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Articles / 2013

David Howard: Why I volunteer

Ventura County Star
By David Howard

I volunteer at Community Memorial Hospital's Emergency Department in Ventura. My duties include wiping down gurneys, changing linens, restocking shelves, distributing warm blankets and doing whatever else I can to support the nurses and emergency medical technicians who provide the first line of care for each patient who enters the potentially frightening environment of a hectic ER.

Here's why I do it.

Fifty years ago this June, I was a troubled teenager with a brand-new driver's license and plenty to prove. My mother was nervous about letting me take her car to a drive-in movie with a date, but I begged relentlessly and eventually got my way.

After the movie, my date and I decided to drive up perilous Deer Cliff Road to speed around the curves.

So I drove like hell, veered off the road and smashed head-on into a tree. I have no memory of the impact, just of standing outside the car seconds later, as it burst into flames. The police arrived, and I was transported to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn.

Miraculously, my passenger was barely scratched, and although the car was not equipped with seat belts, I emerged from the wreckage with just facial abrasions and a compound fracture of two bones in my right wrist, the ulna and the radius.

At St. Francis, I was prepped for emergency surgery. As I waited, terrified and ashamed, John, a hospital orderly, and Liz, an RN, comforted me. I don't remember much of our conversation, but I do recall how kind and attentive they both were.

I asked John for a cigarette and he gave me a puff of his own Lucky Strike. Liz held my hand and assured me I'd be OK. I expected and surely deserved to be blamed and scolded, but John and Liz were not judgmental. To them, I was just a kid, who, like every other patient, needed compassionate care.

I felt profound gratitude and affection for my caregivers. I promised myself I would thank them when the surgery was over, and they promised to be there.

While I slept and my family prayed, an exceptionally skillful surgeon repaired my wrist. When I woke up, Liz was at bedside, as promised, and John came by soon after. Maybe I was experiencing post-anesthesia euphoria, but it sure felt like I had fresh insight into the human condition.

I realized for the first time how extraordinary seemingly ordinary kindnesses can be. Such acts of simple decency are performed by emergency health care providers 24/7 in Ventura, Hartford and everywhere else emergency medicine is practiced.

Caregivers are not infallible and they're not saints, but the good ones have the emotional competence to quickly connect in high-stress situations, forming a powerful bond with their vulnerable patients.

Fifty years later, I still remember John and Liz vividly. Although I never saw either of them after my discharge in 1963, they made an indelible impression. They helped me heal and grow up.

Today's emergency and operating rooms are very different from those that existed in the 1960s. EMTs no longer offer Lucky Strikes to their patients. Nowadays robots assist in operations, surgeons transplant hearts and emergency care teams are immensely better educated.

What will never change, however, is the intimate soul-to-soul connection that often occurs late at night, on the edge of chaos, and at the gateway to more sophisticated treatments. It happens in the world of RNs and EMTs, before the physician even sees you.

One reason I love to volunteer in the ER is that I know our EMTs and RNs will be the John or Liz in the life of some future soul in dire need. Believe me: That fleeting human gesture a nurse, a tech, or even a volunteer performs compassionately can resonate for 50 years.