By J. L. Thurston
Disclaimer: I love my job, it pays well. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to lose my job. So, I want everyone to know that I’m a writer. Mostly, I write fiction, but every now and again I preach a bit on my soap box, or I tell stories of my past that I think will entertain or inspire. And the two shall mix. Fiction, non-fiction; I aim to entertain the mind. So, what you read below may or may not be solid truths. The more you read from me, the more you’ll realize that it can be hard to tell what’s real or not. Sorry, it’s a writer thing that I will not relinquish.
Everyone does it. They lay on the scan table with as much distance between them and the scanner opening as they can manage. They believe that putting space between them and the circular maw of the CT scanner will spare them from their exam. In reality, the exam will take a matter of minutes and all they have to do is be still. But no one wants to be put in a donut-shaped machine. In their minds, it is a gaping mouth, yawning dangerously, awaiting a sacrificial patient. No one wants their head to go in.
CT scans aren’t like they are on television; they’re much more boring, thankfully. A five-minute scan and off you go. No doctors, no insane diagnosis that only an eccentric physician could figure out. There aren’t even films hanging up on light boxes. It’s just the patient and the technologist. There are doctor’s orders that descend to us from on high, telling us who and what to scan next, and we must appease the CT gods by putting as many sacrifices through the scanner as we can in one day.
We must gently encourage all our patients onto the table, then we happily force them to scooch down toward the scanner opening, all the while convincing them that this will not be painful and it can be timely if they cooperate. It can be very difficult for many people to hold still. They need pillows, blankets, cushions, and prep time so that they can manage to keep it together for less than five minutes. All the while, we technologists are sweetly trying to hurry their asses along so we can move on to the next patient.
That’s the mindset techs are in. Go get a patient, scan them with haste, and switch them out for another. Like mindlessly turning a crank, it becomes mechanical from patient to patient. When there is a sudden turn for the worst, we can be completely unprepared.
I’ve seen people die. A handful of years sweating in a nursing home grants enough experience with death. Though witnessing the tears of loved ones left behind is harrowing, the passing of the old and sick is a relief. Their suffering had ended. They always, always look so peaceful. I’ve taken care of residents who wore a mask of pain, even in their sleep, but upon their passing they become barely recognizable in their tranquility. Their soul is set free.
As comfortable with death as I thought I was, I felt it gave me an advantage in my work as a CT technologist. All the live-long day patients come and go, suffering with cancer, disease, terminal injuries, and on and on. You get tough. You learn to detach. All the while, you gently coax these sick and hurting people on and off the table so you can move on with your work.
The worst day on the job was a busy one. Everyone was so needy; not just patients. My brain was hard-wired, focused on zipping through the piles of doctor’s orders. I’d complete one, and it would be replaced by two. My call-tech and I were doing the work of four, and he with a broken foot. He had brought down a patient from the floor. It was to be a simple scan. It should have been an in-and-out thing. It quickly turned into a scene from a high-drama hospital show.
The patient was visibly anxious, as most generally are. I was doing my sweet-voice as expertly as I could while we prepped to slide her onto our table. It was my call-tech who noticed something was wrong. He called the code before I even knew she had stopped breathing. His leg in a walking boot, he ran out for the crash cart in a thumping blur and left me staring like the world’s biggest moron.
When people code, it is not usually like on television. They don’t just slump over gracefully, eyes closed, lips parted. They don’t look like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty awaiting a kiss. And this person, this dying person, could not have been more different from that depiction. Though she suddenly lost the ability to breathe (due to her illness), she was still very much awake. Her mind was completely aware while her body became uncooperative. Her eyes popped, her arms flapped and flailed like a person drowning. She was staring at me as her tongue began to bulge from between her lips, pleading with her eyes for rescue. All the while, making the worst grunting screams I’d ever heard.
It all took seconds, really. I stood by her while help rushed towards us. I was talking to her, telling her to “Hang in there, try to stay calm,” like a major idiot would say. I was still talking to her when her eyes glazed over and rolled into her head. I was clutching her bedrail when her body went limp. I barely felt the hands of the first responders as they pushed me aside. They established that her heart had stopped. Compressions could begin. My call-tech was already there with the crash cart, dolling out supplies. The patient was being swarmed by help, and suddenly we—my call-tech and I—were out of the picture. We had done what we were supposed to do.
In seconds, I watched that patient go from being a person afraid of a scan, to a person afraid of death. She still looked fearful, even as they bagged her and fought to pump her heart for her. I had only been an observer in the painful passing of that person, and all I could think about was how the last thing she ever heard was my stupid voice telling her to be calm. She wanted me to save her, but there was nothing I could have done.
After they called her time of death, and her sobbing family was brought into my scan room (not a great decision, but I wasn’t in any position to protest), I had to keep moving. There were patients waiting for their scans. So, my call-tech and I plugged on. We had to scan more people and get them on their way. Minutes after watching someone die, I had to smile and reassure my next patient, making small talk as I pushed their bed down the hallway.
My world was shaken for a very long time, and is still altered because of it. I can see her face very clearly, as though it just happened. I can see her fear, and I can feel my failure. I selfishly lost sleep over her. It disturbs me to realize how much I think about it. I’d seen so many deaths before that one, so why did this unnerve me so? I told myself that maybe it was because I had been as useful as a mannequin during the code. But I know that it’s because- unlike residents at a nursing home- she was young. She was leaving behind hopes, dreams, plans. She did not face her death with relief and peace. She faced it with terror, fighting it tooth and claw until she at last was forced to succumb. And that troubles me to my very core.