Administration and Leadership, Columns

Treat Patients’ Families with Compassion

Issue 9 and Volume 39.

I was performing routine morning equipment maintenance at San Diego City Fire Station 31 when I heard over the PA system that I had a phone call. I answered and heard my mother crying.

“They just left, doing CPR on Dad,” she said. She was referring to the firefighters and paramedics from the Escondido (Calif.) Fire Department (EFD).

I obtained a release from duty and immediately headed to the hospital. Thirty minutes later, I walked through the ED doors and was met by my mom, crying and barely able to stand.

“He’s gone, he’s gone,” is all she could say.

I went into the code room and spent a few minutes with my dad to say my good-byes. It was a particularly difficult time for my mother. I knew it would only get worse once the hospital released his body, and she’d be tasked with making arrangements to fulfill Dad’s final wishes.

Later, Mom finally opened up and shared what occurred that morning. Dad had gotten up and apparently struggled to take a nitroglycerine (NTG) tablet. She realized this when she awoke and found several NTG tablets in the bedding.

Mom went looking for him in the bathroom and saw blood all over the counter and splashed onto the mirror, but Dad wasn’t there. She then went into the living room where she saw him laying face down on the carpeted floor in a pool of blood. She tried to wake him and realized something bad had occurred.

He had suffered a gastrointestinal stress bleed 17 days after being released from the hospital for a myocardial infarction.

Mom immediately called 9-1-1. When the EFD crews arrived minutes later, they attempted to resuscitate him.

Over the next 15 minutes, controlled chaos and care proceeded. Doors were forced open, furniture was moved out of the way and the usual EMS debris littered the room.

That’s the last image she had of her home as she left with Dad and the Escondido ambulance to go to the hospital.

The Healing Process Begins
By mid-afternoon, Dad’s arrangements were complete, and it was time to take Mom home to begin the process of planning the funeral, receiving arriving family and beginning life without Dad.

As we pulled into the driveway, I realized what was probably remaining in the house after the first responders and paramedics turned it into a makeshift ED. I didn’t want Mom to relive that morning’s scene: blood in the bathroom and living room, furniture in disarray and opened medication boxes strewn all over the floor. I felt this would only further scar her memory. So I asked my Mom to remain outside while I went into the house to straighten it up.

When I went inside, I noticed all the living room furniture was placed back into proper position, all indications of cardiac arrest resuscitation were removed and, incredibly, all of the blood had been cleaned up.

The living room carpet was washed, and the bathroom counter and mirrors were also wiped down and now free of any blood splatter. In addition, the bath towels the first responders used to clean up the blood were rinsed and placed into the washing machine.

It was a gift of kindness and compassion. As I further processed what had happened, I was awestruck to the point of tears. The most incredible blessing was when I realized the Escondido firefighters didn’t know the son of the man they tried to save was also a firefighter/paramedic. They provided this gift to an elderly woman because they cared.

I’ve shared this story with hundreds of EMT and paramedic students over the last 25 years to illustrate how small gestures on our part can have a lasting impact on family members and bystanders.

I‘ll never forget the gift the Escondido firefighters and paramedics gave to me, and more importantly, to Mom. This article is dedicated to them and all others who go beyond the normal call of duty to show care and compassion to not only the patients they serve, but to their family members as well. Often, what matters most to surviving relatives and friends has little to do with medical procedures and everything to do with our compassion.