Stillness and Violence: The Dog Days

By Marcy Phipps, RN, whose essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” was published in the May 2010 issue of AJN. She’s a frequent writer  for this blog.

If I had a crystal ball, I might have called in sick. Or at least gotten more sleep.

They brought the patient up at the start of our shift, and he was a ‘train wreck.’ He’d been shot many times and he was bleeding out before our eyes. I don’t know how much blood we gave him—I can only say it seemed endless . . . blood and fresh frozen plasma and platelets, volume expanders and fluids. The room was packed with trauma surgeons and nurses and jammed with equipment: the rapid transfuser, ventilator, Bair Hugger, pressure bags, pumps and coolers.

Our tech must have covered miles, running to the blood bank for one cooler after another full of blood products.

From the outside, the melee must have looked like chaos. But it was actually a calculated and very effective frenzy, for a while. Amidst the rushing and crowding, the shouting and alarms, amongst people and equipment, spills and blood splatters, we were staying ahead of the game. He was perfusing and his blood pressure was adequate. But it wasn’t long before his pressure was barely adequate, and he was just barely maintaining, and then, despite our urgency and expertise, despite science and wings and prayers, we were losing. His blood pressure was dropping, no matter what we did. And we lost, in the end.

Time of death was called and we took a collective breath and looked around. It was like emerging from a cellar after a terrible storm has passed. We were stunned that hours had gone by. The quiet was abrupt and surreal. The room was a disaster.

And outside, on that day, like today, it looked like a Seurat painting. There’s a haze that softens the air and the outlines of trees and buildings. The sky looks faded, and puffy clouds float lazily in the pale blue sky.

By Seurat/ via Wikimedia Commons

At a glance, it’s lovely. But the impression is deceiving. In reality, the heat is oppressive and the air so thick with humidity it’s hard to breathe. There’s a sharp quality to the light that makes it impossible not to squint, even in the shade. Everything outside the hospital seems to be moving in slow motion, but if the ICU census is a reliable indicator, violent crime and suicide attempts are not only immune to the torpor brought on by this heat, they thrive on it.

The members of the trauma team are immune to the torpor, as well. We stay busy, secluded among bright lights, cold air, and a group of patients we protect with aliases as we try to nurse them back to health. We don’t cloud-gaze, and we don’t kid ourselves; we know the puffy clouds will build into thunderheads. Lightning will crack and tempers will snap, and the dog days of summer are stretching long ahead of us, like the track for a slow and heavy train.

Bookmark and Share

2016-11-21T13:12:33+00:00 June 24th, 2011|Nursing|5 Comments

Chief flight nurse at Global Jetcare. Regular author on this blog.


  1. Kathleen Jespersen July 10, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I’m always right there when I read your reflective writing. Such insight and ability to relate reality and perception! Keep writing!

  2. Rosalyn Quill June 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I haven’t been a bedside nurse for a long time,and this makes me miss it, and wonder at the same time how I ever did it to begin with. It could certainly be crazy. Nice art reference!

  3. Ginny June 24, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I am consistently impressed by your ability to step back from the reality of trauma nursing to place situations and emotions into contexts that others can relate to. Your writing is as descriptive and vibratiing as a painting. Well done, as usual. And thanks.

  4. Angie June 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Great post.

  5. Shawn Kennedy June 24, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Fabulous! As a former ER nurse in a city hospital, I think you’ve captured the scene perfectly, including how time stands still while you’re in the middle of organized chaos, inserting lines, pushing meds, yelling out vital signs and keeping track of it all. And then it’s over and an hour later, after the trauma slot is cleaned and restocked, you can almost wonder if it really happened.

Comments are moderated before approval, but always welcome.