I haven’t worked in Trauma for over five years. I’ve been out of acute-care nursing for 15 months. Today, while sitting at a cafe that is wrapped on three sides with glass windows and situated on a busy intersection, I saw a man stick his arm out of a car window and hold it horizontally in my direction. The hair on his arm glinted copper in the afternoon sun. I couldn’t see his face in the glare between the window and the late July sunlight shimmering between us.
I flinched. I told my kids calmly but firmly to move their chairs away from the window immediately. When asked why, while noisily scraping wooden chair legs against well polished linoleum, (they know “that voice,”) I said, “there’s a man with a gun at the stop light. It’s pointed at the restaurant.”
They turned to look as I scanned the room for a quick, safe exit, or where we could shelter in place. My 16 year old said, “Mom, there’s no gun. He’s holding a cigarette.” They laughed and did that “mom is crazy” eye roll all teens do when they think adults are being stupid or over protective.
I distinctly know I saw a flash of metal. I got that same adrenaline rush I used to get when my patients were active gang members or on watch by border patrol, sheriff, or federal agents. I felt that same wariness and heightened awareness that comes with the threat of immediate danger. My ears were ringing which is my sign of impending chaos. In that glint of metal and sunlight coupled with an aggressive movement from an idling car, I instantly saw my gunshot patients. I smelled fresh blood and death.
I saw the faces of gang bangers and drug addicts. Prostitutes and Mexican nationals. Young boys and old men, shot by uniformed men in pickups as they attempt to jump or tunnel the border fence. Sullen wanna be’s and hardened gang members alike caught in the cross fire of affiliations or initiations that are rites of passage to the dark and gritty streets.
Drug deals gone bad, robbery, retaliation, love triangles-they’ve all played out and ended with boys and men assigned to me in the sorrow lined hallways of the inner city hospital where I worked.
I saw boys my own children’s ages crying for their mothers as I pulled rolls of blood covered gauze from their abdomens before methodically pushing medicated clean gauze back in. I heard nurses and doctors yelling in the chaotic dance of CODE BLUE and desperate attempts at sustainable CPR. I heard machines warning of flat lines that indicate the cessation of life. I heard the wails of family members as i unhooked lifeless bodies from the machines that failed to save them. I felt the helplessness of my inability to do anything to change it.
I was wrong. It was a cigarette. It’s been four hours since I thought we were going to be killed. My kids are at home watching crime shows on TV. My husband is washing the car. I can still smell their wounds.