guy’s butthole so he can attach a bag, like a catheter. He turns around to check a monitor, and he hears this dripping noise behind him. Turns back around, and there is a river of poop falling from the bed. The entire floor is covered in a month’s worth of poop, dripping, splashing, all over everything, including my poor dad. He and all the nurses roll up their scrubs like they’re going clamming, and after an hour or so get this guy cleaned up. Housekeeping stopped by and just left a cart for them and said, ‘Nope!’
I guess right after they finished cleaning it happened AGAIN. I don’t even want to imagine the smell in that room if it was enough to stink up the whole fourth floor! I can’t begin to describe the respect I have for nurses.”