Food for Thought

1 Year Working in the Emergency Department: A Reflection

I’ve been working for 7 years.

Most of those years were spent at a desk in a cubicle. I spent my time shooting the shit with my coworkers at the coffee pot and browsing the internet. I shuffled papers. Ate snacks out of the company pantry. I did what was expected out of me (and more if I had a great boss) and waited for 5PM. I had some fantastic jobs and I had some not so fantastic jobs. All of them, however, didn’t feel important.

At 23, I got offered the job that would change my entire life.

I took a 100% cut in pay. I had a 80-mile round trip commute. I worked weird hours: sometimes overnight and on many holidays and birthdays. I drank burnt coffee at 11PM and indulged in donuts and Doritos for breakfast. I smelled blood and guts and peered over maggot-infested wounds only to chow down on my lunch 5 minutes later. I was officially a part of the medical family. It felt right and most importantly — it felt important.

The number one question people asked me about my job was:

Do you see people die and stuff?

What sticks out to me about that question to this day, is the word “stuff”. Death is so abstract, so uncomfortable, and so stiffening that people couldn’t ask me a question without padding it with the word “stuff”. Little do they know, that witnessing death was often far more peaceful that other “stuff”. Death often meant no more pain or the end of a beautiful and rich life. The other “stuff” was worse:

Child abuse. Rape. Poverty. Starvation. Addiction. Violence. Murder. Suicide. Drunk driving. Mental illness. Cancer. You’re witnessing these things like clockwork. The fluorescent lights and hiss of the monitors almost drown out the pain of it all. Your brain is so stimulated that it couldn’t possibly be real. You start thinking: Where did all these people come from? This couldn’t possibly be happening in society! Is this real life? Your feet trip over each other as you interrupt an abused small boy with bruises on his legs to answer a code blue in the next room. While pregnant with your first child, you watch someone else’s baby struggle to get enough oxygen as they’re poked and prodded with unfriendly cords and devices. You witness a self-inflicted gun shot victim die and it doesn’t even register until you’re undressing at home and see a spot of dried blood on your clogs. You lay down in the scalding hot shower and cry to yourself silently….Yes, that was real. Very real. And you’ll see it again tomorrow. This was my everyday life. My normal.

People thought I was sick to enjoy such a job. Why would I want to see such things? Aren’t I depressed? The answer was, is, and will always be no.

I felt more joy in that year that I had in all my previous years combined. Finally, for the first time, I was spending my time doing something important. I was helping others. I was making a difference. I was a part of the grand machine that saves fucking lives. I learned about life. I learned about death. I witnessed love and true examples of “till death do us part”. I was mentored by real life heroes and mentored people who wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I saw the entire human experience in the most authentic lens available to me. No bullshit. No filters. No highlight reels.

It’s almost been a year since I stopped working in the ED. I am still processing some of the things I witnessed there. I am still recovering from a place that I desperately long to return to. Every thing has changed for me. Every morning I acknowledge the fact that I woke up. That I have a healthy and loving family. That my son was born to two parents who would protect him with their lives. I’m a little quieter and a lot more reflective. I rarely get angry and I stop to smell the roses far more often.

These days, I am soaking in the greatest adventure of all: parenthood. Watching my son grow and giggle with that toothless smile of his brings me far greater purpose and deeper gratitude. I’m savoring this time to just be mom. Even though I am happy and fulfilled, every time my coffee tastes a little burnt I savor it and hug it close to my chest. That bitter taste of over-brewed coffee beans brings me back to one of my life’s greatest gifts: the job that was important.

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