on being called “a hero”

There’s a hazard to having a friend that’s a sociologist: she forces me to think about why things are the way they are. In this particular case, she’s turned me on to some interesting reading material that seems never to fail me for something to think about.

I am not unaccustomed to risky jobs, and the people who work in them. I work with paramedics, firefighters, prison guards,  the most commonly thought-of “life is on the line, he’s such a hero” sort of stuff. The book they’re talking about is right on the money: for the most part, they don’t think of themselves as anything other than ordinary people in control of an extraordinary situation. Any mishaps that laypeople consider to be risks inherent in the job (a cop getting shot, a firefighter dying in a fire) are not seen as particularly risky to the people engaging in them. I’ve spoken to cops about going into buildings armed against people who have gone totally butternuts and are armed to the teeth — the risks they talk about aren’t that they might get shot at — it’s the fact that butternuts in the shed over there isn’t predictable. They’re trained to predict what the rest of us think are unpredictable.

This, of course, thanks to the grooming of my friend the sociologist, makes me think of the times when I’ve been told I did something “heroic.”

Usually what happened is there was a very sick person in a very bad way, and I was part of a team of people who predicted the unpredictable and then responded. The response is to perform a number of different interventions in order to change the course of their illness or injury. I don’t think what I’m doing is heroic. I don’t think about how people are going to die if I screw up. I don’t feel the pressure, really. What I am is in control.

I can see the signs. I can measure and quantify how bad the situation is using specific parameters which allows me to manipulate those parameters with drugs or pressure or gas. I can control the oxygen or the respiratory rate. Sure, there’s a bit of a scramble trying to get to the point where you’re in control, when you’re on the move from prediction to execution, but you know what to do, so instead of being stressed about how it’s do or die time, you just stop thinking and do.

I find us RTs especially tend to think in “the worst thing that could happen is” sort of parameters. When others are afraid to extubate the patient we’re shrugging our shoulders going, “the worst thing that could happen is she/he gets reintubated.” To us, it’s no big deal. We’re trained to predict what the worst possible scenario could plausibly be, and then be prepared for it. We controlled the airway by putting in a tube, we did it once, we can do it again. If I can’t do it personally, there’s someone close by who can.

I remember a couple of these do-or-die situations happening to me and there was a lot of muscle memory in that st0p-thinking-just-do. A sick neonate thrashes a bit on the overhead warmer and self-extubates, and there’s no pediatrician within a shout’s reach? I’ve been trained for this. They taught me how to intubate precisely so that I could respond to this situation. Paralyzing myself with fear and waiting for the pediatrician to haul his ass into the room is an option, but the worst thing that could happen is I try and I miss. I’m also trained in what to do in that case: the patient would be no worse off for me missing. Besides the fact that I’m qualified and trained and skilled in intubation — the patient needs it right bloody now. If I waited for the pediatrician I’d feel like I had chosen the wrong line of work and would probably quit soon and go become an accountant. What I did was grab the (conveniently located) necessary equipment and make with the intubating. I know what has to be done, and I’m qualified to do it, so I do.

There are those times when despite your best efforts you lose control of the situation. Just like the firefighters do, I find we look for something to blame. Somebody screwed up, somebody didn’t notice the alarm, the monitor was malfunctioning, I gave up too soon and should have kept trying, we didn’t get there in time, they waited too long, and so on, and so on. I failed to predict the outcome. I failed to respond accordingly to the situation in the way in which I was trained. I look for how I could have gained control, therefore, I don’t really fear the loss of life that happens due to variables that are beyond my control.I learned very long ago as an RT that there’s some parts of the clinical situation that you just can’t change.

I’m scared of screwing up or missing something, I’m scared of missing the prediction or failing to respond. I’m also confident that the longer I spend in control and the more I refine my muscle memory, the more I lift the mental weights that allow me to consider more of the situation, the more that muscle memory allows me to automate simple tasks so I can spend more mental energy being observant to other signs, the less likely it will be that my simple screwup results in somebody’s death.

It’s happened in the past: I’ve failed to notice a sign that the patient was in cardiac arrest and then the patient died. That said, so did everyone else in the room fail to notice, and given how sick the patient was prior to going into cardiac arrest, the chances of us being successful even if we’d caught it were pretty slim anyway. No one person killed that patient. The culmination of many factors did, and some of them were beyond our control. Did I learn a hard lesson? Yes, I did. That one’s a notch on my proverbial shield that I’m not ever going to forget — and the next patient will benefit from it.

Therefore, by the same token, no one person involved in saving another’s life is “the hero.” The collective sum of our teamwork and brains and muscle memory and situational awareness and skills are the heroes. We just predicted the unpredictable. We executed our plan for how we were going to gain control. We gained control of the situation quickly and effectively, and then we held on to it. It holds no mystery to us.

We are comfortable.

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