I was working in Respiratory Therapy at the time and over the intercom I heard, “Respiratory Therapy, ER Stat!” When a stat page went out, you ran and that I did.
Whenever we got paged to the Emergency room Stat, the adrenaline would rise immediately. You never knew what you were going to be facing once you arrived. Many times the patient or patients were already on gurneys in the ER, but not on this particular day.
It was quiet in the Emergency Room when I arrived but it wasn’t going to stay that way. I asked what was going on and the nurse told me we needed to set up our cold water drowning equipment for two 6 year old males who were still in the water. At that time, we were the only Hospital in North Eastern Ohio who had the ability to treat cold water drowning patients.
I was told it would be a while before the patients were out of the water and in transport, so I returned to the floor I was working on to continue giving breathing treatments. It wasn’t long after my return to the floor that I received a Stat page myself.
I will never forget the words spoken after I answered my Stat page. It was the Emergency room supervisor who paged me and asked me to meet her at the end of the hall I was working on. I met her and she said without any emotion in her voice, “Your brother is one of the drowning victims.” I remember feeling like I was going to pass out when I heard this. I assumed he was lying there dead. It was as if I began having an out of body experience after hearing her words. I barely remember running like hell to reach the Emergency room.
As I began to take off running, she stopped me for a second and told me that he was alive but in shock, “he needs you,” she proceeded to tell me. The Nursing supervisor’s voice seemed so cold which sent shivers through my body. I asked one question while visibly shaken before I ran off, “Who was with my brother?” The Nursing Supervisor told me it was his friend Bruce*.
Bruce and my brother had just graduated from High School. Bruce had been in a serious car accident 4 months earlier, he had just finished his recovery from the accident, so this was literally his first day back out in the world.
When I arrived in the Emergency room I saw my brother on a gurney immediately. He was hooked up to Oxygen but looked okay otherwise. I began talking to him, tried to ask questions but he just stared ahead with a blank expression on his face. I knew my brother was worried about Bruce and I kept trying to reassure him that Bruce would be okay because we had an excellent team. Did I believe what I was telling my brother, yes and no. I had no clue if Bruce would be okay but I wanted to believe he would be and I needed my brother to hold on to some hope.
If a person has been in cold water for an hour or less, their chances of survival are good. That was the hope I held on to, the water was cold that day. The boys went canoeing and their canoe went over what appeared to be a very small water fall. The appearance was deceiving, it was a hydraulic and their canoe was literally sucked under water.
About 15 minutes after I met my brother in the Emergency Room Bruce was finally brought in, he was not conscious and the Paramedics were doing CPR on Bruce. My stomach sank and I wasn’t one to say prayers but I began praying as if my own life depended on it. I went to a waiting area just outside of the Emergency Room to be with my family and Bruce’s family. We all stood there in shock, it was as if we all lost the ability to speak. I was shaking frantically, yet trying to be strong in front of Bruce’s parents.
I was no longer an employee at that moment, I was a family member in waiting. I knew what was going to transpire (for the most) and one thing that was used during a cold water drowning was a piece of equipment called the Thumper. The Thumper was a bit large and it was set up over the patient to do mechanical cardiac compression. The Thumper was used when the Medical Professionals knew that cardiac compression could last an hour or more. This was the case with many cold water drowning victims.
While standing in the waiting area with our families I began to hear the Thumper. Again, heart beating fast, palms sweating and feeling light headed while holding back tears I kept thinking as long as I hear the Thumper, I know he’s still got a chance.
Suddenly, that’s all I could hear… the noise from the Thumper. I heard quick and repetitive sounds of “swishhh, click, thump” over and over. The sounds from the Thumper were echoing through out my mind and body. I felt frozen.
Suddenly, the Thumper stopped. My mind began to race and I found myself pleading with God, “Please, please… let Bruce be alive.” Bruce passed away on that beautiful, sunny day in May of 1980.
My brother refused to be admitted and went home with my parents. He went to his room immediately and refused to talk to any of us for days. My brother had survivors guilt. I’m also fairly certain my brother suffered from PTSD after the accident.
After Bruce’s death, I found out my brother was spending about 4 hours per day at Bruce’s grave site. My brother was acting out with anger in ways our family was unable to comprehend. He eventually moved out of State and I believe that helped him to heal somewhat because when he returned he was a different guy.
When my brother was finally able to talk about Bruce and his death, he confided in me that he kept seeing Bruce bob up in the water and he would yell to Bruce, “Grab the tree roots at the bottom,” that’s how my brother survived, he saw large tree roots and once he grabbed them he was able to guide himself to shore.
My brother could never understand why Bruce didn’t grab the tree roots. It wasn’t until much later I found out the primary cause of Bruce’s death, he was hit in the head by the canoe as he was sucked under the water. Bruce died from an internal brain hemorrhage, the secondary cause was drowning. My brother was finally able to let go of *most* of his guilt.
Bruce had been my brother’s friend since 1st grade, they were like brothers, literally. Bruce’s parents lost their only son on that day and we were all left with a void because we loved Bruce like family too. My heart broke for some time, not just for my brother but Bruce’s family as well. Life had forever changed.
Until that day in the Emergency room it was work at usual, even though this type of work can be highly stressful, I was never on the receiving end as a family member waiting to hear if someone you cared about deeply was going to live or die.
I no longer felt invincible at the age of 20 years old. I no longer took anyone in my family for granted. I realized that life could be over in the blink of an eye. I grew up very fast. And, I would go into a panic each time we were paged stat to the Emergency room from that day on. My mind went there- “Oh no, what if it’s my sister, or my brother again, what if it’s my mom…what if… “ Those thoughts haunted me daily. I eventually transferred to the Cardiac Lab because I wasn’t able to get over the panic I felt each time we got a call to the Emergency Room.
This tragedy happened over 30 years ago and I’ve often thought of Bruce’s parents, wondering how they were able to move on with life. I moved away from Ohio as well, and didn’t see them again. I heard over the years they were doing fairly well, considering the loss of their son.
While writing this article, I felt like I took a real trip back in time. I was able to visualize every aspect of that day as if it just happened. Life goes on but there are just some things we never forget.
I’m thankful for the lessons life taught me very early in life, because I truly believe it made me a better person. It taught me to never take anyone you love for granted and to appreciate the small things in life, like blue skies and rays of sunshine that hit your face on a summer day.
One thing I’ve always grappled with and there is no answer, how was it that Bruce was in a serious car accident just 4 months prior to the canoeing accident and he lived only long enough to die on his first day out of his home? I’m sure my brother still struggles with that thought as well but we haven’t talked about Bruce in years.
It is not length of life, but depth of life. Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m sure my brother still thinks of Bruce, he treated everyone with compassion and respect. My brother also grew up quickly and he’s a compassionate man who would do anything for anyone if they needed him. In some ways, I feel like Bruce’s legacy lives on through my brother, even if my brother isn’t consciously aware of it.
My brother lives a life that is full of exploration and love for the simple things. He understands the depth of life.
*The name of my brother’s friend was changed