A dead body is easy to spot, especially that of a child. I just need a glimpse, which is all I get when the medics burst through the door. Firefighters surround the gurney like a presidential convoy, but their frantic pace resembles a race rather than a parade.
A paramedic hovers over the body, riding the gurney while pushing on the child’s chest with his entire weight. I listen closely and hear ribs crack. I don’t blame the medic for his aggressiveness—it’s what happens when adrenaline meets desperation.
His partner pushes the gurney with one hand, and squeezes the ambu bag, delivering oxygen from a mask with the other. Her steps are more determined. I can tell she’s in charge, but her eyes betray an eagerness to hand the responsibility over to me. I stand at the foot of the bed, observing the small, naked body with flaccid limbs and mottled skin in the arms of a tall firefighter. He scoops the child’s body from the gurney and gently lays him onto the hospital bed.
The medic tries to paint a picture, something about a summer party in the backyard—kids playing, alcohol flowing, and a swimming pool—to give context and meaning. I don’t want to hear it. My hard-wired synapses don’t let these superfluous details past the door to my cochlea. The message doesn’t reach the hippocampus or frontal lobe, where memories are stored and neurotransmitters released, which then breeds cognition and action. I block it out like an old, wise troll at the foot of a bridge, letting only essentials cross. The only words I hear are: 2 year-old boy, drowning, 25 minutes of CPR, and asystole. I twist and contort through the swarm of nurses and techs to make my way to the head of the bed. There’s always too many people in these rooms, double if a child is involved.
The objective is really quite simple: Get oxygen into the blood and pump blood into the brain. I lift the jaw with a cold metal blade and the muscles offer no resistance. Then, I pass an endotracheal tube through the slit created by tiny white vocal cords and listen for the sound of air rushing into the lungs.
The pupils are wide open and fixed. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then the soul always leaves the window gaping when it departs, like a jilted lover. I don’t blame the soul, for when the heart has lost all conviction, the blood is bereft of vigor, and the brain fails to receive light, then there’s no reason to remain.
I almost lose my composure when his parents enter the room. Someone thought it was a good idea to let them in, to help with the healing. But there is no benefit to them witnessing this charade. The father has his arm around the mother’s waist, and if he were to let go, she’d fall to the floor in a quivering mess of grief and incredulity. The father… well, I struggle to find the words to describe his face. But I’ve seen this look before too. It is the countenance of someone the instant before they realize that nothing in their life could prepare them for losing a child. But no matter how you describe their emotions, reality hasn’t sunken in yet.
They don’t know that this is all just a formality: the epinephrine, the chest compressions, the continued mutilation of a corpse that, unless its name was Lazarus, would never wake and stand. I ask the nurse to escort them out of the room. The implication is that I didn’t want them in the way, to spare them the trauma. But that’s a lie. The truth is, I didn’t want to face them when I ended resuscitative efforts.
I leave the room cloaked in dread, a sense that all eyes are on me, wondering if I did enough, if there was something reversible to be reversed. I want to crawl into a hole, but the closest bathroom will suffice. Slumping over the sink and staring at the mirror, I’m a little surprised to see what glares back at me. I recognize a father of two daughters, one as young as the boy I left alone on that hospital bed.
My eyes redden and swell. I gather enough fortitude to stop my lips from quivering. But the same could not be said for the tenuous grip on fatherhood holding me together. I let water run freely into the sink. I splash the coldness on my face, in part to wash away any evidence of failure and fear. But mostly to don the mask that separates man from physician. I lean on the door to open it and move on.