It was the first time I had seen a bloody, mangled body with my own eyes.

Not the first dead person mind you, but one so violently traumatized.

I was working in William’s Lake B.C. in the early 1980’s and the jarring ring of the phone in the middle of the night woke me from a deep sleep. Of course I was semi-comatose and incoherent when I mumbled hello into the phone… the woman’s voice on the other end of the call said I should come into the lab to cross-match blood for a victim in a Motor Vehicle Accident (MVA).

William’s Lake is a small, valley town in the interior of the province surrounded by enormous cattle ranches, fishing lakes, and the occasional mine site. The blended scent of earthy straw mixed with horse and cow manure is a simple rural joy to have wafting through your window on an early spring morning.

You would almost look out of place if you didn’t wear a cowboy hat and drive a pickup truck. Although I owned a cowboy hat, I only wore it occasionally (like once a year for the annual town rodeo), but I had purchased an old, green C10 Chev 1/2 ton pickup truck. I bought it used and it had a CB radio that I could call out to other cowboys and say “10-4 Big Buddy”. I fit right in.

Williams Lake Stampede

I got out of my pickup in the dark and entered the unlocked side door to Cariboo Memorial Hospital, in the days before security-above-all meant you locked doors to hospitals. The lab was just inside the entry to the right and the Emergency Department was directly opposite to the left. I could hear hurried scuffles of activity going on in the ER as I retrieved my lab coat and blood collection tray from inside the lab.

I traversed the linoleum hallway bridge between the lab and ER where the relative serenity of the hallway broke into a din of urgent voices and trundling stainless steel carts loaded with medical supplies and equipment. I strode to the main circular desk in the ER amid the bedlam and within seconds, multi-coloured paper lab requisitions were pushed across the counter at me by Linda, the head ER nurse. Normally jovial and friendly, she barely looked up. Mayhem was on the verge of breaking out. I scanned over the lab orders and then gathered up the forms.

Where will I find this guy Linda?

–He’s in the back utility room. He’s bleeding out fast. We might need the blood unmatched.

...it was a bit like this...

…it was a bit like this…

I hated cross-matching blood. Little errors could cost a patient’s life. Very simplistically, you mixed patient blood with donor blood and then looked under the microscope for little signs of agglutination (cells sticking together which indicated incompatibility). No stickies and the blood was good to go. But the differences could be so slight. I never slept well after doing cross-matches in the middle of the night. Dead patients with clotted up arteries and veins inhabited my fractured sleep.

All of the curtained areas in the main ER area were filled with MVA victims — the curtains swayed with views of nurse-pastel-uniform-coloured legs and linen-suit-doctor legs running about beneath.

I walked quickly towards the back room where supplies were stored, items cleaned, and occasionally, patients kept. There was a “Y” entry of two rooms once you entered. I could see figures on stretchers on both sides. A strong odour of chlorine antiseptic confronted me as I headed into the right side room of the Y.

Strange, no staff milling around this one. No sheets or blankets covering him to keep him warm.

As I moved closer, I began to sense why no one was paying care to this poor fellow.

He was solitary and quiet.

There was no movement, no sign of chest breathing. His skin tones were grey and uneven.

A black leather jacket was splayed and ripped open leaving much of his arms and torso easily visible. His hair was wetly matted in a flurry of directions around his head and face. There was a strange and unnerving juxtaposition of limbs heading off in unnatural directions. Heavily tattooed legs stuck off the edge of the gurney. A glistening leg bone stuck out of one lower leg like a tree stump that had been blown from the earth in a hurricane. I could see little red river trickles of dried and drying blood snaking down his multi-coloured forearms — multi-coloured by the large array of tattooes blending roughly with red and blue and black bruising from the trauma of being torn apart in a motorcycle crash. Soon there would be painful tears shed somewhere.

It was horrific and mesmerizing and fascinating.

motorcycle-accidents

Police and emergency workers come across this sight all too often in their day-to-day jobs. Over time, they grow immune to the horrors of what can happen in high speed crashes. No one wants to feel numb, but how else to cope?

I’ve seen lots of blood too but it’s mainly contained in glass tubes and bags for transfusing. It has no real human connection, kind of like the few autopsies I’ve sat in on where there is no sense of a real person laying on the cold stainless-steel slab so long as the face is covered with a towel or sheet.

It’s like the distinction between a house and a home. When there’s no face visible, it’s just a lifeless, uninhabited “house” with no warmth or connection to anyone. But unveil the features of the human face and all of a sudden the house undergoes the transformation into a “home” where people live and share their smiles of joy and tears of sorrow.

This guy laying on the gurney was a HOME. I took in the vision of this former living being for no more than 10 or 15 seconds – after all, a barely living patient in the adjoining room needed replacement blood and fast. It all happened so quickly.

I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know his story. I didn’t know who loved him, or who hated him.

I only knew that it all ended here in this very surreal and still moment in this small-town hospital Emergency Room. The memory and sight of this trauma locked itself indelibly inside my head, unlike so many other scenes that have long melted away like burning candle wax in the cold of a William’s Lake night.

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