Friday, December 21, 2007
hijacking is common in south africa. so common that the government has placed signs to let you know where you are likely to get hijacked. there are some people that feel more should be done, especially if one bears in mind that you have a good chance of being shot during a hijacking.
in my post practice, there was a comment which hinted at our south african view of violence, due to the fact that it is so commonplace. yes we are desensitized. but doctors are also desensitized. so what happens when you bring all three of these elements together?
it was in my registrar days. i had recently written intermediates and had less academic stress to deal with. therefore on calls, if it was quiet enough, instead of going to the call room and studying, i found myself wandering around, looking for something to do. one of my favourite places was the casualty unit. and in the casualty unit, my favourite place was the resus room. this is where all the high drama took place. this is where the adrenaline flowed (often even into the patient). this is where i felt alive and at my most alert.
so that night i wandered down to casualties to see if anything was happening. in the resus room, sure enough, there was a guy lying on the table. a friend who was almost finished with thoracic surgery specialization was standing at his head. all seemed calm. then i saw someone else in the corner of the room, looking awkward and out of place. i looked at the patient. he had a nice round hole in his chest, just to the left of the heart. i put the story together in my mind.
the guy in the corner was the shooter. he was either a cop in plain clothes or some civilian that had intercepted some crime. because of a slight paranoia due to 'a beautiful mind' about people lurking in places they shouldn't be, i asked my friend who the guy was there in the corner. i was relieved to hear that he could also see him.
"he's an off duty cop who shot this f#@ker. i don't know who the f#@k teaches them to shoot? two f#@king centimeters more medial and i'd be in my warm f#@king bed now and he would be on a cold hard f#@king slate in the morgue. now i have to operate this f#@k!" that's just the way he spoke. he could be very descriptive with only one adjective. he had the unique knack of making swearing sound elegant.
i then got the story, more chronologically and with less profane interjections (also much less colourfully) from someone else. the patient (the one my friend referred to as the f#@k) was a hijacker. at a robot (south african for traffic light) he had smashed the side window of a car and pushed his 9mm up against the head of an old woman. in the car behind was the off duty policeman. he jumped out, raised his service piece and demanded that the hijacker desist (my friend wouldn't have used the word desist). the hijacker, maybe like my friend didn't understand the word, because he turned to shoot the cop. the cop's gun was drawn, cocked and aimed. there was little doubt about who was going to squeeze the first shot off. the round entered the patient square on in his chest just lateral of the heart on the left. it exited exactly posterior to this. i surmised that if he even had mild cardiomegaly, the shot would have been fatal. i think the criticism about the cop's aim was unwarranted.
armed with this new perspective i looked at the patient (f#@k). he looked back at me. he was stable, but the intercostal drain had a constant stream of blood running out. my friend stood back as a sister was placing a cvp. he was telling her what to do. she was learning. i looked into his eyes again. i could see the fear of death there. i wondered how many times he had seen that in other people's eyes and shown no mercy. but i was not him. i felt sorry for him.
my friend, meanwhile exchanged some words with the cop. i listened in. he was giving shooting advice. he was suggesting that the best place to aim is the center of the chest and not the left. i reflected that this is good advice. although the heart is ever so slightly to the left, it is actually in the center of the chest.
then i listened to the sister who seemed to be having a bit of trouble with the cvp. she had moved from the subclavian to the internal jugular. her head was now directly above that of the patient. she was muttering. i moved closer to hear what she was saying.
she was speaking to the patient as she drove the needle repeatedly into the neck, searching for the vein.
she was saying things like:-
"this thing would think nothing of killing me on the street and now i have to try to save it's life."
"here lies the reason the death penalty should be brought back."
and similar things.
i mentioned to her something about not being a judge and having to care for whoever comes in without discrimination. she looked at me as if i wasn't a south african. i repeated what i had said, and then, knowing that my foul mouthed friend was good at what he does and the patient would be ok, if not somewhat emotionally scarred, i left.
i felt the need to tell this story to try to bring across the reality of how our job ends up messing us up. maybe being south african means we were messed up to begin with. i've often felt that we should go through some sort of debriefing. i doubt anyone can remain totally normal with all this sort of stuff constantly going on. it becomes a challenge to remain an exception. luckily i enjoy a challenge.